Monday, 27 February 2012

Uncle's Dream: Dostoevsky has a laugh?

In his decade of exile, the first few years of which he spent in hellish prison conditions, Dostoevsky produced little written work. You could argue that all of his great works couldn't or wouldn't have been produced in the same way without his 1850s experience. After all many writers don't immediately draw on traumatic life experience in their own work. I'm thinking of JG Ballard whose work specifically on his childhood in occupied Shanghai came relatively late on in his work or the prolific Dennis Potter where only his later TV dramas like the Singing Detective (currently repeating on BBC4) dealt with his own youthful trauma.

There was another problem for FD though - he was living in a feudal dictatorship which he had been arrrested and exiled for opposing. Although by the end of exile he supported the new Tsar. They had controls of publication and also in his prison time he was not permitted any writing material.

So the sum total of that time was two ostensibly light novellas - Uncle's Dream being the first. Seemingly a literary confection, a bauble as Mark Cousins would say, this short work explores the machinations of a provincial village elite trying to marry off an elderly, possible senile, member of the aristocracy to a young beautiful woman. Lots of visits to country houses, aristocratic balls and comic misunderstanding.

The tone is very theatrical and I wasn't surprised to see it had been turned into a play something like 20 times. The lightness is obvious and it flies past as you read it. However I have a sense there are glimpses here of deeper issues. One theory is that FD stuck to this path so there would be no issue around censorship.

Given all that the characterisation is pretty dark - the key villain - the manipulative mother who believes she controls all the comings and goings of the village and equally can control the doddery old Prince: Maria Alexandrovna is a sophisticated creation that could come from a modern writer. I could see similar issues being done and a similar woman in an English play by Alan Ayckbourn or a TV comedy drama by Victoria Wood. The pathetic thwarted suitor of the intended for the Prince and indeed the nominal nephew Pavel Mozglyakov also stands out.

What is missing from the work I have read so far of FD are the contemporary literary and artistic references. This village is in a bubble where banal worries about who is going to marry (and trick) an elderly aristocrat are to the fore. Although there are references to light French novels like Dumas and constant quotes in French - these stand out because they are so isolated. I guess this is not surprising because FD himself was miles away from the literary milieu he had cultivated.

Yet in passing the number of "souls" -peasants - controlled by these figures is thrown about pretty lightly. The deference to the feudal structure, a constant them in FDs work, is there in spades in fact the whole plot revolves around it. The Prince even raises the issue of serf emancipation, one of FD's crimes in the eyes of the Tsarist state, before almost as quickly dismissing it - he speaks of being influenced by foreign ideas. And in a very unusual last chapter the issues of mortality are raised darkly and really out of kilter with the rest of the piece.

So all those things are touched on but I have to say it is actually funny - maybe unusually for a nineteenth century literary comedy. I could see some influence perhaps of Dickens whose jokes have not all stood the test of time. There is a funny line about a boring male character who often "looks blankly like a sheep that has seen a new gate" well it made me chuckle. And the plot whilst derivative is pretty well paced and structured for humour. Also in quite a modern way FD contrasts the lightness with quite dark and bitter ideas- Maria's essential prostitution of her daughter and her relationship with her husband is quite shockingly violently cruel.

So you could argue this got FD back in the saddle of published work and it's a good distraction for a few hours read. Also have to give word of praise to edition I picked up by Hesperus press. Lovely lay-out and good translation and introduction - published last year. I think it specialises in publishing more obscure literary works from the great writers. Lucky for me!

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