Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Village of Stepanchikovo: Dostoevsky's Trapped Comedy.

A companion piece to Uncle's Dream in some ways for FD's next work.  Also written in exile, also originally envisaged as a drama (which it was eventually staged as after Dost's death), also on the face of it a comic tale  of misunderstandings and machinations about the semi-aristocracy in Tsarist Russia- but I have to say this piece has a bit more substance to it and illustrates his ability to understand both human character and relationships.  Indeed the work has a very lightly disguised anger running through it which bursts out now and then - hardly surprising given he was coming to an end of his imprisonment and Siberian exile.

They (whoever they are!) say that great sitcoms stem from the characters being trapped - in a situation, a location, a personality: the pub in Cheers, the hotel in Fawlty Towers, the Office.  I'm not sure that theory holds up completely but there is an element of truth in it and this book illustrates it.  In a sense you cant get more trapped than a feudal society - your role was very specifically labelled and you could neither escape it nor ignore it.  Russia was a peculiar one though as it held on to its feudal trappings much longer than other similar societies whilst trying to develop a modernist outlook.  Britain maintained its feudal overlords as the recent Jubilee "celebrations" showed whilst making damned sure that real power was removed from them after the monarchy was restored following the English Civil War.  As old Moz so cleverly put it in Irish Blood English Heart

But in Russia the development of the elements of a modern state was done in a feudal way - so the hierarchy was maintained strictly in the civil service and the army (both controlled by the Tsar who of course was appointed by God).  In this tale a young student is returning to his adopted village home where his "Uncle" a retired Colonel from the army is struggling with his existence by the return of his mother and a parasitic entourage headed by a brilliant villainous character Foma Fomich.  Though the Colonel does not recognise this he is in awe of Fomich but wants his nephew to marry his children's governness who is facing poverty.

The return of the gauche youth essentially precipitates a crisis within this bizarre household and reveals hidden crises and loves. The comedy comes from the desciption of the grotesques who populate the Colonel's household - drawn to him because he is a "good man" but wealthy in control of many "souls" or serfs - written as this was before the 1862 Emancipation.  The writing skill of Dostoevsky was coming to the fore here with using the outsider to expose all of this in his return.

The hangers on in feudal courts at high and low levels must have been a real phenomenon in Russian Society - one escape from utter penury I guess must have been to be a chancer who proclaims higher normally spiritual powers who is showered with the wonders of the top table.   Rasputin (Russia's greatest love machine) confirms this  the real aristos eventually did him in angered by his position - but that was a couple of generations after Foma Fomich who was clearly cut from the same cloth.

Of the Dostoevsky books I have read so far with the exception of the protagonist in the Double this baddy is the best crafted characted I think he has written.  He is sanctimonious, manipulative and knows exactly how to exploit his relationship with the Colonel to maintain his power and situation.  To draw a parallel with great sitcoms again he is Albert Steptoe to the Harold of the Colonel!  He is as trapped as Harold is in the junkyard to Fomich but also his mother who also exploits her son but  who is utterly dependent on the chancer.

Powerfully he does not appear until the 100th page of the book but is spoken of almost from the first - a great dramatic device.  When he does you can almost here the vitriol in FD's description:  apparently FF is a vicarious characterisation of Gogol - the earlier Russian writer who ended in death a complete reactionary and supporter of serfdom.  Again similarly to his other early work FD runs the roost in parts of the tale over current fiction, journals and poetry in 1850s Russia - even quoting a poem in full at one part through the mouths of one of the children.

In FF's vicious bullying of the Colonel's peasants we can see the dilemma of the arrogant Russian nineteenth century intellectual - he despises the illiterate masses but wants to elevates them with his own higher knowledge: symbolised here by FF bullying them to learn French.  Quite painful to read actually and beyond a comedy.    The setting is clearly rural as well with the urban landscape of St Petersburg a distant reference as it was at that time for Dost.

FF has a symbiotic relationship with the Colonel though who is impressed not really by status but by knowledge - which FF ( a court jester in a previous time apparently) exploits to the full.  Unusually I guess for the time the comedy ends with a complete triumph for the villain "complete and unassailable" - who although he oversteps his mark with the Colonel pulls it back in and is restored in his parasitic place.
The other place where I sensed real anger on FD's part was his description of a wealthy single older woman who almost falls prey to gold diggers in a very well written couple of pages that really stand out from the rest of the work.

Plot wise it bounces along - I think it started as a serial a la Dickens - but that is not the real point of the work - it is a character study and as an ensemble piece is quite funny - a nun appears for no real reason at the end !  So although it has chapters called things like "Concerning the White Bull and a Peasant named Komarinsky" it is quite a complex piece which belies its appearance.  Maybe why it is quite difficult to get and not translated very often.  Perhaps not as weighty as his later works but the signs were there and it tells you much about Russian society and the human condition as well.

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