Sunday, 4 November 2012

Humiliated and Insulted: Dostoevsky back in the saddle?

It's taken me quite a while to complete this - Dostoevsky's first lengthy novel which foreshadowed a period where he produced his recognised great pieces.   Mainly this has been down to  external factors - an increasing workload due to the grinding cuts in the public sector and the timing of the current semester but it does also reflect the prose itself which I think is a bit stop -start and difficult to get into the flow of.

Like many 19th Century novels this was published in instalments through a journal.  This also gives the text a strange rhythm - something I remember noticing in Hardy - in that it builds up to climaxes in strange places in the overall structure of the work.   Of course in the novel (or I guess in serial terms the box set!) these can be a problem if the prose around it is weak as it is unusual and stands out - in part this work does suffer from it  I think.  Even though this is a strong recent English translation.

The novel is back in Dostoevsky's bleak urban environment of St. Petersburg after his dalliance with the rural     tensions of hierarchichal families in his previous two short works.   The central pivot of the piece is Vanya a writer who gets entangled in two plots - the life of an empoverished epileptic child Nelly who he discovers when he moves into her Grandfather's grotty garret flat and a fairly flimsy love triangle between him, his childhood love Natasha and her obsessive love the foppish, handsome, rich  and nice but dim Alexei.   The link between the two, apart from  Vanya, is the villainous Prince Valkovsky: the father of Alexei who is attempting to ruin Natasha's father in a law suit and is somehow indirectly involved in Nelly's dead family

In true 19th century style the two plots entwine with a series of (fairly unsurprising) revelations but in truth the narrative is not really driven by the plot. FD's heart doesn't really seem to be in that - even when he introduces a private detective - an old friend of Vanya - to drive elements of the plot forward.  So on that measure as a "cracking good read" copyright arch Will Self saying it is a failure - and probably one of the reasons it is not in the realms of TV adaptions (though Wikipedia tells me a Russian film was made of it in the 1990s).

It does have strengths though that really stand out that also put it outwith the realm of the disposable cheap novel.  In a sense Dostoevsky's ambitions for this work were not great he was really trying to find his feet following his lengthy exile.  But the stand-outs relate to a couple of set-pieces and as always in FD's work (well those that I have read so far) the development of ideas.

The opening chapter is remarkable where he encounters Nelly's grandfather seemingly an emaciated pauper and his dog, he witnesses his death in a very European setting (a coffee house) but in a very understated way.  That part will stay with me way longer than any of the later plot devices utilised by FD.  Also outstanding and indeed it is almost like it fell into the book from another novel is the confrontation between the Prince and Vanya.  It is partially hidden til this point but through an excoriating monologue the Prince reveals his villainous nature, his utter disdain for the wimpy Vanya (comparing him to the romantic poet Schiller) and in quite explicit tones for the team explains his love of debauchery and corruption of innocence. A really strong piece of writing which sadly is not really equalled anywhere else in the rest of the work.  As I observed earlier it also occurs at the culmination of the third instalment of the work.

Ideas around mortality, corruption and the nature of Russian Society are touched on but never fully developed which again suggests why the work is not up there with Dostoevsky's other works.  Alexei, before his betrayal of Natasha dabbles in a Utopian Socialist group and portrays the ideas in a fairly naive way - probably reflecting FD's cynicism at that time.  Interestingly at this post-Savile time the book touches on the possibility of  a peadophile ring involving aristocrats which there seems to be an attempt to put Nelly into.  The abuse of children is also one of the modern themes which Dostoevsky explores pretty well although the nature of the relationship between Nelly and Vanya is quite confused I think - similar to passages in his unfinished work which centred around a young girl of around Nelly's age.

Another significant element of the novel although ultimately I think one of its weaknesses is the character of Vanya.  He essentially is Dostoevsky.  His first (successful) novel has parallels with Poor Folk, as an aside he compares himself to other wealthier writers who can take years before they come up with a new novel whereas he needs to write to earn a living.  He also has pot-shots at publishers and indirectly at what it means to be a novelist when the simple Alexei says he wants to become one.

Stylistically though this is a problem it means that there is no differentiation between Dostoevsky the writer and Vanya the character.  Vanya is in almost every scene. Getting back in the swing of prose writing I guess that FD did not feel confident removing his all-seeing eye character.  The problem for that though is that the narrator simply becomes a cipher.  There is also no distance from the actions.  One pretty painful scene is where Natasha admits her love for Alexei to Vanya - it's almost like reading a teenage journal or listening to some early Morrissey lyrics - bleeding hearts on sleeves time.  It will be interesting to see if he continues to do this in his next works: I doubt he will.

So some highs (if that is the right word) and a few cringe-worthy lows in the book which does not really work on itself but only as part of Dostoevsky's overall oeuvre.

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