Sunday, 4 March 2018

Each Night I Ask The Stars Up Above : The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky

At first glance it seems a strange decision for a writer in his mid 50s to decide to write a first person narrative in the voice of a teenager.   Even now in the big publishing business (relatively) of "young adult" fiction it is unusual  for an established writer to give themselves over to such a form. If we leave aside the hilarity of Adrian Mole's Diary the viewpoint of a semi-articulate and not fully grown human is a problem.

It is also a modern conceit of popular social history aided by TV and radio documentaries that the "teenager" is a 20th century phenomenon.  Not until the post war boom of the 50s with full employment and disposable income did the young population manage to establish their own identity - rock and roll,fashion blah blah blah.

Of course the truth is more complex as modern biological and psychological research as illustrated in the recent excellent Infinite Monkey Cage discussion shows that teenagers walk among us but they are not the same as us oldies ! Generational differences which are so central to our post Yes movement, Brexit, Corbyn societal discussions are also hardly new either.

Russian literature of the 19th century Tsarist police state period  had  recognised this prior to this book particularly with Turgnev's Father and Sons from 1862 - seen almost as a document of the growth of nihilistic political theorising amongst the young.

But over a decade later Dostoevesky's decision in 1875 to write this work still seems a strange turn.  As usual he never does things by half measures and he throws himself fully into making the work sound like an adolescent or a "raw youth" as some translations have it.

This creates one of the first problems of the work - teenage years although a necessary part of our lives are incoherent, messy, overblown and contradictory.  That's what happens when your adult brain and personality form.  It even partially explains Morrissey's arrested development in some areas.  In prose form it is difficult to follow though - particularly when the whole fictional world is viewed through this prism.   Add to the mix a fairly convoluted plot about hidden letters, disputed wills  and revealing family secrets and so many characters that a guide/list to them is provided at the start of the book (never a good sign in my view) you can see whilst despite being FD's penultimate 'big' novel it is largely hidden and forgotten.

But there are some pleasures to be had from struggling through the mood swings of a young adult's thoughts. In a sense FD was catching up with a new mood in Tsarist Russia - living there again after a few years in Europe.  Radical politics had shifted a little from the small conspiracist groups he had attempted to lambast in his last major novel Demons to a peasant based movement Narodnism.  This idealised (to an extent) the rural lifestyle and encouraged young radicals to "go back to the country" and live amongst the peasantry. 

This was something which on the face of it FD would have been sympathetic to - it was Russian in origin - did not idealise European political thought (like the anarchism of Bakunin or the economic socialism of Marx) and recognised the central role of the peasantry.  It was also not as explicitly irreligious as the other political trends were.

So to write about young people now would perhaps not necessitate as much polemic as Dostoevsky had engaged with in previous work, including arguably Crime and Punishment.  Indeed the novel's publication was even in the radical journal Notes of the Fatherland (Closed by Tsarist authorities in 1884)  this would have been unthinkable a few years earlier with Demons.  One of the theoretical fathers of Narodnism Mikhailovsky gave his endorsement of the work and its publication even though it contains a critique of a group of radicals albeit in a very slight way which is distant from the rest of the work - unlike the full scale attack of Demons

This illustrates another problem with the work is it feels a little like a sticking together of ideas from previous works - the inward problems of small radical groups although mentioned almost in passing, the nature of suicide, doomed unrequited love, the fixation on roulette gambling  the pure religiosity of the Russian peasant - with little original direction.  The toning down of the political critique also makes the central relationship in the work a bit more oblique. 

Ostensibly similarly to Turgenev this is a paternal conflict - between father and son but Dostoevsky does put a modernist and intelligent twist on it.   For the title character adolescent Arkady is a living victim of the strict hierarchies of Tsarism.  He is the illegitimate son of an aristocrat who seduced the young wife of one of "his" peasants in the pre serf emancipation days of Russia.  In a society where even now your name is determined by your father (the patronymic) this was critical for identity - Arkady literally does not know what his name is.

The central tension of the work - though this is tested by the plot convulsions - is Arkady's obsession/hatred/love for his father the seemingly dissolute Andrei Versilov.  At least that is what is ultimately revealed because the work is  also disjointed.  Sometimes this is an inevitable consequence of the periodical nature of publishing lengthy novels (this one was published in three parts) but I think the bitty nature of the work exacerbates the problem.

It starts in a slightly different vein with Arkady seeking to make his way in the world and make himself independently wealthy.  Or in the vaguely anti-semitic and conspiracy theorist words of the work - make himself a "Rothschild".  For an illegitimate child of a member of the aristocracy whose named father is a peasant this was a pretty radical ambition - despite Versilov paying for his private (unhappy) education. 

This ambition sort of gets lost in the plot which involves Versilov entangling himself and indirectly Arkady with obscure legal battles for contested inheritance.   Their growing relationship really become the central element of the work.  Yet another title of the work is  "The Accidental Family" - arguably the most appropriate. This allows various quasi - parental conversations to occur although the anger that Arkady feels about his second class status does not take long to surface.  In a way this allows FD to personify Versilov as the older "nihilistic" generation - who despite his social status is anti-religious and pro-European enlightenment figure.  Even his relationship with Arkady's peasant mother - who right until the end of the novel he seems to romantically love hints at his challenge to the structural hierarchy.  But for the most part these conversations are fairly obscure and don't really put their cards on the table on what they are really about.  In part this feeds into the problem of having a naive "raw youth" reporting on this discourse - the reader finds it difficult to see behind this.  It is one of the inherent problems (or in other contexts opportunities) of first person narrative.

His father's fractious love life causes the growing relationship between Arkady and Versilov to break down a few times in the work.  At one point both are in love with the same figure - Katerina - who is tied up in a pretty confusing way with the battles over inheritance and that missing letter could (or could not) be vital to her. Arkady's attitude to the female characters - including Katerina, his (also illegitimate sister) Liza verges between tragic and hyperbolic - again pretty much like a teenager in love.  Although there are a few worrying scenes early in the book on how Arkady used to harass women whilst at school with fellow male pupils - showing the misogyny revealed by the #Metoo movement are far from a 21st century phenomenon.

There are potentially interesting narrative forms that FD also uses in the first person teenage form.  In modern cinematic terms he use jump cuts a lot - running ahead of himself  "I need to tell you what happens in a few chapters for this to make sense" and looking backwards.  In the overall confusion of the novel though this merely adds to it and again in the style of the adolescent the "really important" events are actually pretty minor.

There is no real revelation or learning exhibited by the end of the novel which again is in line with adolescence.  The legal disputes (after encountering a clumsy blackmail action) are sort of resolved but they become so difficult to follow the reader finds this difficult to notice. 

You could say this work was a bit of an experiment for Dostoevsky and for a writer nearing the end of his professional (and actual) life this is quite encouraging.  It does mean the work is sprawling and unlike say the Idiot has no arc of resolution within it - the conclusion can only be seen through the eyes of Arkady.  The plot is also an issue - I note the Wikipedia page of the book does not even attempt a synopsis - and that sort of collapses in on itself in the work.   A bumpy journey of a read but a few sights worth remembering along the way.

For me a step towards completing all of FD's novels - only one (major) work to go.

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