Monday, 27 August 2018

Dostoevsky and Poldark, or the Brothers Carne-mazov

The Brothers Carne - Dostoevskian body doubles?
When watching the BBC's latest season of Poldark, a series based on the novels by Winston Graham about a swashbuckling Cornish landowner, my first thought was how Dostoevskian it was. (Well, if not my first thought, certainly my seventh, or ninth.) The opening episode of Series 4 (and here comes the first of several spoilers) ends with a dramatic public execution scene: will the Carne brothers, also the brothers-in-law of hero Ross Poldark, be hanged by the neck until they are dead, or not? Inevitably, I was reminded of what Dostoevsky's biography Joseph Frank euphemistically calls "the incident in Semenovsky Square" on December 22nd, 1849, when the 28-year-old writer and his fellow members of the "Petrashevtsy" reading group, all young men, were led out in the snow and formally condemned to execution by firing squad. Three of the prisoners were marched forwards, tied to stakes in a square in the heart of St Petersburg, and hooded to await the final volley (Petrashevsky himself, the so-called ringleader, defiantly refused a blindfold). An Orthodox priest, armed with crucifix and Bible, instructed them all to repent. Dostoevsky stood in the next group, fully expecting to be shot within a few moments. As he wrote later, a 'mystic terror' overcame him. These men had been condemned for treason, yet they were all quite innocent; Dostoevsky's crime, for example, had been to read Belinsky's controversial Letter to Gogol aloud to the group. They had already spent eight months in the ominous Peter and Paul Fortress. And yet, as we know, the order to fire never came; instead a drummer sounded the  retreat, and a rider announced that the men's death sentences had been commuted to exile with hard labour. The entire torturous incident (which cost one of the prisoners, Nikolai Grigoryev, his sanity) had merely been an additional moral punishment dreamed up by the Tsar. The charges on which the Carne brothers and their friend stood accused in Truro market-place were equally trumped-up, but here the suspense and mystic terror were, fortunately, vicarious.

Aidan Turner and his chest

I owe Viv Groskop, the Guardian's brilliant Poldark blogger and out-of-the-closet Russianist (I'm working through her very funny The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature) for my other Dostoevskian interpretation of Poldark. The actor Aidan Turner, who plays Ross Poldark, is widely celebrated for his chest (I can't imagine why). Since Turner proved reluctant to keep displaying his chest in semi-nude scything scenes after the first series, his on-screen wife Demelza's two brothers were 'bussed in as Replacement Torso action', in Groskop's words. (These are the same pair who face public asphyxiation in Season Four.) It really shouldn't have taken two more series before I realized that the brothers are, as Groskop all but points out, Dostoevskian doubles of Poldark himself. Just think of the complicated sequence of doubles in Crime and Punishment  - the rational side of hero Raskolnikov is reflected by his 'good' friend, Razumikhin, his evil sub-Nietzschean id by the monstrous Svidrigailov, and so on, so mise en abyme, as the doubles get doubles. The Idiot is even worse, with female doubles joining the fray, and Demons, if it had a plot, would lose it entirely, such is the proliferation of alter egos. The Carne brothers may be body doubles (torso doubles) of their brother-in-law in a crudely material sense, but they are also a pair of sensible Razumikhins to Ross's hell-raising Raskolnikov. Meanwhile Ross' nemesis George Warleggan, who glories in the Groskopic moniker of Evil George, is clearly Svidrigailov, attempting to debauch the women Ross/Raskolnikov loves. (I'm managing to oversimplify and distort both plots here, which is no mean feat).
Ross Poldark and Svidrigailov, alias Evil George
The final episode of Series 4 hammers home the tragic truth that Ross, Ross' late cousin Francis and Evil George all loved the same woman - making it more obvious than ever that they are essentially variations on the same man. And one of the final scenes of that episode - where former love rivals Ross and EG weep over the corpse of an (arguably, murdered) woman - was practically identical to the denouement of The Idiot, where saintly Prince Myshkin and the dynamic but all too materialistic Rogozhin weep beside the body of Natasha Filippovna, the woman they both loved.

Expired Elizabeth Warleggan, Ross Poldark's first love
Ilya Glazunov's impression of The Idiot's finale

A parallel which I could extend further, but not without risk of descending into the same gabbling incoherence as Myshkin or poor Nikolai Grigoryev post-mock-execution. 
If you've missed Poldark on-screen, there's always the books. Or the originals. And Series 5 in 2019....

Acknowledgements: I relied heavily on Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 for the facts presented about the mock execution staged in 1849 in Semenovsky Square.

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