Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Dostoevsky: a ridiculous thing

My fellow (non-saurian) blogger Languagehat wrote an interesting but critical post about Dostoevsky's The Adolescent (1875) earlier this week. Here he calls it 'one of the most annoying novels I’ve ever read', drawing attention to its 'unreliable narrator' and 'ridiculous' adolescent style, including 'endless coincidences, overhearings, [and] surprise encounters'.
One of my avatars has penned a much more sympathetic review of Dora O'Brien's recent translation of The Adolescent which, if you are a TLS subscriber, you can read here. (If you're not, you can be tantalized by the first paragraph). Clearly, Languagehat and I have divergent views on the book that I call 'understandably, if undeservedly, the least read of Dostoevsky's mature novels'. His blog post concludes meditatively, 'I can’t help but wonder what Dostoevsky’s reputation would have been if he had died just after publishing this, never having written the Writer’s Diary or The Brothers Karamazov — I suspect he’d be remembered as a very fine writer like Turgenev rather than Tolstoy’s equal and rival. Fortunately, he survived and triumphed.'
This notion of the incomplete obituary – what we might say about great writers if they had died before writing their legacy works – returned to my mind the following day when I opened a volume of the Argentine author Ernesto Sabato’s essays. I was chasing a particular essay by Sabato, “La Resistencia” (“Resistance”), which is quoted by contemporary novelist Julian Fuks as the epigram to his novel Resistance, which in turn, as a narrative of troubled metafictional fraternity, can be traced back to Dostoevsky through Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight and The Brothers Karamazov. I couldn’t find Sabato’s “Resistance” but I did find, in a charming anthology of tiny essays from 1971 called El Escritor i sus fantasmas, a piece called “Dostoievsky juzgado por contemporaneous” (“Dostoevsky judged by his contemporaries”). Here, Sabato picks up Dostoevsky’s career in the late 1840s, around the time of publication of The Double. Having briefly been the toast of St Petersburg literary society for Poor Folk, Dostoevsky's star has fallen. His peers mock his appearance, his style, his pride. Turgenev and Nekrasov cruelly co-write a stinging stanza, which I give in Sabato’s witty Spanish version (the original knight, after all, was also Spanish):

Caballero de la triste figura
Dostoievsky, mi querido fanfarrón,
Sobre la nariz de la literatura,
No eres más que una leve erupción.
Sabato goes on:
'The addressee of these lines lost confidence in his genius; many of the pages of The Double, which he was writing, seemed to him ridiculous, superficial, useless. He was living in a kind of hell (un infierno). He had lost the euphoria of that time so near and so far away when Belinsky had lauded him to the skies. He heard laughter all around him; he mistrusted the smiles of his circle (capilla). Three years after the memorable night when Belinsky and Nekrasov had wept at the reading of Poor Folk, he was a broken man (un hombre terminado). He was saved from either madness or suicide by (paradoxically) prison. Buried alive (Enterrado en vida), he found the opportunity to reflect on the vanity of all things. While he was still sealed up in Siberia, forgotten, one of the individuals who had been part of his circle, a certain Panaev, remarked: “We were on the point of being besotted with one of the little idols of the day. We showed him off in the streets of the capital, we trumpeted his glory everywhere. Eventually he lost his way. He was immediately abandoned by all of us. Poor man! We destroyed him (Lo hemos aniquilado), we turned him into a ridiculous thing.'"

Imagine if Dostoevsky really had stopped with Poor Folk and The Double, stifled by Siberia, suicide, or both. Would we remember him today as a footnote to Gogol, a minor literary figure (like Ivan Panaev himself), a “ridiculous thing”?

Thankfully, Dostoevsky returned and rebuilt his life and reputation, writing The Adolescent… and one or two other novels.