30 January 2012 § Leave a comment
I’m amusing myself at the moment by reading Anna Dostoevskaya’s Reminiscences. I’m tired, and on the edge of a cold, and she’s very easy on the brain! Her book reads like an old woman talking to her grandchildren, without much caring whether or not they’re listening. The style is gentle and distant; she’s telling the story for her own pleasure in recalling it. It’s not great literature, but it has a certain lazy charm.
I’ve written before about Anna’s immense practical abilities and common sense, but what comes across in her Reminiscences is her absolute, unfailing adoration of her husband. I’m reading about their terrible trip to Europe at the moment, while he’s doggedly gambling away every last penny she manages to obtain for them, and she’s cheerfully making excuses for his behaviour and even seems to have been complicit, to begin with, in encouraging his habit.
Her unswerving devotion presumably helped to make the marriage so happy, and made her the perfect partner for a literary genius: I’m reminded of the fictional Ellen Ash in A.S.Byatt’s Possession, fiercely protective and dedicating her life to her husband, and certainly no clash of artistic egos here. It does mean though that her memoirs definitely have to be taken with a pinch of salt, for she won’t hear a bad word said against her husband and some events are retold in a very selective way (she refuses, for example, to see that Dostoevsky may have been in any way responsible for the rift with Belinsky and his circle, even though this took place many years before she met him), and I wouldn’t advise reading her book without first reading a good biography.
On the other hand, it’s rather sweet to read about Dostoevsky as a tender, loving, warm-hearted husband, and other sources, including his letters, seem to suggest that Anna isn’t exaggerating too much here. He often came across in public as being rather gloomy, and the big falling-out with Belinsky et al was caused quite largely by his own pride and touchiness. The warmth and affection that he was capable of is evident in some of his more sympathetic characters, and even more so in his closely observed descriptions of children and animals, and when you read Anna’s book, you can see that side of him more clearly.
I was reading Mochulsky’s excellent biography, but my copy mysteriously disappeared at the weekend. That’ll serve me right for tidying up the living room. I hope I find it soon, I was really enjoying it, and he was giving me lots of interesting ideas. In the meantime, Anna is keeping me gently entertained.
12 January 2012 § Leave a comment
Somehow, I ended up only being given one book for Christmas this year – Dostoevsky’s messy, jumbled, neglected novel The Adolescent (also known in English as A Raw Youth, thanks to Constance Garnett). I’ve described Brothers Karamazov as being like a soap opera, but The Adolescent approaches the daftness of an opera plot. There is impossibly tangled intrigue; in one part of the plot, a young girl is planning to marry an old man for his money, but her plans are at risk because the old man’s daughter may succumb to the proposals of the young girl’s father and then the marriages would be illegal. There are secret documents, a gang of fraudsters, fallen women and philandering men galore, lust, betrayal, a mad gambling scene, a wicked French whore, and plenty of hiding behind doors. No-one dresses up as anyone else, but we’re not far off that level of silliness. It kept the pages turning though, and I had to read quickly before I lost track of what was going on.
It doesn’t help that Arkady Makarovich, the narrator, is the adolescent of the title, and that Dostoevsky portrays the self-centred arrogance of the teenager all too vividly and accurately. Furthermore, he takes the interesting step in this, his penultimate novel, of trying once again to write in the first person, so there is no escape from Arkady’s tediousness. Many of Dostoevsky’s early stories, as well as Humiliated and Insulted and Notes from Underground were written in the first person, and he never quite pulls it off. I think it’s because being inside the head of his central character prevents him from giving us the acute psychological analysis that he does so well – the trick with Dostoevsky is that we come to understand his characters better than they do themselves. In the same way, the first person narrator cannot plausibly delve deep into the consciousness of the other characters either. Dostoevsky’s literary genius really starts with Crime and Punishment – and he struggled with that until he devised to his intimate third-person narrative form.
There is some interesting stuff in The Adolescent though, and it provides clues to how Dostoevsky’s mind is working in the years leading up to Brothers Karamazov. I was particularly struck by Versilov’s lovely vision of a post-Christian world, a golden age in which people live calmly, rationally, freed from superstition and fear because they know that they are alone in the universe. It’s a lovely, soothing contrast to the horrors that Ivan Karamazov imagines, and I came across it just in time for making the case for atheism in my final chapter. There did that surprise anyone?