Monday, November 25, 2019

Dostoyevski's Poor People

I'm rereading one my gateway novels into Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  The novel is more feverish and introspective than I recalled it.  It also seems to portray a protagonist who is not at all certain whether or not he hopes to avoid detection.  Perhaps the issue is that I'm reading Oliver Ready's relatively new translation of the book, and the new translation reveals Raskolnikov's ambivalence than previous translations. Or perhaps the issue is that I haven't read Crime and Punishment for over twenty-five years.  In truth, prior to picking up this translation, the only thing I remembered about the book was that it was suspenseful, had terrific denouement (but not-so-terrific epilogue) and made you feel as if you had personally committed the crime and were in danger of being discovered.  At any rate, the new translation comes with excellent end notes.

One Dostoevsky book I hadn't read up until this year was his early epistolary novel, Poor People. This book doesn't quite reveal Dostoevsky's mature genius, but neither does it fail to reveal Dostoevsky's trademark masochism.  For while the book can read like a work of social realism, it also pushes past social realism into grotesque absurdity.  At first, the male protagonist, Makar Devushkin, seems to be in an ordinary predicament: like many of St. Petersburg's underclass, he can't really afford his modest St. lifestyle.  He lives in a crowded tenement, and works unusually long hours just to make ends meet.  Over time, the protagonist's life falls apart.  He's too poor to keep his clothes from disintegrating, too poor to maintain even a reasonably presentable wardrobe.  A porter puts it this way:  the protagonist shouldn't brush his coat for the filthy garment would only spoil the brush.  In the end, the hero's life can hardly be seen as anything other than comic.  He throws away his small salary on presents for his much younger friend, distant cousin, neighbor, and probable love interest.  He worships his wealthy employer.  He works ever-longer hours.   Meanwhile, his friend. Varvara Dobroselova, also falls into catastrophe and is forced to marry a not-so-good older man in an arrangement that looks remarkable similar to prostitution.

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