Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Eternal Husband and Other Stories

The Eternal Husband and Other Stories, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
1862-1876, 349 pp. Translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I am about to write one of the world’s few truly unique sentences: Dostoevsky is at his best when he is being funny. When he gives himself over to his earnest, mystical, moralizing Christianity, he produces tedious, pedantic, nearly unreadable dreck in great volume: The Idiot is certainly the poster-child of this tendency. But when he stays away from the fever dreams, the hysterics, the raptures and mystical babbling, when he quits stalling with subplots and social drama and instead focuses on active satire and ridicule, he is quite good. It is for this reason that Demons is excellent, while The Idiot is interminable, and the opening of Crime and Punishment is far better than the end. The volume under review is a combination of these tendencies, but works more often than it doesn’t.

The volume is dominated by the 180-odd page novella “The Eternal Husband.” This story proceeds from a very good idea: Velchaninov, a wealthy, worldly, vital Petersburg man is visited by a man he hasn’t seen for nine years. The man, Pavel Pavlovich, appears several times before actually approaching Velchaninov, drunk and behaving strangely in the middle of the night. He tells Velchaninov that his wife has just died. Velchaninov had had an affair with the man’s wife nine years before. Whether Pavel Pavlovich knows this is the core of the story, which plays out through the destructive obsession of the one man for the other, with Velchaninov’s need to find out how much Pavel Pavlovich knows, and with their mutual inability to separate themselves from each other. The sense of menace and unease is well done, and the characterization is very good, but Dostoevsky too often indulges in two of his favorite themes: the two men spend a lot of time behaving in ways they don’t understand and can’t control, under all sorts of mystical influences, and people are driven to physical illness (or even death) due to emotional or spiritual problems. The first theme too often makes his characters seem ridiculous, rather than weak humans in the grip of mighty mystical forces, and too often undermines the characterization he’s put several pages of work into. This often is irritating, since it seems like he isn’t playing fair—instead of behaving counter to their personalities, it reads more like his characters are cardboard slaves to the requirements of Dostoevsky’s preconceived manipulations.

Furthermore, the language is too often simply clunky. I had this same problem with The Idiot, though I didn’t notice it in Demons or Crime and Punishment. I am unclear on whether it is a problem with Dostoevsky or with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Probably it is both. I haven’t read Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Tolstoy or Gogol, but I have read their Bulgakov and it was quite different from their Dostoevsky. Furthermore, Nabokov in his Lectures on Russian Literature complains of exactly what annoys me: Dostoevsky loves to have his characters speak in stuttering, inarticulate, mystical monologues which probably don’t work in any language. Worse, he likes to gather all his characters together into a drawing room (or, very frequently, a sort of “scandalous feast”) so characters monologue feverishly while other ones stand around apparently doing nothing. His characters tend to preface their statements with meaningless throat-clearing phrases like “But incidentally” or “By the way” or “And anyhow,” which I have come to assume are various translations of some common Russian verbal mannerism. The trouble is that in many contexts they don’t work at all, like when Velchaninov thinks to himself “By the way, I must give him the bracelet!” or “was not entirely sure, incidentally, that he had kissed him.” Has anyone ever thought to themselves “By the way”? And in “The Meek One,” a later story in the volume, a character sits “quietly and silently.” Both at once! I have to assume that Dostoevsky wrote two different Russian words meaning two different sorts of being quiet, which is a point against him, but I wonder why Pevear and Volokhonsky decided to include both. Why do they choose to include all of the little prevaricating meaningless phrases? All characters use them, so it isn’t a telling character trait. It just makes the writing seem stilted, annoying, and occasionally ridiculous.

Those complaints aside, the volume features two very good stories: “A Nasty Anecdote” and “The Meek One.” The first is a cutting satire in which a powerful government official turns up drunk and unannounced at his subordinate’s wedding, in order to prove his liberal humanist convictions. If the reader can set aside Dostoevsky’s loathing for progress and recognize that indeed, some aspects of wealthy liberal hypocrisy are timeless, it’s quite an amusing story. It reads like an 1862 episode of “The Office.”

“The Meek One” is a stream-of-consciousness narration of a self-absorbed pawnbroker who, through his well-meaning but totally misguided attempts to make his young wife happy instead drives her to suicide. In its theme of the narrator’s total inability to consider the world outside himself, it’s almost Bergman-esque in nature, and is a much more focused, tightly-constructed story than Dostoevsky usually produces. The last line particularly sums up the character, and the character of many people, spoken over the body of his dead teenage wife: “No seriously, when she’s taken away tomorrow, what about me then?”

There are two other less impressive stories. “Bobok” is fairly good, a story about a hack writer who attends a funeral and mistakenly finds that the dead carry on for a month or so in their graves, having bickering conversations. This is another excuse for Dostoevsky to ridicule progressive ideas and their consequences for society, since all but one of the dead people have cast off religion and tradition and consequently have stupid, venal conversations from their graves. Nevertheless, it’s fairly amusing for the 20 pages it lasts. The last story, “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” begins in the vein of Notes from Underground, but then lapses into a lengthy dream sequence which ends with its feverish narrator seeing the light of mystical Christianity and setting out happy into the world. This story unifies several of my least favorite of Dostoevsky’s preoccupations, and does nothing which he does not do elsewhere.

In sum, then, the volume contains two very good stories, two fairly decent ones, and one bad one. It is also a convenient collection of most of Dostoevsky’s shorter work, and it is interesting to see him working in a more precise, restricted form than his usual immense, bloated novels. Worth a look, even if just for “The Meek One” and “A Nasty Anecdote.”

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