Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. Poor Folk / The Gambler, translated by CJ Hogarth. London: Everyman, 1962.
Since it’s the new year, I thought it would be a good plan to commit to writing a post for each book I finish this year. I’m a chronic leaver of books unfinished, but over the last couple of years I’ve realized that just reading the beginning of a book - especially as I’ve started reading more non-fiction - was really only giving me a superficial understanding of the thing. Two books I read all the way through last year made me really feel how much I had been missing by not finishing books: John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology and Neil Harding’s monumental Lenin’s Political Thought - both of which end up being much more than the sum of their parts by the end. Foster’s book in particular really needs to be read to the end in order to get the full weight of his argument.
With that, then, I’ll get started with the book I picked up when I returned from vacation about a week ago: Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk (1846). I’ve tried to get into this one before, but I’ve always given up fairly quickly. Dostoyevsky’s first novel, Poor Folk is epistolary, and at first gives the impression that it’s going to be very twee and sentimental. The first letter, for example, begins like this:
My dearest Barbara Alexievna, - How happy I was last night - how immeasurably, how impossibly happy!
Immeasurable happiness? In Dostoyevsky? I should have known things would not remain in such a state. The story of the novel is thin enough: an aging civil servant, Makar Dievushkin, has taken it into his head to support - emotionally and financially - an impoverished young girl who lives in the building opposite. They write letters to each other and share small amounts of money as and when they come by it. He relates to her the trials and tribulations of his office life and the poverty-stricken denizens of his tenement building. She remembers her past, the way she and her mother were used and abused by relatives; on the death of her mother, Barbara Alexievna has come to live in this tenement. Essentially the novel traces these two characters negotiations of the lives and conditions of the very poor in 19th century St Petersburg. In the end, Barbara consents to marry a man she does not love in order to escape.
As thin as the plot is, the interest lies not only Dostoyevsky’s detailed descriptions of the lives and harrowing situations of the characters in the tenements. Indeed, the living conditions of the slums of Petersburg make Dickens’ descriptions of the poor of London seem picturesque caricatures. Dostoyevsky, as always, is full of compassion for this people, and it is in this that I think the secret of the novel’s reception lies. For Poor Folk was justly celebrated even before its publication by such eminent critics as Nekrasov and Belinsky. It’s hard to judge, from reading the novel alone, quite what sparked this enthusiasm.
If we take the state of Russian literature just prior to Poor Folk, the landscape was dominated primarily by Pushkin and Gogol. Pushkin was essentially an epic poet of the Byron mode who took as his subjects not the heroes and adventurers of Byron but real Russian people (like Eugene Onegin and Tatiana). At one point in the novel, Dievushkin - Dostoyevsky’s stand-in - sings the praises of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin, a collection of five short stories published in 1831. These introduced into Russian literature stories of the poor and downtrodden, ordinary people, untouched by the Romanticism of Pushkin’s poetry or the grotesqueries of Gogol’s fiction. For Gogol - whose Overcoat (1842) provided the model for Dostoyevsky’s second Novel The Double - wrote about the “little people” of St Petersburg too, but he placed them in fantastic situations far removed from the real life that Dostoyevsky saw reflected in Pushkin. In The Nose (1836), for example, a St Petersburg civil servant wakes up to find that his nose has left his face and is living a life of its own. Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk looked at the same class as Gogol and Pushkin, but described their lives in all their squalid detail, with all the pathos and compassion that Dostoyevsky was capable of. It was the novelty of this approach, coupled with the straightforward narrative and Dostoyevsky’s skill, that makes Poor Folk so important in the history of Russian literature, even if the story itself seems slight to us from the vantage point of more than 150 years later.
In this sense, Poor Folk inaugurates a new period of realism in Russian literature, and gives a new resonance to a famous quote of Dostoyevsky’s: “We have all come out from under Gogol’s Overcoat”. As Nikolai Andreev writes in the introduction to the edition of Poor Folk that I read:
It is not only the acknowledgement of a debt, but also the declaration of Russian literature’s emancipation from the ‘soullessness’ of Gogol and of his school of which the novel Poor Folk is the literary refutation.
Personally, I enjoyed Poor Folk - it’s hard not to get caught up in the fortunes of Makar Dievushkin and Barbara Alexievna - but it was also nice to read a novel of Dostoyevky’s that was psychologically straightforward. I read Demons (Devils, The Possessed) last year, and as fascinating as Dostoyevsky’s more psychological novels are, they can be exhausting. Poor Folk stands as a good reminder that he was an extremely skillful writer who could write excellent “straight-ahead” fiction when he decided to.
What also struck me, though, is how much the novel is about books. In addition to Dievushkin’s preference for Pushkin over Gogol, he and Barbara Alexievna are constantly exchanging books, and one of Dievushkin’s acquaintances is the author of popular fiction in the Paul De Kock mode (allowing Dosteyevsky to pastiche the style with devastating effect). There is also an episode from Barbara Alexievna’s past which turns on the purchase of a complete set of Pushkin as a gift. Books - both as novels and as physical, material objects - populate Poor Folk just as much as the characters do. This, I think, speaks to Dostoyevsky’s own concern for books, the importance he places on reading and writing as well as the physicality of publishing. This provides a refreshing break from the squalor of the novel - no matter how bad things get, all of Dostoyevsky’s characters continue to read.
The novel portrayal of the real lives of real people, in this case the poor and marginalized, places Poor Folk in the tradition of those books which expose the inhuman conditions to which various groups have historically been condemned. Turgenev’s Huntsman’s Sketches exposed the plight of the Russian serfs to such an extent that the book is credited with helping convince Tsar Aleksandr II to emancipate the serfs. Similarly, books like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man recover and express the lost or repressed humanity of an oppressed group, making it
- one hopes - no longer possible to ignore the humanity of those whom the ruling classes consider not human. Paolo Freire, in his Pedagogy of Hope, writes that “while both humanization and dehumanization are realy alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation”. He argues that “dehumanization” has never been the project or vocation of a society, though I think that Dostoyevsky and - for example - James Baldwin might disagree.
The strange thing about Dostoyevsky, the thing that marks his later, more psychological and visionary novels as well as his first, is the strange lack of anywhere to place the blame. Freire goes on to say that “dehumanization… marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it”, and I think this is also a theme of Baldwin’s. But for both Freire and Baldwin it is clear who the oppressor is. For Dostoyevsky this is never clear. Even in the famous Grand Inquisitor chapter from The Brothers Karamazov, the evil is somehow dispersed, dissipated, as if evil exists, and evil people exist, but these things are somehow merely contingent, tangential to the oppressive conditions in which people live.
I’m tempted to think that I simply don’t fully understand Dostoyevsky yet. It may be that I’m wrong, and there isn’t some transcendent idea behind all the manifestations he left behind, but I hope that isn’t the case. Dostoyevsky’s work is too significant not to contribute at least to some extent to a project of humanization. Indeed, Dostoyevsky himself believed that that was precisely what his work was for. It remains to be seen, from my perspective at least, whether that hope will be born out.