Up until three weeks ago I didn’t even know Dostoevsky had written a book called “Poor Folk,” and up until last week I hadn’t read it. I think there’s probably a dissertation to be written by someone out there entitled “Obscure Third Rank Novels by Great Writers: or, Non-canonical Aesthetics.” Seriously, though, I think the continued publication life of this book depends a great deal upon the existence and reputation of its author and his attendant acolytes rather than on it’s inherent interest to a contemporary audience. It’s evidence of Foucault’s dictum that the social construction of the author and authorship in a world is at least as important as the formal and aesthetic facts of the work itself in our receiving and treating of a work as important.
At the same time, Poor Folk surely rises above the level of a laundry list or a letter to an accountant, texts that only a scholar with no life or a graduate student with little hope could find endearing. Indeed, third rank Dostoevsky is better than first rank Stephanie Meyer, whose tertalogy devoted to vampiric chastity I spent the better part of the past year reading so that I could claim that I was being a good father by reading up on my daughter’s obsessions. (Mostly we argued over the fact that I see Edward, prince of vampires, as a model spouse abuser–smirking at Bella’s every half thought and more or less stalking her every move. This analysis did not go over well. I also find it bizarre and somewhat icky that Meyer seems to endorse the idea that men–whether werewolves or vampires–can find soulmates and life partners in women who are approximately one-sixth their age. But that’s a whole nother blog and a whole nother argument with my daughter).
Back to my point. Even though I didn’t feel gripped by Poor Folk, and even if I imagine it as bad Dostoevsky, it was better by several factors than most of the schlock that passes for a reading life these days. All of which points to two inconvenient beliefs that most of the literary academy these days seems to want to dismiss: first, some books are clearly better than other books, at least in specifically aesthetic and formal ways; second, and a corollary of the first, some authors really are better than other authors. These seem basic and obvious things to say, but they aren’t so basic and obvious in the academy these days, wherein every author, giving evidence of our infinitely multiple intelligences and creativities, is good in his or her own special way and shouldn’t be compared to other authors in some kind of formal hierarchy. I used to believe this, but as I’ve started pressing up against fifty, I’ve realized I don’t have the time or inclination to believe that everything is of equal value just because it is of value to someone. So even though I only read this book because it was written by Dostoevsky, and even though the only reason I can think that anyone living today would want to read this book is because it was written by Dostoevsky, I can still see that it’s better than a lot of books I read for whatever reasons.
I’m not sure if Poor Folk gives evidence or betrays the later obsessions that characterize Dostoevsky’s work. Largely because i don’t know much about Dostoevsky’s work at all. It strikes me as thinner and less complex than the things I remember from Brother K and from Crime and Punishment, but I doubt that should be the standard. What I do like about the book is its effort for psychological complexity, and the sophistication it displays in using the epistolary novel form. I’ll admit that when I saw the title Poor Folk, and read a few comments on the book jacket, I was kind of ready for a lachrymose and sentimental journey into the heart of the poor–a Stowesque tour of life among the lowly. Or perhaps, alternatively, into a reversed naturalistic sentimentality that depicted the deprivity of the depraved or the depravity of the deprived. Native Son in a Russian key. Novel titles linked to abstract social categories seem to shout–come learn about group X.
But I really didn’t get that in this book. To be sure, there’s a concern with the way in which social conditions press upon the main characters, Barbara Dobroselova and Makar Dievushkin. But I very quickly got beyond the feeling that these were somehow to be taken as pasteboard representatives of “Poor Folk,” and instead they lived uniquely individual lives made of various and even competing levels of personal responsibility and delusion. In moral terms, I never feel Dostoevsky sets the lowly innocent against the amoral or immoral forces of social might–as, usually, do both sentimental romance and naturalism though to different ends. Instead, these characters are complex, partially self-aware, partially deluded, and partially free to make bad choices in restricted circumstances. In other words, I think what I like about this book in the end is that Dostoevsky gives “Poor Folk” the human dignity to participate in the process of their own damnation.
Dievushkin, for instance, repeatedly makes really bad choices with what little money he does have, sometimes in the name of romance and sometimes in the name of drink–and that these two are linked as the usual occasions for his fiscal irresponsibility is telling as well since it’s not entirely clear whether his romantic attachment to the much younger Dobroselova is a love based in the purity of self-giving or in the mania of self-delusion–an escapist addiction as powerful as vodka.
For her part, Dobroselova protests throughout the book that Dievushkin must not be sending her gifts and money, that he is being dissolute and irresponsible in doing so when he has so little himself. Yet one cannot help noticing that she never refuses, in fact, to take what he offers. In the end, her decision to enter a loveless but secure marriage with a wealthier man does little to allay the suspicion that her relationship with Dievushkin is one–even unknowingly–of mutual enablement. Or disablement. She feeds his addiction to love while he enhances her personal sense of moral wisdom, one on which she relies in making the apparent self-sacrifice in marrying a man that she despises. Yet this “self-sacrifice” is in the end the latest in a long string of decisions to live in relationships that guarantee her survival.
Yet they are without guile, sincere in their delusions. This from the final page of the book as Dobroselova has driven off in to the sunset with her sour lover.
Nevertheless, as soon as I have received my next installment of salary I mean to buy you a new cloak. I mean to buy it at a shop with which I am acquainted. Only, you must wait until my next installment is due, my angel of a Barbara. Ah, God, my God! To think that you are going away into the Steppes with Monsieur Bwikov–that you are going away never to return!…nay, nay, but you shall write to me. you shall write me a letter as soon as you have started, even if it be your last letter of all, my dearest. Yet will it be your last letter? How has it come about so suddenly, so irrevocably, that this letter should be your last? Nay, nay; I will write, and you shall write– yes, now, when at length I am beginning to improve my style. Style? I do not know what I am writing. I never do know what I am writing. I could not possibly know, for I never read over what I have written, nor correct its orthography. At the present moment, I am writing merely for the sake of writing, and to put as much as possible into this last letter of mine….
Ah, dearest, my pet, my own darling…!
No, he won’t buy her a coat–or perhaps he will in all sincerity. No, she will not write. Perhaps they will both live out their lives with the delusion of a great love lost, though, in the end what did that love amount to except a pile of letters, in the language of love that sometimes seems in its abstractions more about itself than about another. Or perhaps they will think of that love as eternal for a day or a month or a year, but it will drift in the end, an attenuated ellipsis wherein letters and words aren’t broken off definitively but drift and sway and finally fade into an indeterminate silence.
What I like about this finally is that “Poor Folk” finally isn’t about “THEM” and their circumstance, but about us, however idiosyncratic or complex or individual our own stories may be. How much we live sincerely in the grip of our half-awareness, loving in ways that seem both self-giving and selfish at the same time, love seeming both to reveal to us the world as it really is and to grip us with a fantasy about who we might become. There are probably books that do this better. Maybe even books by Dostoevsky. But even second rate Dostoevsky seems to do this well.