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Dostoevsky's early genius

Poor People A Novel Fyodor Dostoevsky Translated from the Russian by Hugh Aplin Hesperus Press: 138 pp., $12 paper

March 28, 2004|Charlotte Hobson | Charlotte Hobson is the author of "Black Earth City: When Russia Ran Wild (And So Did We)." This essay appears as the foreword to Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Poor People."

"Well, let me tell you, I don't believe that my fame will ever surpass the height it has now attained," wrote Fyodor Dostoevsky to his brother, Mikhail, in November 1845. "Poor People," his first novel, was not to be published until the following January, but St. Petersburg society was already abuzz with talk of this new literary talent. The first people to whom he showed his manuscript did not stop reading until they finished it at 4 in the morning, then rushed to find the author. Tears pouring down their cheeks, they embraced and congratulated him as "the new Gogol." The 24-year-old author was speechless and embarrassed. It was not long before Vissarion Belinsky, the most influential literary critic of the day, had added his own commendation. Could Dostoevsky himself -- Belinsky demanded -- understand the tremendous significance of what he had written? No, he could not, he was too young and inexperienced. It was, Dostoevsky said, the most enchanting moment of his life, and it went straight to his head. "Everyone considers me a phenomenon!" he boasted joyfully to his brother.

Belinsky's excitement was not simply pleasure at the discovery of a new voice. The liberal Russians of the 1840s, frustrated by their reactionary tsar and longing for reform, placed all their hopes in literature. Belinsky insisted that the role of the author was to be a mouthpiece for a silenced population. "Honour and glory to the young poet whose Muse loves those who live in garrets and basements, and speaks of them to the dwellers in gilded halls, saying, 'See, these too are men and your brothers,' " he declaimed in his review of "Poor People." Dostoevsky was to be the new protector of the "Little Man," a conscience for the nation. This interpretation of the novel proved durable, providing the official line for Soviet critics, at least. But Dostoevsky himself almost certainly found it too simplistic. Only a few months after publication, Dostoevsky fell out with Belinsky, announcing that the latter understood nothing about literature.

"We all crawled out from under Gogol's 'Greatcoat,' " Dostoevsky is supposed to have remarked. Whether apocryphal or not, it is a comment that applies particularly to "Poor People," a grotesque version of the epistolary novel that was so popular in the early 19th century.

The protagonists are Makar Devushkin, a wretched, middle-aged copying clerk in the civil service, and Varenka, a poor orphan in her late teens whose honor has been compromised in some unspecified but wicked way by the wealthy Mr. Bykov. Much of the humor and poignancy arises from Devushkin's prose, which, with its folksy, colloquial and unintentionally revealing language, certainly owes a debt to Gogol. After a first, perfunctory reading, in fact, I was inclined to agree with the reviewers who claimed it was little more than an imitation of the great man.

Yet I was soon returning to pore over the text again, trying to make sense of its contradictions and ellipses. Even in this earliest work, Dostoevsky's approach to the irrational is quite different from Gogol's. Where Gogol slides into the fantastic world of dreams and nightmares, Dostoevsky has already identified the area that he will spend his life investigating, and that, by the following century, will make him the most widely read Russian author in the world. "Poor People" soon emerges as a typically Dostoevskian study: an acute psychological portrait of a man driven to his limits.

And it is here, to my mind, that the excitement of Dostoevsky's first novel lies. He may not have formulated his extreme conservatism until much later in life, yet in "Poor People" the conflict between his liberal views and his acute awareness of human irrationality is already fierce. As in later books, he focuses above all on the irrationality of those who are struggling to survive. The very fact that a single illogical decision could push them over the edge into despair, that they have no safety net to allow them a little wavering, an eccentric action now and again, seems to draw people toward the brink. Devushkin and Varenka suffer from ill health and the vulnerability of their position before rich and predatory men. But these conventional threats -- the threats that a more didactic social commentator might be expected to dwell on -- are made dramatically worse by their own, irresistible self-destructive urges. As Devushkin remarks, in what could be seen as the guiding principle of the tale: "Poor men are capricious ... that's the way nature arranges it."

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