Tag Archives: Dostoevsky

Violations of Light


“…Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl; this is perfection; but here is a variation, again a French one, I borrowed it from a French traveling salesman: this is the same English script, but the black line is slightly blacker and thicker than in the English, and see—the proportion of light is violated; and notice also that the ovals are altered, they’re slightly rounder, and what’s more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it.” — The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), p 34

When I read a book I always mark it up: turning up the bottom corners of pages that have a word, line, or passage I love and then sometimes putting a mark in pencil alongside the words so that I don’t have a what the hell did I find so interesting about this page?! moment when I go back to it. Some books I read have many such markings, but some get none. It doesn’t always mean I didn’t like the book if I don’t mark it up, only that there were particular concise arrangements of words that struck me hard as either funny, moving, philosophical, or all of the above that I will want to return to some day. My copy of The Idiot does not have many upturned pages and only one that is marked. That is the above passage.

As I go back over the book to think through my impression of it, I wonder at the general lack of upturned corners. As well, considering the rather somber message of the story, I also note the seeming randomness and levity of the one quote I marked. I know why I marked it, I take a particular interest in the topic…but, also, upon further reflection, I found I enjoyed stretching the metaphor out a bit. In a way, the quote is wonderful because it nearly says everything about the book at once—and, truly, who can resist a paean to scripts? Surely not me.

Reading The Idiot was often like watching a film at one and a half speed that went something like this—a group of people crowd into a room, much passionate talk ensues, the group all depart at once, stumbling out into the hall or street and then it happens all over again for more or less 600 pages. It’s all very amusing on that level. Crazy people all hot and bothered over all their crazy concerns. These personalities are the flourishes and the flourishing abounds. Unreserved, unrestrained, unadulterated flourishing, in their own hand. It can be a mess. I read in some analysis of the story (I can’t remember where now) that the plot was not in fact plotted—Dostoevsky let the story unwind by itself. It did feel that way.

But, like nearly everyone else in the novel, my heart was moved by the dear Prince. Lovely light of a man. He tries ever so hard to find the right proportion. In his way he tries to avoid flourishes, but people read them in anyway. The articulation of that very human condition, in which one thinks one is saying something in the plainest way possible but in which one is instead heard to be meaning something else is at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel. We are all taken, most all of the time, to be thought of as manipulating our text, as it were. There is no tolerance for innocence. Bad motives are the only possible explanation. I have taken to sometimes prefacing a question by saying, “this is simply a question, I mean nothing other by it than to ask the actual question…” just to make sure the flourishes of someone else’s life doesn’t spill over and warp a simple point of clarification on my part.

This seems more prevalent today than ever, although Dostoevsky obviously exposes the lie of what something feels compared to what something is. Clearly if he is writing on the subject 100 years before my birth, then what I feel is not necessarily what is so. Perhaps we can say that it’s amplified today—what is social media if not a mega-soapbox of the professionally aggrieved and willfully offended? No question is innocent, everyone is a troll, and it goes without saying that everyone’s motives are evil.

The Idiot has no answer to this dilemma.

You acknowledge that society is savage and inhuman because it disgraces a seduced girl. But if you acknowledge that society is inhuman, it means you acknowledge that this girl has been hurt by this society. But if she’s hurt, why, then, do you yourselves bring her out in front of that same society in your newspapers and demand that it not hurt her? Mad! Vainglorious! p 285

It’s only the tragedy and hypocrisy of it all that can be expressed. We all bring our own flourishes when we endeavor to communicate with others, but they are dangerous things, and the meaning or intent can get lost when we imprint our own neurotic or damaged histories. Maybe, if we could agree that it is right to take care in how we talk to and treat others on a personal and societal level—and how we respond to others, that is to say, tastefully—without leaving a bad taste—we might begin to have something beautiful, something one could fall in love with.


A Regular Vaurien

He was at that stage of irritability in which even reserved people say more than they ought. – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Eternal Husband (365)

IMG_2072Dostoevsky is, in my opinion, a beautiful specialist of the crisis of the conscious. I was led to The Eternal Husband by my literary soul mate, who described it as the perfect story. How could I resist?

And something seemed faintly stirring in his memory, like some familiar but momentarily forgotten word, which one tries with all one’s might to recall; one knows it very well and knows that one knows it; one knows exactly what it means, one is close upon it and yet it refuses to be remembered, in spite of one’s efforts (354). 

I think it is the subtle but steady narrative voice of Dostoevsky that I fall for. José Saramago has a similar effect on me. It is the narrator’s observations and framing that one hears, and enjoys. The human ridiculousness is plainly and sympathetically articulated to you, Dear Confidant. The cat and mouse games that people engage in, tenderly and urgently described.

No sort of fact could have made her recognize her own depravity. “Most likely she genuinely does not know it,” Velchanikov thought about her even before he left T–. (We may remark, by the way, that he was the accomplice of her depravity.) (371).

We may indeed – you and I, Fyodor. Reminiscent of the brilliant scenes between Raskolnikov and Petrovich in Crime and Punishment, in The Eternal Husband, the contest is between Velchaninov and Pavlovitch – whose wife was Velchaninov’s former lover (an unkind woman, we may as well remark). Upon her death, Pavlovitch, being ‘the eternal husband,’ is lost without his role in life. Broken and disheveled, (not to mention blotto) he shows up at Velchaninov’s door one late night. But with what motive? What knowledge of his wife’s transgressions…who knew what when, indeed. Let the twisted  Tango begin!

“I must have that man!” he decided finally. “I must solve the riddle of that man, and then make up my mind. It’s–a duel!” (389)

No silly man, it’s a dance, only you’re not the lead, and your toes can’t find the dance floor. But it’s cheek to cheek: the story is tightly told with the precise choreography of a psychological drama.

The visitor chanted his phrases as though to music, but all the while that he was holding forth he looked at the floor, though, no doubt, all the time he saw everything. But Velchaninov had by now regained his composure (363).

‘The eternal husband’ is a grotesque thing, as any person who lives a role rather than a life must be. But it is the unyielding humanity of Dostoevsky’s voice that makes one fall in with the protagonist, Velchaninov, not in spite of  his imperfections, but because of them. His struggle to make sense of his part, as the spurned lover, without revealing it to the eternal husband, is by turns hilarious, heartbreaking, and harrowing.

Here is where I would place the final quote. The final line of this short novel. But, I can’t bring myself to do it on the off chance you have not read this story. I will not ruin the charm, the profound flippancy. It’s just life, the narrator seems to say – what you decide and what decides you. Ah!

* title from pg. 365. ‘Vaurien’ is a French term for a good-for-nothing.

*The Short Novels of Dostoevsky, Dial Press 1945 edition, translator uncredited.



Working A Short Story

‘Does your grief sleep or not?’
‘Grief does not sleep,’ I replied.

– Nikolay Leskov, The Make-Up Artist, A Story on a Grave (162)

IMG_0046The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories, is a collection of twenty short stories by different Russian writers. I began reading, as usual- at one of my jobs, with Pushkin’s The Shot which was about a steady and patient revenge. In between drying dishes and filling out forms, I read the quick tale. Unlike Eugene Onegin, this story is, sadly, not in rhyming verse, never the less it has a charmingly perplexed narrator doing his best to understand a puzzle of a man. When I was finished, it was time to deal with the commode, it’s the sort of task that is undignified all around- do not consider, just do. I think it’s best that way.

‘I don’t want to know! Do you think I’m going to let a sawn-off nose lie around in my room…you fathead!’ – Nikolay Gogol, The Nose (29)

While ironing in the basement I giggle at the weird Gogol and his ridiculous tale of a nose gone wild. No matter how hard I look before, I always find the odd stowed tissue in the shirt sleeves or pockets of the laundered clothes. Usually it comes out in flaky dried up bits I have to crawl around the floor collecting, but this day, the tissues separated into perfectly flat sheets pasted on the clothing. I had to spend some considerable time peeling them off my client’s fluffy bathrobe, too bad poor Kovalyov didn’t consider static cling as an adhesive for his wayward nose.

Later in the day I wandered the yard in search of suitable flowers to cut for the guestroom, I had only just finished Bezhin Lea, a truly beautiful tale by Ivan Turgenev:

I was at once surrounded by an unpleasant, motionless damp, just as if I had entered a cellar. (73)

A sleeping man privy to the fairy tales and superstitions of a group of boys chatting deep into the night. The writing was so beautiful- the story is just lovely good. His power of description and sentiment is wonderful. A short story is such a marvel- precision and economy are vital,  a phrase such as “motionless damp,”  is arresting in its original yet flawless description- it’s quite perfect.

My pride increased over the years and if I had ever actually come to the point of admitting to someone that I was strange I think I should have gone straight home that very evening and put a bullet through my brains. – Dostoevsky, A Strange Man’s Dream (99)

I probably don’t need to cite Dostoevsky with that excerpt. Gotta love him- There are more than commodes not to consider. Too true, my dear.

‘”You’re a foolish girl,” she said, “who does want to at first! Why, life is bitter, but grief’s poison is even more so. But if you quench the burning coal with this poison it will die down for a moment. Take a sip, quickly, take it!”  – The Make-Up Artist (168)

Some days there isn’t enough silver to polish or toaster ovens to clean to quench the burning coal. Based on a story that he heard as a child, The Make-Up Artist is absolutely devastating. Naturally, I loved it. Heartache is the sort of condition that, while turning one’s heart into stone, remains an eternal burning coal. There is nothing to do, nothing with which to douse, no deceptions of perspective that smolder.

The pansies need to be dead-headed. I’ll contemplate my plan for dinner, maybe Tilapia in a white wine sauce with sauteed zucchini, my client loves that.  There will be another story tomorrow.

The Shot, Alexander Pushkin translated by David Richards
The Nose, Nikolay Gogol translated by Ronald Wilks
Bezhin Lea, Ivan Turgenov translated by Richard Freeborn
A Starnge Man’s Dream, Fydor Dostoevsky translated by Malcolm Jones
The Make-Up Artist, Nikolay Leskow translated by William Leatherbarrow

Pessimism’s Cynosure

He no longer slept. His days were filled with aimless haste. In the evenings he would consider his pointless activity.
-Joseph Roth, The Spider’s Web (60)

DSCI0022In The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa there is a line that stuck itself in my memory: I’m not a pessimist, I’m sad. The German author, Joseph Roth on the other hand, at least based on the books I have read of his, is very much a pessimist. And never was pessimism so thoroughly justified as in the novella The Spider’s Web.

Theodore let them into the courtyard. Once in, they started shouting. They pushed against the walls, window panes tinkled pathetically. (49)

I found that sentence arresting. Here is one of the pinnacle moments of the story, when Theodore enjoys his act of “heroism” that his career publicly rests upon, and the window panes tinkle pathetically. The fragility of his persona, the silliness of ambition, and the depressing disgust of confronting such an odious man as Theodore is so completely expressed in those four words- it quite awes me.

He must not think too long. Reflection weakens decision. There is no time. (62)

I couldn’t help comparing Theodore to other contemptible men of literature while reading this book. Like Dosoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Theodore is smart, but not so smart as to risk the reflection and contemplative philosophizing that is central to Crime and Punishment as well as to Raskolnikov’s final redemption. Yet, he is smarter and more power-hungry than Gorky’s protagonist in Life of a Useless Man, which makes him a lot scarier. The chilling combination of the historical time period of Germany, in the upward climb of Nazism, with a half-clever, ambitious sociopath is disturbing. The political atmosphere simply makes a riper ground for sprouting the ubiquitous depravity of human beings- speaking pessimistically, of course.

There are evenings, thought Theodore, when people must perforce be good, as if under a spell. (68)

Published in 1923, between wars, this book is a frightening bit of divination of the answer to- not so much:why, but, what?- what is the thought process of the truly hateful?

Roth creates the story with the rhythm and punctuation of the segments of a spider’s web. The sentences are short, concise, and well organized. The spider unthinkingly weaves his web, forgetting how vulnerable he really is, forgetting that there are one thousand and one more spiders ready to build on top of his stupid web at a moment’s opportunity. But Theodore won’t, can’t really, think about it. There’s no time.

Horribly awake, he saw all the events of the night before. He fought against them in vain. He tried to erase them. They simply had not taken place. He began to think of all sorts of unrelated matters. He conjugated a Greek verb. (13)

In this novel of betrayal, even one’s own mind is suspect.

More Bleeding Stumps of Verse

“But the truthfulness of juxtapositions and deductions is sometimes better preserved on the near side of the verbal fence.” – Vladimir Nabokov, The Gift

Maybe it should be called: Inside The Brain of a Writer 101, by Vladimir Nabokov. The sausage making process in all of its fantastic wonder. The only problem is that his sausage tastes so good I can’t think of why I’d ever bother to make my own.  I am left with my sad offerings of “bleeding stumps of verse,” Nabokov’s euphemism for excerpts and quotes. Chagrined but not deterred, I continue –

“But sometimes he envied the simple love life of other men and the way they probably had of whistling while taking off their shoes.” (178)

I think it is the word “probably” in that sentence that makes me love Nabokov so much. He is so astoundingly authentic in his description of life lived in the interior; he admits uncertainty, but come on -let’s have a little fun. He is never so profound and joyful as when he is at his most flippant:

“Because of her I almost forgot butterflies and completely overlooked the revolution.” (161)

Nabokov understands that all experience is sensual, even writing- especially writing. He is not one to leave out bodily or mental functions, and I love him dearly for it. This was Nabokov’s last book written in Russian, and I wish I had a deeper understanding of Russian literature with which to fully experience it, but my limited love affairs with Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pushkin will have to do.

“Leave Pushkin alone: he is the gold reserve of our literature. And over there is Chekhov’s hamper, which contains enough food for years to come, and a whimpering puppy, and a bottle of Crimean wine.”

I like to think he is referring specifically to one of my all time favorite short stories, Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, I can’t remember if her dog ever whimpered, but there was a shared melon that stays with me…After all, does it matter if I comprehend every reference?  At least I am getting to a point in my life where I know what I don’t know. Progress.

“And not only was Zina cleverly and elegantly made to measure for him by a very painstaking fate, but both of them, forming a single shadow, were made to the measure of something not quite comprehensive, but wonderful and benevolent and continuously surrounding them.” (189)

Yes. Perhaps my favorite description of love I have ever read, whether or not it is true I am left to wonder, but I like it all the same. “Made to the measure,” – it’s a lovely notion. A lovely image.

One can get lost inside Fydor’s mind, I think even he gets a little lost in his own mind at times. But the final chapter may just be one of the sweetest I’ve ever read and funny as well with a nude amble through a park’s woods that is forcibly protracted when his clothing is stolen.

There is much about you I don’t like- your Petersburg style, your Gallic taint, your neo-Voltaireanism and weakness for Flaubert- and I find, forgive me, your obscene sporty nudity simply offensive.” (353)

Fydor’s gift is his writing, or rather it is Nabokov showing us his writing from the inside out in a way that is of course a ridiculous impossibility to show, right up until the moment the words find your eyes and it becomes clear that it is an effortlessly obvious thing to show. What was I thinking?

“I have been reciting a fictitious dialogue with myself as supplied by a self-teaching handbook of literary inspiration.” (88)

Oh good, I’m not the only one.

In Nabokov’s view, Fate, apparently, is sweet to some, tenaciously, even insistently, bearing the gift of love. It’s delicious.

Oh For Peripeteia!

forge a path

I read Moll Flanders many years ago and I remember being highly impressed by the peripeteia that she experienced in her tale. I wondered, at the time, if life was really like that. Would I have chapters? Twists and turns? Part 1, part 2, an epilogue?

Given the last 18 months, I’ve only to accidentally marry my brother to have a good chance of convincing Defoe’s resurrection so to pen my eponymous novel. It remains to be seen if my tale will fall into the picaresque genre, but we won’t think about that. Why think when you can read?

I was reminded of my mentor Moll while reading E.M.Forster’s wonderful book Aspects of the Novel (another very fine recommendation from John Crowley). The book is composed of a series of lectures Forster gave at Cambridge in 1927. He is so charming; also opinionated, erudite and quite funny. He compares works of literature to exemplify what novels are fundamentally composed of: story, people, plot, fantasy, prophesy, pattern and rhythm.

One of my absolute favorite things to do, although, sadly I rarely do it, is wine tastings. I love the side by side- this is different than that- I like this better than that–    activity. That is what Forster does. He wants to talk about prophesy in novels, for instance, so he compares two similar moments in two very different books, in this case- George Elliot’s Adam Bede to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Each passage beautifully tells of a person facing death for crimes committed in spirit if not in actual fact, and they are similar. But as Forster describes the difference: Elliot is preacher and Dostoevsky is prophet. To read the difference is exhilarating.

“Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experience. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical-the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours.” 

Aspects of the Novel is a joy to read on many levels: the excerpts, the comparisons, the analysis, not to mention fulfilling my fantasy of sitting in an English lecture hall circa 1900. I have a longing for a large hat and corset…

“The human mind is not a dignified organ, and I do not see how we can exercise it sincerely except through eclecticism.” – E.M. Forster