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