Monthly Archives: June 2009

Finding ourselves, and others, in books

A nice piece from Colum McCann at the NYTimes on James Joyce and family memory.  I take it as a paean, of sorts, for the idea of literature as equipment for living.  An excerpt:

Vladimir Nabokov once said that the purpose of storytelling is “to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant masquerade.”

This is the function of books — we learn how to live even if we weren’t there. Fiction gives us access to a very real history. Stories are the best democracy we have. We are allowed to become the other we never dreamed we could be.

This is, in some fashion, confused, but lovely nonetheless

Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First–Poor Folk

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.

Downing Dostoevsky–Book the First, Part I

Ok, so “Book, the First” sounds pretentious and sooo nineteenth century, but given that my summer is going to be devoted to downing, devouring, deciphering, and otherwise drowning in 19th century Russian depressive Fyodor Dostoevsky, it seemed somhow vaguely appropriate.

(Sidenote, somehow I feel that it must be incumbent on me to make some comment on the fact that I HAVEN’T POSTED A WORD IN FOUR MONTHS, but I guess that I have arrived at the conclusion that, hey, it’s my blog and I’ll go dark if  I want to.  Not that anyone has missed me enough to so much as send a single note asking after my health and well-being.  For all any of you knew I had finally passed away of the heart attack that I must so richly deserve since I spend my days eating donuts and sitting at a computer rather than sweating off my sins like a materialist Puritan.  Ok, enough chastisement of my readers–who are apparently non-existent–for their obvious disinterest in my silent spring.  Back to Dostoevsky.)

Why?  you ask.  Why? Let’s say I ask that myself.  I remember a New Yorker cartoon of a guy on a beach being arrested for reading Dostoevsky, evidence of inappropriate summer time reading. (Yes, it is available on the web--check here;  I wonder if the New Yorker will send me a free subscription for all the traffic I will be sending their way.  I am not wondering too hard.)  Seriously though, I had a lot of things on my agenda this summer, and it looks like reading the gray russian will get in the way.  Among other things, it would be nice to go to the opera in Italy, or parasailing in Florida, or learning to kayak in the Alaskan hinterlands.  Who am I kidding, it would also be also be nice to get a massage at the Y and sleep through the night.  These things being mostly impossible or embarrassing, I do have longings to read.  I’ve wanted to spend a summer reading Vonnegut, or, since my late great hero John Updike died, maybe reading all of Updike never gave myself time to get to.  Or maybe J.D. Salinger, or Joyce Carol Oates, or the latest by Toni Morrison.  Instead I am stuck with Dostoevsky, the grey one, whose novelistic worlds i imagine in shades of black and white.

This verb, “stuck,” is, I realize, something of a heresy, isn’t it.  I feel that I should be a good example of a devoted reader, or at least an English prof–not always the case that these two go together.  Isn’t admitting that as the summer starts I can imagine pleasanter things to do with my days than Dostoevsky a little gauche, something like a gourmand or the food critic admitting that he could do without a weekly repast at Sardi’s, and maybe, just maybe, would be Ok with something a little more middle class like Chili’s or TGI Fridays.  Well, summer is for slumming, and reading Dostoevsky in June is a bit like working for a company that insists on dark suits and ties all summer.  Seriousness.

Still, this doesn’t answer the question.  The basic answer to the question posed is that I am directing an honors project for a worthy student who wants to go to graduate school, and will do well.  What he doesn’t yet know is that graduate school will quickly turn reading and all the intellectual and imaginative excitement that he feels for the world of books in to what Dostoevsky is for me, first and foremost: work, an act of labor, a responsiblity, something that must be done.

To be sure, it is always a great and guilty pleasure to get new books, especially when I can get someone else to pay for them since I am, after all, fulfilling the responsibilities of my position. I’ve taken great joy in the many packages that have arrived over the past couple of weeks bearing those weighty Dostoevskian tomes.  A bunch of Everyman’s library editions, and then other editions for those books no one felt were good enough to be canonized.  Among other things, who knew Dostoevsky wrote so much?  The Brothers K and Crime and Punishment.  The canon within the canon.  That should be enough for anyone, and could take a summer in themselves, but the list is almost endless.

And in order to know Dostoevsky, of course, I must read them all.  I have not yet started counting pages, though there are thousands.  I am like the bird in the old story around the campfire at church camp.  I fly and remove a single grain of sand from the highest mountain in the world, flying to the other side of the world to deposit it in my nest, returning trip after trip for a single grain of sand.  When the mountain has been leveled to  a plain, a single day of eternity shall have passed.

Dostoevsky, my summer’s mountain;  my summer’s eternity.