In the last ten days I’ve read most of Dostoevsky written before his sojourn to the penal colony, and a little written in its immediate aftermath, but just a couple of more words about Poor Folk. I’m intrigued by two aspects of Dostoevsky’s work as an artist. For a first novel it strikes me as being remarkably sophisticated in terms of it’s narrative technique. His use of gaps and empty places where the reader has to fill in the blanks keeps the reader working. In this sense it seems to me that reading Dostoevsky is a thoroughly active process, something quite different than the passivity that people sometimes attach to reading. We’re constantly being given bits of information in the letters that imply a world of fact, of allusion to a life beyond the text (though, of course, that life is a fiction of the text) that the reader must construct and fill in in order to make sense of the text at hand, the “narrative” then is a process between the reader and the text itself. We understand the text both by reading what is there, and by filling in what isn’t there. The reader’s active participation is necessary for making means.
I hope it’s not just a deconstructive turn of some sort on my part, but I’m struck by how Doestoevsky is obsessed with both reading and writing throughout this text. To this degree it strikes a fairly common tone in first novels—we don’t know what else to write about, so let’s write about writing—Joyce’s kunstlerroman “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” being the exemplar here. But I find it intriguing in Dostoevsky that this isn’t embedded in the life of a young man struggling to find a voice, but in the consciousness of a middle-aged and aging man who never found a voice, whose struggle with language will, by his own lights, has proven fruitless even while writing is his stock and trade as a kind of scrivener.
I know I that I can earn but little by my labors as a copyist; yet even of that little I am proud, for it has entailed work, and has wrung sweat from my borw. What harm is there in being a copyist? “He is only an amanuensis,’ people say of me. Bust what is there so disgraceful in that? My writing is at least legible, neat, and pleasant to look upon – and his Excellency is satisfied withit. Indeed, I trtanscribe many important documents. At the same time, I know that my writing lacks style, which is why I have never risen in the service. Even to you, my dear one, I write simply and without tricks, but just as a thought may happen to enter my head. Yes, I know all this; but if everyone were to become a fine writer, who would there be left to act as copyists?
Who indeed? I’ve commented somewhere else on this blog of the peculiar cultural imperialism of writing in our own day, but perhaps every day. I increasingly get English majors who have no interest in reading, who even claim to dislike reading, but who are obsessed with writing. Everyman his own author. So much so I have no time left for reading Dostoevsky since one must keep busy updating one’s blog, twittering one’s feed, and textings one’s faves.
But this is beside my main point for the day, which is the fascination I find in Dostoevsky who turns in a first novel to Poor Folk as his subject, not because they have a superior or natural style—as Rousseau or Wordsworth or Whitman might suppose—but because they have no style at all. His work doesn’t seem intent on disproving that claim. At the end of this text, one isn’t led to declaim endlessly on the natural style of poor folk that Dostoevsky has managed to produce.
No. What’s fascinating is that he has made interesting and plausible the story of two people who are not of their own accord self-consciously interesting or stylish. I am not sure what lesson of the day to draw from this, but when I come away from Dostoevsky’s Poor Folk, I find that I respect them, but I do not admire them. This is terribly politically correct these days, but it strikes me that it is pretty clear-minded. I’m reminded, for some reason, of all those Christian artists who go about romanticizing the middle ages, and refuse to recognize that the life really was nasty brutish and short, even for most of the most exalted, and none of us would for one instance trade in our latte’s and air conditioning for smallpox, plague, and roast pig on a spit.
Well, I’m drifting now, but thought I should come back to this particular element of Poor Folk before moving on.