Tuesday, December 11, 2012

100 Books #119 - Fydor Dostoevsky's POOR FOLK

At first glance, there would appear to be just two characters in Dostoevsky's epistolary first novel, Poor Folk, but really there are four. We have the two letter-writing doomed lovers, Barbara (Varvara) Dobroselova and Makar Devushkin, and we have the pair's mental models or emulators of one another. The story told in the letters of this pair of chastely loving neighbors, in which they live out their lives of privation and longing for one another, is thus given an almost unbearable tension as they all but scream at one another for understanding. "Ah, little angel, you are a perfect child! I know well you are weak as a blade of grass," Makar might say to the decidedly not weak Barbara, for instance, projecting quite forcefully his distorted ideal of femininity on the woman he has decided he must protect even though it is obvious from the very beginning that, sad as Barbara's straits are, she is doing a much better job of taking care of herself than Makar is.*

It's this tension, rather than the horrible living conditions described or the novel's famed status as a possible satire on Gogol's "The Overcoat" and other works, that kept me reading this**; it's the same inter-character tension that I love best about Dostoevsky in particular, and Russian novels in general, after all. There is a perverse streak in me that loves to watch characters willfully misunderstanding each other while claiming (usually dismissively) to understand each other perfectly. I say perverse because nothing makes me angrier than when this happens to me in real life. In fiction, however, it's my crack.

So, while earlier this year I decided, after having thoroughly loved the first volume of Joseph Frank's giant biography of Doestoeversky, that I needed to read Poor Folk right away, I kind of put it off, largely out of a feeling of obligation to others. I am comrades with lots of writers who released new fiction this year and whose work could benefit from what small light I could shine on it; I finally allowed some friends, new and old, to talk me into reading all the Harry Potter and all the Dark Tower novels.... the year slipped away.

But as it comes to an end, I find myself in what my good pal EssJay aptly describes as a "sneaky hate spiral" in which all fiction annoys me or otherwise fails to keep my attention. I've been here before; I know what I need, and so I keep "guaranteed good stuff" that I know I'll like against such times. Hence Poor Folk at last. AaaaaaAAAAAaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh.

My own pecadillos notwithstanding, this book is a searingly worthwhile read even if  you don't get off on the kind of tension I'm celebrating here. Doestoevsky at the kinda-faltering start of his career is better than almost anyone else at his or her peak. Listen: I hate epistolary novels. Hate them. But if all of them were like Poor Folk, I would love them. They would be my favorites.

For instance, a good chunk of Barbara's correspondence is devoted to a rather lengthy account of her childhood and upbringing, which means Dostoevsky, brand new novelist, has already set for himself the daunting task of writing convincingly in a female voice -- and a unique and specific female voice at that, for Barbara is revealed as a woman whom we would now understand as a survivor of domestic violence, both physical and emotional, whose character has been shaped/warped by terrible events that she simply understands as commonplace, as just the way the world works. Her presentation of self, not precisely from a victim mentality seeking redress but as one who subtly demands a weird blend of pity and respect for her suffering, is astonishing and uncomfortable to read, and utterly masterful. One cringes at lines like "Yet this did not arise from any WANT OF LOVE for me on the part of my father, but rather from the fact that he was incapable of putting himself in my own and my mother's place. It came from a defect of character." Isn't making excuses for one's abuser a classic sign of abuse in the modern paradigm of same? But Dostoevsky knew it and saw it from the very beginning of his career, decades before it got codified into modern social services jargon. He was that good, right from the start.

All that and a bravura depiction of the humiliations and extraordinary degree of unrewarded effort that poverty inflicts on its victims, whatever the century.

Dude. My jaw is still in my lap. And I'm thinking about opening a hot dog stand.**

*Indeed, Barbara spends a lot of the novel berating Makar for spending money on unwanted gifts for her, which he insists on doing despite her many, many protests, because as far as he is concerned, that is what men must do for women they love, and women who claim they don't want them are just being coy. This, of course, enrages Barbara further, even as it also causes her to worry because it is plain that not only can Makar not afford the bonbons and presents of cash he is constantly sending her, but that he is basically endangering his own survival to do so. Her protests just drive him to try harder to please her with gifts. And so on. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so awful. Or vice versa.

**Well, that and the "just enough" funniness, chiefly achieved in exchanges between our lovers about whether or not a writer for whom Makar serves as amanuensis is a genius (Makar's version) or a hilariously bad hack (Barbara's), complete with extensively quoted passages so ridiculously overblown that they can't even be counted as satire. When Barbara continuously declines to read more, Makar's assumption that she is simply reading them in the wrong spirit and might like them better "when you have a bonbon or two in your mouth" makes it all even funnier. If you're the type who can laugh at patriarchy and patronizing, anyway. Which I can.

***Wink again at Unca Harlan.


  1. Ooo, I should read this one. I've been on a classics jaunt myself, out of a similar sort of despair over the agonizing plethora of modern fiction I just don't know how to sort through. Also, "There is a perverse streak in me that loves to watch characters willfully misunderstanding each other while claiming (usually dismissively) to understand each other perfectly" -- oh, yeah. Me too. Especially having just finished The Magus.

    1. Ha! I was just looking on GR and saw you'd read The Magus and remembered that I need to read that because I loved me some John Fowles!


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