Thursday, July 10, 2014

no distaste for the gossip of the town

At one time it was reported about the town that our little circle was a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy, and godlessness, and the rumour gained more and more strength. And yet we did nothing but indulge in the most harmless, agreeable, typically Russian, light-hearted liberal chatter. "The higher liberalism" and the "higher liberal," that is, a liberal without any definite aim, is only possible in Russia.

Stepan Trofimovitch, like every witty man, needed a listener, and, besides that, he needed the consciousness that he was fulfilling the lofty duty of disseminating ideas. And finally he had to have some one to drink champagne with, and over the wine to exchange light-hearted views of a certain sort, about Russia and the "Russian spirit," about God in general, and the "Russian God" in particular, to repeat for the hundredth time the same Russian scandalous stories that every one knew and every one repeated. We had no distaste for the gossip of the town which often, indeed, led us to the most severe and loftily moral verdicts. We fell into generalising about humanity, made stern reflections on the future of Europe and mankind in general, authoritatively predicted that after C├Žsarism France would at once sink into the position of a second-rate power, and were firmly convinced that this might terribly easily and quickly come to pass. We had long ago predicted that the Pope would play the part of a simple archbishop in a united Italy, and were firmly convinced that this thousand-year-old question had, in our age of humanitarianism, industry, and railways, become a trifling matter. But, of course, "Russian higher liberalism" could not look at the question in any other way.
That's from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed (aka The Devils). It continues to make fun of the sort of Russian intellectuals Nikolai Chernyshevsky imagined in his novel What is to be Done? In fact, I'm reading this now because I opened the book up randomly, to page 288 as it happens, and my eye fell upon a mention of Chernyshevsky's novel, and a couple of long paragraphs telling jokes about it. This is a comic novel, you see, and also is written in a sort of gentle comic tone unlike the tone of any of Dostoyevesky's other novels. It's hard to believe, as I read this book, that it was actually written by old Fyodor. Where is all the frenetic rushing about? Where are the characters beating themselves up over the insoluble problems of life? Where is the violence and the gambling? True, a main character is well known to lose at cards, but he is not exactly a gambling addict, and all of his losses (and indeed all of his expenses in life) are covered by his patroness. This man with the patroness is the Stepan mentioned above, the witty man who needs a listener. Decades before the book starts, Stepan was very mildly famous/infamous as a liberal writer, but now he's outmoded and lives in the country. He made a trip to Petersburg to rejoin the liberal circles but was laughed out of the room when he announced that the poetry of Pushkin was more important than shoes for the poor. Stepan is also the father of a young man who will soon join the story and bring much havoc with him in his role as a Bazarov-type nihilist. In fact, Pyotr (Stepan's son, the nihilist) will mention Bazarov by name, and declare him an unrealistic character. What fun, Fyodor. This is a clever, quite funny book. Laugh-out-loud funny. And yet it's allegedly by Dostoyevsky. Go figure.

6 comments:

  1. I am glad you have wandered this way. I have not had the fortitude for more Dostoevsky, even though this was a logical book to pursue. Soon, after a regime of mineral water and healthy mountain air, I hope I will have regained my strength.

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    1. The Devils is a long book, but so far it's really a playful book. Like I say, hard to pin it on Dostoyevsky. The references to revolutionary literature would've made little sense had I not backed up to Fathers and Sons and then read Chernyshevsky and Notes. I'm sure I'm missing some important stuff from the interim, like that Leskov Eric M is translating. Still, this stuff is funny, man. Despite the sales copy calling this "one of the strictest indictments of radicalism in Russia" or whatever. Dostoyevsky's humor cuts in every direction. Russia itself is the comic protagonist, not any particular ideological group. So far (I am 1/7th into it), this novel doesn't have any of the typical Dostoyevskian "flaws" that are found in his other improvised novels. Drink that water, breathe that air. Read The Devils.

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  2. "Where is all the frenetic rushing about? Where are the characters beating themselves up over the insoluble problems of life?"

    Don't worry, it will come. The rest of the book is not much like the beginning.

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    1. I see what you mean. At page 200 or so, the comedy mostly drops away and it becomes a serious book, and the narrator stops mentioning himself. Still, the tone of it remains fairly bright and there's that humorous catechism between Nikolai and Fedor on the bridge. I'll have to think more about the names in The Devils. Names are always so important in Dostoyevsky. It's funny that the two villains are named after Russia's two most important saints, and also the names of tsars.

      It's funny that this book has the reputation as being an anti-revolutionary polemic; it's not written to condemn revolutionaries any more than it's written to condemn everybody in Russia. The old guard are just as stupid and corrupt as the new, and there is no single status quo to be smashed by any single new world order. It's a complex piece of social commentary.

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  3. I was going to say, 1/7th! Dostoevsky gets a full quarter of the way through The Idiot before - I want to be polite - losing the melody - writing himself into a corner - rethinking his approach - some other similar metaphor.

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  4. I donno. 1/7th is 100 pages in this edition, which seems a pretty good chunk, but as you point out, it's Dostoyevsky after all and there is bound to be a "what the hell is this?" moment. Meine Frau managed to laugh all the way through the book, though. I'll probably post about the reading as I go along, so we'll just see.

    There has been some running about from house to house in the section I just read. I assume that when the two revolutionary sons are both on the scene, things will really start hopping.

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