Its been quite a few years since I last read anything by Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read Crime and Punishment when I was in my early 20s – a perfect age to read the book because it focuses on a young man of similar age, Raskolinkov who decides that murdering his landlady can only be a good thing to do (if perhaps not an example to be followed).
I struggled through The Brothers Karamazov soon after and then felt I’d had enough of Russian authors for the time being and haven’t returned since.
Hesperus Press have provided me with the perfect way to reacquaint myself with Dostoevsky by publishing Uncle’s Dream, a shorter (150 page) novel which he wrote in 1859, seven years before he wrote Crime and Punishment. All the qualities of the great author are there – insights into Russian lives with all the insights into hidden motives and the psychological manouverings which underpin so much human behaviour. And also, in the case of this book at least, a great sense of humour, which at times lead Dostoevsky to set up almost farcical scenes as family members vie for an inheritance.
In Uncle’s Dream, an amibitious mother (Maria Alexandrovna Moskalyova – and I won’t write that again) seeks to marry off her twenty-three year old daughter Zina to the senile Prince K, a distant relative who is passing through the town in which the family live. After all, a 23 year old daughter, however beautiful and talented is starting to become a bit of a liability particularly when she had a proud nature prone to setting herself above the common society.
The prince is decidedly doddery, a frail old man, prone to forgetfulness and unlikely to last for more than a couple of years. The mother is going to have a difficult job persuading her daughter to commit to this travesty of a marriage even if the ultimate goal is a title and a fortune, but she makes a valiant attempt,
There’s no dishonour in marrying an old man and a cripple, its in marrying someone you can’t stand, and at the same time truly being his wife! Whereas you won’t be a real wife to the Prince. Its not even a marriage is it? It’s simply a domestic contract! I mean, there’ll be a benefit for him, the fool – the fool, he’ll be given such inestimable happiness! Ah, what a beauty you are today Zinochka! Not a beauty but a super-beauty! If I were a man I’d give you half a kingdom if you wanted it.
Eventually the daughter agrees to go along with this ridiculous scheme and when eventually the mother is able to present to the Prince the goal of marriage to her daughter, the old man is flattered and beguiled by the thought of acquiring such a rare beauty for his very own. But due to senility, he keeps forgetting what is on offer and is easily beguiled by other grasping relatives with schemes of their own.
As I read this, I was reminded of how vividly Dostoevsky writes. The story unfolds as though in a theatre, with each scene arriving with a swoosh of the curtains and a new set as the character re-emerge from the wings. The novella length suits the story very well for it enables Doestoeveky to present snapshots and cameos without the need for a lengthy character development. The characters are in any case slightly familiar types – the ageing relative only respected because of his wealth, the grasping mother, rival aunts and cousins determined to undermine their relation’s schemes , the imperious daughter, the slighted younger suitor who watches from afar. These are all people we have met before, but Dostoevsky assembles his cast so skilfully that his readers are drawn into the plot and gaze on as the disreputable thoughts of men and women are revealed.
Alongside this book, Hesperus have published a short biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky by Anthony Briggs in their Brief Lives series.
I’d forgotten how troubled Dostoevky’s life was as he struggled with poverty, imprisonment and addiction. The book is not only a short biography but also a critical introduction to the Dostoevsky’s works.
In reading again about Crime and Punishment, I am reminded of what a great book it is. As Briggs writes, “It is for these penetratingly original perceptions of human mentality and subconscious prompting that Dostoevsky has been credited with anticipating the broader and deeper work of prominent psychologists in the 20th century, who have acknowledged him as an important forebear”. A book to re-read perhaps.
I am going through a busy period of my life at the moment with building works in progress on the house. I’d forgotten how involving it is having builders on site. A friend of mine remarked on how embarrassed he feels when builders work so hard while he just sits at a computer all day. I agree – I almost feel I have to look busy rather than sitting around reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. I’ve started repainting the woodwork in several rooms now in order to reduce my sense of being a slacker.