For a literary giant, Dostoyevsky sure had an incommensurate physique. Thinned hair, protruding forehead, deep set eyes, sunken cheeks, unkempt beard and a thin frame of an almost emaciated body.
The tortures and persecutions he bore through out his life left their indelible marks on him.
He had a troubled childhood. The promise of a rewarding literary career was marred by his arrest and first imprisonment of eight months for alleged subversion against Tsar Nicholas I.
He received ‘silent treatment’ in prison (even guards wore velvet soled shoes) and was taken before a firing squad only to be reprieved at the last moment.
He was then sentenced for four years of hard labor in Siberia. His nerves were frayed, his body became weak and eventually he started to suffer from epilepsy.
All his life financial worries assailed him. He also developed an obsession for gambling putting further strain on his personal life.
However, it was probably this abnormally strenuous life which evoked in him an unprecedented and unparalleled insight into the terrible, the most nebulous and the most fragile aspects of human nature.
His extraordinary grasp over the essentials of human condition are borne out by his literary creations.
His talent crystallized by and large in his novels. ‘Crime and Punishment‘, a saga of the most tragic anti-hero of literature remains relevant to this day.
His other important works include The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Notes from Underground and The Possessed.
He wrote around sixteen short stories which do not conform to any uniformity with regards to their literary styles. The subject matters are quite diverse, from the most embarrassing secrets of the married life to the critique of bureaucratic excesses and imprudence.
Some of his short stories have a caustic tinge of humor to them. While some others are endowed with staggering metaphysical themes.
Dostoyevsky, particularly as a short story writer is more unconstrained than as a novel writer. For the first story of this collection, he uses the exchange of letters between two individuals to develop the plot and to bring the story to a bitter yet comical end.
This format does pose certain difficulties for the reader specially with the surfeit of Russian names and the emotionally charged nature of some of the letters. However, it is the cumulative impact of the pouring out of raw anguish and frustration in a free form sort of narration which generates the sudden shock and ensures the lingering impact of the conclusion of this story.
Dostoyevsky, through his literature was consistently trying to create a character of purest virtues and inclinations who is able to withstand the severest challenges and trials by being a part of the world rather than withdrawing from it or rejecting it. His novel, ‘The Idiot,’ came closest to the realization of this artistic aspiration. To an extent, a few of the short stories of this collection are also infused with a similar urge.
Testimony to his genius
The work of Dostoyevsky had a cross-disciplinary impact on various streams of knowledge from psychology, sociology to philosophy.
Prominent literary heavyweights have sworn by his name. The inimitable genius Franz Kafka had written in a letter to his fiance, “the four men, Grillparzer, Dostoyevsky, Kleist and Flaubert, I consider to be my true blood-relations.”
In his work, ‘The Twilight of the Idols,’ Friedrich Nietzsche, acknowledged his consideration of Dostoevsky as the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn and who belonged among the “happiest windfalls” of his life.
American author, Ernest Hemingway, wrote about him in his work ‘A Moveable Feast,‘ “I’ve been wondering about Dostoyevsky. How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?”
Further he adds, “In Dostoyevsky there were things believable and not to be believed, but some so true they changed you as you read them; frailty and madness, wickedness and saintliness, and the insanity of gambling were there to know as you knew the landscape and the roads in Turgenev, and the movement of troops, the terrain and the officers and the men and the fighting in Tolstoy.”
Quoting on the core of existentialism, its most prominent exponent Jean Paul Sartre referenced to Dostoyevsky’s stellar novel, ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ in a lecture given in 1946. He said, “Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse.”
The heralder of the philosophy of absurd, Albert Camus, was deeply moved by Dostoyevsky’s work, ‘The Possessed.’ In 1959 he published a three-act stage adaptation, Les Possédés. and said this about the adaptation, “Les Possédés is one of the four or five works that I rank above all others. In more ways than one, I can say that it has enriched and shaped me.”
A Novel in Nine Letters: The humorous side of Dostoyevsky comes out in these short stories, though it is of the bitterest and most ravaging kind.
The first story, ingenuously formed out of nine letters shared between two acquaintances, Pyotr Ivanitch and Ivan Petrovitch, can at one glance be seen as the display of all too common social deceit and the use of elaborate ways to maintain distance from each other which people generally resort to.
However, here we are in Dostoeyevsky territory and there is much to be read between the lines. The first letter sent from Pyotr Ivanitch starts on a rather cordial note. The writer complains about not being able to meet Ivan despite pursuing him to different places all over the town. He also requests Ivan to dissuade Yevgeny Nikolaitch, a friend of Ivan who introduced him to Pyotr, from paying them any more visits.
A lot of the matter in this letter seems similar to common suburban concerns such as tiffs over an annoying visitor which can not be expressed openly due to rules of social propriety.
The subsequent letters show a gradual decline of social decorum between these two leading to a final abrasive exchange of letter, damaging equally to both of them.
Overall, much in the style of Dostoeyevsky here we get to see the side of the ones who routinely get vanquished in the social tussle of power and how at their wits’ end they eventually turn against each other.
Another Man’s Wife Or The Husband Under the Bed An Extraordinary Adventure: The paranoia and suspicions of adultery pervade the next story of this collection. The narration is largely through dialogues, the turn of events absurdly comic with occasional breaking of the fourth wall by the author.
It is broadly a comic story, the rush of dialogues captures the nervous and agitated state of the characters. There is a huge build up of sensual suspense of the tabooed kind, the ones which people normally do not want to acknowledge because of its degenerative nature.
However, each such a phase is resolved on a comic note with the central character, Ivan Andreyitch, lowering himself further, giving away the essence of his pride and dignity as costs to his suicidal, tactless, anxiety-ridden, run-around-the-town only to expose himself willingly to the worst fears of a married man.
It is hard to sympathize with Ivan for his true intentions may well be at a variance from his avowed ones. Dostoeyevsky had acquired quite an infamy for focusing on such proverbial spineless characters who neither measure up to the standards of the heroic nor can be pitied as victims of wanton social persecution.
His novella ‘The Double,’ was particularly subjected to the shrillest of criticisms on this account. The present story too has similar streaks of superfluous anxiety and hyper-imagined dread, the protagonist of ‘The Double’ was shown to be assailed with.
An Honest Thief: With the third story of the collection, we find ourselves on solemn grounds, though here too the story has its lighter moments, the overall impact inclines the readers to ponder over the sublime, the hallowed aspects of human relationships.
Themes of solitude, camaraderie, nobility and purity of character amidst squalor and destitution and the profound sacrifice at the altar of righteous action are some of the prominent ones in this story.
Dostoeyevsky addresses the depravities and the abysmal states to which people can be reduced to in consequence of addiction to alcohol and destitution. A reclusive individual takes in a lodger, Astafy Ivanovitch, who in turn tells the tragic story of Emelyan llyitch.
The narration in the typical style of Dostoeyevsky is largely through dialogues. Description of physical reactions to events capture the emotional states of the characters. In describing the effects of alcoholism, Dostoeyevsky exhibits his grasp over this social malaise.
An Unpleasant Predicament: This story addresses the rigidity of class boundaries and its impermeable nature. The inflexibility of bureaucratic hierarchy and its inevitable consequences form the crux of the story, though, Dostoeyevsky also addresses the need to observe the limitations of personality and capability we make ourselves subject to as a result of the life-choices we make.
In the works of Dostoeyevsky, we hardly ever make any excursions into the promised-land of endless possibilities. He didn’t write about characters overcoming all odds with valor and courage.
His characters live in a constrained world of limited options. The smother and suffocation of their existence is palpable in most of his works.
Here, even when the story’s settings move from an informal get-together among high ranking officials to a marriage celebration, the gloom of implacable fate weighs heavy on its characters who are tied to their specific modes of living simply on account of factors they can hardly control, such as their stature in society, the families they were born in and the work they do.
Despite this dark depiction, there are bright and optimistic episodes of perseverance and resilience, a redeeming aspect of many of Dostoeyevsky’s works. A government official, Ivan Ilytich, barges into the wedding celebration of a clerk of his office, Pseldonimov on a whim to prove to himself and others how one can be humane and behave like an equal even to one’s subordinates in order to develop trust and nurture goodwill in them.
Through a series of exaggerated acts of embarrassments and awkwardness, the author succinctly captures the contrast between the blissful plenitudes and upsurge of noble sentiments the privileged class is often prone to indulge in and the stark truth of harsh reality most of the people are compelled to lay prostrate to.
Despite his best intentions, Ivan Ilytich fails to even remotely realize his objectives and starts to falter embarrassingly when exposed to the crassness of his social inferiors. Pseldonimov, bears all the ill tides with the resignation of a stoic. His commitment to responsibility and ability to bear excessive strains is admirable. The narration is swift and there are enough oddballs in the story to make it an interesting read.
The Crocodile: A hilarious tale with elements of magic-realism and bizarre turns with a cathartic take on bureaucratic apathy, excesses of mercantilism and games of shadows high-ranking officials often resort to at the expense of general welfare.
The narrator with his friend, Ivan Matveitch and his wife, Elena Ivanova visits an arcade where a crocodile, a foreign creature for the environment of Russia, is put on display. Ivan is soon ingested whole by the crocodile and miraculously not only survives the ordeal but also remains intact inside the crocodile’s stomach from where he communicates with the outside world.
The smugness and ostentation of Ivan and his wife is highlighted as an ominous warning against the creeping effects of commercialization on the extant Russian society which was giving rise to a middle class obsessed singularly with its outlook, shorn of substance and untethered from its socio-cultural moorings.
Dostoeyevsky here is scathing in his portrayal of Germans in Russia. He had found the work-ethics of the Germans in Russia, exclusively focused upon monetary gains to be detrimental to the cultural and spiritual make up of the country.
The flimsiness of marital relationships, shallowness of avowed loyalties and pseudo-intellectualism are some of the other important themes of the story. The intellectual yarns Ivan spins to meet the demands of exigencies without any firm commitment to a set of principles or a modicum of respect for knowledge acquired and terminology used could be read as a reflection on the emergence of opportunistic dialect in political and intellectual discourses. The narration is replete with many a memorable lines and comical incidents.
Bobok: Another story with a magic-realist narrative. A forlorn artist, caustic in his appraisal of the events around him stumbles through a funeral and while dozing off on grave starts to hear the conversation among a group of ghosts who inhabit the various graves of the cemetery. The erratic story shows the perpetuity of earthly vices and precariousness even to the world beyond. By listening to the conversation of the ghosts the narrator realizes how the ghosts inhabiting those graves are still tied to the concerns of life they have left behind.
He is awestruck by their depravity. The lingering of deceit, greed, lust and violence in them appalls him. Dostoeyevsky was also renowned for his moments of illuminations. One can hardly be sure of the extent to which he had invented this story.
The last lines, “Depravity in such a place, depravity of the last aspirations, depravity of sodden and rotten corpses – and not even sparing the last moments of consciousness! Those moments have been granted, vouchsafed to them, and…..and, worst of all, in such a place! No, that I cannot admit,” capture his sentiments.
The Peasant Marey : This story reads more like a personal remembrance of past events. The narrator, Dostoeyevsky himself recounts a period of his prison days and the violence and ill treatment meted out to many prisoners by the stronger ones. He feels distraught and desolate. And as is bound to happen in such situations to people with the temperament similar to Dostoeyevsky, he starts to reminiscence. Bit by bit he is reliving all the important parts of his life.
This story in particular recalls a incident way back from his early childhood. He recalls how once in the woods he had taken sudden fright and was reassured by one of his serfs, Marey. The story dwells upon the essential bond of humanity which ties us all and the presence of compassionate side of an almost feminine nature in every one of us.
Reconnecting with this reservoir of warmth which the narrator finds within himself fills him with optimism and replenishes his tolerance and acceptance of his situation in prison and of those who are with him. “And when I got down off the bed and looked around me, I remember I suddenly felt that I could look at these unhappy creatures with quite different eyes, and that suddenly by some miracle all hatred and anger had utterly vanished from my heart,” writes the author as conclusion.
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man: The final story of the collection deals with philosophical themes, such as, the purpose of humanity, the cause and solution of the eternal strife, desire for universal peace and contentment and a critique of nihilistic principles. A poor, desolate man convinced of the meaninglessness of his own existence finally resolves to commit suicide. However, despite his destitution and utter lack of resources he can not shake off the weight of moral responsibility towards others weaker than him.
Even on the verge of committing the ultimate act he is pestered by this thoughts. His philosophical speculations arrive at the basics of human existence, “It seemed clear to me that life and the world somehow depended on me now. I may almost say that the world seemed created for me alone: if I shot myself the world would cease for me at least.” From this state of essential solitary being and the power and responsibility that devolve upon it the narrator uses a dream sequence to reposition the origin of humanity with its innocence restored.
From here he describes the origin of evil as a consequence of introduction of falsity.
The author also criticizes the existence of formal knowledge at the expense of spirituality. “They became to talk in different languages. They became acquainted with sorrow and loved sorrow; they thirsted for suffering, and said that truth could only be attained through suffering. Then science appeared, As they became wicked they began talking of brotherhood and humanitarianism and understood those ideas. As they became criminal they invented justice….” This is an excerpt of an alternate race of human which degenerates at a rapid speed upon contamination by falsehood. Some of the most original ideas of Dostoeyevsky can be found in this remarkably well written short story.