The Fyodor Dostoyevsky literary career had to start somewhere and this was his first major work, which won him the plaudits of many in the Russian literary scene. Part of the reason for the warmth shown towards this story is because of the subject and the ease with which those campaigning for social justice could use it for their own ends.
But it is not quite so simple as that because this tale of poverty and living on the border of destitution and social disgrace is applicable to much more than a period of Russian history. If anything the current recession is a good time to be reading Poor Folk. It shows that the misery of the poor is often self-inflicted with human failings and weaknesses knocking them off the road to self-sustainability.
Mind you for those that can only dream of renting an entire room, as compared to a portioned off part of a communal kitchen, it is no wonder that occasionally the lure of drink and the chance to forget proves too strong. At the heart of Poor Folk is the relationship between a clerk and a young seamstress who are both trapped in poverty. In the end she is forced into a marriage to save herself and he is only lifted out of misery by a spontaneous act of kindness from his employer.
You sense that for Dostoyevsky the point here was to portray characters in extreme circumstances and in many ways the poverty is a fact and almost neutral in terms of being a fact of life. Presumably those that believed this was a campaigning writer highlighting the inequalities in Russian society were dismayed to find that it was character and the internal battles ion the mind that were to be the focus of Fyodor.
Some of the other stories in this collection illustrate that perfectly with The Landlady illustrating the dangers that an innocent faces once he is forced to move his lodgings. He is unable to cope with some of the more bizarre and barbaric people he meets on his journey and the unsettling relationship between his new landlady, a young woman, and her aged and possessive keeper. He is unable to break her away from the old man and ends up losing his confidence in life and his own studies. In some ways it is a battle of the new Russian versus the old mystical and village based world. The lack of comprehension by the former means that the more established and solid old-world triumphs in this tale.
Elsewhere the tale of Mr Prokharchin again is a story that on one level describes an old man who hoards money in his mattress and is driven to death by the pressure of keeping that secret. But it is also a study in human relationships with some of his fellow lodgers using his madness and fall into death as a chance to lecture him and others after the fortune is discovered as a chance to show their ugliness and petty mindedness.
If you like Dostoyevsky for the reasons that he tells it like it is and lifts the stone to reveal the inner workings of the human character then this collection of stories ticks all those boxes. But it also shows how he started with concern not just about the situation that people where in materially and physically but of course spiritually. He believed very much in brotherhood, something that comes through in his later works, but here it is even more powerful because of its absence. Without some sense of brotherhood or belief in something better and a common cause the characters that are described are a great deal poorer than just at first realise.
Again madness is a theme along with poverty. The idea of people living in a corner of a room in complete poverty scraping along as a clerk is a picture that Dostoevsky can paint in incredible detail.
A poor clerk is the object of ridicule for the other lodgers with them teasing him by making up gossip about his workplace. In the end they start making up gossip about him directly and that pushes him over the edge and he losses his grip on reality.
“…for more than twenty years he had lain behind his screen, never uttering a word, knowing nothing of the world or its cares, hoarding his meagre salary, and now suddenly, all because of someone’s trivial, idle remark he had completely lost his wits with fear that life might suddenly become difficult for him…And it did not even seem to occur to the man that everyone found life difficult!”
In the end there is no way back and he loses his mind and his life with the suspicions of his fellow lodgers being proved correct that he had hoarded a small fortune. But the fact that hoarding was so important to him and his plans presumably for a magical moment when he could spend it were taken from him as he imagined his equilibrium being shaken.
There is tragedy here but also a comment on the sort of society that leads people to waste their lives waiting for the day suddenly when it will change. Why not change it now?
A very clever story that has the joker out witted and left destitute by someone who really should have been above playing such a game. I guess you are meant to conclude that there is a corruption that goes from top to bottom. But also there is the sense again that if life had just played a different card fortunes would have been so different.
The gambler’s craving for the winning roll of the roulette wheel is something that all of the main characters in this volume share. Life sadly does nothing but leave them battered and bruised and worse off than before. The mind is one of the most precious commodities but once that is lost all hope of ever changing for the better is gone forever.
A review will follow soon…
Having finished Poor Folk it only seems right to carry on and get through the other three stories in this volume. The longest is the first and I will combine the other two in a post tomorrow.
There is a scene here that reminds me of David Lynch at his best. That sense of the lines between reality and madness disappearing are gripping. As the wine flows and the old man and the young woman who are the hero’s landlady and landlord start arguing the hero finds he is losing his grip on sanity.
It marks the climax of an attempt by the young recluse to fall in love and get the young woman away from the clutches of the old man. He finds them after he is forced to leave his lodgings and then falls for the young woman. He follows them home and asks for a room.
As a lodger he gets to know the young woman who nurses him when he falls ill. But everything is far from clear. What is the relationship between the old man and the young woman? What is her story? Is the old man mystical and spiritually gifted?
Adding in the sense of unreality created by the epilepsy of the old man and the illness that dogs the hero the battle played between the main characters is on a mental plane and the mental scars are left with the hero long after he has left his lodging.
There is a moment when you wonder if souls have not been traded and the old man and the young woman are not quite what they seem. That is the Lynch like quality, reminding me of Blue Velvet in particular. That idea of a normal man entering into a world of insanity and darkness in order to rescue the damsel in distress only to find himself undermined by what he finds.
This book doesn’t quite end in the way you expect – with death or some tragic loss of employment – but it is moving nonetheless. The clerk is changed over night following the handout of 100 roubles from his ultimate superior, his Excellency. But it comes too late to save his friend.
She has been courted in an incredibly aggressive way by a rural merchant who pushed her into marriage and then drags her away forever into the countryside. As her marriage unfolds and the day of her departure draws near the clerk is bed-bound with illness and despite his heart breaking has neither the strength or the financial might to get her to change her course.
This story shines a light on the poverty that surrounded a certain class of people in Russia that are in employment but always one slip or illness away from losing everything.
Powerful stuff and in the spirit of sticking with it for a bit longer I am going to read the other couple of stories that are included in this volume, The Landlady, Mr Prokharchin and Polzunkov.
I will post on those in the next few days…
“Poor and unhappy people ought to steer clear of one another, so as not to catch a greater degree of infection.”
It is odd to be reading Poor Folk during a global downturn because the problems that he writes about with the spiralling debt are serious concerns for many right now.
There is a break down in pride as the old clerk reveals that to support and woo the young slight relative he has gone into debt. He then takes money from her and when she struggles she begs him for funds. The result is the two are slowly falling down a debt slope that will surely end in a terrible situation.
What is highlighted so clearly is the impact on not just the physical health of the poor but also the mental stress. Hopes are like dreams that hit the dreamer hard when they fail to come off.
No wonder when the book was written those progressives who took it as an attack on the Russian system embraced it. Of course it is all part of the formulation of a belief that would end up in Dostoevsky’s support for brotherhood. That part of the equation lost him support but at this stage he had quite a few influential literary people with him.
Last bit, which is likely to be tragic, tomorrow…
This story put Fyodor Dostoevsky on the map and is one of his books that I have managed to miss. It is a classic case of seeing it gathering dust sitting on the self but never getting it down to have a closer look.
Once down and open it is a pleasant surprise. Mainly because instead of the usual introductory pages setting out the family tree of the main characters this gets stuck in. Through a correspondence between an aged clerk and a woman he has taken under his wing who lives near by the story unfolds.
The clerk is so poor he lives in a portioned section of a kitchen and the woman he writes too is not much better off having to rely on her friend’s kindness.
As they write to each other a story of misery and missed opportunities emerges. He has become the butt of jokes in his office and because of his appearance and pathetic acceptance of the very lowest that life can give he has accepted a life of compromise.
She has been destroyed by the death of her parents and her tutor exposing the fragility of the situation the poor are trapped in. Dreams of escape are shattered by ill health, which of course is always lurking for those unable to clothe and feed themselves properly.
You suspect even the friendship between the clerk and the woman could come undone for that reason…
This is an odd book in terms of both the way it is written and the subject matter. Fyodor Dostoevsky heads to Europe to follow in the footsteps of so many of his fellow Russians and finds the experience for the large part disappointing.
He writes about what he sees in terms of human behaviour and is driven to despair by the French but is also less than impressed with his fellow Russians. He talks about them waltzing through Europe and getting the sort of response they provoke and deserve. As a result they fail to notice the flaws in the countries they are visiting and are blinded by the tourist attractions.
Dostoevsky however is different failing to mention most of the more obvious attractions of Paris and London and instead opting for a mixture of rant and philosophical discourse on the state of Europe and the ambitions of Russians.
The introduction warns that this book attempts to be some things it fails to achieve including funny and it also suffers from repetition. But it also includes a passionate plea from Dostoevsky about the benefits of brotherhood and a rejection of the false socialism of the French. That idea of brotherhood is something that comes out in his later works, particularly the Brothers Kazmanov and The Idiot but you can see it is something he was mulling over years before.
The main focus of the book though is to criticise the French for failing to live up to their revolutionary promises and for being suckered by impressive oratory rather than anything substantial.
The result of his French experiences is to widen the attack not just to foreigners but countrymen who view Paris as a home from home. He is also angry with them for failing to understand that not all is great in France and they should be prouder of their own achievements.
The one major attraction of this book is that it provides a much more informal Dostoevsky with none of the usual structures that sometimes make reading more laborious in his better known works. But it is a shame that the ranting and the humour on display here are not given more of an airing again with such frankness.