Fyodor Dostoevsky's first two novellas, Poor Folks (1845/ 1846) and The Double (1846), are full of surprises, at least to me.
Poor Folks is - here's the first surprise - an epistolary novel, consisting of the letters between a copy clerk and his distant cousin, a younger woman. The cousins live in tenements across the street from each other, so the letters sometimes skip crucial parts of what action there is. Although poor themselves, both characters occasionally encounter truly desperate poor folks, but otherwise spend their time writing up their opinions of the books they have leant each other. The tag I put in the title is the clerk's description of one of his own letters.
Incoherent? Yes, very much so. The short novel is overstuffed with ideas that are undeveloped but provocative.
The Double is quite different, a single strong and coherent (if crazy) story. Mr. Golyadkin, another clerk, finds himself tormented, at work, at home, and in restaurants, by his exact double. The double is quick on his feet, a successful flatterer and schemer, while poor Golyadkin has trouble formlating coherent sentences, much less getting on in the world. What's worse, the double eats ten fish pies when Golyadkin eats only one, and then sticks Golyadkin with the bill.
The reader of Dostoevsky who finds the pinnacle of his art in the Grand Inquisitor chapter of The Brothers Karamazov may find these novels to be a little thin. There are only hints of Dostoevsky the deep thinker, although the two clerks do seem like close relatives of the Underground Man - they're Dostoevsky characters, all right.
I think both short novels are interesting in their own right. The Double, in particular, is even well-written. And both are essentially comic novels, showing a side of Dostoevsky's style that often seems to be overlooked. I'll spend the rest of the week poking at these books, to see what I can make of them.
This is also posted at the Russian Reading Challenge, my last entry there.