Thursday, May 6, 2010

They never understand jokes.

Dostoevsky's talent seems to me to be essentially comic and non-novelistic.  Vladimir Nabokov argued that Dostoevsky “seems to have been chosen to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.”*  Remove the dialogues and monologues from The Brothers Karamazov and there won’t be much book left, and much of what remains are little more than stage directions. Large parts of the book float by free of any but the most minimal details.

Listen: in dreams and especially in nightmares, well, let’s say as a result of indigestion or whatever, a man sometimes see such artistic dreams, such complex and real actuality, such events, or even a whole world of events, woven into such a plot, with such unexpected details, beginning from your highest manifestations down to the last shirt button, as I swear even Leo Tolstoy couldn’t invent… (639)

The speaker here is either the Devil, or a hallucination of the Devil.  As such, I should be careful about trusting anything he says.  It’s a devil who takes steam baths, goes to the doctor for rheumatism, and writes literary criticism for the newspapers, but still, the devil lies.  Nevertheless, this is a pretty good description of The Brothers Karamazov.

If I want visually arresting scenes, where do I look?  Father Ferapont’s and Liza’s devils, or Alyosha’s dream in the “Cana of Galilee” chapter, or Dmitri’s dream of “the wee one” (506-8).  Or Ivan’s argument with the devil, which is mostly a piece of pure stagecraft, but contains the single most detailed character description in the novel.

The devil has thick, long, dark hair, with just a little gray.  He has “a tortoiseshell lorgnette on a black ribbon” and a gold ring with an opal.  His clothes are shabby and outdated, and his “soft, downy white hat” is out of season.  I have no idea what that hat is supposed to look like.  Anyway, now the description takes a turn.**

We have seen how the devil appears, but to complete the description, we must know what he is like.  “[A] former idle landowner that flourished in the time of serfdom,… gradually fallen into poverty and become a sort of sponger” (636)  He plays cards, and is probably single, but if he has children they are under the care of “some aunts” and are never mentioned, although he “sometimes” answers the letters his children send him at Christmas.  All of this, to tell us what the fellow, who is actually a hallucinatory devil, looks like.

It’s the most purely Gogolian passage in the entire novel, kicking off the most Gogolian chapter.  Those children, those aunts, where did they come from?  The devil invokes Gogol again and again – quoting The Government-Inspector (1836) (p. 641), taking his nose to the doctor, and then following with a story about a man who lost his nose (to decidedly non-Gogolian syphilis).  A story about the devil flying through the air invokes one of Gogol’s Ukrainian stories, I think – I can’t remember which one.  One reason I find “The Devil” chapter so good is that it allows Dostoevsky the chance to unharness his inner comedian.

I have been relying on two books by Victor Terras, Reading Dostoevsky (1998), and A Karamazov Companion (2002), for hints and tips.  Terras argues that Smerdyakov is actually the devil in some sense, an unnaturally born liar and tempter.  See the scene on p. 624, where Ivan is reduced to “convulsive fear” at the prospect of seeing Smerdyakov’s left foot, for a key piece of evidence.  Terras claims that the devil appears to Ivan at the exact moment of Smerdyakov’s death, which I think is an exaggeration, although the timing has to be pretty close, and the idea puts a keen spin on the devil’s arguments for despair at the end of the chapter – what if he is describing his own suicide, as well as advocating Ivan’s?

But I know Terras is wrong.  Smerdyakov cannot be the Gogol-loving devil.  We have to turn back 500 pages, to the chapter about Smerdyakov’s childhood.  It is worth remembering that Fyodor Karamazov is another true Gogolian:

He immediately gave Smerdyakov the key to the bookcase: “Well, read then, you can be my librarian; sit and read, it’s better than loafing around the yard. Here, try this one,” and Fyodor Pavlovich handed him Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka.

The lad read it but with displeasure; he never once smiled, and, on the contrary, finished it with a frown.

“What? Not funny?” asked Fyodor Pavlovich.

Smerdyakov was silent.

“Answer, fool!”

“It’s all about lies,” Smerdyakov drawled, grinning.
“Well, then, go the devil with your lackey soul!” (125)

But what use could the devil have for someone who does not find Nikolai Gogol funny?

The context-damaged title quotation can be found on p. 587.

* Lectures on Russian Literature, 1981, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p. 104.

**  The devil has a suspicious resemblance to Ivan Turgenev, as described in Leonard Tsypkin's brilliant 1981 novel about Dostoevsky, Summer in Baden Baden.  I hate to think how many of my conceptions about Dostoevsky are based on nothing more than this novel.


  1. When I read this book out loud to her (quite a burden to have a writer/parent), my daughter's favorite character was Smerdyakov. She could hardly wait to get to passages about him, and I began to feel the same way. Try reading these out loud: there's something hilarious about the near-explosive tension level in his lines, and in most of the others!

  2. Don't forget about the other sponger with children living with aunts—Fyodor Pavlovich himself. He didn't actually fall into poverty, only pretended to, so he could stash as much as possible.

  3. I love that Nobakov comment. Even without having read The Brothers K. I agree. Crime and Punishment would have been a hysterical and very frightening play.

  4. Shelley - that's excellent, a great idea. Almost all of the best passages in the book, at least after the first couple of chapters, are in the dialogue.

    Your performance must have been pretty good, too.

    nicole - Oh, yes, right. So if we're in Ivan's head, and where else could we be, the source of the comparison is right out of his own childhood. And then the devil is actually a better father than Fyodor, because he "sometimes" replies to his children's letters!

    CB - as actual plays, these books would require a heck of a lot of trimming and balancing, but they could be fantastic. Actors would love the juicy, histrionic parts.