Thursday, April 11, 2013

Dostoevsky's stream-of-something-or-other - oh God, that’s not it at all

Now look, I am a day behind, and all because of dithering, because of wanting to follow twelve threads at once when all I can really handle is three, which is not bad, really, I should be happy with three.  I was also distracted by the amazing and long story, told by Eric Naiman in the new TLS, of the time Dickens and Dostoevsky met.  They never did meet – Dickens biographers, it turns out, are suckers – but the saga of rogue academic hoaxer A. D. Harvey is something to see.

The thread I want to follow here is “precursors of stream of consciousness writing.”  Arthur Schnitzler identified Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1876 story “A Gentle Creature” as one of the sparks of his own “Lieutenant Gustl.”  The story is from late in Dostoevsky’s life, and therefore awkward, bizarre, ethically dubious, and easily worth reading.

Dostoevsky includes a preface defending or explaining the form of the story.  A man’s wife has killed herself and he is “talking to himself, telling the whole story, trying to explain it to himself.”  The reader should imagine a stenographer taking it all down in shorthand “(after which I should have edited it),” which is absurd (“fantastic”).  Dostoevsky points to Victor Hugo’s The Last Days of a Condemned Man (1829), in which “a man sentenced to death is able (and has the time) to keep a diary not only on his last day, but also during his last hour and, literally, his last minute,” as an ancestor of “A Gentle Creature.”

This is a bit of the beginning of the story, which really is indistinguishable from later stream-of-consciousness writing:

She is now in the sitting-room, on a table.  Two card tables put together side by side.  They will bring the coffin tomorrow.  A white coffin.  White gros-de-Naples.  However that’s not what…  I keep on walking and walking.  Trying to explain the whole thing to myself.  (ellipses in original)

The narrative gels and is told more conventionally as the widower, a pawnbroker and disgraced officer, recounts his history with his wife – how they met, how he essentially bullied her into marriage (although he thought of it as a kindness), how their marriage progressed and disintegrated.

And – and, in addition, I suddenly saw a smile on her face, a mistrustful, silent, evil smile.  Well, it was with that smile that I brought her into my house.  It was true, of course, that she had nowhere else to go…  (end of Ch. III, ellipses in original)

The end of that chapter is directly echoed – no, quoted, why not say quoted – at the end of Part I of Lolita.  The wife here is sixteen.  I am just making a note of this for future reference.

For my immediate purpose, what is interesting is the little hiccup (“And – and”) and similar interruptions of the ordinary narrative, where the story with all of its usual trappings like dialogue and transitions between scenes collapses:

But what’s the matter with me?  If I go on like this I shall never be able to gather everything to a point.  Quick, quick – oh God, that’s not it at all.  (end of Ch. I)

What is interesting here, though, is that I am clearly not eavesdropping on the character’s thoughts, but on his own incoherent response to his thoughts.  As in a Shakespearean monologue, the pawnbroker, in telling his story, overhears himself and thus, by the end, either learns the truth about his wife and marriage (about himself, really) or is forced to reveal the truth he always knew – I am not sure which – so Dostoevsky’s sputtering method appropriately directs my attention to the story’s meaning.  I can imagine Arthur Schnitzler wondering if it would be possible to pull off a conceptually purer story that represented the thoughts behind the speech, that abolished the fantastic stenographer and instead granted the reader telepathy.  It turned out he could.

I read the David Magarshack translation found in Great Short Works of Dostoevsky.


  1. I doubt Nabokov would ever confess to that claim of quoting Dostoevsky...

  2. No, not in public. But Nabokov frequently parodies Dostoevsky. I suspect a head to head comparison would find more connections. The internet rudely tells me that this is not an original discovery.

  3. I want to check out that TLS link, but I might just decide to hold out for the stream of consciousness versions of the time Dickens and Dosto met. Particularly nice wording in the second line of your second paragraph, by the way!

  4. Why thanks.

    That article could easily be about a Javier Marías character. It is a shocker. Did you get to the pornish parts? I am not kidding - an invention of Marías, a sequel to Dark Back of Time.

  5. I read Eric Naiman's article and ended up doubting the existence of everyone I hadn't already heard of in more than one context, including Naiman himself. Indeed, this event: "Speck took the extraordinary step of sending the journal’s subscribers a supplementary article by Howard Nenner, a professor at Smith College, which was printed on gummed pages" is so extraordinary that I have never heard of it occurring with a scholarly publication in Britain and the USA. However, in the USSR- especially under Stalin- encyclopaedias and other works of reference regularly had articles on unpersons or unevents rewritten or even replaced by other articles in this way. I wonder whether this was Naiman's-or "Naiman"'s- private homage to Harvey's methods. After all, Professor Speck's alleged attempt to conceal or correct his editorial misjudgment only made it more noticeable.

  6. That device of having a character narrate in real time up until his or her last minute has always made me laugh (Marty Robbins' song "El Paso" is an example that brings a smile to my face every time I hear it - the narrator even gets off a few strums on the guitar before dying). But i've always had a fondness for characters who interrogate their own first person narratives - a kind of talk therapy?

  7. The Naiman piece is itself a work of art, an essay of great subtlety. The bit about the glued-in replacement article is a fine detail, almost too good to be true. Or strike "almost"?

    Ever since I got my head around how a Shakespearian monolgoue worked, the idea that the character overhears himself, I have been completely convinced by the "talk therapy" idea. A big, big difference of the pure-thought "Lieutenant Gustl" method is that the character does not overhear himself and there is no therapy.

  8. An interesting complement to A Gentle Creature is Bobok, which explicitly deals with the continuing consciousness of human beings in the several months after their deaths. Dostoevsky posits that our consciousness winds down over three months after death, during which time the topics of thought continue to be cards, gossip, intrigue, and also that nasty smell which starts to eminate from some of the citizens of the cemetery.

  9. Jeffry, thanks, I had no idea "Bobok" had such a wild conceit. I will look for it.