Literary history abounds with heartbreaking episodes of utter destitution. Dostoevsky, for instance, finding himself stranded abroad, penniless and starving, write The Eternal Husband in a last attempt to obtain emergency relief from his publishers. But as he was about to dispatch the manuscript on which his last hope rested, he discovered that he did not even have the money for the postage.
This is the story as Simon Leys tells it.* I have read it elsewhere. Perhaps it is even true. It is all too plausible. I would never have guessed Dostoevsky’s desperation or anything like it from the little novel itself.
Velchaninov is in St. Petersburg attending to a lawsuit when he runs into his old friend Pavel Pavlovitch Trusotsky, whose wife has recently died. Velchaninov had had an affair with the wife nine years ago. Does Pavel Pavlovitch know about the affair? He is accompanied by a nine year-old daughter – is she really the child of Velchaninov?
It sounds a little soapy, doesn’t it? Yet that is not at all how it feels. Two main reasons:
1. The plot keeps bending. Every chapter has a kind of kink in it that pushes the story off of whatever course it was on, like it is aiming for a point due north but keeps bending away from the goal, like Dostoevsky’s compass is faulty. The existence of the daughter, for example, is the surprise of Chapter 5. Velchaninov takes her away from her abusive father – ah, this is the story, about the biological father and his daughter – but her death is the surprise of Chapter 10. The novel is only half done. No, the book is about something else.
Maybe this is still kind of soapy. But the plot has bends, not twists. It kept me on my toes. My guess is that Dostoevsky knew where he wanted the story to end, but allowed himself a lot of freedom along the way. The short, episodic chapters support this guess. It is easy enough to imagine him pacing around, dictating a coherent little unit of story, then knocking it off kilter when he begins the next chunk.
2. The Eternal Husband is 140 pages in The Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, and like many of his Great Short Works it has a stable point of view. No room for the rich cacophony of the long novels. The Underground Man, the Gambler, and now Velchaninov are who we’re stuck with, although Velchaninov does not narrate the story himself.
What is interesting here is that unlike the first two I mentioned, Velchaninov is not a typical Dostoevsky character. He is venal, lecherous, and selfish; he is not any sort of spiritual seeker and no one would mistake him for a lunatic. The lunatic is Pavel Pavlovitch, the eternal husband, who is a real, pure Dostoevsky character. So the fun of the book, the unusual thing, is that we get some distance from the bizarre intensity that is so common throughout his fiction. It is Dostoevsky with distance.
I enjoyed the book a lot, but I am not a Dostoevskian, meaning the readers who ponder the meaning of “The Grand Inquisitor” rather than its art. They likely find The Eternal Husband trivial.
Not a single quotation from the book itself. Let’s fix that tomorrow.
* From the essay “Writers and Money” in The Hall of Uselessness (2013), p. 266.