Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dostoevsky and Poor Folks - every now and then a book would slip from one of his pockets, and fall into the mud

Poor Folks is, like many first novels, stuffed with other books. For example, right in the center of the novel the main character, a copy clerk, reads Gogol's The Overcoat and is, apparently, driven insane, because of his close resemblance to Gogol's clerk. Pushkin's Tales of Belkin, on the other hand, are healthy.

All of this is strange enough, but in a novel that seems to be about a poor man and woman's struggles to get by in St. Petersburg, it's especially odd. The man even knows a novelist, and gives us samples of two of his works, Passion in Italy and Ermak and Zuleika. The excerpts are dreadful, clearly a parody of degenerate Russian versions of something, Walter Scott maybe. "In passing, I may say that Rataziaev is not only a supreme writer, but also a man of upright life - which is more than can be said for most writers." There are clearly some jokes here that are no longer accessible.

The woman, Barbara, relates her first love, with a poor tutor (one of the title's many poor folk) who loves books more than life. In a truly pathetic passage, Barbara and the tutor's father find themselves at the same bookshop, looking for a gift for the son's birhtday. They settle on a complete Pushkin. The father buys one volume, the most he can afford; Barbara buys all the rest.

Alas, even Pushkin can't save the poor tutor for long. Here we see the father following his son's coffin. It's a long passage, but it has some surprises:

"I accompanied the cortege only to the end of the street. Here the driver broke into a trot, and the old man started to run behind the hearse - sobbing loudly, but with the motion of his running ever and anon causing the sobs to quaver and become broken off. Next he lost his hat, the poor old fellow, yet would not stop to pick it up, even though the rain was beating upon his head, and a wind was rising and the sleet kept stinging and lashing his face. It seemed as though he was impervious to the cruel elements as he ran from one side of the hearse to the other - the skirts of his old greatcoat flapping about him like a pair of wings. From every pocket of the garment protruded books, while in his arms he carried a specially large volume, which he hugged closely to his breast. The passers-by uncovered their heads and crossed themselves as the cortege passed, and some of them, having done so, remained staring in amazement at the poor old man. Every now and then a book would slip from one of his pockets, and fall into the mud; whereupon somebody, stopping him, would direct his attention to his loss, and he would stop, pick up the book, and again set off after the hearse. At the corner of the street he was joined by a ragged old woman; and at length the hearse turned a corner, and became hidden from my eyes."

Would this be much out of place in the work of Bruno Schulz, say, or Franz Kafka? I found it sort of shocking. It's like certain passages of Büchner or Stendhal - Modernism before the invention of Modernism.

The passage is from the very end of Barbara's memoir, page 50and 51 of the Everyman Classics edition, translated by C. J. Hogarth.

No comments:

Post a Comment