Saturday, October 26, 2013

"The Crocodile" - Dostoevsky as Woody Allen

Mr. Mel U of The Reading Life reminded me that I have been meaning to read Dostoevsky’s story “The Crocodile” (1865) so I did.  In the story, a man is swallowed by a crocodile.  The creature is a bit more like a boa constrictor than a crocodile, a minor detail.   The swallowed man is not harmed in any important way, although he does lose his glasses.

This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but at the same – either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles – there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter.  (Ch. 1, tr. Constance Garnett)

Here we have, whatever the specifics of the situation, a self-description of the grotesque, Gogolian side of Dostoevsky, the comic Dostoevsky I have been encountering recently.  The essential Dostoevsky, I will claim, is comic, although a hundred and fifty years of earnest social reformers, existentialists and mystics have tried to prove otherwise.  But then the novel is an essentially comic form, both from its reliance on incongruity and from the dropping of the spectacles.  Comic, but not necessarily funny; that is something else altogether.

Some of the humor of “The Crocodile” is, I fear, satirical, even allegorical.  The crocodile, owned by Germans who thankfully are not obviously Jewish, represents Western investment in Russia, which will swallow any Russian who gets near it.

“Here we are, anxious to bring foreign capital into the country – and only consider: as soon as the capital of a foreigner, who has been attracted to Petersburg, has been doubled through Ivan Matveitch, instead of protecting the foreign capitalist, we are proposing to rip open the belly of his original capital – the crocodile.  Is it consistent?  To my mind, Ivan Matveitch, as the true son of his fatherland, ought to rejoice and to be proud that through him the value of a foreign crocodile has been doubled and possibly even trebled.”  (Ch. 2)

The value of the crocodile has doubled because it is now famous.  The victim turns out to be happy to be swallowed, because he too is famous:

I have long thirsted for an opportunity for being talked about, but could not attain it, fettered by my humble position and low grade in the service.  And now all this has been attained by a simple gulp on the part of the crocodile.  Every word of mine will be listened to, every utterance will be thought over, repeated, printed.  And I'll teach them what I am worth!  They shall understand at last what abilities they have allowed to vanish in the entrails of a monster.  (Ch. 3)

You want relevance, there it is.

There is more, too, more gags, more absurdities.  The swallowed man has a beautiful wife who immediately becomes the (willing) target of every lecher in St. Petersburg.  Dostoevsky mocks newspapers, Westernizers, economists, Germans, etymologists:

“Crocodile – crocodillo – is evidently an Italian word, dating perhaps from the Egyptian Pharaohs, and evidently derived from the French verb croquer, which means to eat, to devour, in general to absorb nourishment.  All these remarks I intend to deliver as my first lecture in Elena Ivanovna's salon when they take me there in the tank.  (Ch.3)

The speaker is the fellow inside the crocodile.  Is this Fyodor Dostoevsky or Woody Allen in The New Yorker?  “All night long I could dream of nothing but monkeys,” as the narrator says.

I wonder what reformers, existentialists, and mystics do with “The Crocodile”?  Pretend it does not exist, is my guess.


  1. Thanks for the mention- as i read this story I wondered if did not know who wrote it if I could have gotten it in many guess-as you said, it does not fit the received image of the work of Dostoevsky as a grimmly serious writer.

  2. There is nothing more tragic, devastating, and world-destroying than losing one's glasses! You would know this if you weren't eagle-eyed and beyond such human weakness.

  3. Well, as to the glasses, keep in mind that the person who lost them is now inside a crocodile, where he cannot see anything. "I am surrounded by impenetrable night" etc. This is all discussed in the story in detail.

    The whole "grimly serious" Dostoevsky business is a terrible error.

  4. That's just people confusing Dostoyevsky with his characters. He was never grimly serious, but some of his imaginary people were.

    It just came to me that Dostoyevsky would make a great Dickens character: the hyperactive, ironical, mad-as-a-sack-of-rats compulsive gambler Russian author. Which, again, narrows FD too much.

  5. "Just," some "just" - people have constructed some remarkable air castles out of that "just."

    Dostoevsky does make a great Leonid Tsypkin character. Summer in Baden Baden stars the Dostoevsky you describe, almost - he is not crazy.

    That's a great book. Some choice scenes - his argument with Turgenev, FD gazing on a Raphael in Dresden.

    1. The university book store here stocks Summer in Baden Baden. Or at least they stocked one copy, which I bought during lunch. I now possess two Tsypkin books that I have not read.

  6. There is great joy alongside the great pain in Dostoyevsky's works. Nobody ever seems to mention the joy, as if, for example, Alyosha's character didn't exist. Readers (including, alas, scholars) see the Grand Inquisitor and the corruption of the body of Fr Zosima (and the glee on the part of Zosima's enemies) but they don't see the flip side of those things, the ideas Dostoyevsky illustrates with those episodes. It is impossible to ridicule Christ unless there is a Christ to ridicule, and He has the grace to endure the scourging. Dostoyevsky was messy and anarchic as a novelist, but his books have beautiful hearts. At least that's my reading of them today, giving old Fyodor a shining core of purity. Your mileage may vary.

  7. Nobody ever mentions the jokes, whaddaya think I'm doing here, all I write about is Dostoevsky's -

    Oh, you wrote "joy." Never mind. As Dostoevsky himself lamented, "They never understand jokes."

    A shiny core of irony is more what I see.

  8. The jokes and irony are tools, that's all. Not ends in themselves.

    But Fyodor was hi-sterically funny, as you have been pointing out here. Crime and Punishment has comic set pieces and clowns. I'll have to read "Crocodile" soon.

  9. We are moving dangerously close to my greatest weakness, or an essay I do not yet know how to writer, or both.

    I was recently contesting the "Dostoevsky is funny" point with another book blogger, who insisted he was not, not in what she had read, which included C&P. I took this as strong evidence that she does not read Wuthering Expectations.