Sunday, December 15, 2013

You are nothing but underground vileness - Dostoevsky's Dostoevskyness

I enjoyed The Eternal Husband, Dostoevsky’s little 1870 novel, so much not because it is uncharacteristic of Dostoevsky but because it deliberately creates some distance from the intense Dostoevskyan qualities associated with his most famous books.  Meaning that the central character, Velchaninov, is not going to murder his landlady and her daughter with an axe, but his old friend Pavel Petrovich might well murder Velchaninov.  The main character does what so many Dostoevsky readers do to this day – accuse other Dostoevsky characters of being lunatics.

One promising track would be to follow Velchaninov’s transformation into a Dostoevsky character, into a man who could say all of this:

“Go to hell!” Velchaninov yelled suddenly, in a voice not his own, as though something had exploded in him.  “Go to hell with your underground vileness; you are nothing but underground vileness.  You thought you’d scare me – you base man, torturing a child; you scoundrel, you scoundrel, you scoundrel!” he shouted, beside himself, gasping for breath at every word.  (Ch. 9)

The character introduced in the first chapter would have been incapable of this outburst, but his entanglement with the drunk, earnest, potentially homicidal Pavel Petrovich slowly sucks him into histrionic Dostoevsky World – “in a voice not his own,” how curious.

The story is fundamentally comic, which means Valchaninov is lucky enough to escape his tormentor and a continuing bout of Dostoevskyness.  The next to last chapter begins:

A feeling of immense, extraordinary relief took possession of him; something was over, was settled; an awful weight of depression had vanished and was dissipated forever.  So it seemed to him.  It had lasted for five weeks.  He raised his hand, looked at the towel soaked with blood and muttered to himself: “Yes, now everything is absolutely at an end!”  (Ch. 16)

You can see that it was a close-run thing.  This chapter is titled “Analysis,” and much of it amounts to the character summarizing his own story, as if he were Hercule Poirot solving a murder mystery.  In this case an attempted murder, his own: “He recognized clearly that he had escaped a terrible danger.”  Velchaninov is able to return to the meaningless, selfish existence described in the first chapter.

I would have to reread the book to see how true any of this is.  It sounds like a good idea for a novel, but that does not mean it is actually to be found in this novel as anything but a hint.

The Eternal Husband was good, clean fun, but I think for my next Dostoevsky I will dive straight into the underground vileness and revisit Notes from the Underground, which is a different kind of fun.

The translation is by Constance Garnett.


  1. Notes from the Underground as a "different kind of fun"? Indeed! I remember reading it when I was at a very low point in my life. That was a mistake. To say that I was profoundly moved would be an understatement. Now, closer to a high point in my life, I think I will revisit the Underground. Perhaps it will be a less terrifying experience. But I'm not counting on be uplifted. I look forward to your comments on the book.

  2. You make me realize I last read the book at a high point in my life.

    As suspicious as I am of the Literature of Ideas, I do not believe I will take that argument to Notes from the Underground. It is the rare real thing.