Dostoevsky - Poor Folk (Бедные Люди)

2021-06-14 @Literature

I’m of mixed emotions respecting Dostoevsky’s first novel. Although part of the problem also stems from my own lack of having set the proper expectations.

First, this is a Dostoevsky novel, which means raw, psychologically intense and semi-depressing, if you let it. This has become an invariant of his writings from this earliest (1846) fiction novel all the way through Brothers Karamazov (1880).

Not only that, this is an epistolary novel, which means we learn the narrative exclusively through an exchange of letters between the two protagonists. (Though there is one extended ten-or-so page journal reading, which respects the more standard Dostoevsky prose.)

Thus consisting of letter exchanges between two poor folks fluctuating between varying degrees of impoverishment, misfortune, illness, ridicule and embarrassment, I should have primed myself for the sort of language I was bound to expect.

I ultimately adapted the proper rhythm, but having been long devoid of Dostoevsky and immersed in poetic, metaphysical, or other Baroque writings - anything but social commentary, this didn’t take place until fairly late into the novel.

The mood becomes exceedingly broodier as the reading proceeds. Though not new to the respective atmosphere - there is much of it in Dostoevsky or Dickens literature, I still couldn’t but feel an immense weight at times.

And while similar non-epistolary writings compensate through third-person and digressive narratives (exempting Joyce or post-modern literature, which demands a separate assessment), here we remain mid-action for the entirety.

I don’t intend on providing you with much specific plot detail. Suffice to say, the two correspondents, man and woman, are distant relatives, both living in shared and decadent settings (he seems to inhabit some hardly private corner of a kitchen).

Both are broke, resourceless, hopeless, yet struggling to make ends meet and support each other, beset by continuous misfortune.

And although the narrative projects the woman as reasonably virtuous, the man is a concoction of a good heart mixed with aloofness, drunkenness and social scorn.

I’ll add that the novel acquires a slightly amusing aspect when the two begin to carry out extensive literature discussions all the while they plummet into further oblivion.

All considered, the prose exhibits impeccable quality (I vouch nothing for translations), as all Dostoevsky writings I’ve known. In addition, he aims and, as far as I know, accomplishes the transmitting of the sort of mood characterizing this echelon of society.

I’ll add this bit of advice. Either read this in the original, or if you’re extremely intrinsically motivated (ie a Russophile).

Normally I’d wedge my teeth, yet still bear your reading of translated Dostoevsky (as I barely tolerate my own reading of anything translated). However, in this case, because the novel is all about raw, period-sensitive dialogue, it’s particularly important to experience the authentic language. Otherwise, you mar the experience.

And yes, I strongly believe that such translations (as many others) serve as worse than nothing, for you cultivate an inauthentic impression. Though, you know, at investing time reading translations, we manage to convince ourselves that it’s all right and all … Anyway, I warned you.

I suppose I foster paradoxical messages: I write publicly in English, read Russian works in Russian, still write about them in English, yet ill-advise against the reading of them in anything but the original. Oh well …

Having said that, of the ‘socially-conscious’ literature, not that I’ve a vast experience, but I consider this a solid work. Now all 19th-century works considered, even among the Russians, this is by far from the first I’d recommend.

Questions, comments? Connect.