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Unexpected turns in my Dostoevsky studies

My most recent publication is an article on Dostoevsky’s early works, ‘Hesitation, projection and desire: the fictionalizing ‘as if…’ in Dostoevskii’s early works‘, in Modern Languages Open which, as the name suggests, is an open access journal, so the article is available freely to download. MLO is a terrific journal published by Liverpool University Press, with a growing and very wide-ranging body of very interesting work, and I would encourage anyone interested in modern languages research to investigate it, contribute their own articles, and sign up as a reviewer. I wrote a bit about it here when the journal was first established.

The idea for this article arose originally out of some work I was doing on Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, and the role of the narrator’s speculation about the inner lives of the peasant convicts. Professor Malcolm Jones – my PhD supervisor, and a great mentor and friend – asked me when he read it how that played out in Dostoevsky’s other works, and we both agreed that this sort of speculation would probably increase in the later novels, particularly where there is a narrator-chronicler with a partial and unreliable view of what is going on (in Demons and Brothers Karamazov in particular).

This was really the starting point for me doing proper concordance work with a largish corpus. Using Voyant Tools to trace the sorts of phrases that indicated the type of speculative comparison I was interested in (terms that we usually translate as ‘as if’ – (kak) budto, kak by etc.) in Dostoevsky’s texts, I discovered that the former phrase, far from appearing more in the later works, actually decreases significantly – it’s taken over by kak by in the second half of the 1860s, but never to the same heightened degree. Contrary to our expectations, kak budto in fact appears in the most significant concentrations in some of Dostoevsky’s pre-Siberian works.

One of the advantages of using this sort of methodology is its potential to take you away from your usual assumptions and comfort zones. Like many other Dostoevsky scholars, I’d tended to focus primarily on the big, mature novels, and insofar as I have investigated the early texts, I’d often stop after Poor Folk and The Double. I certainly never intended to occupy myself with The Landlady, which I freely admit I regarded as overblown, confused, sub-gothic rubbish, and certainly the worst thing Dostoevsky ever wrote. And I’m not even sure I’d ever read A Little Hero before – if I had, I clearly didn’t find it particularly memorable.

But I was forced by my results to look at these two stories in a new light, and to consider how they worked alongside Netochka Nezvanova (which certainly is good, and well worth reading not only in its own right, but also as a novella in which many of the themes of the mature Dostoevsky appear in nascent form). Bringing these three texts together in order to look at the patterns of use of ‘as if’, I saw that the key feature they share is the child’s perspective – the mature narrator looking back on childhood experiences in Netochka and A Little Hero, and the immature dreamer who acts as the main focalizer for The Landlady, Ordynov. That led me to what I think are some quite significant insights, that I develop in the article, into the basis of Dostoevsky’s construction of his narrative voice, how that relates to the narrator’s (and/or character’s) knowledge (or lack of knowledge) of the other, and how, in turn, that feeds into his ‘fantastic realism’.

One welcome bonus for me was that it also pointed to a way through the mess that is The Landlady’s narrative perspective. As so often with Dostoevsky, it’s his failures that are often most revealing about how his technique works. Frequently, as in the case of The Adolescent, that’s because the flaws consist of things being a bit too obvious, whereas with The Landlady, the opposite is the case – they make it so impenetrable that you really struggle to know what’s even going on. Looking closely at the patterns surrounding this set of ‘as if’ phrases (including slovno, which appears practically nowhere else in Dostoevsky’s oeuvre) allowed me to identify the different layers of narrative perspective that get so mixed up in the story and create all the confusion. I’m still not convinced it’s any good, but at least I now know why it doesn’t work, which helps me understand how Dostoevsky developed the technique he was experimenting with here. I hope to be able to revisit this type of analysis of Dostoevsky once my current book projects are out of the way.


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1 Comment

  1. Fascinating, and it’s nice to see another Netochka Nezvanova fan!

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