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Fyodor Dostoevski’s The Possessed (1872)


By Vladimir Nabokov

The Possessed is the story of Russian terrorists, plotting violence and destruction, and actually murdering one of their own number. It was denounced as a reactionary novel by the radical critics. On the other hand, it has been described as a penetrating study of people who have been sidetracked by their ideas into a bog where they sink. Note the landscapes:

“A mist of fine drizzling rain enveloped the whole country, swallowing up every ray of light, every gleam of color, and transforming everything into one smoky, leaden, indistinguishable mass. It had long been daylight yet it seemed as though it were still night.” (The morning after Lebyadkin’s murder.)

“It was a very gloomy place at the end of the huge park. . . . How sinister it must have looked on that chill autumn evening!

It lay on the edge of an old wood belonging to the Crown. Huge ancient pines stood out as vague sombre blurs in the darkness. It was so dark that they could hardly see each other two paces off. . . .

At some unrecorded date in the past a rather absurd-looking grotto had for some reason been built here of rough unhewn stones. The table and benches in the grotto had long decayed and fallen. Two hundred paces to the right was the bank of the third pond of the park. These three ponds stretched one after another for a mile from the house to the very end of the park. ” (Before Shatov’s murder.)

“The rain of the previous night was over, but it was damp, grey and windy. Low, ragged, dingy clouds moved rapidly across the cold sky. The tree-tops roared with the deep droning sound and creaked on their roots; it was a melancholy day.”

I mentioned before Dostoevski’s method of dealing with his characters is that of a playwright. When introducing this or that one, he always gives a short description of their appearance, then hardly ever refers to it any more. Thus his dialogues are generally free from any intercalations used by other writers—the mention of a gesture, a look, or any detail referring to the background. One feels that he does not see his characters physically, that they are merely puppets, remarkable, fascinating puppets plunged into the moving stream of the author’s ideas.

The misadventures of human dignity which form Dostoevski’s favorite theme are as much allied to the farce as to the drama. In indulging this farcical side and being at the same time deprived of any real sense of humor, Dostoevski is sometimes dangerously near to sinking into garrulous and vulgar nonsense. (The relationship between a strong-willed hysterical old woman and a weak hysterical old man, the story of which occupies the first hundred pages of Tbe Possessed, is tedious, being unreal.) The farcical intrigue which is mixed with tragedy is obviously a foreign importation; there is something second-rate French in the structure of his plots. This does not mean, however, that when his characters appear there are not sometimes well written scenes. In The Possessed there is the delightful skit on Turgenev: Karmazinov, the author a la mode, “an old man with a rather red face, thick grey locks of hair clustering under his chimney-pot hat and curling round his clean little pink ears. Tortoise-shell lorgnette, on a narrow black ribbon, studs, buttons, signet ring, all in the best form. A sugary but rather shrill voice. Writes solely in self-display, as for instance in the description of the wreck of some steamer on the English coast. ‘Look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear the sight of the dead child in the dead woman’s arms etc.’ ” A very sly dig, for Turgenev has an autobiographical description of a fire on a ship—incidentally associated with a nasty episode in his youth which his enemies delighted in repeating during all his life.

“The next day . . . was a day of surprises, a day that solved past riddles and suggested new ones, a day of startling revelations and still more hopeless perplexity. In the morning … I was, by Varvara Petrovna’s particular request, to accompany my friend Stepan Trofimovich on his visit to her and at three o’clock in the afternoon I had to be with Lizaveta Nikolavna in order to tell her—I did not know what—and to assist her—I did not know how. And meanwhile it all ended as no one could have expected. In a word, it was a day of wonderful coincidences.”

At Varvara Petrovna’s the author, with all the gusto of a playwright tackling his climax, crams in, one after the other, all the characters of The Possessed, two of them arriving from abroad. It is incredible nonsense, but it is grand booming nonsense with flashes of genius illuminating the whole gloomy and mad farce.

Once collected in one room, these people trample on each other’s dignity, have terrific rows (which translators insist on rendering as “scandals,” misled by the Gallic root of the Russian “skandal” term) and these rows just fizzle out as the narrative takes a sharp new turn.

It is, as in all Dostoevski’s novels, a rush and tumble of words with endless repetitions, mutterings aside, a verbal overflow which shocks the reader after, say, Lermontov’s transparent and beautifully poised prose. Dostoevski as we know is a great seeker after truth, a genius of spiritual morbidity, but as we also know he is not a great writer in the sense Tolstoy, Pushkin, and Chekhov are. And, I repeat, not because the world he creates is unreal—all the worlds of writers are unreal—but because it is created too hastily without any sense of that harmony and economy which the most irrational masterpiece is bound to comply with (in order to be a masterpiece). Indeed, in a sense Dostoevski is much too rational in his crude methods, and though his facts are but spiritual facts and his characters mere ideas in the likeness of people, their interplay and development are actuated by the mechanical methods of the earthbound and conventional novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

I want to stress again the fact that Dostoevski was more of a playwright than a novelist. What his novels represent is a succession of scenes, of dialogues, of scenes where all the people are brought together—and with all the tricks of the theatre, as with the scene a faire, the unexpected visitor, the comedy relief, etc. Considered as novels, his works fall to pieces; considered as plays, they are much too long, diffuse, and badly balanced.

He has little humor in the description of his characters or their relations, or in the situations, but sometimes he displays a kind of caustic humor in certain scenes.

“The Franco-Prussian War,” a musical piece composed by Lyamshin, one of the characters in The Possessed:

“It began with the menacing strains of the Marseillaise, Qu’un sang impur abreuve nos sillons. There is heard the pompous challenge, the intoxication of future victories. But suddenly mingling with the masterly variations of the national hymn, somewhere from some corner quite close, on one side, come the vulgar strains of ‘Mein lieber Augustin.’ The Marseillaise goes on unconscious of them. It is at the climax of intoxication with its own grandeur; but Augustin gains strength.

Augustin grows more and more insolent, and suddenly the melody of Augustin begins to blend with the melody of the Marseillaise. The latter begins, as it were, to get angry; becoming aware of Augustin, at last, it tries to brush him off as a fly. But Mein lieber Augustin holds his ground firmly, he is cheerful and self-confident —and the Marseillaise seems suddenly to become terribly stupid. She can no longer conceal her mortification. It is a wail of indignation, tears and curses, with an appeal to Providence, pas un pouce de notre terrain, pas une de nos forteresses.

But she is forced to sing in time with Mein leiber Augustin. Her melody passes foolishly into Augustin. She yields and dies away. And only in snatches it is heard again qu’un sang impur. . . . But suddenly it passes over into the vulgar waltz. She submits altogether. It is Jules Favre sobbing on Bismark’s bosom and surrendering everything. . . . Here Augustin grows fierce. Hoarse sounds are heard. There is a suggestion of countless gallons of beer, of a frenzy of self-glorification, demand for millions, for fine cigars, champagne and hostages. Augustin becomes a wild yell.”