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Mar 27, 2013

Age of Prose & Reason

The eighteenth century was a great period for English prose, though not for English poetry. Matthew Arnold called it an “age of prose and reason,” implying thereby that no good poetry was written in this century, and that,prose dominated the literary realm. Much of the poetry of the age is prosaic, if not altogether prose-rhymed prose. Verse was used by many poets of the age for purposes which could be realised, or realised better, through prose. Our view is that the eighteenth century was not altogether barren of real poetry.
Even then, it is better known for the galaxy of brilliant prose writers that it threw up. In this century there was a remarkable proliferation of practical interests which could best be expressed in a new kind of prose-pliant and of a work a day kind capable of rising to every occasion. This prose was simple and modern, having nothing of the baroque or Ciceronian colour of the prose of the seventeenth-century writers like Milton and Sir Thomas Browne. Practicality and reason ruled supreme xin prose and determined its style. It is really strange that in this period the language of*prose was becoming simpler and more easily comprehensible, but, on the other hand, the language of poetry was being conventionalised into that artificial “poetic diction” which at the end of the century was so severely condemned by Wordsworth as “gaudy and inane phraseology.”

The Contribution of the Age to Prose:
Much of eighteenth-century prose is taken up by topical journalistic issues-as indeed is the prose of any other age. However, in the eighteenth century we come across, for the first-time in the history of English literature, a really huge mass of pamphlets, journals, booklets, and magazines. The whole activity of life of the eighteenth century is embodied in the works of literary critics, economists, “letter-writers,” essayists, politicians, public speakers, divines, philosophers, historians, scientists, biographers, and public projectors. Moreover, a thing of particular importance is the introduction of two new prose genres in this century. The novel and the periodical paper are the two gifts of the century to English literature, and some of the best prose of the age is to be found in its novels and periodical essays. Summing up the importance of the century are these words of a critic: “The eighteenth century by itself had created the novel and practically created the literary history; it had put the essay into general circulation; it had hit off various forms and abundant supply of lighter verse; it had added largely to philosophy and literature. Above all, it had shaped the form of English prose-of-all-work, the one thing that remained to be done at its opening. When an age has done so much, it seems somewhat illiberal to reproach it with not doing more.” Even Matthew Arnold had to call the eighteenth century “our excellent and indispensable eighteenth century.”
After these preliminary considerations let us briefly discuss the important trends and writers of the age.

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731):
Defoe was perhaps the most copious writer of the eighteenth century. He is best known for his Robinson Crusoe and some other works of fiction like Moll Flanders and Roxana. His non-fictive prose consists of a large number of pamphlets (generally published anonymously) and a staggering bulk of miscellaneous writings mostly topical in nature. He started a tri-weekly periodical The Review in 1704, which continued up to 1713. In it he dealt with political, religious, and commercial matters. There is not much of the universal in his non-fictive prose to keep it alive, but one just wonders at the sheer number of his works which total above five hundred.

John Arbuthnot (1667-1735):
Arbuthnot was man estimable for his learning, amiable for his life, and venerable for his piety”-was a close associate of Swift and Pope and was by profession a physician. His History of John Bull (1712), an, allegorical satire, in the words of Legouis in A Short History of English Literature, “remains one of the most famous political satires England has produced”. Therein is described the legal battle between John Bull (England) and Nic Frog (Holland) ontne one side, and Lewis Baboon (France) and Lord Strutt (Spain) on the other. Arburthnot upholds evidently the Tory point of view favouring the termination of hostilities then raging between the countries mentioned above. He manifests an easy mastery of lucid and vivid style as also delightful strokes of irony, which made Swift “complain”:
Arbuthnot is no more my friend;
He dares to irony pretend;
Which I was born to introduce,
Refin ‘d it first and shew ‘d its use.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745):
Swift was the greatest prose satirist of England. He dominated the first half of the eighteenth century as Dr. Johnson did the second; and as an intellectual he was far superior to Johnson. Some of his satires are obscene, misanthropic, and cynical, but none can question his moral integrity and the unflinching earnestness with which he removes the externals of things to bring out the corruption which lies at their heart. Swift’s satire is all-embracing. Its rapier-like thrusts spare neither a fraudulent almanac-maker, nor a misguided zealot, nor an airy philosopher, nor a glib politician, nor a conceited fop, nor a pretentious scientist.This greatest of satirists once satirised even satire! The paltry Partridge (an almanac-maker) and the great Walpole (the Prime Minister of England) alike winced under his terrible “whip of scorpions”.
Swift’s sensitiveness to all corruption, the numerous frustrations which punctuated the entire span of his life and the egregious folly, corruption, and self-seeking which he found tainting “the age of reason and good sense” prompted him to take up his lash. The age deserved satire, and his personal disposition and disappointments made him keen enough to give it. Swift is perfectly right when he says in The Death of Dean Swift:
Perhaps I may allow the Dean
Had too much satire in his vein,
And seem’d determined not to starve it,
Because no age could more deserve it.

The greatness of Swift’s satire is, in the last analysis, a triumph of technique. His arsenal as a satirist is chock-full of weapons, of all descriptions. Wit, raillery, sarcasm, irony, allegory, and so many more weapons are used to perfection by him in his crusade against folly, injustice, and unreason. Whichever weapon may he be employing for attack, his satire is usually darker and more telling than that of most writers. He may sometimes touch lightly, but very often he pierces deep to the very heart of life. In any case, his satire is very disturbing as it presents things in a fairly unconventional perspective eminently calculated to shatter the complacency of the reader. When Swift points out the acquired follies, he is quite constructive, but when he satirises the very nature of man, he is nothing but destructive.
Of all the satiric techniques the one most effectively used by Swift is irony. With Swift irony is often much more than just a figure of speech; it is extended so that the entire range of thoughts and feelings presented in a satiric work seems to be coming not from Swift himself but from a fictive character 
(a persona) created for the purpose. The irony lies in the difference between the views expressed by the persona and the common sense views (the same as the views of Swift himself).

Swift wrote a very large number of satires of which the most important areThe Battle of the Books, A Tale of a Tub, and Gulliver’s Travels. The first is just ajeu d’esprit and was meant to lampoon in mock-heroic terms the opponents of his patron Sir William Temple-­particularly Richard Bentley and William Wotton, both of whom had disputed the view of Temple granting supremacy to the ancients over the moderns. A Tale of a Tub was meant to be a satire “on the numerous and gross corruptions in religion and learning.”-It represented the Church of England as the best, of all Churches in “doctrine and discipline,” and also lashed the shallow writers and critics of the age. Gulliver’s Travels is the most famous of Swift’s works. In it he savagely indicted “that animal called man.” Though it has the externals of a travel romance yet in reality it is a terrible but well-calculated satire on all the activities of human life and allthe attributes of human nature not sparing even the human body. However, its irony is so deep that it has been a favourite gift-book for children. Kipling once said that Swift’ ‘ignited a volcano to light a child to bed.” In fact, the book is enjoyed by all children from nine to ninety!

Credit must be given to Swift for the clarity, precision, and what Herbert Davis calls the “conciseness” of his prose style. Swift despises all unnecessary ornament. His imagery, however, is prolific and concrete. At any rate he gives us the impression of an easy mastery of the language. Halliday in the introduction to his Selection from Swift observes: “…the various phases of scorn and satire, of appraisement and direct denunciation, the various moods and tempers of the writer are expressed with wonderful and subtle skill. The secret of his power over his readers is to be sought for here. He makes you responsive to every nuance of thought and emotion and draws you with the magic of his pipe into whatever region he desires.”

Addison, Steele, and the Periodical Essay:
From Swift to Addison is” like coming from a real to a paper tiger. Addison perfected the periodical essay which was “invented” by Steele with the Taller in 1709. Addison collaborated with Steele as Steele did with him in the Spectator which was launched by Addison in 1711 after the Taller had been wound-up. The periodical paper was extremely suited to the temper and conditions of the eighteenth century; and that explains its immense popularity. The genius of Addison was also quite happy with this”new literary genre. He wrote a few more works, but his popularity today is entirely due to his work as a periodical essayist,
The work of Addison and Steele as periodical essayists was actuated by a definite purpose–that of providing instructive amusement to their readers many of whom were women. “I must confess,” wrote Addison once, “were I left to myself, I would rather aim at instructing than diverting.” But instruction would not have been welcomed by the readers if it were without some diversion. As “instructors” Addison and Steele paid special attention to improving the morals and social manners of the people. As champions of good taste and reason they did their best to improve the tone of society. They also popularised “philosophy.” With his papers onParadise Lost and the old ballad of Chevy Chase Addison did a signal service to literary, criticism. Steele and Addison were mostly retailers of other men’s opinions; they were not philosophers themselves but they did substantial workto make philosophy a subject of popular appreciation and discussion.
Addison’s prose style is as lucid and precise as Swift’s, but it has much more of polish, refinement, and studied ease. Dr. Johnson calls his style “the model of the middle style.” And this is his famous advice: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” Steele as a man and stylist was less refined and consistent than Addison. He is sometimes patently ungrammatical even. Even then, sometimes his style, in all its spontaneity and attending carelessness, speaks, as it were, from the core of his heart, as Addison’s never even seems to do. “I Iike7′ said Leigh Hunt, “Stede with all his faults better than Addison with all his

Philosophers and Theologians:
George Berkeley (1685-1753) and David Hume (1711-76) were the great philosophers of the eighteenth century as Hobbes and Locke had been of the seventeenth. Berkeley was an upholder of absolute idealism, and as such, went so far as to deny the very existence of matter. His deep religious convictions had the colour of mysticism. As regards the clarity of Berkeley’s prose style, Legouis observes: “Nothing could be more admirable than the lucid prose, perfectly simple and perfectly elegant, in which Berkeley expressed his profound and subtle views.”
Hume was by far the greatest philosopher of his age. His approach is marked by scepticism and utilitarianism. Regarding his style Legouis says: “Nothing could be more tranquil and assured than the march of his thought, nothing clearer than the prose in which he pursued his most subtle analyses in lucid and sober language.”
Adam Smith (1723-90) was the father of political economy which Ruskin and his ilk were to attack in the Victorian age. His Wealth of Nations (1776) enjoyed a long and undisputed reign as the Bible of political economists. His style is precise and unadorned to the extent of being altogether sapless:
The first half of the eighteenth century saw the furious raging of the Deistic controversy. The Deists including Charles Blqunt, John Tolant, Matthew Tindall, Anthony Collins and the Earl of Shaftesbury believed in what they called “Natural Religion,” that is, belief in God without corresponding belief in Christianity, or, as a matter of fact, any religion. Swift was one of those who controverted the Deistic heresy.
The rise of Methodism was another theological feature of the century. The two Wesley brothers-John and Charles-were the initiators of the new move towards importing the old enthusiasm, simplicity and sincerity into the religion of the day. John Wesley’s prose is characterised by directness, simplicity, and a rude, compelling force.

Dr. Johnson (1709-84):
As a prose writer Dr. Johnson is particularly known for his Dictionary, his periodical papers, his philosophical tale Rasselas, and his critical work Lives of the Poets. He was the cham of the realm of letters in his age and an accepted arbiter of taste. As a critic he made many egregious errors, but his infectious sanity cannot be ignored. Asa prose stylist he was a purist. However, his style though vigorous and direct is somewhat heavy-handed, and as such is sometimes derisively called “Johnsonese”, which Chambers’s Dictionary defines as “Johnsonian style, idiom, diction or an imitation of it—ponderous English, full of antitheses, balanced triads, and words of classical origin.” Goldsmith said jokingly about Johnson’s style that it may fit the mouths of whales but it certainly does not fit the mouths of little fish.

Biographers and Letter Writers:
The eighteenth century produced a number of biographers, autobiographers, and writers of semi-public letters. James Boswell (1740-95), the biographer of his idol Dr. Johnson, has the pride of place among them. His work is as massive as the great Johnson himself! Life of Johnson is a unique work of its kind. BoswelFs devotion to Dr. Johnson became the cause of his own fame. Among the autobiographers may be mentioned Gibbon, Lord Hervey, and John, Wesley.
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Cowper, Chesterfield, Gilbert White, Gray, and Horace Waipole were some of the famous letter writers of the eighteenth century.

Periodical Papers and Oliver Goldsmith (1730-74):
After the Spectator there was a remarkable proliferation of periodical literature in England. To name all the periodical papers which appeared in the eighteenth century will be an uphill task as their number is legion. Most of them continued the traditions set by Addison and Steele. The name of Oliver Goldsmith is associated with numerous periodical papers. His cosmopolitan attitude, tolerance, delicacy, and sentiment are his hallmarks as an essayist. He expresses himself in a chaste and elegant style free from artificial devices.

The eighteenth century saw the establishment of historiography as a respectable and highly developed branch of learned activity. Edward Gibbon (1737-94)-writer of the monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire-was the greatest of the historiographers of the age. His attitude is entirely rational and anti-mystical. His style is dignified and somewhat ponderous, but he can effectively combine harmony and majesty with logic and precision.

Edmund Burke (1729-97):                                                     
Burke was the greatest orator of the age. He dealt with the pressing political problems facing the British Empire. His works concerning Indian and American affairs and the French Revolution are couched in brilliant and rhetorical prose which cannot but impress the most indifferent reader or listener. He was an antitheorist who recommended action in keeping with the spirit and complexion of the times.

Mar 21, 2013

Slow Man by JM Coetzee

Source: TOM Con
Reading Slow Man, one feels like a voyeuristic observer of another man’s existential breakdown. Further, I suspect this is JM Coetzee’s intention. Slow Man is an uncomfortable novel for a number of reasons.

The other day, I asked a group of learners to pick a character from one of their own stories and enter into a metafictional dialogue with them: ask them how they felt about the story, about the way they were treated in the story, what their ambitions and hopes were, how those were supported or frustrated by the progress of the story. I believe this is a good way for a writer to really delve into the characters he or she has created, to understand them, to make them real. I’ve done it myself, and my character has patiently and clearly explained to me what was wrong with my story and what needed to be done to remedy it. I see it as a wholly positive addition to the writing process.

Although Coetzee makes the same sort of authorial intervention into the lives of his characters in Slow Man, I am not convinced that his intention is equally positive. Coetzee has increasingly come to eschew the conventions of novelistic form and his later work appears to stand almost antipathetical towards them. And this certainly appears to be the subtext of Slow Man, in which Coetzee, in the form of Elizabeth Costello, a writer who also featured in Coetzee’s previous novel, becomes embroiled in the lives of the remaining characters. She is accused by Paul Rayment, the central character who has come to believe that she is using his life as material for her own novel, of treating people like puppets. “You make up stories and bully us into playing them out for you," he tells her. There is the uncomfortable sense of a novelist ill-at-ease with the novelistic process and questioning the nature of fiction itself as a mimetic means of understanding the wider concerns of real life.

The novel begins with a superb depiction of a late-middle-aged man, Rayment, being knocked off his bicycle in a traffic accident. The accident is so severe his leg must be amputated above the knee and Rayment, previously a fit and active individual, is suddenly thrust into a passive world of dependence and invalidity. He does not respond well. He becomes embittered and reluctant to take steps to help himself: he stubbornly refuses a prosthetic leg and does not get on with various nurses sent to help him. Then the agency send a new nurse, Marijana, a Croatian immigrant, to care for him and his life begins to change. Gradually, he falls in love with Marijana, building a wholly unrealistic vision of a future in which they can share. 

His intentions are honourable, so far as he or we can establish, but nonetheless they sound dubious. Marijana’s son, Drago, is in danger of getting into trouble and Rayment offers to pay for him to attend a private school. Not unnaturally, Marijana’s husband is deeply suspicious of his intentions. It is around now that Elizabeth Costello arrives, unexpected and unannounced, and imposes herself on Rayment’s existence. She is a mysterious individual: the reader, of course, knows her from Coetzee’s previous novel bearing her name, and is aware that she is a world-famous author with a philosophical bent. Rayment, however, is perplexed and increasingly irritated by her insistent presence. She arranges a blind date for him – literally so, the woman whom he meets is blind and he himself is temporarily blinded by a flour and water paste for the duration of their encounter. Elizabeth tries to advise him on how to deal with the fall-out of his offer to Marijana. She even moves into his flat for a period.

Through all of this, the novel becomes increasingly metafictional, and the author’s presence looms ever greater over it. It is a claustrophobic experience. Coetzee systematically dismantles the apparatus of the novel, laying bare the edifices on which it is built, the manipulations of character and event which writers impose on their work to give it coherence. It is a riveting read, multi-faceted and complex. It is almost a novel and a how-to guide to creative writing rolled into one. 

As I asked my learners to do with their characters, Coetzee/Costello interrogates Rayment: "You came to me, that is all I can say. You occurred to me, a man with a bad leg and no future and an unsuitable passion ... where we go from there I have no idea. Have you any proposal?" All the while denying that she is using him as the basis for a character in her novel, she quotes lines from earlier in this novel, thus reinforcing – for us, the readers, but not for him – the sense that he is indeed her construct. But she becomes frustrated with him. She goads him into doing something interesting, in order to provide the usual fodder of fictional entertainment, but he will not. The message seems to be that she has created a dud of a character. "In certain respects I am not in command of what comes to me," she says. "You came, along with the pallor and the stoop and the crutches and the flat that you hold on to so doggedly and the photographic collection and all the rest." But still he will not translate himself into a worthy character for her.

And this, of course, is part of the difficulty with the novel, because Paul Rayment, crotchety, self-obsessed, stubborn, is not a particularly endearing character. Nor is Elizabeth Costello, a prickly and insensitive woman. The remaining characters, meanwhile, the Croatian family, are not allowed to be rounded individuals. The overwhelming sense, then, is of a cast of characters deficient in terms of literary technique. That Coetzee has done this deliberately doesn’t alter the fact that it is so: the trouble with postmodern game-playing is that it becomes self-referential and, ultimately, self-defeating.

What is frustrating is that, until the metafictional narrative intrudes, Slow Man is an engrossing study of age and infirmity and the dangers and inevitability of losing one’s self-reliance. Rayment’s predicament is terrifying precisely because every one of us could be in the same position tomorrow. Every one of us will experience the slow unravelling of independence and it is a haunting prospect. The sense of vitality that Rayment projects onto Marijana through his hopelessly unrequited love for her is tender, moving, pathetic and frightening, all at once. It is beautifully written. But that sense of exploration of the human experience dissipates once Coetzee begins to question the very worth of what he is creating. His work is remarkable, and yet he feels the need to publicly question it in this way. However, the reader’s overriding passion is to understand the psyche of the character. The writer should not interfere in that. It may be his fiction, but it is not his story.

Mar 14, 2013

Spender on Eliot

Stephen Spender wrote of Four Quartets:
The language . . . moves on two levels: one is the creative level of poetry in which images and delightful objects are created which give us pleasure, the other is the level of philosophic thought. These two levels are sustained throughout, and thus the language has a kind of transparency
I would suggest something of this transparency is in the mind of Cormac McCarthy when he is writing his fiction. At its best - in Suttree - there is a mysterious flow between registers, with storytelling giving way to philosophising and back again, in the course of a few sentences. In this way McCarthy tells us, simultaneously, the single story of Buddy Suttree and the universal story of all of us. Take this passage, in the cemetery where Suttree has just seen his son buried:
They went on among the tilted stones and rough grass, the wind coming from the woods cold in the sunlight. A stone angel in her weathered marble robes, the downcast eyes. The old people’s voices drift across the lonely space, murmurous above these places of the dead. The lichens on the crumbling stones like a strange green light. The voices fade. Beyond the gentle clash of weeds. He sees them stoop to read some quaint inscription and he pauses by an old vault that a tree has half dismantled with its growing. Inside there is nothing. No bones, no dust. How surely are the dead beyond death. Death is what the living carry with them. A state of dread, like some uncanny foretaste of a bitter memory. But the dead do not remember and nothingness is not a curse. Far from it.
This is brilliant writing. It moves from the personal, in the past tense, through to the universal, in the present tense, accompanied by a narratorial shift so that the identity of the maker of the last point is ambiguous. This happens throughout the novel, with frequent shifts into the first person so that Suttree becomes the narrator and the narrator becomes Suttree. There is a beautiful and seamless melding of stories at work.

At its worst, of course, it is a very different matter. There are times when McCarthy's obsessions become too great for him to handle and they simply splurge onto the page. Most often, this takes the form of the endless and interchangeable conversations with various (usually blind) prophets who accost all of McCarthy's main characters at some stage.

Mar 7, 2013

Everyman: Philip Roth

Source: Tom Cono
Everyman, Philip Roth’s 2006 novella, is a meditation on life and death. It takes its name from the ghastly fifteenth century allegories in which a man is told by Death to prepare for judgement day. One by one his friends desert him, along with his wealth and his health and his strength and his beauty. Finally, he is alone before the almighty with only the sum of the good deeds he has done throughout his life to stand beside him as he awaits the final judgement. Such are the ways the Churches use guilt and fear to rein us in.

Roth is having none of that. His main character, an unnamed man, is approaching death – indeed we start with his funeral – but while this is indeed a novella about atonement, it is a very human atonement and it is peopled by real human beings, in all their frail, failing discomfiture. Religion, for this man, ‘was a lie that he had recognized early in life, and he found all religions offensive, considered their superstitious folderol meaningless, childish, couldn’t stand the complete unadultness – the baby talk and the righteousness and the sheep, the avid believers.’

Instead of that, then, we have a study of character, and particularly of character shaped by death and the fear of death and the mourning for it. Death stalks these pages. (Indeed, possibly too much: at one point, he discovers the death of one former colleague, the terminal cancer of another and the suicide attempt of a third, all in the same morning, and later we have two members of his art class dying of cancer ‘within a week’ of one another. Pathos can easily become bathos.) But, those examples aside, death here is a powerful adversary. We are told: ‘Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.’ And we, the readers, are placed centre stage for each enactment of this massacre, uncomfortably, unavoidably complicit. 

‘Worry about oblivion when you’re seventy-five!’ the man tells us on page 32. He can swim across the bay. He is at the height of his powers. He has no need to worry. ‘The remote future will be time enough to anguish over the ultimate catastrophe!’ he tells us. And that is how humans live their lives, day-by-day, trying to deny the curse that is uniquely humanity’s, that we are burdened by foreknowledge of our own deaths. And so it is that, by page 161 we find, ‘It was time to worry about oblivion. It was the remote future.’

The character in this novella is a flawed individual (naturally, since he is an ‘everyman’) who has been married three times, only once to a woman he loved, and has three children, only one of whom matters to him. The novel catalogues his illnesses, from the trivial hernia for which he is treated as a child, to the series of increasingly complex problems which meant that, in later life, ‘not a year went by when he wasn’t hospitalized’ and, ‘now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

His story is told through his eyes and through the eyes of his family. There is the ‘incomparable’ Phoebe, his second wife, and their daughter, the ‘incorruptible’ and ‘miraculous’ Nancy. There are his sons, Randy and Lonny, the younger of the two, who, standing by his father’s graveside, ‘was overcome with a feeling for his father that wasn’t antagonism but that his antagonism denied him the means to release.’ There is Merete, the third wife, a Danish model twenty years younger than him who is ‘basically an absence and not a presence.’ And there is his brother Howie, six years older, but indestructibly fit, in contrast to the increasing frailties of the younger man.

Roth doesn’t deal in black and whites. The man is neither good nor bad. The true loves in his life were his second wife, Phoebe, and their daughter, Nancy, but he deserted them both to live with the feckless Merete. Their break-up is painful, and relayed in detail. We are assured that he loved his older brother, a ‘very good man’ who had been the ‘one solid thing throughout his life’ but, as illness and fear overtook him, we are told, ‘He hated Howie because of his robust good health.’ Later, he describes his sons as ‘You wicked bastards! You sulky fuckers! You condemning little shits!’

All of this could come across as unpleasantly self-pitying, but Roth is clever in the way he fleshes out the character, who at one stage calls himself a ‘cunthound’, a superbly violent demolition of his own ego, and any self-pity is immediately dissipated by the depth of his self-loathing. As his catalogue of illness unfolds, and as he becomes ‘a decidely lonelier, less confident man’ we are made to confront, with him, the nature of death. And, of course, we don’t – we cannot – approach it with equanimity. There is little honour in the way we sidle towards it. A woman weeps uncontrollably at the two funerals of the art class cancer sufferers and her husband asks the man why he thinks she is doing so. “Because life’s most disturbing intensity is death,’ the man replies. No, says the husband. “She’s like that all the time… She’s like that because she isn’t eighteen anymore.”

It is a truth, uncomfortable though it may be, that all grief is felt through the prism of our own mortality. When we mourn, we mourn for ourselves, too. All we can do, suggests Roth, is try our best and, at the end, come to an accommodation with ourselves. This is what Nietzsche was trying to tell us a hundred years ago, but we are slow learners. There is no day of judgement. Atonement is not a matter for the sky gods, but for oneself and one’s own. In a moving scene at the end of the novella, the man stands at the graves of his parents and speaks to them:

“I’m seventy-one. Your boy is seventy-one.” “Good. You lived,” his mother replied and his father said, “Look back and atone for what you can atone for, and make the best of what you have left.”

It is that final statement that is so important. Make the best of what’s left, because what is done is done. Nietzsche pointed out one of the great tragedies of humanity:

The will cannot will backwards; that it cannot break time and time’s desire – that is the will’s most lonely affliction.

Atonement is only possible in one’s own mind, as a personal act. Time cannot be recreated. The man’s treatment of Phoebe cannot be changed. He cannot undo the damage he did to her and Nancy by leaving them for Merete. Nor is there time to discover love of his sons. He has done what he has done. “There’s no remaking reality,” is his repeated stricture to his daughter and, at the start of the novel, standing by his grave, she repeats his words to him. As the novella unfolds, both the truth and the lie of those words becomes clear. The past remains, but atonement is possible, in the shape of memory.

As he leaves the cemetery, he gives some money to the gravedigger, who he knows will soon dig his own grave. He tells him: “My father always said, ‘It’s best to give while your hand is still warm.”’ And with that one act of warmth the man finds redemption.

Mar 1, 2013

Dostoevsky & Poor

Every culture has its own unique qualities. The culture of the United States is largely a blend of many different cultures since we are a nation of immigrants. With the exception of Brazil, most countries in South America were very heavily influence by Spanish culture.  Brazil was heavily influenced by Portuguese culture.  The nations of the former Soviet Union are strongly influenced by Orthodox culture and their connection to the Orthodox Church.  This is quite obvious in the novels of the classic Russian authors.  

While these various nations have their own uniqueness, the one thing that all of them have in common is that each nation has poor people.  The poor are often not even notice by those who have more money.  They are “invisible” people.  This was true in the late 19th century and is still true today.  

In 1845, Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoevsky (1821-1881) wrote his first novel entitled Poor Folk.  This novel was written prior to his imprisonment. It was while he was in prison that he underwent a major conversion experience. He became a supporter of the czar and developed a great respect for the peasantry. This also seemed to be the beginning of his involvement in the Slavophile movement. 

The novel was originally published in A Petersburg Collection published. One anecdote states that the journal’s editor, Nikolai Nekrasov, declared “A new [Nikolai] Gogol has arisen!” Many literary critics, including Vissarion Belinsky, also gave this work much acclaim rocketing Fyodor Dostoevsky to literary fame.1 

It is put together in the form of a set of letters written between two people, Makar Devushkin and Varvara Dobroselova. Makar and Varvara are second cousins twice-removed and live across from each other on the same street in terrible apartments. Makar’s, for example, is merely a portioned-off section of the kitchen, and he lives with several other tenants, such as the Gorshkovs, whose son dies and who groans in agonizing hunger almost the entire story, gently crying at night. Makar and Varvara exchange letters back and forth attesting to their terrible living conditions and the former frequently squanders his money on gifts for the latter.

The reader progressively learns about their history throughout the story. Varvara used to live in the country until her father lost his job, and then she moved into St. Petersburg, which she hates. Her father was very violent after losing his job and her mother became severely depressed. He dies and they move in with Anna Fyodorovna, a landlady who was previously cruel to them but at least pretends to feel badly for their situation. There Varvara is tutored by a poor student named Pokrovsky, whose drunken father occasionally visits. She eventually falls in love with him. She struggles to save a measly amount of money to purchase Pokrovsky the complete works of Pushkin at the market for his birthday present, and then allows his father to give the books to him, claiming that just his receipt of the books will be enough for her happiness. Povrovsky falls ill soon after, and his last dying wish is to see the sun and the world outside, which Varvara obliges by opening the blinds to grey clouds and dirty rain. In response he only shakes his head and then passes away. His father runs after the coffin during the procession, with some of his son’s books falling in the mud as he goes along alone in the rain.

Varvara's mother dies soon after, and she is left in the care of Anna for a time, but eventually goes out on her own because of the abuse to live with Fedora across the street. Makar works as a lowly copyist, frequently belittled at his job and picked on. His clothing is worn and dirty, and his living conditions are perhaps worse than Varvara's. He considers himself a rat in society. As he and Varvara exchange letters (and occasional visits that are never detailed), they begin to exchange books. Makar becomes offended when she sends him a copy of The Overcoat, because he finds the main character to be living the life he now lives.

Varvara considers leaving to another part of the city where she can work as a governess, but in a spot of luck, when Makar is completely out of money and may possibly be thrown out by his landlady, he comes upon 100 rubles. It happens that he miscopies a document and is brought to the head at his office, who tells him he can still copy it again and after looking at his terrible condition gives him the money so he can buy himself new clothes. He pays off his debts and sends some to Varvara, who sends him 25 rubles back because she doesn’t need all of it, and the future looks bright for the both of them because he can now start to save up money and they can possibly move in together.

Suddenly, all of the rumors about Varvara marrying a drunk become meaningless in the face of money. Makar finds himself liked by even the writer Ratazyayev, who was using him as a figure in one of his stories because of his sad condition. Even the Gorhkovs come across money because the father’s case is won in court. With the considerable sum they seem perfectly happy, but he dies soon after anyway, leaving his family in shambles despite the money. Soon after this Varvara announces that a Mr. Bykov, who had dealings with Anna Fyodorovna and Pokrovsky’s father, has proposed to her. She decides to leave with him and the last few letters attest to her slowly becoming used to her new money.

She has Makar find linen for her and begins to talk about various luxuries, leaving him alone in the end despite the fact that he was coming on to better times. The story ends with a final letter from him written in a desperate plea for her to come back to him or at least write from her new life. 2

Poor Folk is an epistolary novel -- that is, a tale told as a series of letters between the characters. And oh, what characters these are Makar Dievushkin Alexievitch is a copy writer, barely squeaking by; Barbara Dobroselova Alexievna works as a seamstress, and both face the sort of everyday humiliation society puts upon the poor. These are people respected by no one, not even by themselves. These are folks too poor, in their circumstances, to marry; the love between them is a chaste and proper thing, a love that brings some readers to tears. But it isn't maudlin, either; Fyodor Dostoevsky has something profound to say about these people and this circumstance. And he says it very well. When the book was first published a leading Russian literary critic of the day -- Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) -- prophesied that Dostoevsky would become a literary giant. It isn't hard to see how he came to that conclusion, and in hindsight, he was surely was correct.  

The male protagonist is the first in a long line of Dostoevskyian anti-heroes, undergound men, figures of such extreme marginality that even they are not sure whether they exist: He’s a man with a reputation what am I? Compared to him, I simply don’t exist…, an ontological uncertainty which Dostoevsky picked up from his reading of Hoffman, and which he was to develop more fully in the later taleThe Double. Makar Devushkin lives behind a screen in the kitchen and works as a copyist: he has no space or original contribution of his own. His character comes to life only in and through his letters; he writes himself, creates himself through writing, and exists only in the dialogue with Varvara: when I got to know you, I began for a start to know myself better…before you came along, I was as good as asleep, I wasn’t really living in the world at all… when you came my way, you lit up the whole of my dark life so that my mind and soul were illuminated …When she leaves Petersburg to marry Bykov, the dialogue stops, Devushkin disappears, and the book ends.

He also displays the irrational behavior which was Dostoevsky’s contribution to the philosophical picture of man. When he retrieves his button from under the feet of his boss, to his own horror, he acts against his own best interest: had I not been such a fool I would have stood to attention and kept still. But oh, no: I began pressing the button against the torn off threads, as though that would make it stay on and what’s more, I smiled and smiled again. The drunken episodes, the getting into debt for Varvara’s sake are also forms of irrational behaviour. His Dostoevskyan irascibility; however, is mediated by a tenderness towards Varvara and towards the world, a tenderness which is not present in the later loners of the Dostoevsky canon.

The novel is as much about literature as about the urban poor. Much of the plot revolves around the acquisition of books, there are constant references to other literature: grammars, style manuals, Pushkin, excerpts from the (terrible) writings of Devushkin’s friend and hero, Mr Ratazyayev. The whole tale can be read as Dostoevsky’s dialogue with the overwhelming power of Gogol. The characters lend each other books and comment on them. Devushkin lives in fear of being lampooned in a feuilleton (Dostoevsky himself lampoons another one of his marginal folk in the darkly hilarious tale Mr. Prokharchin, where even the narrator calls the eponymous hero a fool). Although Devushkin knows he is a marginal being, he nonetheless has a fully developed sense of amour propre and is quick to take umbrage. The epistolary nature of this novel is a kind of tact on Dostoevsky’s part, in allowing these marginal characters to speak for themselves with their own voices, without the presence of a narrator to describe them, to falsify them or to mock them.

Devushkin is struck by a quote from a style manual which is a kind of manifesto for the group around Ratazyayev: Literature is a picture, or, rather, in a certain sense, both a picture and a mirror: it is an expression of emotion, a subtle form of criticism, a didactic lesson and a document. This may also stand as a manifesto, not only for the method and subject of Poor Folk, but indeed for Dostoevsky’s entire career: the Christian didacticism of his later novels, the expressionism of his confessional stance, his picture of underground and marginal types, his criticisms of society, nihilism and other forms of philosophy, and the mirror he holds up to the modern soul. 

The characters which Dostoevsky introduces us to are not unique and can be placed in almost any culture; however, how the individuals deal with their situation is directly related to their culture.  These people are Russian and are quite familiar with daily sufferings.  Their connection to the Orthodox Church helps many Russians, both ancient and modern, to find hope in their suffering and united these sufferings to those of Jesus Christ.

In my article “The Beauty of the Russian Soul”5 I spoke about the influence of Orthodox culture has on the Russian soul.  The Russian soul is not simply limited to those who live in Russia, but to people from Ukraine, Belarus, and various other nations where Orthodox Christianity is the predominant religion. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s genius can be found in all of his novels. On a personal level, he felt very connected to the poor even though his father was a medical doctor.  He spent much of his life impoverished, which is not uncommon among most artists, so he understood the experiences of the poor.  

End Notes
1) “Fyodor Dostoevsky: A Biography” (accessed 5/12/12)
2) “Poor Folk” (accessed 5/12/12)
3) “Poor Folk” 5/12/12)
4) “Poor Folk: Dostoevsky” (accessed 5/13/12)
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