Saturday, June 12, 2010

Poor Folk and Other Stories

Poor Folk and Other Stories by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The thirteenth work by Dostoevsky I've read, and the first collection of short stories. Or, more properly, one novella-type work (Poor Folk) and a collection of short stories. Judged by the standards of most other works read, shows itself hugely superior, wonderful in command of language and intensity of atmosphere. It has brilliant characterization, of course, that's basically a given with Dostoevsky, but what's particularly effective is how the voice of the characters links to the larger narrative. Dostoevsky's take on intensity of characterization is different than most writers I've encountered--showing a forceful personality not by rendering it coherent and self-contained but by playing up its instability, the fragmented ambiguities in how consciousness is experienced.

Since the stories are from earlier in Dostoevsky's career and shorter than the norm there's less of the troubling aspects that feature later--the xenophobic nationalism, the near-masochistic portrayal of suffering, the emphasis on transcendental religion as the source of virtue, the disturbing treatment of women. Instead, in most of these pieces there emerges a less problematic representation of poverty in Russia as well as the nuanced challenges of individual ambition and pride in a nation struggling to form its own identity. There's also less of the sheer spark and genius in his writing, however, with no character or character situation as intense as the kind that rolls off every other page of Brothers Karamazov. There's a lot of material in here that feels substantive and meaningful, but little of it has quite the necessary emotive force to feel truly great, or to make for a highly memorable story climax. Judged by the standards of most authors these are classics, but compared with Dostoevsky's other writings this emerges as a weak collection. It gains its most enduring force in the depiction of Russian social conditions of the nineteenth century, particularly in the titular representation of poverty. This aspect makes for a powerful testimony as part of Russian history, but the text doesn't stand on its own to the extent that is typical for Dostoevsky.

Similar to and better than: Mirgorod and Other Tales by Nikolai Gogol

Similar to and worse than: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

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