The Double concerns Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, a humble office-clerk who discovers himself followed and usurped by a doppelganger. It's more or less the blueprint for later doppelganger narratives, often referenced in theory on the topic, and although the idea of the double is probably as old as humanity, Dostoevsky seems to have been one of the first modern writers to develop the idea.
He goes about his fairly insignificant life, unpopular with women and colleagues, cheated by his servant and ignored by the world - when this happens:
Golyadkin's double usurps not only his likeness but his name and occupation too - turning up opposite him in the office. But Golyadkin Jnr. (as the narrative often refers to him) is more popular, confident, and powerful than Golyadkin Snr. What is worse, he is incredibly changeable. Sometimes he treats Golyadkin Snr. as a dear friend - at other times, with disdain and insult. The Double becomes the narrative of Golyadkin Snr.'s humiliation - it often makes for uncomfortable reading, as he is not only menaced by this doppelganger, but mocked and pilloried at the same time.The hero of our story dashed into his lodging beside himself; without taking off his hate or coat he crossed the little passage and stood still in the doorway of his room, as though thunderstruck. All his presentiments had come true. All that he had dreaded and surmised was coming to pass in reality. His breath failed him, his head was in a whirl. The stranger, also in his coat and hat, was sitting before him on his bed, and with a faint smile, screwing up his eyes, nodded to him in a friendly way. Mr. Golyadkin wanted to scream, but could not – to protest in some way, but his strength failed him. His hair stood on end, and he almost fell down with horror. And, indeed, there was good reason. He recognized his nocturnal visitor. The nocturnal visitor was no other than himself – Mr. Golyadkin himself, another Mr. Golyadkin, but absolutely the same as himself – in fact, what is called a double in every respect…
As the novella progresses, unsurprisingly the question of Golyadkin Snr.'s sanity rises in the reader's mind - and is never wholly satisfied. There are plenty of options. Is he mad? Is he schizophrenic? Does he have dissociative identity disorder? Is he the victim of some elaborate prank - or is it (within the novella) simply true? It all makes for a fascinating psychological study, whether or not there is a natural explanation within the narrative. Since the whole work is from Golyadkin's perspective (albeit in the third person) the reader is trapped claustrophobically in his panicked and chaotic mindset.
Lending support to the madness theory is the writing style. Perhaps it's just because it's from the Russian, but a lot of the narrative left me a little confused. Golyadkin himself tends to talk at tangents, not completing sentences, and leaving his interlocutors more baffled than anything:
That's Golyadkin's voice, but the narrative is equally clause-strewn and confusing at times."But I will say more, gentlemen," he added, turning for the last time to the register clerks, "I will say more - you are both here with me face to face. This, gentlemen, is my rule: if I fail I don't lose heart, if I succeed I persevere, and in any case I am never underhand. I'm not one to intrigue - and I'm proud of it. I've never prided myself on diplomacy. They say, too, gentlemen, that the bird flies itself to the hunter. It's true and I'm ready to admit it; but who's the hunter, and who's the bird in this case? That is still the question, gentlemen!"
The narrator does say, after two pages of description, "For all this, as I've already had the honour of explaining, oh, my readers! my pen fails me, and therefore I am dumb." I really hope Dostoevsky was being ironic, there. I know it makes me sound ignominiously unintellectual, but if I have to struggle to make sense of paragraphs, I'm unlikely to love the novel. Enormous sentences with dozens of clauses is a big no-no for me (hence my dislike of Turn of the Screw, for instance) and while The Double wasn't as bad on this front as some works I've read, it certainly wasn't easy going. There was enough of interest to sustain me, but I had to read it slowly.
The difficulty of reading an author's writing style is, of course, made more difficult by the mediating presence of the translator. Constance Garnett was responsible for 71 translations of Russian works (so the Wikipedia article tells me, and who am I to doubt it?) and helped popularise Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov amongst English-speakers. That brief Wikipedia article does make for interesting reading - apparently Garnett has her fans and detractors. DH Lawrence and Joseph Conrad (*shudder*) gave her the thumbs up, but Russian poet, essayist, and unknown-to-me Joseph Brodsky wrote:
Ouch. Low blow, Joe. But it is food for thought, isn't it? How much of my struggle with Dostoevsky's prose - indeed, how much of my appreciation for those sections I got my head around - is owed instead to Garnett's writing? It's the perennial question for translated works, but I think it's all the more pertinent when discussing a popular translation which is itself nearly a century old - and thus carrying its own datedness.The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that they aren't reading the prose of either one. They're reading Constance Garnett.
But until I learn Russian, I don't have any other option. I'm definitely glad that I read The Double, not least because it proved useful for the chapter I'm writing of my DPhil, and the themes Dostoevsky explores are fascinating and important. I suppose I'm trying to say that Dostoevsky is a writer I admire, and could grow to find very interesting, but I will never love him. I shan't be kicking back with a hot chocolate, biscuit, and Crime and Punishment - but I respect anybody who would, and recommend The Double for anyone interested in exploring a literary archetype - but would probably recommend A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee for anyone more interested in an engaging book to read with a cup of tea.