Monday 5 December 2011

The Double - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

And here is the other 'strange little book' I was going to tell you about, finally!  The Double (1846) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  (Initially it might seem like it has nothing common with my first 'strange little book', A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee - and, strangeness apart, the narratives don't really.  But The Double was translated into English by Constance Garnett: mother of David Garnett, owner of A Fairy Leapt Upon My Knee.  It's nice when these connections appear...)  So, it's by a well-known author, but perhaps he is better known for his longer titles.  The Double, at only 135 pages in my Dover Thrift edition, probably only counts as a short story for this author.  Indeed, the subtitle is 'a Petersburg poem' - although it is certainly prose, from where I'm standing.

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:
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…
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.

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:
"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!"
That's Golyadkin's voice, but the narrative is equally clause-strewn and confusing at times.
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:
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.
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.

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.


  1. very topical Si - are you aware of the literary controversy concerning Charles Dickens and Dostoyevsky at the moment? Got mentioned no less that 3 times in yesterday's Sunday Times. Did they meet? Claire Tomalin thought they did - and wrote about it in her new biography (which i have just read), it was serialised on the BBC Radio (a total of about 1 hour! - but included almost in full the Dostoyevsky passage). In her article yesterday she says she is going to put it as a footnote in the paperback.
    (I confess to having started both Brothers K and C&P but not made much progress).

  2. Dostoyevsky challenging? Oh my! What a confession!

    Ah, the lad is human after all!

  3. I still have so many authors to discover! Sadly, I've been whiling away reading time on "fun" books that aren't all that challenging. Dostoyevsky is on my TBR list for 2012. Thank you, Simon, for another thoughtful review!

  4. Ten minutes ago I'd never heard of 'The Double', now I am very keen to read it immediately!

    But Simon, why the shudder for Conrad? Surely you cannot dislike him? First James, then Conrad... I may have to come over and read you 'Heart of Darkness' relentlessly until you change your mind.

  5. Dad - I didn't realise I was being so topical! So is the conclusion that they didn't meet?

    Mum - not as challenging as War and Peace, obviously ;)

    Geetanjali - I've only read two veryshort Dostoevsky's - I certainly haven't read any of his long books. It seems a good way to dabble in an author without dying from it! The Double was definitely interesting to read, I think you'd value it.

    Helen - hope you manage to track it down soon! If you have a Kindle, it's probably available free...
    And, sorry, I thought Heart of Darkness was incredibly boring! I like the last few pages, but before that it was a definite 'meuh' read for me... it's these boys with their long sentences, they do nothing for me.

  6. "...Russian poet, essayist, and unknown-to-me Joseph Brodsky..."

    Brodsky lived around here towards the end of his life - teaching at Smith College & Mount Holyoke College - the 5-college area of Northampton, South Hadley, and Amherst.

  7. we don't think they did meet (though the dates make it possible). I tried Heart of Darkness once - it must be one of the most anthologised stories around.

  8. I like the question you raise about translation. As a student of Italian, I sometimes try to translate passages of Italian novels (in English) back to Italian just out of curiosity, or if I happen to like the passage. And then I get so completely bogged down in thinking about translation that I forget that I'm actually trying to read... :)

  9. The first thing I read on my Kindle was Henry James' "What Masie Knew." I thought the Kindle was horrible because it was not enjoyable and even somewhat unreadable. You could see that the book had good points, that with a competent medium its sharp observations and good nuanced points would shine. Turns out that my complaints should've been directed to the writer and not the "distributing medium."

    I'm reading War and Peace right now, and because we didn't study *that* part of history in high school, I don't have a lot of background knowledge of Napoleon and Franco-Russian wars to the point that I didn't even realize that we were already in and out of the first war. (That's war?! Or maybe the book at that point was so unengaging for me that I was registering what had been happening.) But Dosteyevsky sounds less sedate than that part of W&P, and probably more enjoyable. :)

    -Tracy from the Philippines

  10. Dylan from Bolton,Lancashire13 March 2012 at 13:54

    I think to understand and enjoy Dostoyevskey,it helps If you yourself have suffered and are perhaps the type of person who can find happiness in their suffering and so can understand the mind of the author and his characters

  11. Pevear and Volokhonsky, a husband and wife team are, in my opinion, the best translators of the Russian classics.

  12. Stumbled upon this, and I must say having read many, many works of Dostoyevsky, this pales in comparison. The Idiot, Brothers Karamozov, Crime and Punishment and a few more are all superior. The Double is ok. It was a very early work of Dostoyevsky--I believe just his second novel--and he was finding his style and footing.

    So if you didn't like it, don't put down Dostoyevsky forever. And if you did, just know that his larger works are as better as they are larger.

  13. Hi! I'm a new visitor, I just discovered your blog yesterday. I am not a native English speaker, so pardon my sentence construction and the eventual mistakes you find.

    I've read your review regarding "The Double".. Why do you put this book down so quickly? This is one of his early works, I think it is his first book, which he wrote when he was just 26 years old! The book is not even finished!! I am not sure if you have read "Crime and Punishment", "The Brothers Karamazov", "The Idiot " or "The Gambler".. Even the books that he wrote in a panic (see for example The Gambler) he wrote beautifully. You don't read Dostoyevsky with a cup of tea in front of you, with your eyes on the clock, just like you read Bridget Jones Diary, hoping you have another book to put on the shelf at the end of the day, and another tick to put on the list. Don't get me wrong, I agree with most of your comments regarding his literary style throughout the book - the phrases are quite long and hard to read, that is absolutely true. But always keep in mind- the book has never been finished, it was one of his first books, his style was not yet formed, and the book has been printed posthumous!

    Do give him another chance, take your time reading Crime and Punishment and please write a review on it too, I am curious to know your opinion about him. There is ABSOLUTELY no other writer I have encountered that is able to connect a main character's psychological state to his reaction and create a more complete and beautiful portrait in a reader's mind. I call his style micro psychological analysis. He is an absolute genius and I recommend it to anybody who starts to read Russian classics.

    Forget about Tolstoy's heavy War and Peace, forget about Anna Karenina, just start with Dostoyevsky. Start with Crime and Punishment and tell us what you think.


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