Poor Folk was Dostoyevsky’s first published work (age 22), a novella in letters between a middle-aged clerk and a young woman living across the courtyard from him. It’s a lugubrious story, the man trying to deny his romantic urges toward the young woman, transmute them into an avuncular affection. The young woman the victim of illness and a hard life, responding to his kindness with mixed motives. Within his limited means, he’s a bit of a sugar daddy, and she’s in no position to reject his gifts. Nor is she impervious to his affection. She’s known precious little of it in her life, and his attentions are by no means unwelcome. They go back and forth through a number of travails, neither of them being completely honest with one another or with themselves. Both feeling they should be happier, content to have a roof over their heads, quit complaining. I suppose in a modern time, they would consummate the affair and run into trouble because of their low self-esteem. In D’s 19th C. Russia, though, one must always worry about public opinion and disgrace, and so they were careful in the extreme to avoid impropriety even though gossipy tongues still wagged. She ends by entering an unhappy marriage to escape from a poverty which would have ended in death by starvation or illness before long. He is left bereft, even more miserable than before. As I said, a lugubrious tale.
My favorite in the volume, was not, however, the title story, but the second one, called “The Landlady.” As usual with Dostoyevsky it’s full of malaise and extravagant emotion, but there’s also an element of myth and fantasy which is unusual for him, famous for his realism. The “landlady” in question rents a small room in a small apartment to a student who has become obsessed with her after seeing her in church. Only problem is that she’s married–maybe–to an older man who lives there, too. The grounds of the apartment are tended and gardened by a tartar who may or may not be a devil figure. The old man and the student share a friend who may or may not represent some sort of bridge between this world and another. The woman herself may or may not be insane, may or may not be in love with the student. The entire story vibrates with this uncertainty about what is real and what isn’t, and the tension is delicious.
And so much for mother Russia for 2010.