Back to the immortal Fyodor, and this time with a slightly obscure novella – well, obscure in that I hadn’t heard of it until recently and because it isn’t normally bracketed with all his other, higher profile works. However, having read it, I really can’t understand why!

the-eternal-husband

My volume is from Hesperus Press and translated once more by Hugh Aplin. I see they list the book as being unavailable on their website (why? why?) but you can get hold of copies quite easily from online booksellers (which is what I did). “The Eternal Husband” opens with us being introduced to our narrator, Alexei Ivanovich Velchaninov. Velchaninov is a middle-aged man, something of a society rake, who, as we meet him, is having some kind of mid-life crisis. Stuck in St. Petersburg in a summer of White Nights, dealing with a long-running court case (which is obviously more long-running than it needs to be owing to his constant interference!), he is suffering from a kind of ennui – unsettled, not knowing what to do with himself, obsessed with the court case.

But suddenly Velchaninov starts to see a man with crepe on his hat – a strange man with a face disfigured by smallpox, who seems to keep crossing his path and almost seems to be watching him. This man suddenly turns up at Velchaninov’s lodgings in very unsettling fashion, and turns out to be Pavel Pavlovich Trusotsky, with whom Velchaninov had been friends some nine years ago. What is also gradually revealed is that Velchaninov was also the love of Trusotsky’s wife, Natalya Vasilyevna, who has just died and Pavel Pavlovich has become aware posthumously of her infidelities (as Alexei Ivanovich was obviously one of many).

Velchaninov is initially flummoxed, uncertain as to why Trusotsky has come to St. Petersburg and sought him out, particularly when he finds out that Pavel Pavlovich has brought with him his daughter, Liza. The child is 8 years old and it becomes clear that Alexei is her biological father, and that Trusotsky either suspects or is aware of this, as he treats her very badly. Velchaninov attempts to rescue her from Trusotsky and takes her to stay with a friendly family he knows (the Pogoreltsevs) at their dacha, but alas it is too late.

“You really don’t suffer from memories all the time: you can relax and take a walk – in the intervals.”

The book develops into an amazing battle of wills between the two men, more like a psychological duel than anything else, with a constant reversal of positions. In some ways it is a blessing that poor Liza dies so she cannot become a pawn in their game. Trusotsky torments Velchaninov with his drunkenness, craziness and generally unpredictable nature. Alexei is distraught at the loss of his daughter but snaps out of his misery when Pavel Pavlovich visits him again to announce he intends to remarry and drags him off to meet his intended and her large family. This poor girl, Nadya Zakhlyobinin, turns out to be a 15-year-old school child who absolutely despises Trusotsky and is actually engaged to a young man of 19, who later comes to warn the elder man off. There is an amazing chapter where Velchaninov comes alive in the company of the young people of Nadya’s family, and all their friends, but the excitement is too much for him and he becomes quite ill. Events come to a crisis one night where Trusotsky tries to kill Velchaninov, who miraculously finds the strength to fight him off, and in the morning Trusotsky is gone – from Alexei’s point hopefully for good, as they seem to basically be quits. However, this is not the last of Pavel Pavlovich in the book…

I’m just absolutely stunned by this novella and I can’t imagine why it is not better-known. The writing is up to the standard of the best of Dostoevsky, and I found it just as gripping as “The Gambler” – quite unputdownable with an incredible emotional impact! FD’s characterisation is brilliant and the main protagonists so well portrayed. Basically, neither of the two combatants are particularly good men, but of the two Velchaninov is definitely the better – despite his dissolute society past, he has some goodness in him and is repelled by the baser side of Trusotsky. Pavel Pavlovich himself is a despicable character – unpleasant, violent and manipulative; cruel physically and emotionally to his daughter; and in his pursuit of a 15-year-old schoolgirl, displaying some very creepy tendencies. There’s also a strong supporting cast, including the lovely Pogoreltsev family plus the Zakhlyobinins and their friends. However, the two main men are always to the fore and strongly and strikingly portrayed. There is of course one other person involved in this story – the femme fatale who is in many ways the catalyst for all the events of the book.

We see Natalya Vasilyevna only filtered through the eyes of her cuckolded husband and her lover: she comes across as a dominant, predatory and manipulative woman but we cannot know how reliable this image is. Liza’s love for her mother is only revealed after close questioning by Alexei Ivanovich, and is obviously something she keeps close to her heart, becoming angry with Velchaninov for drawing this out of her. Natalya’s sudden death from consumption gave her no time to deal with her incriminating letters – but I did wonder whether she would have simply left them behind as a kind of punishment for her husband.

There is an underlying theme in this book which might not be obvious to the modern reader, which is a debate going on in Russia at the time as to whether men can be divided into two simple categories – the dominant, predatory type or the passive “eternal husband”. Although it isn’t necessary to take this on board particularly to enjoy this novel, it is interesting to note how Dostoevsky was challenging this stereotype with his writing as both men display characteristics of both types at points through the book. FD was also commenting on such horrors as the Russian legal system and endless court cases (somewhat similar to elements in Gogol’s work) and it is interesting how the case becomes almost symbolic of Velchaninov’s malaise and once it is settled he recovers his health and his life.

In one of the final chapters, Velchaninov finally receives Pavel Pavlovich’s evidence against him (which has remained a subject for speculation all the way through the book, as Alexei Ivanovich stated early on that he never wrote personal letters to Natalya). But Trusotsky sends him a letter from Natalya that was in the event never posted. In the document, she tells Velchaninov of the parentage of Liza and that she will allow him to visit later, but for whatever reason she changed her mind and did not send this. The letter explains so much – Trusotsky’s vile treatment of Liza, who he knew not to be his daughter, and also how he knew about the affair with Natalya, as he was far too oblivious to work out her affairs himself. As Velchaninov reflects:

“He must have turned as pale as a dead man as well,” he (V) thought, chancing to notice his face in the mirror, “he must have been reading it and closing his eyes, and opening them again suddenly in the hope that the letter had turned into plain white paper… He probably repeated the experiment two or three times…”

And this letter is so much worse than any love notes Trusotsky might have found from gentlemen acquaintances of his late wife, as it is from her own hand and is evidence that she was active in this love affair and not just the passive recipient of admirers’ declarations of passion.

dost 1947

So what are we to make of the end of the book? A rejuvenated Velchaninov is travelling by train to visit a lady acquaintance, and encounters Pavel Pavlovich and a new wife. The court case has been settled (mainly because Velchaninov was so distracted by Trusotsky and his behaviour that he left his lawyer alone!), Alexei Ivanovich is in funds and all seems well. But it is not really – the malignant influence of Pavel Pavlovich appears almost straight away – his new wife is charmed by Velchaninov and invites him to stay with them. Trusotsky of course is violently against this as he can foresee becoming a cuckold once more. The last line is very ambiguous and leaves the reader wondering – will Trusotsky and Velchaninov be locked together in emotional combat for the rest of their lives??

This work should be better know, imho – it’s a worthy addition to the highest rank of Dostoevsky’s work and a lot more coherent than some! Also, being slightly shorter, it’s easy to read and does away with some of the philosophical ponderings in the longer works. However, it has much to say about the human condition and also tells a cracking story too!

In a remarkable passage, Velchaninov comes out with a speech which is surprisingly reminiscent of “Notes from Underground” (published some years earlier):

“…why are you pestering a sick, irritable man, a man all but delirious, and dragging him into this darkness… when it’s all an apparition, and a mirage, and a lie, and shameful, and unnatural, and – immoderate – and that’s the main thing of all, that it’s immoderate! And it’s all nonsense; we’re both flawed, underground, vile people…”

The same themes were obviously still working in FD’s mind and he shows them to great effect in this shorter work, wonderfully translated by Hugh Aplin – highly recommended!

(As an aside I’m not sure I quite know what constitutes a novella any more, as this short work packs more in than a lot of so-called novels I’ve read!)