Another day, another Dostoevsky – yes, Russian Season continues on Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings  – although in many ways it seems to be more of a Dostoevsky Season than anything else!

“Poor People” (sometimes translated as “Poor Folk”) was Dostoevsky’s first novel, published in 1846 – one of a handful of works he produced before his exile to Siberia (the experiences of which he wrote about in “The House of the Dead”). His early works are sometimes overlooked in favour of his major novels, all written after the exile, but as there are so many nice, new translations on the market, I’ve been interested to see how they stand up against the later books. My edition is another nice Hesperus version translated again by Hugh Aplin, who seems to have a handle on producing very readable English versions of Dostoevsky!

PP takes the form of an epistolary novel, told in a series of letters between a lowly, penniless clerk Makar Devushkin, and a young girl, Varvara Alexeyevna. Makar makes his living as a scribe, copying out other people’s work. He adores Varvara, who lives opposite him, and despite the age difference they seem to have a very close relationship. Varvara is a country girl, an orphan who has moved to St. Petersburg and suffered some unnamed slight to her honour which has put her outside the realm of normal society, and she shuns a woman who claims to be her relative and tries to make her own way, earning her living by sewing. Makar in fact is also related distantly to her, and his whole existence revolves around trying to make Varvara happy. What money he earns he spends on presents for her, taking her to the theatre and trying to keep the wolf from her door. In doing so, he neglects his own needs, ending up owing money to his landlady, being made fun of by fellow workers and fellow lodgers and dressing in rags with the soles coming off his shoes. When the gentleman who has been the cause of all Varvara’s problem reappears and asks her to marry him, how will matters be resolved?


But the story is not told in such a straightforward manner – rather, it is gradually and very cleverly revealed in the series of letters between the two protagonists and also in what is implied by these letters. Neither correspondent is what would be called a reliable narrator – they are, in fact, all too human and fallible and these traits are revealed in the way they write and what they write. Although Makar is a lowly clerk, he has aspirations to become an author and is very excited to befriend Ratazyayev, a hack writer who lodges in the same building. Ratazyayev is a very false friend, mocking Makar and using his and Varvara’s story as material for his work. Dostoevsky cleverly has Makar quote some examples of them, high-flown purple prose of the highest order, and a comedy piece that is very derivative of Gogol. In fact, Gogol is obviously a strong influence on this first work of FD, so much so that he actually has Makar reading Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and being horrified by it. FD was accused by some of simply imitating  the great man, but this is not so in my view – Gogol’s story has his clerk descending into madness and is full of the grotesque, but that element is missing in FD’s work. His characters are not simple stereotypes of poor oppressed people, but very realistic. They have their faults and their foibles but are all the more believable because of it and therefore much more deserving of sympathy.

Makar is foolish, wasting money on Varvara and lying to her about his circumstances. He ends up descending into drunkenness and you wonder why, if he loves her so much and she seems to love him back, they don’t just get married and rent a hovel together. Varvara, on her part, is an exile in St. Petersburg. In one of her letters, she sends him a piece she has written about how she grew up in the country and her life there, then her move to St. Petersburg, her first love and loss of all of her family. It’s a wonderful piece of writing and only hints at what has caused her downfall (we never know for sure but we can guess the type of thing). In fact, it is very much a love of words that unites them – they exchange books and thoughts, and it is a collection of Pushkin’s volumes that has a special significance for Varvara. She is a literate, educated girl and obviously struggling with the pull of differing emotions – at times she seems to love Makar very much, calling him her only friend, but in the end the lure of money and comfort and (possibly) the regaining of her good name is too much – and she agrees to marry her seducer, Mr. Bykov. As Makar is starting to consider making more of words in his life, possibly as a writer, Varvara is abandoning books as her new husband thinks that “novels are the ruination of young girls.” So this is very much a book about words and literature which makes it entirely appropriate that it should take the form of letters. However, Makar’s heart is broken and all we can foresee is a descent into destitution for him, and an unhappy marriage for Varvara.

“Ah, my friend, misfortune is an infectious disease. The poor and unfortunate should avoid one another, so as not to become even more infected. I’ve brought misfortunes upon you such as you’d not suffered before in your modest and secluded life. All this is torturing and killing me.”

I find it hard to think that such a strong, wonderfully written, moving and sad book can have been dismissed as just an early work by FD. There are elements here that recur throughout his books – poverty, the struggle to survive, lack of self-esteem, a concern for the opinion of peers, human suffering at the hands of others. These are handled well in what is a desperately sad story and it is interesting to think of the comparisons that have been made between Dickens and Dostoevsky. Certainly, both authors try to give the poor and downtrodden a voice, telling the world of their plight, and it is some of the tales of Makar’s fellow lodgers that break your heart – like the clerk Gorshkov, caught up in a scandal, fighting to clear his name in court, trying to feed his wife and children and keep them alive (but failing) and then finally winning the case but losing all. The more subtle approach FD takes by not beating you over the head with the horrors of poverty is actually a more effective way of conveying this to the reader.

This novel/la is most definitely Dostoevsky, even at this early stage of his writing career. The voice is distinctively his, the clerk Makar in many ways foreshadows future impoverished “little people” (Golyadkin in “The Double” in particular springs to mind) and his concerns are the same. There is less of a manic intensity, and certainly the satirical element is much less pronounced than in later works (although I wouldn’t say it was entirely absent, as some reviews claim). However, this is a strong and powerful work in its own right and deserves, like the other shorter works I’ve reviewed recently, to be up there with his longer, better-known novels.