A Gentle Creature and Other Stories by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This little book, translated by Alan Myers, collects three of Dostoevsky’s short works on the subject of the “dreamer”—one early piece, the classic 1848 novella “White Nights,” and two pieces of the 1870s, first published in Diary of a Writer: “A Gentle Creature” and “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.” This allows a fascinating juxtaposition of the writer’s early and late styles.
“White Nights.” I have been meaning to read this one for a long time, and somehow never got around to it, or was perhaps even avoiding it. I recall a friend’s mentioning it, many years ago, in connection with his sorrow upon the unexpected death of a young man who was a near-stranger, just someone he passed most days on the street. This gave me the idea that “White Nights” would be an unbearably touching tale of urban missed connections, of the city’s deep invitation to and frustration of intimacy with strangers, a filament stretched, braided with Baudelaire, between Poe’s nightmarish “Man of the Crowd” (Dostoevsky loved Poe) and Joyce’s wistful Ulysses.
“White Nights” is only that for its first few pages, though, beautiful pages in which the narrator wanders around Petersburg through the titular midnight sunshine familiarizing himself with strangers and architecture. From there, it develops into a brief romance between the narrator and a young woman that lasts all of four nights. (The novella’s ubiquity as cinematic source material—it has been filmed 11 times[*]—makes sense considering this storyline: it calls to mind films such as Breathless, Wings of Desire, and Before Sunset, the lyrical delicacy and evanescence of urban romance being something of a specialty of the movies).
Because the romance plot is a familiar one, though no less devastating in the end, contemporary readers will perhaps be most interested in the aforementioned Poe- and Joyce-like elements, the visions of the flâneur in the radiant northern midnight, amid the Enlightened city’s sleep of reason. Another aspect of the novella, emphasized by W. J. Leatherbarrow in this volume’s introduction, is Dostoevsky’s experiment with a new kind of character: The Dreamer.
Our narrator, we learn, has lived almost his entire life in his mind or in books, dwelling in fantasy as reality becomes more and more unbearable. While this is not exactly a new theme even for the middle 19th century (think of Cervantes), urban isolation and loneliness give it a new poignance, which has not lost its relevance. If they ever want to film the novella a 12th time, they should update it so that the narrator is a video-game addict, or perhaps one of the famous hikikomori of Tokyo. I conclude with this passage, prophetic of D.’s later achievements in creating characters who waver between the sublime and the ridiculous; the narrator explains his predicament to the story’s heroine:
“Do you know that I am compelled to celebrate the anniversary of my own sensations, the anniversary of what was formerly so precious to me, but never actually existed—because the anniversary is celebrated in memory of those same silly disembodied dreamings—and do this because even those silly dreams are no more, since I lack the wherewithal to earn them: even dreams have to be earned, haven’t they? Do you realize that on certain dates I enjoy recalling and visiting those places where I was once happy after my own fashion? I enjoy constructing my present in accord with things now irrevocably past and gone, and I often drift like a shadow, morose and sad, without need or purpose, through the streets and alleyways of Petersburg. What memories there are! I recall, for instance, that it was exactly one year ago, here at this precise time, that I wandered along the same pavement as lonely and depressed as I am now. I remember that even then my dreams were sad, and although things were no better back then, there’s still the feeling that that living was somehow easier and more restful, that there wasn’t this black thought which clings to me now; there were none of these pangs of conscience, bleak, and gloom-laden, which give me no peace by day or night. You ask yourself: where are your dreams now? And you shake your head and say how quickly the years flew by! And you ask yourself again: what have you done with your best years, then? Where have you buried the best days of your life? Have you lived or not? Look, you tell yourself, look how cold the world is becoming. The years will pass and after them will come grim loneliness, and old age, quaking on its stick, and after them misery and despair. Your fantasy world will grow pale, your dreams will fade and die, falling away like the yellow leaves from the trees…”
He is nostalgic, not for the past itself but for the fantasies he was able to harbor in the past, before the futility of his idealism became obvious to him, as well as the inevitability of his continued inaction; he is nostalgic not for anything accomplished or experienced, but simply for potential itself. It would be one thing if accomplishment and experience alone remained elusive, but the true horror is that potential vanishes too, year by year.
Nonetheless, the novella’s conclusion provides a hint of the spiritual consolation Dostoevsky will later offer, even as his visions of horror become more drastic: “A whole moment of bliss! Is that not sufficient even for a man’s entire life?” We are defeated by time but may triumph in eternity, even the eternity mystically represented by a moment. And our moments, needless to say, are what art, more than any other human activity or institution, can preserve—hence modern literature’s (and cinema’s) consecration to the days and nights of the ever-moving, ever-changing city.
“A Gentle Creature.” This story is based, like many of Dostoevsky’s plots, on an event he read about in the newspaper. It narrates the destruction of a young women through marriage to an older pawnbroker spiritually ruined by his own pride, cowardice, and ressentiment. It is another in the author’s portrait galleries of spiteful men who want to possess and destroy beauty because they do not feel themselves worthy of it or capable of living according to the ideals it inspires.
Considered from a strictly literary point of view, the story is notable for its narrative form, which Dostoevsky claims to have borrowed from Victor Hugo; in a preface to the story, he writes that he considers it “fantastic” in the sense that its narrative implies “a supposed stenographer noting everything down”—in other words, recording the narrator’s fragmentary and non-linear account of himself. We have here an approach toward stream-of-consciousness narration, with an authorial intent of establishing the correct “psychological sequence,” as Dostoevsky writes in his preface.
The psychology, though, is in service to a religious conception, an answer to the question of what prevents this man from saving his own soul, what causes him to destroy another soul. For all that, the story is a bit overly long for a re-tread of familiar territory, even if ultimately moving. The narrator of “A Gentle Creature” does call himself a “dreamer,” like the narrator of “White Nights,” but that earlier story, written before Dostoevsky had developed his later religious convictions, allows more play and ambiguity to the dreams themselves; in this story, the dream of revenge upon society is worth too little in itself to give the story much moral ambiguity.
“The Dream of the Ridiculous Man.” I first read this one back in 2002, in a wonderful class taught by Ilya Vinitsky called “Madness and Madmen in Russian Culture” (we also studied Dostoevsky’s The Double, Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” and “Queen of Spades,” and a host of great literature [Lermontov, Odoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Garshin, Hippius, Bulgakov], visual art [Repin, Vrubel, Filonov], and theater/music/dance [Mussorgsky, Khlebnikov, Stravinsky, Nijinsky, Diaghilev], with extra-Russian contexts provided by Plato, Shakespeare, Bosch, Hogarth, and Foucault—overall, it was more fun than should be allowed in college.)
It is slight as a story, but its conceit is a brilliant one. Here we have not a figurative dreamer but a literal one: a man who falls asleep just before he is about to commit suicide, and whose subsequent dream takes up most of the tale. Our narrator, another alienated man, has decided that nothing in life means anything; consequently, he resolves to kill himself, just after rebuffing a young girl’s pleas for help in the street. But he falls asleep instead and dreams of an alien planet where human beings exist in a prelapsarian state, perfectly innocent, free and beautiful, without lies or oppression or violence. The narrator has come from earth with his vices, however, and soon corrupts them by introducing lies into social discourse. Soon enough, they fall from lies into exploitation, sensuality, theft, rape, murder, war, and all the rest.
Perhaps the story’s best insight arrives when these human aliens turn to “scientific” ideological systems to try to remedy their fallen state: in other words, socialism, anarchism, laissez-faire capitalism, and the like are part of the very problem they intend to solve. This does not prevent the narrator from waking up with the intention to communicate his vision, to spread the word and save the world, even though, as he has just seen, it is not within humanity’s power to do so.
The story ends, however, with his resolution to find the little girl whose cries for help he had ignored—this, from Dostoevsky’s Christian point of view, is presumably the right idea: you cannot save the world (even the desire to do so is imbued with Satanic pride), but you can love your neighbor. The interest of this story for us today—a period in which we are drowning in literary dystopias and utopias—is its relocation of the dystopian/utopian vision in the psyche and its projections.
[*] I did watch the most famous of these films, Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche (1957), but I did not like it much. Visconti and his collaborators removed all characterization from the narrator, made his loneliness merely circumstantial (he has just moved to town), and moreover cast the handsome Marcello Mastroianni, who played the role as a slightly bumbling but confident charmer—it is a pleasantly lyrical, if rather dull, film, but has little to do with Dostoevsky.