Sunday, March 01, 2009

book review - Poor Folk & Other Stories

The Fyodor Dostoyevsky literary career had to start somewhere and this was his first major work, which won him the plaudits of many in the Russian literary scene. Part of the reason for the warmth shown towards this story is because of the subject and the ease with which those campaigning for social justice could use it for their own ends.

But it is not quite so simple as that because this tale of poverty and living on the border of destitution and social disgrace is applicable to much more than a period of Russian history. If anything the current recession is a good time to be reading Poor Folk. It shows that the misery of the poor is often self-inflicted with human failings and weaknesses knocking them off the road to self-sustainability.

Mind you for those that can only dream of renting an entire room, as compared to a portioned off part of a communal kitchen, it is no wonder that occasionally the lure of drink and the chance to forget proves too strong. At the heart of Poor Folk is the relationship between a clerk and a young seamstress who are both trapped in poverty. In the end she is forced into a marriage to save herself and he is only lifted out of misery by a spontaneous act of kindness from his employer.

You sense that for Dostoyevsky the point here was to portray characters in extreme circumstances and in many ways the poverty is a fact and almost neutral in terms of being a fact of life. Presumably those that believed this was a campaigning writer highlighting the inequalities in Russian society were dismayed to find that it was character and the internal battles ion the mind that were to be the focus of Fyodor.

Some of the other stories in this collection illustrate that perfectly with The Landlady illustrating the dangers that an innocent faces once he is forced to move his lodgings. He is unable to cope with some of the more bizarre and barbaric people he meets on his journey and the unsettling relationship between his new landlady, a young woman, and her aged and possessive keeper. He is unable to break her away from the old man and ends up losing his confidence in life and his own studies. In some ways it is a battle of the new Russian versus the old mystical and village based world. The lack of comprehension by the former means that the more established and solid old-world triumphs in this tale.

Elsewhere the tale of Mr Prokharchin again is a story that on one level describes an old man who hoards money in his mattress and is driven to death by the pressure of keeping that secret. But it is also a study in human relationships with some of his fellow lodgers using his madness and fall into death as a chance to lecture him and others after the fortune is discovered as a chance to show their ugliness and petty mindedness.

If you like Dostoyevsky for the reasons that he tells it like it is and lifts the stone to reveal the inner workings of the human character then this collection of stories ticks all those boxes. But it also shows how he started with concern not just about the situation that people where in materially and physically but of course spiritually. He believed very much in brotherhood, something that comes through in his later works, but here it is even more powerful because of its absence. Without some sense of brotherhood or belief in something better and a common cause the characters that are described are a great deal poorer than just at first realise.

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