Monday, January 24, 2011

book review: Uncle's Dream and Other Stories by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

"Oh, my friend, my entire life has been a dream. I kept dreaming and dreaming, but I never lived; I was proud, I scorned the herd - yet what was I so proud of? I myself don't know."

This collection of short stories includes tragedy, humour and an insight into how people lived and survived in a Russia that was hard for both peasant and aspiring aristocrat alike.

The main story Uncle's Dream was penned by Dostoyevsky after a five-year exile in Siberia and covers the tale of a provincial family desperate to better itself through a marriage of their daughter to a senile prince. The old man is hoodwinked and almost forced into a wedding that is expected to last for a short period before he dies and leaves his fortune to the young girl. There are complications however with the young girl Zina already in love with a teacher who is on his death bed. That relationship is frowned on by her ambitious mother and the only other suitor is disliked by Zina.

The mother tries to manipulate everyone to her own advantage but it all comes crashing down and with great humour the plans to marry the Prince fall apart.

What you are left with is a brilliant insight into the desperation for provincial merchants to better their station in life and the gossip and rivalry that is created by their efforts.

A Meek Girl takes the form of a diary like narrative recounting the story of a pawn broker and his wife. She has just committed suicide and the husband dwells on what happened to their relationship. His ambitions to escape to the country and get away from the poverty he sees everyday in the shop is kept from her and the silence that builds up gets to the point where the damage is irreversible.

Along with those two there is A Weak Heart and White Nights which are a tragic tale of the pressures of working to live and the tale of a loner who over four nights falls for a girl who then moves out of his reach.

As a collection it runs along well, sometimes there can be a jarring between stories, and combines a good mix of tragedy and satire. The themes that Dostoyevsky is famous for are all here with the grinding misery of the clerks in A Weak Heart not being a million miles away from the hardship Raskolnikov finds himself in at the start of Crime and Punishment. Its hard not to think of the muddled and manipulated Prince Gavrila in Uncle's Dream as not that far away from Prince in The Idiot.

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