Dostoevsky, Comedian

Dostoevsky, Comedian June 16, 2010

Dostoevsky is not usually thought of as a comic writer, but he was a great comedian and satirist.  When Grandma shows up unexpectedly at the casino in The Gambler , the novel takes a sudden Woodhousean turn.  Feodor Karamzov is disgusting, but hilariously so.  His greatest comic creation was perhaps Karmazinov in Demons , a satire on Turgenev.

Dostoevsky’s narrator describes the egoism at the heart of Karmazinov’s writing, his tendency to ignore the victims of suffering and concentrate instead on the horrors he has to endure: “A year before, I had read an article of his in a review, written with an immense affectation of naive poetry, and psychology too. He described the wreck of some steamer on the English coast, of which he had been the witness, and how he had seen the drowning people saved, and the dead bodies brought ashore. All this rather long and verbose article was written solely with the object of self-display. One seemed to read between the lines: ‘Concentrate yourselves on me. Behold what I was like at those moments. What are the sea, the storm, the rocks, the splinters of wrecked ships to you? I have described all that sufficiently to you with my mighty pen. Why look at that drowned woman with the dead child in her dead arms? Look rather at me, see how I was unable to bear that sight and turned away from it. Here I stood with my back to it; here I was horrified and could not bring myself to look; I blinked my eyes—isn’t that interesting?’” Dostoevsky didn’t have the word, but if he had, he would have called this kitsch – which, as Milan Kundera has noted, is not the tear shed for the suffering or the beautiful, but the second tear shed for the feelings one feels when one is a witness to suffering or beauty.

When Karmazinov gives what he claims is his final public reading before he lays down his pen, Dostoevsky pulls out all the stops.

The narrator summarizes: “The subject . . . . Who could make it out? It was a sort of description of certain impressions and reminiscences. But of what? And about what? Though the leading intellects of the province did their utmost during the first half of the reading, they could make nothing of it, and they listened to the second part simply out of politeness. A great deal was said about love, indeed, of the love of the genius for some person, but I must admit it made rather an awkward impression. For the great writer to tell us about his first kiss seemed to my mind a little incongruous with his short and fat-little figure . . . Another thing that was offensive; these kisses did not occur as they do with the rest of mankind. There had to be a framework of gorse (it had to be gorse or some such plant that one must look up in a flora) and there had to be a tint of purple in the sky, such as no mortal had ever observed before, or if some people had seen it, they had never noticed it, but he seemed to say, “I have seen it and am describing it to you, fools, as if it were a most ordinary thing.” The tree under which the interesting couple sat had of course to be of an orange colour. They were sitting somewhere in Germany. Suddenly they see Pompey or Cassius on the eve of a battle, and both are penetrated by a thrill of ecstasy. Some wood-nymph squeaked in the bushes. Gluck played the violin among the reeds. The title of the piece lie was playing was given in full, but no one knew it, so that one would have had to look it up in a musical dictionary. Meanwhile a fog came on, such a fog, such a fog, that it was more like a million pillows than a fog. And suddenly everything disappears and the great genius is crossing the frozen Volga in a thaw. Two and a half pages are filled with the crossing, and yet he falls through the ice. The genius is drowning—you imagine he was drowned? Not a bit of it; this was simply in order that when he was drowning and at his last gasp, he might catch sight of a bit of ice, the size of a pea, but pure and crystal ‘as a frozen tear,’ and in that tear was reflected Germany, or more accurately the sky of Germany, and its iridescent sparkle recalled to his mind the very tear which ‘dost thou remember, fell from thine eyes when we were sitting under that emerald tree, and thou didst cry out joyfully: ‘There is no crime!’ ‘No,’ I said through my tears, ‘but if that is so, there are no righteous either.’ We sobbed and parted for ever.’ She went off somewhere to the sea coast, while he went to visit some caves, and then he descends and descends and descends for three years under Suharev Tower in Moscow, and suddenly in the very bowels of the earth, he finds in a cave a lamp, and before the lamp a hermit. The hermit is praying. The genius leans against a little barred window, and suddenly hears a sigh. Do you suppose it was the hermit sighing? Much he cares about the hermit! Not a bit of it, this sigh simply reminds him of her first sigh, thirty-seven years before, ‘in Germany, when, dost thou remember, we sat under an agate tree and thou didst say to me, ‘Why love? See ochra is growing all around and I love thee; but the ochra will cease to grow, and I shall cease to love.’ Then the fog comes on again, Hoffman appears on the scene, the wood-nymph whistles a tune from Chopin, and suddenly out of the fog appears Ancus Marcius over the roofs of Rome, wearing a laurel wreath. ‘A chill of ecstasy ran down our backs and we parted for ever’—and so on and so on.”

As Joseph Frank puts it, everything in Karmazinov/Turgenev’s writing expresses his own existential anguish, and in the final sentences Dostoevsky gives a pastiche of Turgenev’s penchant for literary allusion.

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