Monday, November 19, 2012

White Nights and Other Stories by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


My favorite genre of literature is classical.  My favorite time period is the nineteenth century. Favorite authors?  Russian.  Favorite Russian authors?  Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky!


When I moved to Texas several years ago, the men who moved my furniture (if boxes of books qualify as furniture) were from Russia.  I got into a conversation with one of the men about Russian literature.  I mentioned to him my predilection for Russian authors and how much I enjoyed Dostoyevsky in particular.  The man looked at me a moment, then tapped his forehead.  He said, “Dostoyevsky was crazy, you know that?”


   I don’t know if Dostoyevsky was certifiably insane or not, but his writing does seem to express the soul of a tortured individual.  But never without hope.  That is why I love his writings so much.  Dostoyevsky never shies away from writing stories about people whose ‘hearts are desperately wicked’ but, unlike secular humanist writers, he doesn’t stop with the despair.  In spite of evil circumstances and unstable, selfish people, power and hope course through the veins of each story.


Dostoyevsky never preaches, yet God is written on every page.  His presence is declared as it is in nature.  To compare, read a story written by a secularist, such as Anton Chekov or Albert Camus or just about any 20th century writer.  The difference is striking.  Their characters are left adrift. At the end of the story you’re left asking, what was the point?  In Dostoyevsky’s stories, no matter how hard life becomes, no matter how wickedly a person acts there is the sense that God is still holding them in the palm of their hand.


 White Nights and Other Stories is a collection of short stories with Dostoyevsky’s trademark peculiarities.  Each story keeps you guessing with many twists and turns in the plots and events. 


His stories are darkly psychological in nature.  Often, he has the reader following the rambling thoughts of the protaganists giving us a first person account of how the hero perceives his environment and how he reacts to it. The first two stories, The Honest Thief and An Unpleasant Predicament show this- the first as a man wrestles with his conscience over a theft he has made and the second when a man from an upper class crashes the wedding of his subordinate.  He doesn’t shy away from putting his characters in awkward situations and we suffer with them as they struggle to extricate themselves.


Some of his stories are simply zany from a superficial view but contain a message that exposes certain facets of Russian society.  In Another Man’s Wife, we’re led on a merry chase with a man who suspects his wife of infidelity.  He follows a man he believes is her lover, only to enter the wrong door and ends up in the apartment of a strange woman.  While trying to explain his presence to the startled woman, her husband can be heard climbing the stairwell.  In order to avoid a confrontation, the man hides under her bed.  To his surprise he finds another man already hiding there.  You’ll have to read the story to find out how it all resolves.

In The Crocodile, an ambitious business man visits an animal exhibition and falls into the crocodile pit where he is gobbled up by you know what.  He does not die, however, and refuses to be rescued as he believes that living in the crocodile will increase his standing in society.  He even insists that his wife join him.  While these stories seem crazy, a larger picture of 19th century Russian culture and values is drawn.

Bobok is about a man who dies and is buried in a cemetery but remains conscious.  He lies in his coffin listening to the conversations of all the other dead people.  We, of course, listen too, and hear some very interesting stories from people who came from all walks of life but are now lying together in a grave yard.

The title story, White Nights is about a man whose character must have been inspired by Dostoyevsky’s own impulsive, passionate nature.  The man falls in love and wishes to marry a lonely young woman confined to a life of living with her grandmother.  The woman is waiting for her lover, who has promised to return and marry her on a certain day.  The time is approaching and the woman is losing hope.  Will the man return?  Who will she marry?  Or will she get married at all?


Each story pulls the reader in and arrests them until the end.  I don’t believe anyone will be able to put down the book in the middle of any of these novellas.   If you’re a lover of Russian classic literature and especially Fyodor Dostoyevsky, you will enjoy this collection.






Eustacia Tan said...

I'm more of a Tolstoy fan myself, but this sounds like an awesome book!


Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi, Eustacia. Tolstoy is my number one favorite author, too. But Dostoevsky comes in a close second.

Man of la Book said...

Very interesting stories. I seem to remember The Crocodile as a movie I saw when I was a child (it was updated and don't remember in what language) but it made a terrible impression on me to this day.

Dostoyevsky suffered a lot throughout his life, I wouldn't be surprised if he was a bit crazy. He was a political prisoner sentenced to death and faced a mock execution only for his sentence to be changed to 4 years in Siberia.

Brian Joseph said...

That stories about the moving men is priceless.

I really need to read more Russian literature. I will resolve to do so in 2013. I have only read The Possessed by Dostoyevsky. I did find that novel excellent. These stories sound very good.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Brian: I just read "The Possessed" some months back. I agree, it's a thought-provoking story. It provides insight into the events and kinds of people that led up to the Bolshevik Revolution.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Man of la Book: That's interesting. I didn't know they made a movie about The Crocodile. That'd make a horrible impression on me too, as an adult.

I'm sure Dostoevsky was a little off his rocker. He certainly fills his stories with highly emotional and mentally unstable people.