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It is many many years since I have read Dostoyevskys The Idiot; what I do remember is that it was a difficult read that I struggled with. However, I thought it was worth giving this book, a selection of short stories, a read. Poor Folk, the title story in the book, was first published in 1846, just before Dostoyevsky was sentenced to death, which he later escaped, for his political activity. His more famous works, such as The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, were not published until the latter part of the century.
Poor Folk, the main story in the book, describes the relationship between a poor clerk, Makar Davushkin, and a young seamstress, Varvara Alekseyevna. Written in the form of letters, the relationship is clearly a strong one, based on deep feelings, but the two are kept apart by fear of gossip and poverty. Davushkin tries hard on his impoverished wage to improve Varvaras standard of life, but in so doing, he virtually starves himself to death and begins to turn to alcohol.
On the positive side, this story is well-written and is an excellent, if disturbing, portrayal of life in Russia in the first half of the nineteenth century. Dostoyevsky came from a relatively wealthy family, although he clearly had his own struggles when he served a penal sentence in Siberia, so it does seem slightly odd that he should choose to write about the down and outs. However he does a pretty good job of describing the struggles that the couple go through just to keep themselves alive.
More negatively, the use of the language in the letters drove me totally mad. Davushkin constantly refers to Varvara Alekseyevna as little mother, my dove, my little angel etc which I found patronising and annoying. I know that this is probably the type of language used at the time and is the best way of translating it into English, but I really struggled to not throw the book across the room every time one of these phrases was used. On top of that, the general air of the story was over-blown tragedy. The two characters struggled to keep their heads above water and yet were constantly telling each other in one letter that everything was fine and not to worry, followed by a letter begging for help. None of this helped me to feel much sympathy for either of them; not the aim of the author I am sure.
The Landlady portrays the story of a recluse, Ordynov, who moves into a room in the house of a beautiful young woman and her elderly husband. Besotted by his landlady, Ordynov falls ill because of his desire to improve her life and is delighted by her caring attitude towards him.
The Landlady is an odd story. It has a supernatural edge to it; at times it seems as if Ordynov is dreaming and that the situation around him is not real. Again, the prose is overly tragic; Ordynov throws his all into his relationship with his landlady and it seems that without her, he will not be able to exist. On the whole, I preferred it to Poor Folk, but it is still an odd story that seems to have very little point.
The book then really begins to go downhill. Mr Prokharchin is the story of the man of the title, a minor government official who lives in great poverty; although he is actually far better off than anyone believes. He keeps himself to himself, except for the odd argument with his housemates, all of whom put up with him because of his age.
This is a very short story, just 30 pages long and to be honest, I was pleased that it was not any longer. I took an immediate dislike to Mr Prokharchin and felt very little sympathy for him. Again, I wasnt sure what the point of the story was, except maybe to portray the life of an oddball and how he fits into society.
The final story, Polzunkov, is another story about an odd little man. Polzunkov is a bit of a story-teller who is laughed at by his friends and puts himself in a position where an April Fools joke goes too far. Frankly, it was by far the worst story in the book and I struggled to finish it.
I was generally disappointed by this book. I expected a lot more than I got. None of the stories really gripped me and the fact that I finished the last two stories at all was a miracle. I am glad that this wasnt my first introduction to the Russian authors; it would have put me off reading any more. I know that Dostoyevsky can write much better than this and will definitely read more of his work, but I will certainly look to the later books that he wrote. There was a strong feeling of naivety about this collection. I suspect (although this is my opinion rather than a fact) that Dostoyevsky had strong political leanings towards communism and had great sympathy for the poor, but not having had any direct experience of their lives and not being mature enough to imagine them, his first attempt at describing their lives was just not successful.
Although I feel a bit strange criticising one of the great masters of Russian fiction, I cant recommend this book. Perhaps if you have read his other work and are interested in his early career, this may be worth a read, but I certainly wouldnt recommend this to anyone who wants to use this as an introduction to Russian literature.
If I havent put you off, the book is available from play.com for £7.49. Published by Penguin Books, it has 288 pages. ISBN: 0140445056.
This collection of Dostoyevsky's shorter fiction contains Poor Folk, his first novella, together with a selection from his earlier short stories, Mr Prokharchin, The Landlady, A Faint Heart and Uncle's Dream.