Twice Shy : Fyodor Dostoyevsky – “The Double”

ABOVE: I knew you were double when I met you.

The doppelgängers of German folklore; the mischievous menaechmi in Plautus, or in Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors”; the Martin Guerres of “The Two Dianas”; the Victorian Jekylls and Hydes. The human is always splitting into two, ( a rather conservative number.) “The Double” is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s second novella, ( after “Poor Folk”) and it’s a noticeable forward leap that uses Nikolai Gogol’s deadpan satires “The Nose” and “The Overcoat” as inspirational springboards. The plot, (easy enough to guess) finds a shy, undistinguished clerk named Golyadkin confronted with an identical, though far more assertive, look-alike (Golyadkin Jr.) whose unexplained presence goes unquestioned by all except by our ineffective hero.

“Our hero” is how Dostoevsky sardonically refers to Golyadkin,  but this is a hero that undergoes no quest; Dostoevsky as the narrator often demurs that he’s not quite Homer or Pushkin, and this is no epic. Golyadkin Sr. is too much of a nothing to even count as an anti-hero. His typical reaction to the possibility of conflict: “He made up his mind that it was better to keep quiet, not to open his lips, and to show that he was ‘all right,’ that he was ‘like every one else,’ and that his position, as far as he could see, was quite a proper one.”

He frequently fails at this propriety, turning into what in current parlance would be deemed a hot mess: “He felt that if he stammered all would be lost at once. And so it turned out – he stammered and floundered . . . floundering, he blushed crimson; blushing, he was overcome with confusion. In his confusion he raised his eyes; raising his eyes he looked about him; looking about him – he almost swooned.”

Golyadkin is a sketch of the personality type that Dostoevsky would soon examine with considerable less humor in “Notes from the Underground”: socially awkward, mired in constant hesitation, shyness, self-doubt. Here’s the poor clerk’s internal monologue as he tries to crash a cool party:

Mr. Golyadkin saw all this through the little window; in two steps he was at the door and had already opened it. “Should he go in or not? Come, should he or not? I’ll go in . . . why not? to the bold all ways lie open!” Reassuring himself in this way, our hero suddenly and quite unexpectedly retreated behind the screen. “No,” he thought.

He berates himself:

“You silly fool, you silly old Golyadkin – silly fool of a surname!”

I don’t know any Russian beyond “nyet”, “tovarich”, and “sputnik” (thanks a lot, James Bond movies!), but I’m going to guess that the name “Golyadkin” contains some pun the translator, (the ever influential Constance Garnett) doesn’t deal with (something like Mr. Halfaman, perhaps?) No ditz on the late Garnett, (whose epochal translations from the Russian pretty much forced Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov into the Anglo-American consciousness.)

Above: They’re trying really hard not to make eye contact while they pee.

P. S.: “The Double” was turned by Richard Aoyade into a 2013 movie with Jesse Eisenberg. By abandoning plot specifics, Aoyade creates a little story about alienation that is a little too Eastern-Bloc-in-the-70s to say much about the Golyadkins in today’s cubicles, (a lost opportunity)  – but still marks Aoyade as one of today’s up-and-coming auteurs. (He’s Moss from “The IT Crowd,” if you didn’t know.)

ABOVE: Auteur.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Smurfing : Peyo – “The Smurfs”

I grew up calling them “Los Pitufos.” When Belgian cartoonist Peyo created them in the late ’50s, they were called “Les Schtroumpfs.” In Germany, they’re Schlumpf. In Italy, they’re Puffi. In Israel, they’re Ha-Dardasim. In Japan, they’re Sumafu. You probably know them as The Smurfs, and possibly hate them a little bit, depending on whether you refer to the movies with Katy Perry as Smurfette or the old Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

ABOVE: Smurfy smurfing smurfers!

I recently tried reading a few of the re-published Smurfs albums. The Smurfs were a lot flatter in character than I remembered. It’s essentially one anonymous guy talking to himself solipsistically in rhythms that make verbal wit an impossibility: in Smurfland, every line is reduced to the same smurfing smurf! If that sounds harsh, consider that when the comic wants to create “characters”, it takes the baseline Smurf and gives it exactly ONE trait. Therefore, the average Smurfs is practically trait-less! The Smurf design itself is cute enough to justify nearly 70 years of popularity; but the stories I read were real light-weights, aimed squarely at children, and I didn’t feel any of the adult pleasures that make something like “Asterix” an all-ages proposition.

RATING: COOL! for kids, SHRUG for adults

 

The Three Dumases : Alexandre Dumas – “The Two Dianas”

Much is made of Auguste Maquet’s collaborations with Alexandre Dumas.

ABOVE: Auguste Maquet, the unsung musketeer.

Hard-core fans know Maquet was essential to Dumas’ astoundingly prolific period of the late 1840s. Some have gone on a pro-Maquet campaign that reminds us that of the “Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare” fanatics. The “anti-Shakespeare” gang has apparently decided  everybody alive in the 1500s wrote Shakespeare’s plays EXCEPT Shakespeare, and has produced overheated conspiracy pamphlets like “Anonymous”. By comparison, the moderate pro-Maquet camp admits that Dumas was the genius, but claims Maquet gave his work solid structures he lacked elsewhere. (I agree). A nice, little speculative movie was made of the fractious friendship between the two a few years back. “The Other Dumas” is an overdue if fantastical homage to the forgotten Maquet. (The movie stars Gerard Depardieu as Dumas, as if you even had to wonder.)

ABOVE: “It’s not pronounced Dumb-ass, I keep telling you! You’re fired!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To its credit, the movie doesn’t try to detract from Dumas’ work. The general consensus is that Maquet did the research, outlines and grunt work; Dumas provided the plot, the wit and panache. Maquet’s own novels are noticeably less engaging – although, and it does bear stressing, hardly terrible. I’ve read a couple and while the uninterested have no need to laboriously seek them out, (they’re only available in French as far as I know), they do have charms. I also strongly believe Maquet is authorially responsible for the character of Chicot in the Valois trilogy: when Maquet went solo after their parting, he took Chicot with him into the novel “The Belle Gabrielle,” under symbolic incognito. (Notice he didn’t try any of that with D’Artagnan or Montecristo, both of which had solid basis in Dumas’ theatrical work and early novels of the ’30s.)

Understandably most of the reviews of “The Other Dumas” lacked familiarity with any of Dumas’ work beyond “The Count of Montecristo” and “The Three Musketeers.” Take this typical article prompted by “The Other Dumas”:

https://flcenterlitarts.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/who-wrote-the-novels-of-alexandre-dumas

The article mentions little of Dumas’ work beyond the two perennials. It says that “for nearly 20 years the two worked closely together.” Not quite.  It’s true that the date of the first meeting between Dumas and Maquet (1839, when Gerard de Nerval introduced them and Maquet showed Dumas the play that would become “Harmental”) and the date of Maquet’s lawsuit against Dumas (1858) would signal “nearly twenty years of closely working together.” But the real partnership between Dumas and Maquet went from 1842 (starting with the publication of “The Chevalier d’Harmental”) until 1850 (the ending of “The Vicomte de Bragelonne.”) That’s eight years, not nearly twenty. Moreover, the “closely together” part of that partnership actually involved the astoundingly prolific FOUR years period between 1844 and 1848 that produced the Count, the Musketeers Trilogy, the Valois Trilogy and the first three Marie Antoinette novels, among others.

Later that same article claims that after the two parted ways, “Dumas wrote nothing else of worth, while Maquet went on to write a lot.” Huh? Dumas went on to write a lot as well and plenty of worth. There were, after all, 22 years after their break, which included newspapers / plays / histories / essays / an epic multi-volume memoir / his classic “Dictionary of Cuisine”  AND at least one (more typically two or three) novels a year, including some big hits like “The Companions of Jehu,” “Emma Lyonna” and “The Mohicans of Paris.” What the writer means to say is that Dumas was ruined after throwing away several fortunes in his lavish lifestyle, while the wiser Maquet saved his pennies and died rich.

ABOVE: Paul Meurice, the other OTHER Dumas?

Anyway, the Dumas- Maquet partnership can only be fully understood in the context of   Dumas’ writer-factory process, which went back to his years as a young theater lion, when plays were co-scripted and passed around. Think of Dumas as the show runner, (the Joss Whedon or Vince Gilligan of his time.) Among Dumas’ other collaborators and ghost-writers were De Nerval, the Countess Dash, and the three Pauls: Paul Bocage, Paul Lacroix, and Paul Meurice. Meurice is more known for his close friendship with Victor Hugo, but he collaborated with Dumas in “Ascanio”

And “The Two Dianas,” which is the book prompting these thoughts.

ABOVE: Wow, someone decided that a drawing of a guy opening a book was an exciting cover for a historical romance!

Quick: It takes place in 1557 and picks up historically more or less directly after “Ascanio”. Gabriel de Montogomery has a problem. He’s in love with Diana de Castro, the illegitimate daughter of Diane de Poitiers and… either Jacques de Montgomery (Gabe’s father) or King Henry II. To complicate maters, Henry II put Jacques away to an indeterminate fate. So Diana de Castro is either Gabriel’s sister … or the daughter of the man who destroyed his father’s life. Dealbreakers everywhere Gabriel turns, so he runs off to sort things out at the Siege of St. Quentin. Nostradamus, Mary Stuart and Ambroise Pare are among the historical figures that parade through the pages.

Some scholarship suggests “The Two Dianas” may very well be entirely of Paul Meurice’s making. There exits a letter in which Dumas seems to give Meurice full authorship of the novel after Meurice asked for permission to prepare a stage version, but the phrasing is ambiguous enough that scholars are still uncertain. The letter could merely be an official business gesture and blessing (as in, “the novel is now yours to do with it as you will”). It’s a great “Dumas” anyway, and fits seamlessly into the canon. Furthermore, some fictional characters from here reappear on “The Page of the Duke of Savoy,” which works as a sequel.

ABOVE: A scene from “Martin Guerre.” They were very musical in 1500s France.

Talking about doubles and twos, “The Two Dianas” features Martin Guerre as Gabriel’s doubled Sancho Panza. Martin Guerre is one of the most famous cases of imposture in the historical record. Guerre was a French peasant who abruptly abandoned his home town in 1548, was thought dead, and reappeared eight years later, in 1556, to return to his wife and family. Except, PLOT TWIST, then the REAL Martin Guerre returned, and the man who had been passing as him for a while was revealed to be a stranger named Arnaud Du Thil. Du Thil was hanged for the fraud, but the oddities of the case – the wife who never said anything! – made a mark. Dumas popularized the Martin Guerre case before, in his massive “The Celebrated Crimes,” but here he uses it to great theatrical effect, (happily shouting out Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors” and Plautus’ “The Menaechmi”.) Mild-mannered Martin Guerre is puzzled by the more daring double of himself who creates mischief everywhere he goes. Dostoevsky’s “The Double”- WITH THE EXACT SAME CONCEIT – was published the same year as “The Two Dianas,” by the way.

COINCIDENCE?!?

Yes, totally. I just like saying “COINCIDENCE?” and raising my eyebrows significantly as I do it. Also I’m reading “The Double” as well so it casts its magic and makes you see doppelgangers everywhere. The “Martin Guerre” case inspired “Sommersby”, a Civil War-set drama starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster, as well as a not-too-successful musical adaptation by Boublil and Schomberg, the makers of “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon.” I am a fan of that show in its several attempted incarnations, but I fully accept its flaws, which include some laughably inane English-language lyrics.

RATING : COOL!

 

 

Monster Mash : Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan, David Lapham -“The Strain”

“They have always been here.

VAMPIRES.

In secret and in darkness.

WAITING.

Now their time has come.

In one week, Manhattan will be gone.

In one month, the country.

In two months- THE WORLD.”

(But really, will “the world” be gone? Or will its population simply be altered?)

ABOVE: The Balding Dead

David Lapham’s on-going adaptation of the Guillermo Del Toro / Chuck Hogan trilogy “The Strain” is a fitting, faithful souvenir of the books, (and honestly,  a better choice for the time-conscious reader, since there isn’t a lot of “literary value” to the novels in the first place.) Del Toro’s “vampire/zombie/contagion” novels are utterly familiar, with the auteur openly acknowledging a debt to Stephen King’s “The Stand” and “Salem’s Lot” – and also everything else from Bram Stroker to George A. Romero to “28 Days Later.” It’s not surprising material, is what I’m saying, and its one innovation is the way the vampires attack with their stingy tongues. Lapham has done better job elsewhere, as well – not that there’s anything terribly wrong with “The Strain,” but it’s more competent than inspired.

RATING: GOOD ENOUGH

The Blogger : Alain Robbe-Grillet – “The Voyeur”

ABOVE: This cover lies. Don’t judge a book by its cover!

The blogger (who is naked, although that is of no importance) sat on a swiveling grey chair before his writing desk. The chair was partially plastic, but there were other materials involved in its composition, such as cloth and foam padding, and probably some screws somewhere in its body. It swiveled left and right, and could in fact, swivel circularly if enough physical force was applied to it. The desk, placed in intimate proximity to the chair, was composed of several wooden planks arranged in such a manner that their planes, some vertical and some horizontal, met perpendicularly in order to create what most would describe as a desk. Other observers could, of course, label it as a table, with no particular loss of accuracy, although tables don’t usually have drawers, and this desk had two drawers, which jutted a little and perhaps could contain something exciting, (like a gun or a folder with state secrets) but not at this point in the narrative. Maybe later. At the moment, the drawers are empty and of no relevance whatsoever. They are mahogany, though, and rectangular, after the fashion of most drawers. The drawers can slide in and out of the desk with ease, placed as they are on thin metal rails. They are not currently sliding, or doing anything, because as stated they are not symbolic. Although I suppose they could symbolize the emptiness of life, or how we just slide along in predetermined patterns. Hell, maybe the drawers remind you of empty coffins. Really, there could be entire courses taught at the Sorbonne about the mysterious meaning of the drawers. But for now the drawers are only mentioned because they are in a desk and there is a laptop computer on the desk. The laptop computer is not on a lap, though, so it is probably best considered as a regular computer. The computer is roughly rectangular, JUST LIKE THE DRAWERS AND THE DESK. Also rectangular is the keyboard, in which little square buttons can be seen, but no keys. Perhaps it should be called the button-board instead! That would make so much more sense. The button-board has the entirety of the alphabet in it, including S and even B. In addition, there are other symbols. Or are they symbols? Is a symbol symbolic if there is no meaning to it? But of course if there is NO meaning, then an impartial, idle mind could assign ALL meaning to meaninglessness. The keyboard is being used by the blogger. Remember him? He’s no longer naked. He’s suddenly inexplicably dressed as a nun. The blogger types the following statement:

“When I pick up a French novel called ‘The Voyeur’, I expect something a little saucier than this. I get what you’re doing, Monsieur Robbe-Grillet. But you’ll agree it’s a little on the boring side.”

RATING: SHRUG

P. S.:

And yet I still want I want to explore his films, (which I imagine must also eschew plot).

ABOVE: Stills from Robbe-Grillet’s “L’Artsy Oooh-lala de Tristesse, Part Deux.”