Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky wrote “Netochka Nezvanova” (which translates to something like “Nameless Nobody”) in 1849. It starts off feeling far more ambitious than “Poor Folk” or “The Double”, a first attempt at a long biographical novel. Unfortunately, this tale of a young girl who bounces around from dysfunctional family to dysfunctional family would be truncated by politics. Arrested for his (relatively mild) revolutionary leanings, Dostoyevsky had to endure the famous near-execution by firing squad. Then there were the four years of Siberian imprisonment, the rats pouring out of the cell walls, the bouts of epilepsy, the compulsive reading of the New Testament, all that material he gathered for “The House of the Dead”… There was no way he would return to “Netochka Nezvanova.” The writer had moved on.
It’s probably for the best.
This prologue of a novel is most remarkable perhaps for the way Dostoyevsky sympathetically sticks to a female narrator’s point of view. That Netochka exhibits lesbian tendencies would probably not have been noticed by the 1849 reader, used to sentimental and affectionate depictions of female ties – and not enough modern critics pick up on it. To me, writing at the end 2015, Dostoyevsky might as well have been working on one of the most ambitious lesbian narratives of his era. I mean, what do you make of this passage where young Netochka and her pretty friend Katya comfort each other on a cold Russian night?
“Instantly Katya jumped out of bed and flew to me. I cried out as she came to me, “Get into my bed, sleep with me!” she said, pulling me out of bed. A minute later I was in her bed. We embraced and hugged each other eagerly. Katya kissed and kissed me. “Ah, I remember how you kissed me in the night,” she said, flushing as red as a poppy. I sobbed. “Nyetochka!” whispered Katya through her tears.”
RATING: GOOD ENOUGH.
P.S.: Netochka’s aborted bildungsroman contains some of Dostoyevsky’s more passionate celebrations of literature, such as when the young girl learns to develop an inner life through the novels of authors like Walter Scott.
“It was now that awakened intelligence suddenly, as it were, lighted up my whole past life. Indeed almost every page I read seemed to me as though it were already familiar, as though all these passions, all this life presented to me in such unexpected forms, in such enchanting pictures, was already familiar to me. And how could I help being carried away to the point of forgetting the present, of almost becoming estranged from reality, when in every book I read I found embodied the laws of the same destiny, the same spirit of adventure which dominates the life of man, yet is derived from some chief law of human life which is the condition of safety, preservation and happiness? This law which I suspected I strove my utmost to divine, with every instinct awakened in me almost by a feeling of self-preservation. It was as though I had been forewarned, as though someone were prompting me. It was as though something were stirring prophetically in my heart. And every day hope grew stronger and stronger in my breast, though at the same time my longings, too, grew stronger for that future.”