Girl, Interrupted : Fyodor Dostoyevsky – “Netochka Nezvanova”




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.”

Sexy, amirite?


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.”



Once is Never Enough : Jose Saramago- “The Double”

The late Nobelist Jose Saramago couldn’t resist remaking Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Double” (cleverly calling his version “The Double”). Russia turns into Portugal. The asphyxiating office setting of the original gets slightly more sophisticated: this non-hero, Tertuliano Maximo Afonso, is a history teacher instead of a lowly clerk. And instead of first glimpsing his inexplicable clone in the flesh (like Dostoevsky’s Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin),  Tertuliano Maximo Afonso first sees his double on a TV screen. That’s modernity for you.

ABOVE: I really enjoy this cover!

Tertuliano Maximo Afonso: that’s a punny name, and the way Saramago insists on its full evocation all the time keys us to some deeper meaning. It is ridiculously high fallutin, vaguely suggestive of Roman Emperors, for starters. Tertullian was an early Christian writer most notable for the first historical formulation of the concept of the Trinity (“The Triple”?) Afonso is an extremely common Portuguese and Hispanic last name. Maximo is modifying the Alfonso: TMA is the ultimate average guy.

His twin is a supporting actor named Antonio Claro, his name equally as significant, “clear”, perhaps as a drop of dew is clear, of course drops of dew are known for their persistent, mysterious tendency toward being identical, whereas humans, swollen with hubris, put their efforts into uniqueness even if it comes down to a matter of a longer nose here, a shorter dress here, extra pounds or odd dietary habits, who knows what we will do not to allow clarity to be our trademarks, uniqueness becomes its own form of duplicity, but then aren’t duplicity and duplication the same?

Sorry, that’s Saramago’s style here: Commas link thoughts, drag the omniscient narrator into post-modern conversation with the characters, as Tertuliano Maximo Afonso and Antonio Claro engage in a cat-and-mouse (or is it cat-and-cat game?) for supremacy. The women in their respective lives become targets. (Without giving much away, at one point I found myself asking the question: if someone is deceived into having willing sex with someone they would be unwilling to have sex with, is that a rape?) “The Double” is frequently suspenseful and entertaining throughout, as long as one isn’t nagged by the feeling that it is simply a “Twilight Zone” script that has been artsified by a Nobel laureate. It gets extra points for the compelling usage of Anton Chekhov’s shotgun-on-the-wall dictum.


P.S.: Saramago’s novel inspired “The Enemy,” directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Have not seen and cannot comment, but judging by a couple of reviews that mention its frustrating ambiguities, some liberties must have been taken. “The Double” explains itself plenty.

ABOVE: Jake Gyllenhaal is one binge-eating, carb-loading summer away from turning into Zach Galifianakis.

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 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 me 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 Dumas’ 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”:

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.


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.