A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

What would a 19th-century factory boss from New England do if, in a brawl, he was knocked unconscious and awoke in Old England? This is the question Mark Twain considers in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court through the character of Hank Morgan—whose answer is to make gunpowder, pretend to be a wizard, and try to industrialize and republicanize Arthur’s England.

A classic of satire, Twain’s use of a frame narrative allows him to examine, poke fun at, and comment on the, as his character believes, outdated aspects of chivalric England while also doing the same at his character, himself. Like with other narrators, Morgan’s assumption that he understands things best makes him subject to parody, as well. The effect is a complex mix of humor and commentary that, even when it is didactic, is rarely unironically so.

Throughout the work, Twain’s juxtaposition of the American man of progress with the established structures of England’s narrative past concretizes the questions of what had been gained by the development of the American national character, and what may have been lost. As such, it is as much an investigation of Gilded Age culture and character as it is of the English past, from which Americans should not believe they are so cut off—nor should they want to be. Because of all of this, CYKAC exemplifies why Twain stands as a quintessential American writer, incorporating so many aspects of American culture and its origins into a humorous plot as he does.


The Insulted and Injured by Fyodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

Dostoevsky’s first full novel after his release from the Siberian labor camp and his subsequent attempts to reenter the Russian literary scene, The Insulted and Injured incorporates many of the motifs and tropes popular in the roman-feuilltons of the time. Think Dickens at his most heartstrings-pullingly sympathetic, pathetic, and bathetic; often I found myself remembering Nicholas Nickelby, among others, though often without Dickens’s ironic humor.

A romantic narrator willing to sacrifice himself and his love for a young woman (Natasha), who, herself, is in love with another man (see Dostoevksy’s pre-Siberian “White Nights,” among others, for a similar love triangle plot), a poor gentry father who has cut off his daughter for indecently eloping with a neighboring aristocrat, that aristocrat’s princely father cravenly aiming, from his position of power and wealth, to ruin the honest and innocent around him, and a little girl of unknown heritage brought up in penury—Dostoevsky incorporates all these elements into the novel. With all this, the novel distills the popular trends of the time into a set of dual plotlines—the marriage quadrangle between the narrator, Natasha, the aristocrat Alyosha, and his intended Katerina, and the parentage plot of thirteen-year-old Nellie Smith—that, it is discovered by the end of the novel, are connected in more ways than merely through the narrator.

Rather than being a mere pastiche of the literary trends of the 1860s (which, certainly, it is, though it nonetheless held the attention of its dismissive public to the last installment), The Insulted and Injured shows Dostoevsky growing and experimenting with novelistic elements in ways that presage his later works. One can find in the book embryonic versions of later characters and situations, as well as maturation of previous ones. While it lacks the prescience and depth of Dostoevsky’s later works (he himself said there were only 50 pages in the novel of which he was proud), the novel nonetheless serves as an informative example of the author’s transition into those works. It also serves to show his tackling of the contemporary issue of women’s liberation, especially through the character of Natasha, who is disowned by her father for exercising what relationship autonomy she can; that issue, of course, would be further explored and addressed by Dostoevsky in his later works, form Notes from Underground to The Brothers Karamazov.

While The Insulted and Injured may serve as a good introduction for those coming to him from Dickens, etc, it is not Dostoevsky’s most Dostoevskian work, and one should not approach it expecting similar exploration of psychology, philosophy (there’s a bit of both, but not much), crime, politics, or other major elements that characterize the author’s most-known masterpieces.

Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

The second in Joseph Frank’s biography on Dostoevsky, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 picks up where The Seeds of Revolt leaves off. After being arrested for his participation in a printing scheme whose socialist literature was judged seditious by Tsarist censors, Dostoevsky waits in prison for his summary execution. However, in a staged act of magnanimity, the Tsar pardons Dostoevsky et al. at the last moment, sending them instead to different Siberian prison camps.

Dostoevsky’s experiences and revelations in his four-year term in Siberia and his subsequent service in the military following it are the focus of The Years of Ordeal. In prison the still young (late twenties) Dostoevsky meets many peasant convicts, who he learns are nothing like what he and other upper-class intelligentsia assumed, neither needing nor wanting liberation by the Western liberal elite. In his process of discovering the psychology of those around him, Dostoevsky discovers that such things as private property, clear social hierarchy, and the moral metaphysics established by Russian Orthodox Christianity are serious needs that make the peasant convicts stronger, more resilient, and more at peace than those in his own class. Throughout the book, and pointing forward to works like Crime and Punishment and The Devils, Frank tracks Dostoevsky’s growing realization of the revolutionary socialist perspective as both naive and self-destructive.

Following Dostoevsky’s time in prison, Frank depicts the man’s attempts to reestablish himself on the literary scene while fulfilling his obligations as a soldier in the provincial town of Semipalatinsk. Bringing in writing from the time and more recent diagnoses, Frank also examines Dostoevsky’s nascent epilepsy, which runs parallel to the writer’s relationship with his first wife, Marya Dimitrievna. Married to a drunk when Dostoevsky first meets her, Dimitrievna consumes the man and establishes many identifiable themes for in his later female characters.

As in The Seeds of Revolt, Frank follows the biographical chapters with an examination of Dostoevsky’s literature during the respective years. Articulating how the literary scene (often the only place to avoid censors and discuss politics in Tsarist Russia) had developed since Dostevsky’s arrest, Frank describes the ascent of men such as Alexander Herzen, who now occupied the place in Russian culture previously held by Vissarion Belinsky, and seminarian socialist N. G. Chernyshevsky. Dostoevsky finds that the upper class values and self-doubt he previously depicted and lampooned in The Double and other works now under full attack, with a growing divide between “weak” upper class deference to tradition and “strong” willfulness to disregard it. Into this divide (which places the previously gauche Dostoevsky among such writers as Turgenev and Tolstoy, who welcome him) Dostoevsky brings his recent prison realizations about human psychology and ideology, and one can see the development of such ideas as would inform his later works.

Frank ends the book with an examination of Dostoevsky’s writing during the time, namely Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. (Because Dostoevsky would not write The House of the Dead until later years, Frank defers examining it, though he has quoted passages throughout to inform the reading of Dostevsky’s prison years.) Summarizing the books, Frank articulates how Dostoevsky’s ideas and themes have grown since Poor Folk and The Double, and he shows how time in prison has tested and nuanced Dostoevsky’s relationship with Romanticism and Naturalism (a major theme in The Seeds of Revolt), consistently hinting forward to Dostoevsky’s larger works.

Covering what Frank argues is the most formative decade of Dostoevsky’s life, The Years of Ordeal provides a fascinating look at not only how Dostoevsky became the writer he did, but also how Russia changed during these years. The work, thus, provides invaluable insight on the cultural, ideological, and political changes that would foreground Dostoevsky’s later masterpieces, as well as the later revolutions in later 19th and early 20th century Russia.

Dostoevsky: The Seeds of Revolt, 1821-1849 by Joseph Frank—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

Not for the faint of heart, Joseph Frank’s series on Dostoevsky reverses the “examine the work to understand the man” approach to biography and instead examines themes in Dostoevsky’s life that might inform our understanding of his work.

The first of Frank’s five-volume biography, The Seeds of Revolt examines elements of Dostoevsky’s childhood, family, early religious life, and initial presence in the literary scene of 19th-century St. Petersburg to inform his earliest works, such as Poor Folk, The Double, The Landlady, White Nights, and others. Leading up to Dostoevsky’s 1849 arrest, Frank identifies the cultural and political conflicts in Russian society at the time—among which are the move in Russian interests from German Romanticism to French Naturalism and the question of whether reform (specifically, the end of serfdom) should come from the Tsar or from the people.

Amidst these conflicts, a young Fyodor Dostoevsky developed his own ideas of Naturalistic social consciousness while maintaining (often to his social detriment) a conviction that Romanticism was not completely meritless. Recounting Dostoevsky’s moves between different social and literary circles, Frank deftly shows how he eventually embroiled himself in a plot to print subversive materials advocating that the liberation of the serfs should come from below. While presenting Dostoevsky honestly as a revolutionary, Frank never removes his eye from the implicit, abstract themes in the man’s work that show his psychological and literary progression as more than those of a simple social radical.

Despite the work’s length and weight of subject, Frank’s prose is eminently readable and his organization compelling. Prefacing Dostoevsky’s St. Petersburg life (the bulk of the book) with chapters about his childhood and then ending the book with a focused look at the early works he has mentioned throughout, Joseph Frank offers a biography that does not read as a simply chronological biography, and he provides a context and jumping-off point that can easily prompt one to read not only Dostoevsky’s early work but also the next volume of the biography.

The Double by Fyodor Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

The Double, Dostoevsky’s second acclaimed novel after Poor Folk, examines the psychological split of clerk Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin. The story opens with a much anticipated and ultimately unsuccessful attempt by Golyadkin to join his superiors from work at a young woman’s birthday party. Walking through the foggy St. Petersburg afterwards, Golyadkin encounters another Golyadkin, his own double. As the story progresses, the protagonist realizes that, far from becoming an ally in his quest for social advancement, his double becomes his main obstacle, especially as he shows himself to be confident, poised, and daring–all the things our Golyadkin wishes he was. With the appearance of “Golyadkin Junior” the narrator increasingly hints that Golyadkin Senior’s interpretations and expectations of his world are unreliable, and that, far from being the hero of his own story, he himself might be something much worse.

The Double includes many elements common to Dostoevsky: an antiheroic clerk, an often self-contradictory St. Petersburg, unexpected meetings in restaurants and bars, and a steady break between a character’s ideal expectations and his reality. Dostoevsky wrote The Double in the middle of the Russian literary milieu’s transition from Romanticism to Realism, and it contains many elements of that transition–especially in the disconnect between Golyadkin’s interpretation of events and their actual significance (or lack thereof). What might have been a legitimate social battle between a virtuous protagonist and his malicious rival fifty years earlier becomes a study in psychological projection and perceptual unreliability, and it’s easy to see early studies of Dostoevsky’s latter characters who become their own antagonist, such as the Underground man and Raskolnikov.

Although one might expect a writer’s early works to lack the depth of their latter masterpieces, The Double stands out as a nuanced and sophisticated work. A major character worth studying (or teaching) in the book is the third person narrator; with his earnest treatment of the mediocre ambitions of his less-than-mediocre protagonist, Dostoevsky’s narrator highlights the absurdities and ironic humor of Golyadkin’s life, as well as of contemporary St. Petersburg as a whole–the daily life and mores of which are displayed throughout the work. Most importantly, the narrator (as well as everything else) makes the work ENTERTAINING, especially when one keeps in mind the unreliability of the narrator’s subtly winking presentation of Golyadkin (reminiscent of Austen’s limited omniscient narrators).

“A Little Hero” by F. Dostoevsky—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on Goodreads.com.

A delightful novella that incorporates the best of Dostoevsky’s early literary concerns, namely the exploration of the psychology of characters and the tension between the Romantic and naturalistic ways of interpreting life.

Told from the perspective of an eleven-year-old boy, “A Little Hero,” depicts a seasonal congress of the nobility at the estate of Mr. and Mme. M. After laying out the cast and their respective idiosyncrasies—including those of a particular blonde and pokingly impertinent divinity and the more sentimental Mme. M, who engross most of the little narrator’s attention—the story moves on to depict how the young hero seeks to derive his status as such with a show of horsemanship on an unridable horse. Throughout and at times in spite of the young boy’s perceptions Dostoevsky depicts the types of illicit intrigues of the estate class in which much of Tolstoy’s later work would consist.

Motifs of the romantic knight-errant, as well as those of the courtly love tradition, provide both structure and irony to the story: while using such themes, Dostoevsky nonetheless turns them on their head, both with the hero being beset by two ladies (a reversal of Guinevere and Arthur v Lancelot—which, itself, is depicted elsewhere in the story), the dramatic irony of the boy’s romantic interpretation of the reality of the upper-class interludes, and with the hero’s being, in the end, only an observer of the woman with which he is in love.

Continuing Dostoevsky’s earlier depiction of the dreamer in “White Nights,”“A Little Hero” thus incorporates many of the questions for which the author was articulating his own answers, providing an early Dostoevskian depiction of a generally non-Dostoevskian milieu.

A further reflection on NN’s Efimov

Belief in intoxication—Owing to the contrasts other states of consciousness present and to the wasteful squandering of their nervous energy, people who live for sublime and enraptured moments are usually wretched and disconsolate; they view those moments as their true self and the misery and despair as the effect of everything ‘outside the self’, [because they teach dissatisfaction and disdain for the world along with the obfuscation of the genius cult. Who will, then, have to suffer from these immoderates? Their entire surroundings into the farthest future, especially the children]; thus the thought of their environment, their age, their entire world fills them with vengeful emotions…Humanity has these rapturous drunkards to thank for a great deal of evil: for they are the insatiable sowers of the weeds of dissatisfaction with self and neighbor, of disdain for this world and their time, and especially of world-weariness. Perhaps a whole hell of criminals could not muster and impact as sinister and uncanny…[as] people of genius who cannot control themselves and who take all possible pleasure in themselves only at the point where they have completely lost themselves… “—F. Nietzsche, Dawn I.50 (italics in trans.; brackets from prelim draft)

Dostoevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova was published in 1849, Nietzsche’s Dawn in 1881, the year of the former writer’s death. It is known that Nietzsche did not discover Dostoevsky, whom he famously calls in his 1888 The Twilight of the Idols “the only psychologist from whom I had anything to learn” (IX.45), until around 1886-87; he almost certainly did not read NN. Yet, in a not-uncommon serendipity, Nietzsche articulates clearly an idea previously concretized in the work of Dostoevsky.

This type of seeming coincidence between the two has more and more made me take both writers’ work seriously as correct diagnoses of 19th century Europe, their respectively different prescriptions to the diagnoses notwithstanding. They both understood that the souring of early 19th-century Romanticism, the ideological and aesthetic effects of the French revolution and Napoleon (that such events and such a man should be possible, etc), the scientism of which Darwin was only a part (albeit a major one), and the metaphysical and ethical questions posed by all of these and other issues had led to a deeply unstable decadence. Ultimately bringing home Falstaff’s almost prophetic pronouncement upon finding Sir Walter Blunt’s body on the battlefield that “there’s honour for you” (1HIV 5.2), it would take the Great War for Europe to realize they no longer believed in the values their the culture was built on (is not reading modern history often a game of “Shakespeare, et al, were right”?).

Nietzsche’s and Dostoevsky’s respective responses to the problem—the emptying of the values at the source of the culture, what N would declare in The Gay Science as the death of God—are as different as they are nuanced. Acknowledging (with a bravery one still rarely sees in such topics) that if one removes the root they have no right to the tree, Nietzsche would eventually call for a wholesale replacement of the Platonic-Christian metaphysic, with the godlike ubermensch as its standard of value. Meanwhile, against (though not really) Nietzsche’s ubermensch Dostoevsky had already presented his answer to decadence in the young, diffident, unprepossessing erstwhile monk, the Christlike Alyosha. Whereas, in laying out the power of the ubermensch, Nietzsche keeps before his reader’s awareness the fact that such an existence will be beyond the vast majority of humans, Dostoevsky’s Alyosha is characterized by his ability to lift up and redeem even the worst of characters. Of course, Alyosha stands as Dostoevsky’s larger answer to the empty decadence of Europe: a return to Orthodox Christianity, which, because of its sacramental worldview whereby all the world can have a divine significance, stands as a reliable source of the Romantic outlook the early Dostoevsky was, to use a Nietzschean image, pushing into the fire to discover whether it was a god or an idol.

Dostoevsky’s most nuanced critical investigation into Romanticism is NN‘s Efimov, whom I describe elsewhere. Again, that Nietzsche’s Dawn should sound like a commentary on Efimov speaks to the prescience of both works. To treat the above passage as if it were such a commentary:

The Romantic vision as Intoxication

To say that Efimov’s primary vice is alcohol would be wrong; it is not until his pretensions of his own greatness cause him to accuse his landowning employer of misuse of authority that, against said beneficient employer’s advice, he becomes a drunk. Efimov’s dissolution with alcohol is merely an effect of his deeper disconnect from reality, though it certainly reinforces the latter—not only with the perception distortion of the drink but also the subsequent wasting of money which, to Efimov’s implicit savor, keeps Efimov in a dejected, put-upon state.

The man’s character is highlighted by the presence of fellow violinist, B., who more than once interprets how the, from the Romantic perspective, best aspects of Efimov’s character lead to the increase of the worst. However, Nietzsche might argue that the problem is not just in Efimov, but in B.: the enshrining of the Romantic impulse, of the seeming passion for art, of instinct for music, etc, are all themselves intoxications. It is a cultural drunkenness that produces an Efimov, as can be seen in the contrast between him and B., the book’s more pragmatic musician and Efimov’s one-time roommate and several-time benefactor. Describing Efimov’s psychology, B. says:

“[A]ll his impetuosity, impatience and feverish haste amounted to nothing more than an unconscious despair at the memory of his squandered talent and that it was more than likely that this talent had never been anything very special, not even in the beginning, that there had been a great deal of blindness, of vain complacency and premature self-satisfaction and of dreaming and fantasizing about his genius.”

From Nietzsche’s perspective above, one might very well read this as applying to Romanticism (or at least the dreamlike state of mechtatelnost) as a whole. Interpreting Efimov at more than one point, B. articulates the misleading effects of the man’s perspective that would prompt Nietzsche to call Romanticism as a whole “the malignant fairy” (BGE I.11). Albeit part of Dawn‘s larger argument against Christianity and its supposedly good effect on humanity, the split between selves described by Nietzsche can be seen in Efimov, who must go to further and further lengths (only one measure of which is drunkenness) to maintain his false view of himself. Fulfilling the “suffering” of “the children” under such “immoderates,” Netochka, herself, becomes both a victim to and reinforcer of Efimov’s obfuscation. Efimov’s viciousness is so vicious because, due to Romanticism’s “sublime and enraptured moments,” it seems so not vicious; indeed, Efimov’s whole persona relies on presenting (and believing, himself) the idea of his own virtuousness, for which he is punished by reality. He is most the bad guy when he appears most like a good guy. We know to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing; what of a sheep (goat?) in wolf’s clothing? What tricks and poisons must such a being rely upon to supplement their innate lack of teeth?

Because of this element of his deception, Efimov must strive not for greatness but for degradation. Like other characters in the Dostoevsky canon—lowest of whom is Fyodor Karamazov, himself, father of Alyosha—Efimov seems to do the worst thing possible as if from a compulsion. Later in the book, after Efimov has married and lives with Netochka, B. again interprets the man, and he is much less forgiving:

“[N]owadays poverty is almost his happiness: it provides him with an excuse. He can now convince everyone that it’s only poverty that has hindered him, and that if he had been rich, free of troubles and had had plenty of free time, we would all have recognized him for the artist he is…If you were to deprive him of his wife he would be the most miserable creature in existence. It must be several years now since he has touched his violin—and do you know why? Because every time he does he’s forced to realize that he’s nothing, a nobody, not one bit of an artist.”

To Dostoevsky’s credit, in passages like this the author steel mans the worst of the Romanticism he loves and takes a hammer to it in the form of Efimov. Ironically, the very things that supposedly once gave Efimov a reason for his early egotism have been destroyed by that egotism; what art he once may have had (can he be sure he ever did, seeing from inside a dream as he does?) has been destroyed by the cache it once provided with those around him. Furthermore, his violin, the symbol of his art, fills him with frustration and, ultimately, madness.

Nietzsche, it would seem, would locate the source of the problem not in Efimov but in a culture that would entertain such a man’s delusions. Certainly the Russian Naturalists contemporary with Dostoevsky’s early years did this; indeed, early Russian socialism and revolution (for which Dostoevsky was arrested as an accessory) was a reaction against what many saw as a perspective that, en masse, incentivized ignoring the causes of things like poverty, abuse, and drunkenness. The atheistic socialism of Belinsky and Herzen, as well as later Russian socialists (indeed, many socialists, in general), arguably committed the same sin for which they accused the Romantics—that the further disproven was their dream, the more deeply and fervently they maintained it—but I’ll save that discussion for a later post on Dostoevsky’s answer to it in The Possessed. For now, let it suffice that NN‘s Efimov stands not only as Dostoevsky’s first in-depth exploration of the psychology of the antagonist who does not know he is the antagonist, but, from Nietzsche’s view, indicative of one of the major crises of the 19th century: that of a Platonism which, while not being fully believed, still encouraged a disdain, if not ressentiment, of reality as such.

Dostoevsky never fully rejected Romanticism (thank goodness!); indeed, after seeing in Siberia the strength and redemption made possible by that greater Romanticism, Orthodoxy, it would enliven and provide the narrative and moral basis for much of his later work, in which he would synthesize the best aspects of Romanticism and Naturalism. In my opinion, while he and Nietzsche may have diagnosed the same problems, he provided better answers, ones we, as a culture still dealing with the results of the 19th and 20th centuries, still have yet to learn. I don’t mean Orthodoxy, per se, (though as an Orthodox Christian I wouldn’t mind a greater interest in the higher and deeper things) but merely a larger awareness that such things as abstract, Platonic meaning are real, despite paradoxically, their reality not being felt until they are actively lived out (can’t say it enough: thank you, Aristotle). Greater than any arguments for a looking backward rather than forward to reinvigorate a culture’s dead values is the demeanor of Dostoevsky’s writing and characters; as in “The Grand Inquisitor’s” presentation of Christ’s wordless interaction with the Inquisitor, it is not with arguments or apologetics that Sonia and Alyosha redeem Raskalnikov and Kolya (among others), respectively, but with love, by showing the implicit strength and resilience of their Christian (ie. millenia-enduring) humility. In Netochka Nezvanova there are early, if pre-Siberian, signs of this humility in the form of Prince X, who despite his social height is willing to demean himself to adopt Netochka and defend her on more than one occasion, even against his own wife.

Nonetheless, besides being an early exploration of the psychology of irrationality, degradation, and masochism that would fill Dostoevsky’s later works, Efimov—even to himself!—provides a caricature of many of the aspects of the early 19th-century conceptions of the artist-hero which later writers besides Nietzsche would review with a critical eye (Charlotte Bronte and Thomas Hardy come to mind). Because of this, Netochka Nezvanova stands as a perhaps overlooked forerunner not only of other 19th century works but of the psycho-socio-cultural investigations that would comprise much of that century’s shifts that would become apparent early in the next.