Dostoyevsky and the Urban Nightmare by Judith Gunn
Dostoyevsky’s capacity to map the streets of his beloved St Petersburg, turn by turn, with a visceral realism was what set him apart in the Russian literary landscape. It was his ability to chart his characters’ progress down darkened alleys, through seedy streets and in shabby apartments, which separated his work from the epic stories and rural landscapes described by his contemporaries in Russia, Tolstoy and Turgenev.
Throughout most of his novels, stories and journals, his reputation was forged by his brilliant social realism. It was his ability to conjure the conditions that the urban population, in an overcrowded St Petersburg, struggled with everyday that made him famous. His first novel Poor Folk, about a poverty-stricken couple, whose love is charted through letters, caught the attention of influential literary critic, Vissarion Belinsky. Belinsky was a radical socialist, keen for change. He proclaimed Dostoyevsky as the cultural representative of the socialist movement. Dostoyevsky was lauded as a great talent, but then, two weeks later, he published The Double. This story was a magical realist novel, still anchored very firmly in the streets, but this time realism was only part of the tale. The Double is about a man who is at first pestered and then defeated by his evil doppelgänger. Magical realism was not to Belinsky’s taste and Dostoyevsky was denounced.
Dostoyevsky’s depictions of dingy streets and hidden alleyways, are not unlike the later narratives of the mid twentieth-century popular film style, film noir. His protagonists of dubious character live out their crimes and misdemeanours in the chiaroscuro streets of St Petersburg. They foreshadow the flawed protagonists of noir and neo-noir as they shift between self absorption and sheer murder, often to an irredeemable conclusion. Raskolnikov, Myshkin, Underground Man and the Ridiculous Man are the “mechtatel”, the St Petersburg dreamers, who inhabit the streets. They are the noir narrators of the Russian nineteenth century.
“Let me tell you that in these corners live strange people—dreamers. The dreamer—if you want an exact definition—is not a human being, but a creature of an intermediate sort. For the most part he settles in some inaccessible corner, as though hiding from the light of day; once he slips into his corner, he grows to it like a snail…”
Thus the dreamer or the mechtatel is defined by the nameless narrator in Dostoyevsky’s short story White Nights. This character is a more sensitive, benign version of the dreamer. The Double presaged at a more sinister character and as Dostoyevsky’s stories progress, this figure becomes less of a dreamer and more of a nightmare.
In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov roams St Petersburg as a disenfranchised student with murder on his mind. In The Idiot, Prince Myshkin comes to St Petersburg, an innocent abroad, but is unable to redeem the damaged characters that inhabit its streets. The Underground Man (Notes from the Underground), like Raskolnikov, is a much darker version of the early dreamer of White Nights, he is a bitter, selfish narrator who hides in his apartment.
“I am a sick man.... I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. ”
This character is an unreliable narrator. He says he is spiteful and then he claims he is not, but his behaviour is cruel. He lies all the time. He is isolated and bitter, he believes himself to be ill. He haunts the streets and inhabits his dark cellar, offering little to like in his character. The Ridiculous Man (The Dream of a Ridiculous Man), by contrast, offers his own suicide as a form of redemption, and in one of Dostoyevsky’s most mystical narratives, this character travels to another planet, a place of innocence that he corrupts. These mechtatel are the nightmare of St Petersburg’s urban landscape. Their stories are played out in dimly lit streets and darkened alleyways, half lit faces step out of the shadows for the reveal, only for a second, before they disappear to darkness.
Dostoyevsky was never convinced that human nature was inherently good. The socialist narrative of the time proclaimed the greatness of the human spirit, convinced that if the environment was fair and just, then human nature would overcome its darker temptations, but Dostoyevsky had his doubts. Perhaps it was because he spent four years in a Siberian prison and saw humanity at its worst, or perhaps it was his Christian faith that always drove him back to the idea of original sin, the fall. Whatever the sources of his discontent with human nature, it drove him to describe dissonant characters, whose dark thoughts and terrible deeds make compelling reading.
Judith Gunn's book Dostoyevsky is available for purchase now.