Friday, December 12, 2014



In the introduction to his translation of ‘The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky’ David Magarshack observes that it is in Dostoevsky’s smaller works that we find the highest expression of his creative power and profundity of thought. The selection of stories in this book include –

White Nights
The Honest Thief
The Christmas Tree and a Wedding
The Peasant Marey
Notes from the Underground
A Gentle Creature
The Dream of A Ridiculous Man.

My reading of Dostoevsky so far had been limited to his three major novels –
Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot and the shorter novellas The Possessed and Notes from the Underground (included above in the short stories)

These stories are so distinct and still so interconnected that the full force of Dostoevsky’s thought processes so elaborated in his more famous longer novels are brought out here with such impact that I thought that to do justice to this collection of the best short stories it would be necessary to review each story individually and as such I thought I should do it over a series of posts on this blog.

WHITE NIGHTS – A sentimental love story – From the memoirs of a dreamer

And was it his destined part
Only one moment in his life
To be close to your heart …..    – Ivan Turgenev

White Nights is a story spread over four nights about a lonely man (the narrator) and his unrequited love for a young woman whom he befriends one night while she is waiting for the return of her lover to be reunited with him. This is a simple story and in fact was adapted as the underlying theme for the Hindi Film ‘Saawariya’ by Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Dostoevsky’s story however delves deep into the psyche of the lonely man – a man who had shut himself off from human relationships and seemed to be more at ease with the inanimate objects around him; a man who had withdrawn himself into a shelf of self-pity and deprecation. Like most of Dostoevsky’s novels the story is told in first person by a nameless narrator –

“When I woke up in the morning I felt strangely depressed, a feeling I could not shake for the better part of the day. All of a sudden it seemed to me as though I, the solitary one, had been forsaken by the whole world, and the whole world would have nothing to do with me.”

He feels more comfortable walking the streets of St. Petersburg at night for during the day though he was never in the habit of interacting with anyone he used to connect emotionally with the faces he encountered and felt uneasy when they were absent or he came across new faces. At night he felt alone and happy and was surrounded always by the things he knew, the houses as he walked down the streets. They seemed to talk to him. He says –

“The houses too are familiar to me. When I walk along the street, each of them seems to run before me, gazing at me out of all its windows and practically saying to me, “Good morning, sir! How are you? I’m very well, thank you. They are going to add another storey to me in May”; or, how do you do, sir? I’m going to be repaired tomorrow”. And so on. He says some of them are great favourites of his and good friends.

White Nights is to a large extent considered autobiographical of a young Dostoevsky’s personal impressions during his own nocturnal wanderings in Petersburg.  

As they exchange their stories the protagonist finds himself falling in love with the young woman Nastenka. A lonely man at last finds there is someone actually real who has evoked this feeling of being wanted, for all the while he has been inside his self-imposed cocoon of solitude. His feelings are very clear when he says – “I know you’ll hardly believe me, but I’ve never spoken to any woman, never! Never known one either! I only dream that someday I shall meet someone at last. Oh, if only you knew how many times I’ve fallen in love like that!”

While Nastenka does develop feelings for him she never does acknowledge that she loves him and at the end on the fourth night when the young man whom she had been in love, and for whom she was waiting, does appear she goes away with him after giving our protagonist a letter where she states she will always love him as a dear friend.

The narrator ends by saying “Good Lord, only a moment of bliss? Isn’t such a moment sufficient for the whole of a man’s life?”

But perhaps the most telling passage in the story and which brings forth the angst of existence and by which I can surmise that therein lies the foundation of the whole of Dostoevsky’s philosophy and a forerunner of Existentialism is when he tells Nastenska –

“And you ask yourself - where are your dreams? And you shake your head and murmur; how quickly time flies! And you ask yourself again – what have you done with your time, where have you buried the best years of your life? Have you lived your life or not? Look, you say to yourself, look how everything in the world is growing cold. Some more year will pass, and they will be followed by cheerless solitude, and then will come tottering old age, with its crutch, and after it despair desperation. Your fantastic world will fade away, your dreams will wilt and die, scattering like yellow leaves from the trees. Oh, Nastenka, what can be more heartbreaking than to be left alone, all alone, and have nothing, absolutely nothing, because all you’ve lost was nothing, nothing but a silly round zero, nothing but an empty dream!”

(Book Review – to be continued)

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