At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die.
The nightmare started when the police burst into his apartment and dragged him away in the middle of the night, along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a group made up of artists and thinkers who discussed radical ideas together, such as equality and justice, and occasionally read books. Madmen, clearly. To be fair, the tsar, Nicholas I, had a right to be worried about revolution. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it was obvious throughout the world that something was happening. In addition to earlier revolutions in America and France, revolutionary ideas were spreading like a virus around the world through art, literature, philosophy, science, and more. To the younger generation and Russians who suffered most under the current regime, it was exhilarating. For those like Nicholas I, whose power depended on the established order, it was terrifying.
So these revolutionaries, most barely in their 20s, were hauled off to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prison that contained some of Russia’s most vicious criminals. After months of isolation broken up by the occasional interrogation, Dostoevsky and the rest were condemned to death by firing squad.
They were marched into the cold. A priest allowed each man to kiss a cross. Then shrouds were draped over their heads, which did nothing to drown out the soul-crushing sound of soldiers raising their rifles as their commander cried out ONE!…TWO!…
WAIT! someone cried. The tsar had changed his mind — the prisoners would be spared!
Dostoevsky and the rest had been victims of a hilarious prank Nicholas I sometimes played on prisoners, staging mock-executions before sending them off to Siberia. When the condemned men heard they had been “saved” by their benevolent tsar, some immediately lost their minds. But not Dostoevsky. He held on and endured two brutal years in a Siberian prison, before enduring another two brutal years in the army. His life wasn’t exactly easy after that. But in large part because of all that suffering, he would grow into the author of such classics as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and more.
Plenty of readers know about the later, mature Dostoevsky, but far fewer know about the young man he once was, the one who thought he was moments away from execution. His presence in front of a firing squad may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s later writing, in which he was a ferocious opponent of the young generation’s revolutionary ideas, and an equally ferocious defender of the tsar’s authority and the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dostoevsky felt the very soul of Russia was at stake. Ivan Turgenev, in his short novel Fathers and Sons, coined the word “nihilists” for these young radicals, who seemed hell bent on smashing the existing society and replacing it with one founded on values inimical to people like Dostoevsky. They were an existential threat to the nation and they are presented as such throughout all of Dostoevsky’s later works. Sometimes their ideas are the focus of his attacks, like in Notes from Underground, which is essentially a rebuttal to the socialist arguments made in What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, (a book that, more than any other, inspired those who would later instigate the Russian Revolution). Other times, the youth of Russia are the explicit enemy. The plot of Demons was directly inspired by the murder of a Russian at the hands of a group not all that different from the Petrashevsky Circle. In fact, Dostoevsky later acknowledged in his Diary of a Writer that, as a young man, he himself might have been swayed to commit such a horrible act.
Clearly, the post-Siberia Dostoevsky was a different man than the one who faced down that firing squad, to put it mildly. So how do we understand this abrupt transformation? Perhaps the best way is by exploring Dostoevsky’s early major works — Poor Folk, The Double, and Netochka Nezvanova — which offer invaluable insights into just how Dostoevsky became Dostoevsky.
Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first novel, is in some ways the most atypical novel of his career. First, it is his only epistolary novel, composed of letters between a poor old man, Makar Devushkin, and Varvara Dobroselova, a poor young woman he helps support financially (to the extent that he can). They live humble lives, and struggle with daily life rather than colossal questions about existence or morality. Compared with a book like Crime and Punishment, Poor Folk feels small. The author’s focus is on meticulously outlining the dreary existence that those on the outskirts of society quietly endure every single day. When Varvara receives a flower Makar has bought her, she is overwhelmed with gratitude, and when a father is able to help pay for a birthday gift for his son, he is equally ecstatic. A flower and a birthday gift — these are important not as symbols but for what they are, tiny tokens of the love that make life bearable. Of course, there are tragedies, too. Friends and family are lost, and the devastation is all the more profound because Dostoevsky’s poor folk have so little to lose.
The persistent need for money is always on characters’ minds. Given the extraordinary sympathy Dostoevsky shows his characters and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, criticism of society throughout, it’s easy to see why Vissarion Belinsky, the most important Russian critic at the time, deemed it the first “social novel.” It was emblematic of the kind of literature many involved in revolutionary circles thought was the way of the future — the novel as a cry for social justice, a working-class weapon.
Poor Folk is a fine novel, and Dostoevsky demonstrates the kind of negative capability, to use John Keats’s phrase, that would allow him to create characters like Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, who are discussed by scholars to this day as if they were real people. But it’s absurd to think Poor Folk would have become the national sensation it did and launch the 23-year-old Dostoevsky to literary superstardom had it not been the right kind of book at the right time. Dostoevsky likely didn’t set out to upend the capitalist system with Poor Folk, but it certainly fit in well with a growing trend in literature that focused on the downtrodden and weak, along with the shameful indifference of a society that allowed such suffering to persist. Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” also caused a sensation in Russia (and is actually read and written about by Makar in Poor Folk). It also highlighted the indignities that the poor had to endure every day, but like many of Gogol’s stories, there is a supernatural element, in this case involving a ghost. Poor Folk has no such supernatural element. It is painfully, unflinchingly realistic. Consequently, Belinsky and others praised it and predicted nothing but great things for the newly-arrived genius.
You’re in your early 20s, your first book is a major national success, and the most influential literary critic in the country has literally declared you are a genius. How would you react?
Maybe you’d take the fame and flattery in stride and stay level-headed. But Dostoevsky didn’t, and by all accounts, he became an insufferable jerk. Worse, he was an incredibly sensitive insufferable jerk, unable to handle any criticism. And that was all he got after Poor Folk. Everything he wrote was one commercial disappointment after another. At first people like Belinsky thought it was a temporary slump, and Dostoevsky would bounce back with another great social novel. But Dostoevsky continued to experiment with different kinds of stories, none of which suited the political climate of Russia at the time or the taste of the very critics who had made Dostoevsky a star. In the eyes of most literary circles, Dostoevsky was just a one-hit wonder.
One of these “disappointments” was his second major work, The Double. From the very first page, it’s clear that this is not another Poor Folk. It feels like a different species of literature altogether. For one thing, whereas his first book focused on two characters and a community of other people in their lives, The Double is all about Goliadkin, a nobody who finds merely existing a difficult task. He is nervous, jumpy, paranoid, awkward, and incapable of a sane conversation. At multiple points, people interrupt his jumbled, meandering monologues to confess they have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. And this is before his exact double, also named Goliadkin, gets hired at his office. But the similarities are only skin-deep. This Goliadkin is a success in every way that the first Goliadkin is a miserable failure, and the new version gradually begins displacing the original from his own life. The story becomes increasingly bizarre until it ends the only way the life of someone like Goliadkin ever could — total insanity.
There are many things to admire about the hallucinatory world of this novella. The surreal nature of Goliadkin’s double anticipates the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Second, the inner monologue of Goliadkin shows Dostoevsky already toying with the idea of excessive-consciousness as sickness that will become a hallmark of his greatest novels. The plot is almost secondary to the maze-without-an-exit that is Goliadkin’s mind. And third, just writing this novella was brave. Dostoevsky could have stuck with what worked and cranked out another Poor Folk, but he chose to stretch himself beyond the social novel, to not write in the service of any ideology.
Belinsky and others didn’t see it this way, and the flops kept on coming right up to the point when Dostoevsky was arrested in the middle of the night. However, he was at work just then on his first full-length novel, which he believed would redeem his literary reputation. We’ll never know what the public’s reaction would have been to the full novel because it was never finished. Only the beginning chapters were completed and, by the time he got back to writing many years later, he had moved on to other projects.
However, fragment or not, the parts of Netochka Nezvanoza that do exist are worth our attention because, compared to Poor Folk and The Double, this is the closet the young Dostoevsky gets to becoming the Dostoevsky we all know today.
This story is also another outlier in terms of structure — while Poor Folk was an epistolary novel, Netochka Nezvanova was meant to be a kind of Dickensian story that would cover the life of its protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Think of it as David Copperfield, only with more mental breakdowns and sadomasochistic relationships.
Dostoevsky can’t help injecting the story with the kind of increasingly-acute psychological realism he does so well. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the fact that, for nearly half of the existing text, Netochka, the little Dickensian soon-to-be orphan, is completely overshadowed by her explosive stepfather, Efimov. Efimov is a clear precursor to the Underground Man, whose life is a stark warning that we need to live our lives, not dream our way through them. Efimov’s dream is to be a great violinist, but alcoholism and his petty nature drive him to poverty, along with Netochka and her poor mother, who sadly fell for Efimov’s self-narrative that he was a genius destined for glory.
If Efimov’s story ended there, his degradation would just be a compelling portrait of a man’s gradual ruination. But this is Dostoevsky, so it’s only the beginning. Although Efimov knows on some level he will never be an internationally famous violinist, he clings to the idea that he is the best violinist in the world. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows it — he knows it, and that self-delusion becomes the foundation for his life. His whole psyche becomes nothing but a jumble of rationalizations he comes to define himself by. If he isn’t the world’s greatest violinist, he’s nothing. And when he hears a violinist who is undeniably greater than he ever was or could be, we see what happens when a man wakes up from a dream he’s been living for far, far too long.
There are other shades of the later, great Dostoevsky to be found in this unfinished novel, but Efimov alone testifies to his development as a writer whose understanding of the human condition would become infinitely richer than anything that could have been explored within the predetermined confines of a social novel.
Each of these works hints at the kind of writer Dostoevsky could have become. Had he followed Poor Folk with another social novel, stuck with the surrealism of The Double, or written more Dickensian bildungsromans like Netochka Nezvanova, we would be talking about a very different Dostoevsky today, if we talked about him at all. But instead he synthesized the best elements of all these works and enhanced them with the profound understanding of human nature he began to develop in Siberia.
Of course, it’s not necessary to read any of these early works to appreciate Dostoevsky, one of the few writers who can scream in print. But the arc of his literary life becomes all the more fascinating when we consider Dostoevsky’s early career, when he was still figuring out what to scream about, and had his hardest days, and greatest works, still ahead of him.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Raul Brandão debuted in English a month ago without a murmur. We should welcome him with the joyful thrill of discovering a late, great Portuguese novelist heretofore unknown to the Anglo-American world. However the recent publication of The Poor also exemplifies one accidental way of hampering a foreign writer. Although the usual method involves a bad translation, Karen Sotelino gets an A from me for navigating syntactically and lexically close to the original. But what can you do with inaccurate translation of context? According to Dalkey Archive Press, this is “a powerful tribute to the underclasses” and an exposé of the “economic situation in Portugal.”
How unexciting: Portugal’s first Modernist novelist downgraded to a turn-of-the-century social realist fiction pamphleteer. DAP could have found more suitable candidates among his contemporaries. Now, bad translations can’t be salvaged, only scraped and rewritten, but let’s see if we can correct Brandão’s haphazard labeling.
In the first chapter, the unnamed narrator introduces several people living in a derelict tenement building: a group of prostitutes and thieves; Senhor José, a pallbearer; the unemployed Gebo, his wife and daughter, Sofia; and Gabiru, “a solitary philosopher, slender, as sad as a funeral, and armed with the most formidable and strangest of wisdom in God’s creation.” After this general introduction the plotless narrative dissolve into a series of vignettes about pain, abjection, futility, and hope. Beyond this it’s risky to make strong claims about the novel’s point since Brandão was a very undisciplined, contradictory thinker who wrote from intuition.
When he published The Poor in 1906, Portugal had surrendered to Naturalism since José Maria de Eça de Queirós had introduced it in 1874 with The Crime of Father Amaro. In the 1890s, the nation experienced constant political turmoil due to a faltering economy and the rise of the Republican Party, which was hellbent on overthrowing the monarchy, through revolutionary means if necessary (as it happened in 1910). Novelists moved away from excoriating the bourgeois like Eça to depicting the squalid conditions the poor and working classes lived in. Animated by a pamphleteering militancy Eça had always wisely avoided, these propaganda-minded novelists, the majority safely forgotten nowadays, turned literature into a weapon against the crown. In Brandão’s novel we catch glimpses of this shift away from the bourgeoisie to the lumpens in the way he chronicles Gebo’s job-searching daily routine, his wife’s death, his debilitating disease, and Sofia prostituting herself as the household’s breadwinner. Even Brandão’s prominent and compassionate use of prostitutes, a topic Portuguese literature had barely addressed before him, sprang from these circumstances.
This, however, is as far as Brandão goes in paying his dues to his time’s littérature engagée. As a journalist, Brandão certainly followed with interest “the economic situation in Portugal,” but this means little to his characters. Too busy taking beatings to read their Karl Marx, the prostitutes, with typical Portuguese passiveness, blame their condition on that blameless entity known as fate; as the morose prostitute Mouca declares, “It’s all over! We’ve all got to suffer!” Gebo is ideal material to join a union and start distributing leaflets, perhaps speak at rallies, but parties are as remote from him as he is from securing a decent pension, and he doesn’t have the leisure to form a political consciousness because he devotes every second to looking for work. Afraid that Sofia will starve, he is goaded by his wife who shouts at him, “Just go out and steal! Steal!”, while regretting to himself, “I’ve been so honest.” As for Gabiru, this “tragic figure, laughing daily along with thieves and soldiers,” is the only one with studies and time to reflect about his own condition, but he’s a useless, inconsistent Dostoyevskian intellectual devising a slipshod philosophical system not even he probably understands in full:
He was born to dream. He sighs with relief as he locks himself away in the garret, crying out, “I’m going to think…!” He knows words and theories and has read huge old tomes, yet he’s never seen the rivers and mountains before his very eyes, nor the trees. He delves into profound ideas and has never known reality.
Although Brandão, the son of poor fishermen, showed enormous tenderness in his fiction and non-fiction for the downtrodden, he goes beyond poverty as a socio-political cause and uses it to sketch a diffuse theory of suffering as a redemptive virtue and the engine of beauty, creativity, and meaning. “Why were these outcasts born? They wake up defeated, to scrounge, to cry out for scraps of bread, to rest again only in their graves. A dreamless road, that’s their bitter lot: fatigue, humiliation, and hunger,” says the narrator. Lines later he asks, “Why does God create them?” This question obsessed Brandão from 1906 until his death in 1930. Dialogues, allegories, and ruminations lead to a constant refinement of why pain exists and what justifies existence. His prostitutes may resign themselves to fatality, but Brandão saw certainty as an adversary. The novel whirls around the same questions repeatedly like a paleographer trying to decipher hieroglyphs in the hopes of finding valuable knowledge from beyond. Thus, instead of acting like a novelist who builds a plot organically, he carefully constructed his vignettes like a lab scientist devises experiments to validate a hypothesis. This runs the risk of making the narrative monotonous, but it’s also this monomaniac forcefulness that opens up new regions in humanness like an earthquake revealing priceless ruins.
Instead of self-analyzing themselves, the characters live beholden to what in Brandão’s oeuvre is ambiguously called the “Dream,” an unsystematised idea that can be likened to the hope that keeps one going, a belief in improvement. “For dregs,” we’re told, “Dreams are the sole form of reality.”
Only Gabiru, long considered the author’s alter ego, puts forth an explanation for the existence of pain. He lacks the restful mind conducive to the routine of acceptance the prostitutes and Gebo dull their doubts with. Gabiru thinks like a poet for whom the “splendor of nature” remains a daily novelty: “I cannot get used to it. Every morning it’s as if I were to find myself before monstrous nature for the first time — gold, green, and blue like her rivers, forests, and roaring ocean.” In this pantheistic worldview, humans are one with the universe and their atoms spin in a cosmic dance of rearrangements. By retaining this gift to allow the world to surprise him, he seems to put up with the burden of existence better. But even if the works of nature resonate with “the words of Him who preaches into the infinite,” at times God also seems like a mere excuse, like the whores’ fatalism. As the narrator says of the poor: “Throughout infinity, it is on their pain that God thrives.”
Furthermore, Gabiru’s sense of wonder at the universe comes with the price of constant anxiety; if everything amazes him, he can never convert reality into the ordinary sustenance that allows one to function in society. Even though he thinks he’s found answers, his inquisitiveness smacks of despair. Some chapters contain nothing but his writings’ loose scraps exalting pain: “In order for something radiant to burst forth from matter, what is needed? An ocean of tears.” For him only “suffering creatures are worthy of life, and in reality they are the only ones that live.” Brandão did not accept Arthur Schopenhauer’s claim that suffering was useless but turned it into the catalyst that propels development, especially in the arts:
To create, one must suffer. It has always been true and remains so, only pain gives life to inanimate things. With a chisel and an inert tree trunk, wondrous works are created, if the sculptor has suffered. Furthermore, with words and lost sounds, with immaterial objects another miracle is possible: to make laughter and dreams, to cause the shedding of tears among other creatures. With the simple, dry letters of the alphabet, some miserable person of genius, immersed in hidden water, builds something eternal, more beautiful and solid than if materials were wrenched from the heart of mountains.
Unsurprisingly, love here is equated with self-abnegation and meek endurance: Gebo only ceases to seek a job, to feed his daughter, when his body breaks down; Sofia in turn prostitutes herself to support him through his ailment; Mouca, after slapping Sofia for envying her, asks her to slap her back “so I’ll know you’re my friend;” and Gabiru, in love with Mouca, who does not reciprocate, puts up with the other tenants’ just to be with her. Still, the narrator’s cynical asides always sully this picture of virtue. Of the tenants he says, with a subtle dark humor that runs through the book, “Stray dogs are happier, and trees, incomparably so.”
If the metaphysical aspects of the novel should captivate anyone looking for a serious meditation about the human condition, how about knowing that Brandão is also renowned in Portugal for opening up new novelistic possibilities? In the 20th century, he’s to the Portuguese novel what Fernando Pessoa is to its poetry. José Saramago counted him amongst his favorite writers. He’s been lauded as precursor of everything, from Existentialism to the nouveau roman. Although it sounds improbable that in 2016 there are still great Modernist writers left to discover, Brandão has the same importance Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce have in their respective languages.
Beginning with his first novel, he started imploding the Naturalist novel, inventing a personal form that, though largely ignored in his lifetime, would posthumously influence future generations. For instance, he had little regard for rounded characterization. Practically no character has a backstory or a full personality; they’re almost mere voices, or puppets moaning on stages in front of crowds. “Nary a one talks about her past,” says the narrator about the prostitutes, “in fear of scorn, but they hold it inside, never forgetting.” But then again it’s “always the same story, eternal humus kneaded with tears. They know they were born to suffer and are resigned to it: dregs are necessary.” Childhood, in the novel’s logic, shows up only as a conduit of pain.
The Poor also shattered the uniform perspective of the novels of its time. Using short chapters, Brandão shifts from third to first person, sometimes even within paragraphs. Some chapters don’t have clear narrators, demanding that the reader identify the speaker. Not to mention there’s a narrator who seems to simultaneously live inside and outside the narrative, sometimes a tenant, at other times omniscient.
He also got rid of plot, and by extension of time. It’s not really a matter of time being fragmentary, like in Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner, but of time barely existing since the characters, like insects in amber, are immobile. The action does not progress in a straight arrow but grows, like a wall of bricks, by the accretion of identical layers of humiliation and anguish one upon the other, until it’s big and wide enough to block all sunshine.
And even if Dalkey has linked the author’s time and place to the themes he dealt with, nothing in the novel really screams Portugal. Thirty years before him, Eça busied himself putting in his pages a Lisbon nowadays still intact for tourists to selfie it. But Brandão’s novel takes place in an opaque limbo of torment, in wherever people withstand futile martyrdom. References to a shared external reality are so rare as to be grating when come across: Baron Rothschild; François de La Rochefoucauld; Hamlet; Sir John Falstaff; the Portuguese currency at the time, the real; the poet Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage; the Republican Party; Don Quixote; and Brazil. By my count that’s all that identifies the book’s world as possibly ours. It’s a far cry from Alfred Döblin’s Berlin and John dos Passos’s New York. The only contemporary with a higher disregard for a sense of place was Kafka.
Brandão’s Modernism, however, was more instinctive than planned, an inner necessity rather than a deliberate intention to shack up with the zeitgeist. He had no axes to grind with the past. Pessoa burst in 1915 with a loud magazine called Orpheu thundering his alignment with several avant-garde movements burning through Europe, basking in his own cosmopolitism, and judging his predecessors inferior. Brandão, 20 years older, stayed in his corner, minding himself, provincially averse to manifestos and doctrines. In 1921, his friend and poet Augusto Casimiro noted down his indifference to his contemporaries. Only “Stavrogin’s Confession,” the unpublished chapter from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, discovered in November of that year, galvanized him. He shared with him the psychological intensity, the philosophical skirmishes, the reduction of characters into living ideas, the absurd, and the pity for the downtrodden. (Crime and Punishment had been serialized in Portugal in 1897.) But Brandão couldn’t abhor another writer’s language and structure, and so he gradually divested himself of what he saw as artificial in literature in order to allow himself to communicate without rhetorical distortions. In effect his novels became less dramatic and more monological, in order perhaps, as Gabiru writes, “To allow my whole universe to speak, allow all that is inside me preach in its hoarse voice.” Elsewhere our unhinged philosopher writes that there is no inanimate thing “that does not have a voice and that does not make its confession.”
The sermon and the confession: one-way modes of speech, centered upon the self and, one presumes, more authentic. Brandão wanted his own system to externalize what existed only inside him. Since literariness, for him, obfuscated the self, his search for individualistic expression implied paring his language down to a slapdash style. This is most obvious in his use of repetition, in particular the repetition of a vocabulary consistent from novel to novel: tree, river, pain, cry, ludicrous, humus, root, water, scream, dream. The word “moonlight” shows up seven times on page 119. Before reading Sotelino’s translation, I worried about this; too often translators confuse repetition with sloppiness, and their urge is to prettify the prose. Milan Kundera once complained about the translators who had made Kafka’s prose more literary because they couldn’t accept simplicity in such a great writer. But repetition is one of Brandão’s trademarks, the consequence of his obsessively inhabiting one theme during a lifetime; and so Sotelino is to be commended for having kept the oftentimes tedious lexicon instead of succumbing to synonyms. You can tell she paid attention when you can find whole sentences repeated: “The sister would kiss and caress me…”, “He stirs the embers of his ideas and he’s never looked life in the face.” The Pallbearer’s “hoarse, raspy chest” shows up twice, as does Gebo’s daily search for some “measly spare change.” Not even chapter titles are spared (“Gebo’s Story” and “Gabiru’s Philosophy” appear each in four chapters).
But the book’s most notorious repetition is in its use of natural imagery. For instance there’s a gigantic river metaphor that engulfs the novel from the opening paragraph on:
Like a mysterious wave rolling in from some unknown ocean, it begins to rain. A sweet sound, that of the rain. Recalling so many things, lost and sad! At first the soaked earth swells, and when it bursts there’s a rush so torrential, the rocks are left glistening. It plows through the earth, exposing roots, dragging humus through the deluge along with dried leaves, dead animals, rocky dregs all swirling together, then dissolving, stirring into the foamy water, headed to the unknown.
Such is life. A river of moaning, tears, and mystery. A murky wave exposes the deepest roots, as a torrential rush engulfs all disgrace and laughter, relentlessly dragging this human humus up to some shore, where the filthy hands of the suffering finally find another helping hand; where their exhausted, tearful eyes are amazed before an eternal dawn, and where dreams are made real…
This metaphor then breaks up into tributaries that flow into the narrative. We see water as life, “Life for you was like clear running water through the hands of one of those statues you see in the fountains.” But its flux is also a symbol of death, mixing decayed matter, “Leaves from trees, things rotting in the shadows wanted to join the eternal flood.” Likewise, we read that this “question of death, although present since time immemorial, terrifies us like a huge river bringing ideas, explanations, and theories to the surface.” Water sates but it’s also the aforementioned “ocean of tears.” People drown in envy, “The others, sensing he was still happy, dragged him down, like the drowning do to those trying to save them.” Finally, the river is the duality of life itself that can’t be resolved: “All rivers, like all lives, eventually flow into the great ocean of beauty. The existence of humble, simple creatures is like a current — of water or tears, but always clear. Anger, ambition, self-interest make life murky, like swirling dirt makes water dirty.” That this extended metaphor cascades so crystalline down the novel is a testament to Sotelino’s craftsmanship.
Although he lacks the pyrotechnics of António Lobo Antunes, Brandão’s simple sentences, especially Gabiru’s aphorisms — “If nature creates monsters, it is because they are necessary, like a cleansing abscess.” — first startle me with their unexpected strangeness, then enthrall me with their conviction of truthfulness.
Brandão’s demand for precision reflects itself in the characters’ struggle with language itself. Several remark upon how words hinder them. “Up in a garret, the Pallbearer wants to say, ‘I love you!’ but he has always been so crude he does not know how to say what he feels.” One character says of another, “She barely knows how to express herself. Their talk is like stones communicating, two beings rolling together along in the same huge wave of life, by chance.” And an unnamed voice blurts at one point: “I don’t know how to tell the story, what words can narrate an existence that is like a discarded rag, soaked in tears.”
“All words seem worn and withered” to Gabiru, as incapable of connecting with others as of “coming up with a new language, a language like that of the springs, that of the trees at the onset of March, to tell you how I feel,” which in theory will let him attain a clearer order of closeness above ordinary speech. For him this language is nature itself and man was just “born so that everything may have a mouth.” The problem, of course, is that when men speak, the expression comes out muddled.
Gabiru is no wiser than anyone else. A refrain in the novel denounces everybody’s ignorance. “Gebo did not understand life,” the narrator says; later he adds, “As it was, Sofia knew nothing about life.” According to Gabiru, Mouca, “who knows nothing, tumbling along like a rock in a deluge, will discover the extraordinary dream.” But then, “Gabiru does not understand existence” either. Even the unnamed narrator confesses in the first pages, “I’m poor and wary, and know nothing of life, but I’m a prince.” Not understanding life, real life, is akin to not living, which is why Gabiru wants to awake “the emotion inside, so that you can say, ‘I have lived!’” The greatest danger, to the characters, more than physical violence and penury, is the realization of a misused life.
Meaninglessness is Gabiru’s and the author’s terror. Brandão’s repetition stemmed from his loyalty to disharmony. He never found an answer to his existentialist crisis that could satisfy him, so he kept asking the same question, hoping that in one of the many variations of his lifelong enquiry he’d find one explanation that soothed him. His reasoning never walked straight lines; instead it made detours through doubt and returned to the starting point. Having read nearly all his fiction, I can’t hide the suspicion that he wrote himself into a philosophical cul-de-sac. But watching him try to decipher the invisible is still a grand spectacle for the many moments when he pulls the words’ nerves with pliers to hear them scream notes the human soul seldom likes to make audible.
There is a long-standing debate about a critical aspect of the novel-writing process. Currently and colloquially in some annexes of the writing community it’s been playfully termed the “pantsing vs. plotting/outlining/planning” debate. Pantsers fly by the seats of their pants: they write and see where it takes them. Planners, well, plan before they write.
Precedent and vehement feeling may be marshaled in favor of both approaches.
Virginia Woolf took copious notes before she wrote her novels, as did Fyodor Dostoevsky and Vladimir Nabokov (his notes on index cards). William Faulkner scribbled his outline for A Fable on a wall which his wife tried to paint over. Joseph Heller created an extensive spreadsheet for the correspondences between various plots in Catch-22.
James Joyce, though, thought “a book should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself, subject, as I say, to the constant emotional promptings of one’s personality.” Mark Twain too, insisted that a book “write itself” and that “the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations…I put it away…The reason was very simple — my tank had run dry; it was empty…the story could not go on without materials; it could not be wrought out of nothing.” Ernest Hemingway said much the same, and believed in simply pouring out what was within, stopping each day before he was completely empty, and resuming the next.
And of course there are many other points along the continuum. Italo Calvino started from an image and then expanded it. “If I didn’t know the ending of a story, I wouldn’t begin. I always write my last lines, my last paragraph, my last page first, and then I go back and work towards it,” says Katherine Anne Porter. And writers’ processes may be regarded differently by themselves than by others. George Eliot may have been prompted by the serial format of Middlemarch to unify her novel more than it otherwise would have been, but she nevertheless considered her work more as “experiments in life” than “moralized fables, the last word of a philosophy endeavoring to teach by example,” as Henry James remarked of her work.
The divide exists with equal prominence in more mass market or “genre” schools. There the archetypal planner might be someone like J.K. Rowling, who extensively outlined the Harry Potter series, or John Grisham, who reportedly outlines each of his books prior to writing them. Stephen King, on the other hand, thinks it’s “dishonest” to pre-determine a plot, and William Gibson dislikes planned writing, which he considers to smack of “homework.” Polish novelist Stanislaw Lem likened his writing process to “dipping a thread in a liquid solution of sugar; after a while crystals of sugar begin to settle on the thread, and it grows thicker and thicker, it puts on flesh, so to speak,” and this is reminiscent of what fantasy author Neil Gaiman says of his novels: that they “accrete.” Lem’s description is reminiscent of what Stendhal says in his deliciously acute Love of the idealization involved in passionate love. When a twig is left in the salt mines, Stendhal writes, it eventually emerges utterly sheathed in delicate, interlacing crystals. In the same way, a person in love encloses their beloved in a seamless vestment of imagined perfections (never, however, with less ground in reality than the shape of the crystals have in the topography of the underlying twig). Perhaps writers like Lem need to idealize their work before writing it.
Authors like Raymond Chandler and George R.R. Martin claim that if they planned, they would lose all motivation to write. The latter makes a distinction between “architects” and “gardeners.” Architects plan rigorously and then construct; gardeners plant seeds and water them, and that creates the novel over time.
These divisions are not to deny the facts that writing itself constitutes a kind of planning, if only in retrospect, and that the lines between glimmering visions, developed thoughts, preparatory notes, preliminary sketches, and first drafts blur. Planners certainly do not and cannot plan everything, and even the incorrigibly spontaneous no doubt fall into certain involuntary spasms of planning.
One distinction by which the controversy might be clarified is the mental state involved in the writing process. Many pantsers view the ideal state of writing as akin to a waking dream. Stephen King claims to pass into reverie when he writes, and Ray Bradbury said much the same, cautioning writers to be driven by emotion and not intellect if they wish to experience that state (“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”), which he associates with intense joy.
In Plato’s Phaedrus, love, lunacy and poetry are all related, and so of course Delphic prophecy of old is practically the picture of divine inspiration. The idea of divine madness possessing poets and prophets (and I include novelists under these grand rubrics) is an old one. Kalidasa, the Indian poet, is said to have had the sigil of inspiration painted on his tongue by the goddess, after which the waters of creativity simply poured forth. Madness and divine inspiration here are opposed to calm, clear, intellectual rationality and planning.
There seems to be a separation, then, between the novel whose genesis arises from its creator’s excitement, which, channeled into a dream-like state, throws off what comes to mind in an almost automatic process, and the novel which has its development in a more intentional, cerebral decision, one in which feeling and thought are more nearly equal partners, and which conceives what it wants before it deliberately strives to fulfill that conception.
Planning in a sense takes place in both models. In the case of the planners, it’s a more explicit, thinking kind of planning, whereas in the case of the pantsers it’s an unthinking planning that takes place by way of that first draft.
And that distinction may well mean different parts of the brain or mind function to conceptualize the basic structure of the novel. In everyday social interaction, we understand what another person means by their actions and words by putting ourselves in their place and simulating what we would do in their place. This is not usually a conscious process. There is evidence that when readers read stories, they identify with the characters and do much the same thing.
It may be the case that pantsers engage in this kind of imaginative and empathic recreation when they tell stories, which is precisely why they cannot plan. They have to tell the story in order to know its contours and structure. They have to place themselves in the minds of the characters and then simulate what the characters do. This may be why Hilary Mantel calls writing her fiction an activity akin to acting.
These writers work by faith that their emotions channel into words a latent object which will later prove to possess a structure. The act by which one constructs characters, subjects them to some shock or hinders their desire by some obstacle, and then simply follows them in one’s imagination as they respond, is the empathic creative process.
This empathic process relates, too, to the possibility of characters which somehow take control and even surprise their creator.
That this could even happen is a matter of controversy. Jorge Luis Borges, admittedly not a novelist, is skeptical that such a thing is not merely authorial self-deception. He found preposterous the idea that characters could truly buck their author.
Yet Leo Tolstoy claimed surprise at what his characters did, in particular expressing shock at one of Anna Karenina’s most infamous acts.
Indeed, a reverie-writer like Stephen King considers it dishonest when a writer pre-determines a plot instead of simply giving the characters the situation and following what they do. J.R.R. Tolkien claimed that he had long ago learned not to determine by fiat what characters would do, and to let them determine their own actions instead, and Bradbury says that the plot is simply the footprints of the characters sprinting toward their desires.
And yet here too there are strong crossovers.
The planner William Faulkner said, after all, that this is precisely what he did with As I Lay Dying: “I simply imagined a group of people and subjected them to the simple universal natural catastrophes, which are flood and fire, with a simple natural motive to give direction to their progress.” And it was a book for which he claimed to know practically every word prior to writing anything down. More broadly he claimed of each of his books that “there is always a point…where the characters themselves rise up and take charge and finish the job — say somewhere about page 275.”
And Henry James thought through a situation and then expanded in his mind the ramifications of that situation. It started for him with a little “seed” or “virus” which then he then expanded into its inevitable implications, structured into a novel, and then wrote. He took distinct pleasure in rendering visible the intricate organism into which the situational seed blossomed — an empathic approach, yet filtered through a powerful planning intellect.
Planning is often connected to a desire to use fiction to explicate an idea. That makes sense, since such a desire requires intellectual foresight and control.
Dostoevsky wrote his extensive notes no doubt because his works had to illustrate complex philosophical ideas like the “positive idea of beauty” in The Idiot, or the possibility of acting beyond morality in Crime and Punishment.
Marcel Proust famously wrote that he was overjoyed when one of his readers realized that his work was in fact a “dogmatic work and a construction,” that is — that it had been fashioned according to a plan to demonstrate certain principles. Proust was not, contrary to popular opinion, merely trying to recreate old memories. He was trying to demonstrate certain philosophical, psychological, and literary ideas, and these manifested in his work. He admired the idea of Gothic cathedrals and thought of his work architecturally, or with the unity of painting or a great symphony, and drew his characters and situations from memory accordingly. He claims, indeed, to have possessed no imagination at all, though this remark likely ought to be taken about as seriously as Montaigne’s claims to a poor memory and and dull storytelling ability.
And yet even here there are complications. Ray Bradbury mentions that when he writes, a second self arises and does all the writing; his muse does all the work. In strange analogy with that view is Proust’s strongly-held position that the real life of the writer cannot tell us anything important about the authorial self, which be known only in the artistic creation. Yet this in itself does not tell us much about the planning debate, because that second self, that other self, may be precisely the self of reflection rather than the automatic, unconscious self which manifests when the intellect suspends itself in a reverie. On the other hand, Proust himself firmly holds that for an artist, “instinct” is king, and that intellect, by its own lights, bows in acknowledgement of this fact. Unfortunately, he never defines just what instinct is or how it is to be accessed in the writing process, excusing himself with an idea that Faulkner independently and no less staunchly adumbrates: that finally, there are no rules to writing.
Perhaps, as Henry James put it, “the general considerations fail or mislead, and…even the fondest of artists need ask no wider range than the logic of the particular case.”
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike get inspired by Harper Lee’s new Go Kill a Watchbird, and talk about sequels to classic books they’d like to discover.
Discussed in this episode: Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, racist Atticus Finch, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, A Christmas Story by Charles Dickens, Scarface (dir. Brian De Palma), Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, The Family Stone (dir. Thomas Bezucha), Dermot Mulroney, Sarah Jessica Parker, Claire Danes, Animal Farm by George Orwell, middle school plays, old-timey editorial cartoons, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Scarlett O’Hara’s nonsense, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Holden Caulfield’s stupid cap, selling out, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, the forgotten students of Hogwarts, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Jean Valjean.
Cut for time from this episode but likely to be included as an extra on the eventual DVD: 2 Naked 2 Dead by Norman Mailer.