Ripe and relevant

Uncle’s Dream – Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Alma Books)

Not many authors have blurb from Nietzsche and Camus. Perhaps no other authors have. Dostoyevsky does.

Uncle’s Dream is considered a minor work. Dostoyevsky had just spent time exiled in Siberia and then in the provincial doldrums of Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

Uncle’s Dream sets provincial ruthlessness and stupidity as its target. Dostoyevsky’s exile work proper comes later though, in The House of The Dead.

This is a funny book essentially written for cash, intended to start Dosteyevsky on the long road back to literature. This edition carries a new translation by Roger Cockrell. It is a direct and lively reading.

The tale begins as a kind of shaggy dog story. We meet Maria Moskalyova. She is a socialite and savage, sharp elbower. Her husband was highly privileged but also useless, and is now sidelined, put away in the countryside.

This is the pre-revolutionary world in which the totally incompetent rule. We meet the Prince with a cork leg, false beard and hair and a glass eye. He was ‘some kind of corpse on springs’, but covered in the latest high fashion. Morning coat, powder and wig. Perfumed and pomaded. A sort of surviving Rolling Stone of his time.

His brain, affected from years of being an idle fop, stutters out words in chunks. He begins to discuss his haemorrhoids at a party – which in Viz terms means his ‘arsegrapes are up’. He is stopped mid-flow. He is one of the figures Georg Grosz drew and painted, only before he turns up sixty years on in Berlin, bits of him left behind in a chateau full of trench mud.

The moment a discussion arises around whether the area has had cholera – ‘the plague’ – or not seems loaded in this moment. But the book speaks to our times at many points.

Maria Moskalyova pushes for her beautiful daughter to marry the crumbling prince. We see it in our time. We see it in Melania Trump in a way I suppose. Maria Moskalyova derides Shakespeare and young men who fill their heads with his works.

Most interestingly, Maria avoids Shakespearean tragedy by getting her way through thick and thin. Her daughter is a tragedy, but Maria escapes cosmic justice in any and all forms that might visit her. Many of the Moskalyovas of the world do. This is the hard modernist spike in a perhaps softer novel.

This might be a minor work, but it is very far from the failure Dostoyevsky assumed it to be. The Prince is withering about people around him infected by some ‘new idea or other’. Here comes the age of revolution. The Prince derides a servant who looks like he might be incubating great philosophy, by Kant, or someone like that.

This was the age in which ideas displaced the ‘corpses on springs’ who ran the world. Let us have a whole new era of that please.

The spiteful hypocrites and gossips are recognisable and real. If nothing else, this book is ripe to be updated for 2020, perhaps as a film. I can see a man whose expensive cosmetic surgery is falling apart, and his hangers-on, perhaps some failing and desperate boomers who lost nearly all of it in a tech bubble. It actually played in theatres later, most notably in the Soviet era. It’s funny and sharp.

Here is a great window onto our world of greedy, pushy, power-mad bastards, downloaded from Dostoyevsky’s time.

– Steve Hanson

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