Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)
Russian novelist, (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov) philosopher, short story writer, essayist, and journalist
A Novel in Nine Letters, first published in 1847
Available to read online here
This is the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. Here is the start of their description of this narrative style: “Each of the following stories is, to use the title of the James story, “a bundle of letters.” A letter is a written monologue, still relatively spontaneous, still addressed to a certain person for a certain reason; but of course the speaker is not face to face with his listener.” They describe A Novel in Nine Letters as “a two-way correspondence, a dialogue at a distance.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
A Novel in Nine Letters
Pyotr Ivanitch writes to Ivan Petrovitch saying he’s been looking for him everywhere, but would he and Tatyana please come to tea. He’s also not happy about having been introduced to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, but we don’t know why. Also his son is ill and his wife is depressed. Ivan Petrovitch replies to Pyotr Ivanitch that he was at home all the time, so he has no idea why he couldn’t find him. He’s not sure what the problem is with Yevgeny Nikolaitch but wants to meet to talk it out – but now he can’t find Pyotr anywhere. Also, his wife is having a baby. Pyotr responds that he was called away because his aunt was ill – but will meet him at a mutual friend’s. Ivan replies that Pyotr didn’t turn up at the mutual friend’s, making him (Ivan) look an idiot, and accusing Pyotr of backtracking on a financial loan. Pyotr replies that it wasn’t a loan, his aunt’s dead and he’s too wounded to discuss the issues. Ivan says Pyotr’s deliberately avoiding him, deceiving him with pretend friendship, leading him on a merry dance and lying. Pyotr refuses to engage. At the end, both receive evidence that their wives have been cheating with aforementioned Yevgeny Nikolaitch and their friendship is incontrovertibly over!
This is a very entertaining battle of words and will between two “gentlemen” – Dostoevsky gives them shared names in an attempt, I think, to show that they’re interchangeable, and each as bad as the other. It’s great to see how the extreme formality and politeness of the earlier missives gets replaced by downright invective towards the end! Dostoevsky deliberately holds back with the details – what exactly did Yevgeny do to make himself such an unwelcome guest? Why was he at Ivan’s flat? (I think we know the answer to that!) Was it a loan between Pyotr and Ivan or some other kind of agreement? And at the end you ask yourself, is Anna really depressed, and who is the father of Tatyana’s baby?!
Deceptively simple, this short story merits being re-read a few times to get the full nuances of what’s being accused and what’s happening behind the scenes. Apparently, Dostoevsky wrote it over the course of one evening, to pay off a gambling debt – something that Ivan accuses of Pyotr of doing. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in these letters; my favourite is when Ivan accuses Pyotr of “shameful exactitude” for pinpointing the precise time that his aunt suffered a stroke. Over 170 years since it was written, it’s fun to imagine these St Petersburg men engaging in a vicious and bitchy spat, but the nature of their disagreement is timeless – you could just imagine how today they would be keyboard warriors of the worst kind!
The next story in the anthology is Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, by Ambrose Bierce, another writer whose work I have never encountered, so I am looking forward to reading this one!