Book: Masks?

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double. Translated by Ronald Wilks. 2009. (As always possibly spoilers.)

It’s strange how differently certain things seem during a pandemic. I suppose this is true of any event on your mind. Masks and masquerades are an important theme in The Double, as a metaphor for truth and identity and authenticity etc., but it’s hard not to think of the mask I’ve been wearing out in public.

In one respect The Double is like Crime and Punishment, which is the only other Dostoevsky I’ve read: it screws with your head. He really doesn’t let you feel as though you know what’s going on. You have a basic sense of what’s going on at the kind of textual level–this is unlike, for example, in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The prose is more or less clear. You question the extent to which, say, Golyadkin is insane; you question who knows what; you question what any particular character’s motive is; you question whether certain reportings are real or imagined, but you can still more or less follow the story without strain.

There’s something Dostoevsky does that I can’t tell if I like or not. He was known as this literary “psychologist.” I’m not going to get into whether works of fiction can make truth claims about universal human psychology–or even particularly human psychology; I’m also not going to get into how a work of fiction might be “insightful” with respect to anything outside of itself. From the perspective of Dostoevsky’s prose, though, this psychological tendency makes him read as very cramped. There were times when reading The Double that I felt literally cramped inside Golyadkin’s mind. That’s not just to say I wasn’t sure what was going on outside of it (on the assumption that that could be determined objectively), but to say that it was actually uncomfortable in there. Reading The Double at times felt even physically uncomfortable.

I think maybe the thing that keeps you reading The Double is Golyadkin himself. For all his paranoia and self-pity, he has a kind of odd charm. He’s compelling in his absurdity I think. There’s a moment toward the end, when he is chasing the double out of the coffee shop, when the German owner fears the two men are escaping without paying (Germanness is weirdly important in the book, but I’m not sure what to make of it), that Golyadkin, despite all desperate hurry, manages to pay up:

“But at that very moment the fat German, seeing that her two customers were fleeing, shrieked and rang her bell as hard as she could. Almost in mid-air our hero turned round, threw her some money, both for himself and for the shameless man who had not paid, and without asking for change and despite the delay this occasioned still managed–although again almost in mid-air–to catch up with his enemy” (131).

He has this kind of absurd concern with basic obligation, the obligations of customer to server and vice versa, of cab-driver to rider and vice versa, etc., especially with money, that make him somehow endearing. He’s concerned with whether someone is “within their rights” to say or do something, he is observant of people’s independence from one another and the importance of leaving each other be. Even if he lacks them himself, decorum and public reputation are high on his priorities.

I thought the end was somehow–disappointing? I think disappointing is the wrong word. Even only a little bit of the way through, it was nearly impossible to imagine another way for the book to end than that Golyadkin should end up institutionalized. In thinking about it now I suppose that isn’t the only way it could have ended, but it was certainly always the way that made most sense. I think maybe then uncomfortable is a better word: I felt simply uncomfortable. It is impossible to make a reasonable judgement of the extent to which Golyadkin is insane. That’s the point, of course, or one of the points.

As I’ve said, the book is written from so deeply inside Golyadkin’s mind that coming to an objective determination about anything is impossible. Nevertheless, one of the reasons you feel so uncomfortable is that, despite the “psychological” method of writing, the narrator does editorialize, and early in the book even makes statements from the first person. And yet the prose is so tight and cramped and unclear that it is hard to feel that the narrator is any more trustworthy than Golyadkin’s double. That surely is the greatest source of discomfort.

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