- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Modern Library; First Edition edition (September 5, 1992)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0679600205
- ISBN-13: 978-0679600206
- Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.8 x 7.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 37 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #413,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Best Short Stories of Dostoevsky (Modern Library) Hardcover – September 5, 1992
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Text: English (translation)
Original Language: Russian
From the Back Cover
The Modern Library of the World's Best Books
"The irrational is no longer the novelty it was, and we are consequently less struck by the madness of Dostoevsky than we used to be....Now, whenever I open a novel of his, my first impression
is one of realism and sanity."
--V. S. Pritchett
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**White Nights - 5 stars
The last book I read was “Poor Folk,” which at the time was one of the saddest stories I’d ever read. That may have been true then, but that slot has, without question, been taken over by “White Nights.” Few things are more freeing than pulling oneself from miserable solitude to joyful communion, and few things are more damning than being pushed from the heights of ecstasy back to the pit of agony. Dostoevsky, in a few short pages, creates an achingly brilliant exploration of both faces of that drama in a single story.
The narrator of the story is quite the loquacious sort of fellow who, regardless of his perceived inability to actually interact with the world around him, has a firm grasp on not only who he is but who he wants to be as well. I can’t help but see the lonely adolescent who, alone in his (or her) room, believes that “there isn’t any” story of his life and that, “[he sees] all sorts of people but is alone all the same.” This is, however, no adolescent, but a man full of ideas, full of life, and full of hope. A man who finds himself subsumed by fantastical stories and dreams… a man who believes “that there is something alive and palpable in his vain and empty dreams!” How can I, a simple observer, not feel for this character who at least attempts to know himself and “had long ago passed judgment on [him]self?” He proclaims himself a dreamer, yet the entire story of his life is smattered with harsh doses of reality. If he had been only a dreamer, then crossing that street to Nastenka… to his future… to his Love… would never have happened. Would never, in fact, have been possible. Our dreamer knew himself and his dreams and, more importantly, he knew that he wanted those dreams to be reality. He had tricked himself into believing that his role in life had been reduced to “hearing and seeing people living real lives…”
Dostoevsky, however, makes it plain that we are not dealing with a man completely lost in his dreams, tales of others, and the real lives of strangers. The narrator took not only the first step toward his true Self when he crossed that road, but he took the second step when he returned… the third in baring his soul… and the fourth in returning yet again on nothing but the promise of the opportunity to feel alive. But then Dostoevsky becomes Dostoevsky. His joy, his love, his ecstasy… all of these things are fleeting, misplaced, and ephemeral as the wind. Instead of opening his heart, the narrator is forced to open his mind to Nastenka in an effort to direct this new light of his life to shine on another, for she is already in love. In love, but with an absentee lover, and she reaches out to our narrator not for him, but for compassion and empathy to her own situation. He composes himself, and then composes a letter for the precocious Nastenka to the object of her desire. He states (for her) that, “I do not blame you that I have no power over your heart: such seems to be my fate.” What blind devotion she must feel for her former lodger and future lover to not see how clearly our narrator was speaking his own heart to hers? It was enough to break my heart, but Dostoevsky wasn’t through with me yet. The narrator takes yet another step and returns again the next night with a “full heart” and every intention and hope of creating a reality from the dream he had been living despite Nastenka’s insistence of loving a man who wasn’t there. He returned and was crushed in an episode that I feel plays out every day even still. “I love you,” Nastenka says before he can express his feelings, “because you haven’t fallen in love with me.” She twists the knife further: “When I am married, we shall be such good friends… I shall love you almost as much as him!” And Dostoevsky drops the blade with a simple and childlike action as the narrator walks toward the future hand-in-hand with the only hand he wants to hold but is forced to realize that, “[her] hand is cold, but mine burns like fire.” He proceeds to finally explain his feelings to Nastenka, yet she, “does not understand.” She wonders, “Why isn’t he like you?” She believes that, “He’s not as good as you,” and then mercifully the torture stops with the killing stroke for the truth remains that, “I love him more than you.”
I had to, at this point, stop reading. I thought I was prepared for the direction of this story, but these words and these actions were so hauntingly and beautifully rendered that I had no choice but to, like the narrator, feel “tears well up in my eyes.” It had been nearly a year since I’d found my owns eyes watering in a public place, and I wasn’t about to let a story nearly 200 years old break that ridiculously short record for me, so I left our narrator with Nastenka on that St. Petersburg street for the evening… Vodka/Red Bull, please.
When I returned, I was ready. I was ready when the only thing he (I) could offer Nastenka… the only thing she would accept… was an assurance that, “[Your lover will] come tomorrow.” I was ready for my (his) sad assertion that, “[Nastenka and her lover] must be together now…” when she did not arrive at the planned rendezvous. I was not prepared, however, to repeatedly attempt to “go away” from her only to have her show up and, “continue to walk” with me, for her to beg me to, “stop!” to “wait!” and to at last give up the world around us, exist together, act “like children,” and believe in and PLAN a future together. Now I was blinded as I dutifully followed the narrative, followed the narrator, and allowed my own heart to build a future reality from what, in hindsight, was nothing more than a construct of straw. I should have known, but I wanted to believe. I should have known, but I wanted to feel “her hand tremble in mine,” and I should have known, but I wanted two hearts to slowly begin to beat in time as “she clung to me more closely.”
I should have known as “a young man passed us by.” I should have known… “It’s him!” I felt my knees buckle under me just as the narrator found that he “could hardly stand up.” I felt my eyes… dry and unblinking… as she “flung her arms around my neck and kissed me ardently. Then, without uttering a word, rushed back to him again, clasped his hands, and drew him after her” just as, with the narrator, “I stood a long time, watching them walking away.” And for the second time Dostoevsky stops my heart.
Tennyson, I think, couldn’t have been more wrong… tis far better to have never loved at all than to have loved and lost, and, despite our nameless narrator finally opining that, “Only a moment of bliss… is sufficient for the whole of a man’s life,“ for me, “White Nights” proves just the opposite. A man who is “a dreamer” who finally experiences that dream “in real life” and then finds himself forced back to simply “re-living such moments as these in [his] dreams” must be the saddest man of all. “What is there left… to dream of now that I’ve been so happy beside you in real life and not in a dream?”
**The Honest Thief - 3 stars
Forgive my own loquaciousness regarding that… Thankfully I found the next several stories to be much less introspective and destructive. “The Honest Thief” was, at last, a Dostoevsky tale that I really could see through to the end before I finished it. I felt like it was a fairly long and meandering tale with a foregone conclusion. Perhaps I lack the insight to ascribe to this story a deeper meaning, but what I walked away with was just an edification of an idea that most of us already hold dear, “dishonesty, especially to those whom we love and who love us, will kill you in the end.”
**The Christmas Tree and a Wedding - 3 stars
Once more, I found myself happy to be reading a simple story… a simple narrative that did not cut nearly as deeply “White Nights” had. The exposition and Dostoevsky’s brilliance in creating a scene and an ambiance was on full display in this early short story. My God, it was creepy, but this story, as with the one before it, seemed to simply speak to notions that are likely already entrenched in the majority of his audience. This was a story of greed… of selfishness… Upon its conclusion I just shuddered… “Not me,” I thought… “not me.”
**The Peasant Marey - 2 stars
This was a fascinating look into Dostoevsky’s real life. I am vaguely familiar with his banishment, his death sentence, and the fact that he spent time in prison… To be allowed inside his mind, first hand, during this period of his life was an incredible journey. The story itself I found to be somewhat confusing and lacking real direction. Lacking direction, at least, for a reader. I understand the cathartic effect this must have had on the author, which is what made this such an interesting read, but as an outsider who has not had an experience even close to that through which Dostoevsky lived, I found it difficult to find a personal connection to this story. I enjoyed this in a strange cerebral sort of way… but I don’t know what I will take from it as I attempt to craft my own story…
**Notes From Underground - 5 stars
As I said earlier, I skipped this during my reading of this volume. I may return at some point, but not now… For one, I really hate that it is referred to as “Notes From the Underground” here… This story shaped so much of my personal outlook for many years… I have bought multiple copies to give away to people I hoped would understand and, thereby, be closer to me… and I was introduced to this story as “Notes From Underground.” I know it is petty, but there I am. This was an absolutely brilliant story, and it’s clear why it was included in this collection. Many elements of this were clearly evident in the earlier short stories, and their influence on the themes and styles of the stories that followed was obvious. This was, for me, a life-defining moment and I’d like to believe, for Dostoevsky, career defining as well.
**A Gentle Creature - 5 stars
I don’t know if I can keep my word count down on this one, but I’ll try…
After “White Nights,” this was, without question, the most affecting story included here. I was immediately caught up during the author’s “brief introduction” as he referenced Hugo’s “The Last Day of a Man Condemned to Death.” I haven’t read that story (although now I must), but everything he said pulled me forward in time and face-to-face with Jorge Luis Borges and his short story on the same subject. (I dearly wish I could remember the title, but all I can recall is that I read it in his collection “Labyrinths.”)
Regardless… this story affected me greatly if only because, really, it is just disgusting. I hope, dear God, I hope that I was not disgusted by this solely because I found myself looking in a mirror and saw a monster looking back. I hope, dear God, I hope that I can see these things in myself well before my story winds the same path as this. I wanted, at first, to identify with the narrator of this story… I wanted to feel sympathy when he notes that it is, “sincerity that assures them their victory,” even as I write in the margins that “assurance is not the same as a guarantee.” I wanted to feel “one of the most voluptuous thoughts in the world, you know. Not to be in doubt, I mean.” To feel that even as I wrote that, “having no doubt is not the same thing as being right.” I was fully prepared to find an empathetic lead character whose fate, though sealed, still created an engaging and hopeful tale of the purity of desire.
But no! So quickly did he turn from an empathetic character to a selfish monster beyond redemption! I continued to hope that this was a story written in hindsight that had created a new perspective… the story of a man who, once tragedy had struck, truly realized the error of his ways, but I could not align myself with one who shaped their personality simply because it can “bias the imagination [of another] in one’s favor.” It is not, for me, a “feeling of inequality” that is fascinating… it is in equality that I search for edification, love, and companionship! (Or so I hope) Page after page reveals the worst possible self I could be, and the narrator seems to revel in it… I recoil from the thought that she should “discover by herself this man and understand him!” I want nothing more than take the journey to understanding together. Together to understanding me and to me understanding… well… “Find out yourself,” he exclaims, “and learn to appreciate me!” I shook my head in despair and prayed, “Please don’t let that have been me.”
The narrator here is the epitome of selfishness and singular desire who, at least for the majority of the story, reveled in his machinations to convince this young girl that he is the better of her two suitors. Was he attempting to make up for his past cowardice or just trying to raise himself above his economic competition? To prove himself better than another? This was a tale of extreme narcissism that is only realized once “a gun had been leveled against [him] by a human being [he] adored.” Even then I felt no sympathy… only disgust. It is, again, a credit to Dostoevsky that he creates this disgust not only for his character but also in recognition that the same potential for such selfishness exists in me as well. The narrator clearly has no true understanding of others for if, “she was the only person [he] had hoped to make [his] true friend in life,” then how could he possibly also say that, “a friend had to be taken in hand, licked into shape, and – yes – even mastered?”
If “White Nights” pulled from me deep and sincere feelings of regret and sadness, “A Gentle Creature” equally pulled from me notions of anger and… well, also regret. The characters of the two stories seem to have had a similar genesis as the narrator here also proclaims that, “I am a dreamer,” yet he has taken the opposite path of our “White Nights” narrator to create one of the worst caricatures of humanity I have seen. I still found myself unable to be hopeful here even when he was “stunned” by her wordless question, “So it’s love you still want? Love?” My heart screamed, “Yes,” but how could I support these two when he still “paid no attention to her fear” because “a new life shone like a bright start before [him]!” At least he finally noticed that he “made a mistake,” but he failed to understand the effect his mistakes and his actions had on the one person that might have loved me. I mean, “him.”
It is here that I finally begin to have hope, yes, but also see my own mistakes in such clarity. It is here, however, that he turns it around on me again when he starts to believe that his new mistake was to “have looked upon her with such rapture” and that he “should have controlled himself.” I certainly understand the situation and know, painfully well, when that can be true, but he never notices that his true “mistake” was that he should have been looking upon her “with such rapture” from the very beginning! This was brutal until the end… He never learned to change. Not really. He certainly never learns to convince her – with actions! – that he has actually changed. The only satisfying outcome here was that which we received. If it wasn’t the physical ledge of the window then it should have at least been emotional. Such monstrous selfishness cannot be tamed. All I wanted was freedom for his poor wife…
I finished my reflections on “Poor Folk” thinking that I like to read these types of stories so that I can see realities that lead to disaster and do my best to avoid them. If ever there was a character who life choices I wish to avoid, Dostoevsky created him here.
**The Dream of a Ridiculous Man - 4 stars
Out of all the stories contained here, this one felt most like “Notes From Underground.” From the beginning, the narrator’s self-deprecating description of himself had me believing I knew the philosophy which Dostoevsky intended to share with me. This also brought me back to Borges (or Camus) when the narrator fell into some kind of pre-existentialism succumbing to “the conviction which was gaining upon [him was] that nothing in the whole world made any difference.” Honestly, I did not want to hear it… I did not want to read about a character who was, “so utterly indifferent to everything that [he] was anxious to wait for the moment when [he] would not be so indifferent and then kill [him]self.”
So I was glad, even as I wondered what would happen to me if I’d had a gun on the table, that he at least realized that, “though nothing made any difference to [him], [he] could feel pain.” Not only pain, of course, but empathize with the pain of others! This, if nothing else, must make existence worthwhile! The truth that he found... the Truth… in his dream of an earth of perfection became beautiful. We all want to dream of a world of Love of purity without suffering, but how beautiful is it to understand that beauty and love also require ugliness and suffering? “I want suffering in order to love. I want and thirst this very minute to kiss, with tears streaming down my cheeks, the one and only… I have left behind.” To know a love that exists in the face of, perhaps because of, any and all other suffering could not be more uplifting and enlightening! To know… to really know… to “look forward to that moment with joy, but without haste and without pining for it, as though already possessing it in the vague stirring of their hearts, which they communicated to each other.” What could be better?
Although this perfect Earth is eventually affected by our narrator’s indifference, love of self, and understanding of the reality of evil, it is the Truth of beauty that eventually triumphs. I saw traces of “Animal Farm” as “each of them began to love himself better than anyone else,” and broad strokes influencing “Stranger in a Strange Land” in the communion and the love of the inherent GOODNESS of man. I loved the decision that, “even if there never is a heaven on earth that I can see very well, even then I shall go on preaching.” This was the perfect ending for an incredible collection. To take me to my darkest and lowest point only to espouse the best things about humanity (and me!) in the end was an incredible roller coaster ride.
I wanted to say something else, but really there’s nothing else to say.
“The main thing is to love your neighbor as yourself – that is the main thing, and that is everything, for nothing else matters… The consciousness of life is higher than life, the knowledge of happiness is higher than happiness… if only we all wanted it, everything could be arranged immediately.”
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