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“A Novel in Nine Letters”

March 19, 2013

After “A Novel in Seven Letters,” I had to read Dostoevskii’s “A Novel in Nine Letters” (Роман в девяти письмах, 1847), which I believe the late Joseph Frank described as a slight piece, written quickly when money was short, and important only because it taught Dostoevskii that even his talent couldn’t make every hastily written word into genius. It wasn’t much like “A Novel in Seven Letters” (I don’t know about, say, Orest Somov’s “A Novel in Two Letters” mentioned on the Wikipedia page for the Dostoevskii story). It’s comic in tone, the reader sees both sides of the correspondence, and the eighth and ninth letters cheat a little, worming in an extra letter from one of the main correspondents’ wives plus a few lines from a narrator who explains what envelopes they came in and when.

One of the two letter-writers goes for elegance, and the other is more plain-spoken than he perhaps wishes. The linguistic contrast is fun. I can never trust my instincts too far, being neither a native speaker nor from the 1840s, but I hear the first writer, Petr Ivanych, as overdoing it with low-frequency Gallicisms like неглижировать and ассюрировать and the stilted construction в бытность нашу у Семена Алексеича (something like “during our being at Semen Alekseich’s” when “while we were…” would do much better). His correspondent, Ivan Petrovich, promptly imitates неглижировать and в бытность but doesn’t seem to come up with such language on his own.

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