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“The Enigmatic G—v”

April 5, 2013

Some chapters in Dostoevskii’s Demons, or The Possessed, or The Devils (Бесы, 1871-72) have a first-person narrator who interacts with the other characters and even has a name, Anton Lavrentievich G—v. In other chapters the narrator’s “I” fades away, and events and characters’ thoughts are reported with no indication of how Anton Lavrentievich could have learned of them. People read this inconsistency different ways.

The main views, as David Stromberg describes them (460-63), are:

  • There are two different narrators (Joseph Frank).
  • The inconsistency of narrative approach is a technical flaw, possibly caused by Dostoevskii reacting to real-life developments in the trial of Sergei Nechaev while the novel was being written (E. H. Carr, David Magarshack, Leonid Grossman).
  • There is one narrator who binds the novel together and is both an author of and a character in the novel (John Jones). The narration is full of “implications, insinuations, allusions, and cross-cancellations of stated values rather than of categorical assertions” (Slobodanka Vladiv; cf. sideshadowing). The single narrator is somehow “villainous,” even one of the “devils” of the title (Adam Weiner).

Stromberg, as I understand it, is working within this third current of thought, arguing for a single narrator and for interpreting the changes in narrative form instead of explaining them away as artistic mistakes. But he doesn’t agree with Weiner about G—v being “infected by Peter Verkhovenskii’s devils” (462). Instead he sees G—v as trying in good faith to assemble a coherent story from contradictory sources. G—v, for Stromberg, is “a kind of fictional forebear to the modern figure of the ‘witness’ of historical trauma” (463).

To me Weiner’s position seems like one of those ideas that’s so cleverly counterintuitive it draws you in, while Stromberg’s more positive view of G—v fits better with my memory of the novel. The “G—v is one of the devils” view doesn’t come out of nowhere, though: there are a number of odd similarities between Petr Verkhovenskii, the character, and G—v, the narrator, including G—v’s describing Petr using the word рассказчик (‘narrator,’ but as Stromberg points out also ‘yarn-spinner’ or ‘fabulist,’ 476). A lot hinges on divergent readings of individual words, including one from Dostoevskii’s notebooks. Does the verb сочиняю mean “I invent,” as Weiner would have it, and indicate that G—v’s narration is “cynical”? Or does it refer to G—v’s good-faith reconstruction of events, as he fills in gaps in his knowledge with invented facts that may be inaccurate in details but present a faithful picture of the whole, as Vladiv and Stromberg would say? (463-64, 480).

I’m fascinated by the detailed analysis of narration in this kind of article and intend to read more of the general theory it’s grounded in. Some handy if jargony terms Stromberg uses: diegetic (pertaining to the time and place of the story which is being told), intradiegetic (the same as diegetic?), extradiegetic (pertaining to the world of the storyteller, the time of the telling rather than of the story proper), hypodiegesis (Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan’s term for “a story within a story which does not advance the main narrative”), pseudodiegesis (Gérard Genette’s term that “includes a continuation of the main narrative under the guise of a story within a story,” 472n29)

See David Stromberg, “The Enigmatic G—v: A Defense of the Narrator-Chronicler in Dostoevsky’s Demons,” The Russian Review 71.3 (2012): 460-81.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 6, 2013 7:45 am

    Sounds like an interesting article; I’ll have to read it when I get to Бесы. In general, though of course D. was no more infallible than any other human, I approach arguments of the form “Dostoevskii didn’t know what he was doing/couldn’t get his act together/didn’t know how to write decent Russian” with extreme skepticism, and I’m always more likely to favor an argument of the form “Assuming he knew what he was about, here’s what I suggest he was up to.”

    • April 6, 2013 10:15 am

      I agree; I think that approach leads to the most interesting readings, and also saves people from looking like they think they know more about writing than Great Author X. That said, part of me enjoys reading criticism from 30-100 years ago, when Dostoevskii and co. were not Great Authors quite to the degree they are now, and on top of that critics felt freer to find fault with anyone they liked. I’m thinking of Hugh McLean in 1977 arguing Leskov learned to stay away from novels because he couldn’t manage the required love story part of the plot, or R. E. Steussy in 1966 saying the key to why Pisemskii’s later novels were terrible was “not the commonly blamed decline in his talent, but rather in his own fatal inability after having tasted fame, to recognize that that talent was not unlimited.” And I think E. H. Carr was more outspoken, in a way I would never dare to be.

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