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Kalganov’s sexuality, two pairs of Poles, and the burden of being important

February 8, 2015

Yesterday we had Eric Naiman on Kalganov and what being a minor character means. The rest of his article was about sexuality and some links between Dostoevskii’s last two novels.

Kalganov’s sexuality: The key scene is Dmitry’s trip to Mokroe, Dmitry’s “discovery of this most blatantly sexual of Dostoevsky’s women in the company of four men entirely impervious to her charms” (401). Those four men form two implicit couples: two Poles in one couple, and Kalganov and Maksimov in the other. Innuendo from the innkeeper and the narrator, digressions on Kalganov’s youth and beauty, and Kalganov’s asking “Where’s Maksimov?” when Grushenka is being flirtatious all suggest these pairs of men are more than friends (401-09). “Maksimov is probably not Kalganov’s first male object of desire,” and we may or may not read something into the fact that he is a friend (приятель) of Alesha Karamazov (405).

There is no “authorial contempt” for Kalganov’s relationships (405). In this Dostoevskii is unlike Tolstoi. Two minor characters in Anna Karenina (Анна Каренина, 1875-77) — “eccentrics” in Woloch’s sense — briefly “attempt to start a conversation with Vronsky,” but Vronsky is disgusted by their apparent homosexuality and the author seems to share his disgust (398 and 398n5). There are two ways Dostoevskii creates a space where Kalganov’s sexuality can escape disgust or contempt. One is Kalganov’s minorness, his quiet space at the fringes. The other is the Polish couple: “at least a secondary function of the Poles in the novel is to create an environment in which an erotic pairing of two men — Kalganov and Maksimov — might seem if not completely natural then not noticeably unnatural” (413). The Poles attract the author’s contempt because they are Poles, which somehow prevents them, or Kalganov and Maksimov, from being on the receiving end of such contempt on sexual grounds (413).

Naiman reads the text on its own terms instead of mechanically imposing twenty-first–century socially constructed categories on top of nineteenth-century ones; he never falls into the trap of “people used to think X about human sexuality, but now we know Y,” as if current orthodoxies will be more eternal than those of the 1870s or the 1950s or the 1990s. Kalganov could be seen as “a man with same-sex desire trying to talk himself into heterosexual ‘normalcy’” or alternatively as “the first bisexual in modern Russian literature,” but Naiman prefers to say that “here Dostoevsky has captured the youthful fluidity of sexual desire” (409). Later he adds these possible interpretations:

If one wished to allegorize Kalganov’s same-sex desires, one might see him as an exemplary figure: the only character whose love is broad enough to understand and to take as its object Maksimov […] Alternatively, one could put him at the center of a homosocial continuum, represented by three figures—Alyosha, whose life has tended to put him in the midst of all male communities (the monastery, the boys), where a pure, holy love is diffused among his fellow men; Kalganov, representing desire of one man for another man, a character who takes another man as an object of erotic fascination if not explicitly as an object of sexual possession, and Smerdyakov, a man who loves only himself. (413-14)

Naiman draws on the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, especially her contrast between a “minoritizing” view of “homo/heterosexual definition” as something that matters to “a small, distinct, relatively fixed homosexual minority” and a “universalizing” view, where the same issue is “of continuing, determinative importance in the lives of people across the spectrum of sexualities” (398). She is also the source of the idea that “in late nineteenth-century literary texts,” “a character’s homosexuality seems to be an ‘open secret’ that on one hand has never been noticed but which, on the other hand, once it surfaces in critical discourse, has always been too obvious to have been worth pointing out” (398-99).

In one scene Liza quotes Kalganov as saying “намечтать можно самое веселое, а жить скука”; Naiman remarks that Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation of this phrase (“One can dream up the gayest things, but to live is boring”) is “symptomatic if not intentional” in its “sexual connotation” for the modern reader (408-09, italics added). This reminded me of Leskov’s Captain Postel’nikov, who was “light blue” for the nineteenth-century connotation of the secret police, not the twentieth-century meaning of male homosexuality, but who seemed to be crying out for an anachronistic reading.

The Adolescent and The Brothers Karamazov: “Just as some of Makar’s stories [in The Adolescent] seem to be rough drafts of Zosima’s future preaching [in The Brothers Karamazov], so the drinking scene in The Adolescent — the moment of Trishatov’s greatest intimacy with Arkady and with the reader — serves as an embryonic version of the longer debauch in Mokroe” (412). In particular the two Poles in the scene in The Brothers Karamazov were already there in the corresponding scene in The Adolescent (413).

More broadly Naiman compares the two novels as a test case for his proposition that Kalganov’s very insignificance makes him independent and free. The first-person narrator of The Adolescent doesn’t have that luxury because he is so central, and in that novel, “same-sex desire is far more fraught,” and it’s tied up with images of filth (a dirty necktie, manure in the Haymarket during a winter thaw; 410, 409-12).

See Eric Naiman, “Kalganov,” Slavic and East European Journal 58.3 (2014): 394-418 (no link).

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2015 4:26 pm

    I’d need to re-read it paying particular attention but is there really enough or even particularly anything to suggest a sexual content to Kalganov & Maximov’s relationship? From what I remember Maximov is anything but charged with attractiveness in a sexual sense to anyone of either sex, is also I think pretty old, & finally isn’t much more than broke. Kalganov though young & attractive seemed to be more in the way of dreamily asexual & as such maybe a contrast to the vitality of the Karamazovs.

    • October 3, 2015 3:25 pm

      I need to reread it too, but I thought Naiman made a good case, especially with Kalganov asking about Maksimov while not paying attention to Grushenka, then running to watch Maksimov dance instead of staying with Grushenka in part 3, book 8, chapter 8. The age difference between Kalganov and Maksimov could be seen as a point in favor of reading their relationship as sexual (cf. the world of Oscar Wilde or Mikhail Kuzmin a decade or two after The Brothers Karamazov).

  2. October 18, 2015 12:27 pm

    Repeating the point I’d need to re-read it certainly but in my memory Kalganov seemed more to find Maximov amusing and ridiculous. Not of course that a young man couldn’t be attracted to an older man but comparing to the obviously interesting, perhaps magnetic character of an Oscar Wilde, Maximov seemed a pathetic and ridiculous figure wholly lacking in any of that inner-dynamic. For instance he is taken in out of pity by Grushenka but there isn’t a whiff of any sense there could be any question of a sexual element in Grushenka having this pitiful character living with her – a much more ‘intimate’ relationship you could say than Kalganov’s, i.e. actually co-habiting. And the preposterousness of such a sexual thought that even the jealous Dmitri wouldn’t for a moment think of any such threat from such a figure.

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