My thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
A Bad Business is a set of six short stories by Dostoevsky collected in this ‘Essential Stories’ volume by Pushkin Press. The first four are longer length, and more ‘substantial’ so to speak but all the stories are impactful in their own ways. We touch on different themes and genres—satire to fantasy, humour (the most unexpected for me) to poignancy.
The book opens with the titular tale, ‘A Bad Business’, in which a young and upcoming general Ivan Ilych Pralinsky, just after attending a small party thrown by his former superior and friend, chances upon the wedding of an office (and class) subordinate while walking home. He decides to attend and put to practice his theory of ‘humaneness’ (his word for being on an equal footing with class inferiors) which he had been arguing is just what society needs (although almost immediately after leaving the party, the first thing he has done is to contradict himself). But having already had a fair bit more to drink than he is accustomed to, and having to drink some more out of courtesy at the wedding, things begin to go wrong right from the start, and Pralinsky’s actions, while perhaps only bringing embarrassment to himself, turn the groom, Pseldonimov’s life quite upside down, possibly with lasting consequences. This story explores themes of aspiration/idealism versus practice, class, and also perhaps circumstances since a large part of what happens is because Pralinsky is unused to that much drink. But what really left an impression is how many layers Dostoevsky gives us in this story to explore and to think back over, from the basic story arc of what Pralinsky’s presence at the party does, to the different characters themselves (even guests at the party with smaller ‘roles’ so to speak give us much to think about), and the dynamics between them.
Next was a completely different one, ‘Conversations in a Graveyard’ where an author Ivan Ivanovich, whose original work has met with little success, and who writes advertisements, translates French works, and has written many letters to the editor, ends up spending the night at a graveyard. But no ordinary one, here the dead have conversations with each other, share stories or promise to. We meet a range of curious ‘dead’ people (‘ghosts’?), and equally curious narrator. This is one I think I’ll have to come back to, to get at its significance much more, such as the themes of earthly limitations and so on, no longer being applicable to these dead—be it ‘class’ or shame.
‘A Meek Creature’ gives us a typically complex Dostoevskian narrator. His wife has just committed suicide, which unsettles him (I didn’t want to think ‘obviously’ since this is Dostoevsky’s world, after all), and leads him to think back over all that has happened—from the moment he first came across her, a small, ‘meek’ creature who visits his pawn shop to becoming his wife and what unfolded thereafter. This was probably to me the most characteristically Dostoevskian tale, with plenty of revelations as we go along and a narrator whose motivations and attitudes, in fact his entire psyche, keep one thinking.
Then came the story that in a sense was my favourite in this collection, because of how different it was from his usual writings (or at least what one thinks of as such), satirical though it is. In ‘Crocodile: An Extraordinary Event that Occurred in the Arcade’, Ivan Matveich, a civil servant, is swallowed whole by a crocodile, when visiting an arcade with his wife, Elena Ivanovna, and his friend (the narrator). But that doesn’t mean he’s dead of course. This is for him an excellent opportunity for fame, and he sets about planning how he will make his name in the world—all from inside the crocodile. A satirical tale, which comments on the ‘economic principle’ which alone seems to determine everything in the world (not too different from our current world; and one that is ‘naturally’ beneficial for the haves—who cares what becomes of the have-nots!), this was the funniest one in the whole book. One of my favourite quotes in the book is from this one:
… the crocodilian interior must as be empty, so that abhorring a vacuum, it is forced incessantly to swallow and replenish itself with whatever is at hand … The same is not true of the human organism; the emptier a human head is, for example, the less it feels the urge to fill itself; this is the only exception to the general rule.
The last two, much shorter pieces included ‘The Heavenly Christmas Tree’, the story of a young boy, living in poverty in lodgings with his mother, who is ill. This is a Christmas story as only Dostoevsky can tell it, and one that is at the same time both heartrending and beautiful. The final piece, ‘The Peasant Marey’ is a somewhat autobiographical story, in which the narrator reflects on a kindness, unexpectedly done to him by ‘Marey’ of the title when he was a child, something which stays with him, and reflects in his own attitudes many years later. Another short tale, but with a tender note to it.
While I have read some of Dostoevsky’s novels before, this was my first time reading any of his shorter works. The strength of this collection for me lies in the fact that it showcases a real range of writings in terms of themes and emotions from his pen, many of which I didn’t associate previously with Dostoevsky—be it the humour in ‘Crocodile’ or the poignant and beautiful notes in the ‘Christmas Tree’. An excellent collection.