As I’ve gone along trying to sort out this new book of mine, Kaos, I am frequently reminded just how appropriate the title is: what a mess! Every “good idea” I have about it becomes a very, very bad idea within a day or two – only to swing back into favour some time later, mean and resentful at being discarded for some pathetic, twisted and even disgusting wee wrinkle on the rotting flesh of this novel’s corpus.
As Kaos came to me while I was working on a book partly about Dostoevsky, while I was reading this great Russian writer and thinker, I’ve gone back to this source as I’ve run into trouble with the book – and been told how the techniques he used are now frowned upon: the use of an “external” narrator especially, but also the involved congeries of relationships that today sees his novels prefaced with a character list so readers can sort them out when they get confused – as they do.
It’s all true. Indeed, it’s even worse! Dostoevsky not only used these now passe techniques, he abused them, made a real hash of them. Here are some examples: in House of the Dead, his thinly disguised account of life in a Russian prison, his central character initially murdered his wife, but as he nears release he becomes – as Dostoevsky was – a “political” prisoner. In The Adolescent, his next to last novel, he changed the name of a secondary character two thirds of the way through its serialisation, but did not bother even to make the name consistent when it was published in book form.
But these are tiny peccadilli compared to the serious ah, “theoretical” difficulties Dostoevsky ran into and bulldozed over. In Demons, a novel with a narrator, there are scenes involving two characters that no one else could have known about to report what happened, scenes vital to the story and its meaning. Did Dostoevsky care about this? It doesn’t seem so. When it was too hard to figure out how the narrator could have found out about something, Dostoevsky just switched out of that mode and became the all-seeing, all-knowing god writers so often like to be.
So why would Dostoevsky adopt this “narrator” technique that he used and abused so casually? At times it seems totally unnecessary. With Karamazov especially the narrator seems pointless – he is writing some time after the events he describes, so obviously takes no part in them, and is all but forgotten by the reader, when he is not actually forgotten. Perhaps Dostoevsky intended to bring the action up to the time of the narrator…but even then, he could easily have got along without him.
And he too gets in the way. The murderer in Karamazov confesses to Ivan just before hanging himself; Ivan suddenly comes down with an attack of delirium tremens and isn’t believed – but the scene in which the murderer confesses is written as if that is how it actually happened. If Karamazov had been written as most novels are written nowadays, with no narrator apart from the author, who silently manipulates everything, this would not be a problem – it only becomes a problem because Dostoevsky makes it one.
It is even messier with Demons. The narrator is a part of things in that harrowing book, and his naivte helps the narrative work. Very early in his account he reveals that though a part of the “set” of a central character, he had not known crucial things about him. That tells the reader – well, this is what I think – that not everything the narrator is going to say can be taken at face value. It gives the writer a certain freedom, and sparks a frisson the reader may enjoy – to know that what is on the page is at least partly a mask for something else, that even at the end the “truth” may still prove elusive.
To me this is the attraction of the “narrator” technique: that it allows a writer to conceal and reveal in interesting ways that otherwise would not be possible. Perhaps the most famous use of this is by Agatha Christie, whose Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a first person narration by – the murderer.* What seems to be a disinterested account by a bystander turns out to be part of a scheme to conceal “who done it”. When the murderer confesses (before doing away with himself) it is not gloating – he’s been sprung, and his scheme is a failure, so he fesses up.
Demons’ narrator never really takes an important role; he is there, watching and listening, and occasionally performing small errands for one or another of the more important characters, and there is a feeling, never confirmed, that he falls in love with one of them. What matters about him is his implicit unreliability as a witness – the reader can’t be sure, as she or he is reading, that this witness has got it right. And in the end, it turns out not to matter – that what counts is the sheer messiness of life, an unpredictability that destroys all pretense of forcing society, and thereby our understanding, into a mould: the central point of the book. Dostoevsky thus gives this technique a kind of thematic force that to me is very impressive.
And this is my idea now, till I have another one.
* Yes, this is a “spoiler”, but this book was first published nearly 90 years ago, and anyway, anyone reading this post is not likely to be a fan of Agatha Christie. And if s/he is a fan, and hasn’t read it yet – why haven’t you? Wikipedia spoils it too.