November 11, 2014

The Art of the Novella Challenge 3: The Eternal Husband


eternal husbandTitle: The Eternal Husband

Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky

First published: 1870

Page count: 210

First line: The summer had come and, contrary to expectations, Velchaninov had remained in Petersburg.

Here then is the first serious test, in this year-long reading challenge, of length as the defining criterion of a novella. The 210 pages of Dostoevsky’s book run to 54,687 words, or some 7,500 more than The Great Gatsby, which you might think of as a flag whacked into the continuum and reading ‘Here beginneth the Short Novel’.

Of course, compared to the Russian’s more famous novels, The Eternal Husband is brief indeed, a quarter of the length of Crime and Punishment, and less than a sixth of The Brothers Karamazov. A comparison with the former is instructive. C&P is, after all, very much concerned with the “single event, situation or conflict” given in my Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory under the entry for ‘novella’ – in this instance Raskolnikov’s murder of the moneylender.

That definition, however, goes on to ask for “an element of suspense [that] leads an unexpected turning point”, whereas the whole magnificent point of Crime and Punishment is that what follows the murder involves no single turning point, and little that is unexpected, but rather the thorough and inevitable unfolding of a single character’s destiny based on their psychology and social situation, and yet still obeying the moral schema imposed by the author. Just as I pointed to Bartleby the Scrivener as a short story that is dragged out of true to become a novella, so you might say that Crime and Punishment is a novella that is dragged out of true to become a novel.

The situation in The Eternal Husband is this: that late-thirtysomething unmarried man-of-means Velchaninov finds himself tracked down, one summer, by the husband of a woman he once had an affair with. She is now dead, and Trusotsky, the cuckold, seems intent on rekindling a friendship that, on Velchaninov’s side, never reached beyond a veneer of politeness.

Trusotsky – Pavel Pavlovitch – is an outright bore and buffoon, and the book is grimly funny in an unpleasant way whenever he is on stage, but Velchaninov can’t seem to shake him. (A casting note, in passing: Ben Affleck would do a good Velchaninov, I think: preening and self-congratulatory, but not unable to find feelings when called upon to do so – or at least not unable of making a show of finding them – while Steve Carrell or Paul Giamatti could do well as the fawning, sinister, pathetic and utterly kickable Pavel Pavlovitch.)

Pavel Pavlovitch keeps turning up unannounced at Velchaninov’s rooms, usually drunk and often filthy. His behaviour towards the younger man alternates between a cloying over-familiarity and a violent, mocking resentment. The nub of the book is this: that Velchaninov simply doesn’t know if Pavel Pavlovitch knows he was sleeping with his wife, and that uncertainty poisons Velchaninov’s peace of mind.

The book does develop from this simple position (the appearance of a daughter from the marriage, who Velchaninov realises can only be his, being the main occurrence) but really it’s this duel, and this relationship, that drives the novella, and occupies it. There is nothing in it but that.

As such, it is at once structurally tight, and ‘novelistically’ disappointing. Two opposing views of the writer, that bear on this: “Dostoevsky’s greatness lies in the fact that he never reduced the world to a theory, that he never let himself be reduced by a theory” – André Gide. And: “The certain moral scheme is what I object to. In Turguenev, and in Tolstoi, and in Dostoievski, the moral scheme into which all the characters fit – and it is nearly always the same scheme – is, whatever the extraodinariness of the characters themselves, dull, old, dead.” – DH Lawrence.

In this instance, I’d say, with Lawrence, that the moral scheme is certainly restrictive, but that’s what makes it a successful novella. The secondary characters that could test the ‘character’ of the main character in different ways, to help us see them in the round, are simply not there – as, for instance, they are for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. The daughter dies before she can complicate Velchaninov’s life. Though her existence, and her death, are quite sufficient for him to beat himself up about it, he doesn’t have to act towards her, only towards Pavel Pavlovitch with regards to what she represents.

Equally, the absence of one corner of this love triangle – the woman, Natalya – is an authorial decision that feels non-novelistic, novella-ish. It’s not that Natalya is a blank, but that she is there, or was there, only in order to facilitate the real meat of the narrative, which is of course the relationship between the two men.

This lover/cuckold dyad is explored relentlessly, humorously, revealingly, and could sit alongside Harold Pinter’s play Betrayal as an exploration of the particular breed of male sexual rivalry that hovers between the co-dependent and the homoerotic. It’s interesting that in discussion of female cuckoldry – in literature and outside it – there is a whole ongoing discussion about ‘sisterhood’, about whether the betrayal of feminist principles inherent in sleeping with another woman’s husband is worse than the betrayal of marriage inherent in cheating on your wife or husband. No one talks about ‘brotherhood’ in the same vein, and yet that’s what Dostoevsky’s novella is all about.

The two men are bound together by their shared or unshared secret – which piece of knowledge vibrates through the narrative like Schrodinger’s cat. Velchaninov condemns himself to torment because he hasn’t the courage to open the damn box and see if the cat is alive or dead (i.e. to tell Pavel Pavlovitch, “I was fucking your wife.”). The not-knowing is torture, but one can become accustomed to torture, if one submits to it in private.

Meanwhile Pavel Pavlovitch clings to his possible nemesis – abasing himself before him, confessing that he knows his wife was unfaithful with another man, and always seemingly pulling back at the moment of outright accusing the man he professes at times to admire, at others to love.

As I said, it does develop, in a couple of hops and leaps, but nothing is made to dilute or interrupt the overarching moral scheme – that a cuckolder, whose crime it is to go behind a man’s back, is punished by being left face to face with the man he betrayed, and without even the satisfaction of open condemnation.

I stand by the idea that The Eternal Husband is a useful example in the taxonomy of the novella. It is, in a way, a novel with blinkers on, prevented by its own compulsions from seeing the wider picture. If the novel form is always tending towards Henry James’s “large, loose, baggy monsters” – and all in the good cause of trying to fit into its pages in as much of life as is humanly possible – then the novella is a monster of a different kind: as slim and trim and fixed of purpose as the vampire, fetishistic in its monomania and greedy for one thing in life, and from life, only.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.