Friday, June 06, 2008

Prison literature as poetry

Reading Dostoyevsky's Notes from the the House of the Dead, it strikes me that there's more than one structural principle at work. It has the form of a novel (though it's rather sketchy, and hardly justifies the blurb's claim that 'it is also a powerful novel of redemption, exploring one man's...etc etc'), and so has a certain, mainly chronological, development: it begins when the narrator enters prison and ends when he leaves. But it also has a documentary form, in which various aspects of prison life are detailed in turn, with the narrative jumping backwards and forwards in time accordingly.

The translator's introduction quotes Konstantin Mochulsky:

'The description of prison life and of the convicts' temperaments, the robbers' histories, the characteristics of individual criminals, the reflections regarding the psychology of crime, a picture of conditions in the gaol, journalism, philosophy and folklore - all this complex material is distributed freely, almost without order. Meanwhile all the details are calculated and the particulars subordinated to a general plan. The principle of composition in the Notes is not static, but dynamic.'

Note, for example, the fact that the account of the hated Major's exit from the prison comes near the end of the book, just as it comes near the end of the narrator's sentence, but that it is promptly followed by episodes that occur during, not after, his reign. Somehow the two principles support each other, to give an impression of sober documentary and individual narrative simultaneously. And in the penultimate chapter Dostoyevsky writes:

'Am I to describe the whole of that life, all of my years in prison? I think not. If I were to write down in ordered sequence everything that happened, everything I saw and experienced during those years, I would f course end up writing three or four times the number of chapters I have already written. In the end, such a description would become monstrous. All the events could come out sounding the same. This would be particularly so if the reader had already managed, from the chapters I have written so far, to form an even slightly realistic impression of what life was like in the second category of penal servitude. I have tried to depict the whole of our prison and everything I experienced during my years in it as one vivid, graphic picture.'

The sort of technique I have been talking about is familiar from other works of prison and camp literature, for example from Primo Levi's If This Is a Man. (For counterexamples, see Wladislaw Szpilman's The Pianist, which is mainly narrative, with the result that we never really feel we get to know about his day-to-day existence; and Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, which is all documentary, with the result that it does, borrowing Mochulsky's term, end up being rather static.)

A student of mine once pointed out something similar with All Quiet on the Western Front: though we are presented with a chronologcal narrative, there's a sense that we're being given a thorough picture of life at the Front, with Remarque ticking things off as he goes - here's tanks, here's gas, here's no-man's-land, and so on. Although it might not be realistic to parcel up experience in such a way, or to think that a single soldier might get such a range of experiences, what we get in return for abandoning that claim to realism is another sort of realism, analogous to the documentary or the general (general's?) view. Since the beginning of the twentieth century it has been fashionable to privilege the individual's view, and to distrust broader ones, possibly because Haig, for example, could only arrive at his view by not seeing individuals. But what Remarque does is to give a generalised view of individuals.

The use of two structural principles reminds me of poetry, where you also have two or more formal principles in tension with each other, most obviously syntax and lineation, but also, I suppose, the poem's 'narrative' and its 'effect(s)' inasmuch as these two can be separated.

Lastly, it's striking how Notes from the House of the Dead contains originals for so many of Dostoyevsky's characters and sources for his concerns. It's not a great novel, but it illuminates the extent to which even his most lurid excesses were, for him, a matter of realism.


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