Friday, October 10, 2014

Review of "Poor Folk" by Fyodor Dostoevsky - A Sobering and Surprisingly Timely Look At The Effects of Poverty

I have been enraptured with the writing and the thinking of Fyodor Dostoevsky since Dr. Beatrice Batson of Wheaton College introduced me to Ivan's life-affirming "sticky little leaves" in the "Brothers Karamazov." It is no accident that one of my grandsons has the middle name of Fyodor!  Somehow along the way I had missed reading until now the master's short story/novella "Poor Folk."  It is a heart-rending and eye-opening account of the desperate lives of the poor in Tsarist St. Petersburg, Russia in mid-nineteenth century.

Using the technique of letters shared between two friends, distant relatives and platonic lovers - Makar Alexievitch and Barbara Alexievna -.Dostoevsky shines the light of his observation into the darkest corners of poverty and the troubled human spirit that seeks to hang onto dignity in the midst of deprivation and despair.  In much the same way that Dickens called the attention of his readers to the plight of London's underbelly, so Dostoevsky uses vivid descriptions of persons, places and mindsets to draw us into the dusty corners of hovels where children die and jaded denizens drink themselves into oblivion and threadbare subsistence.

Dostoevsky is a genius.  CJ Hogarth in his English translation has captured much of the nuance of the world that Dostoevsky described, mirroring what he observed as a young man in Moscow living in poverty in the household of an alcoholic father.  Although set in a far away place and long ago time, the story that Dostoevsky tells of the spiritual and psychological tolls that poverty takes on the human spirit are the same today as they were for Dostoevsky's struggling menagerie of petty civil servants, drunkards and widows.

These are lessons and cautionary tales that can never be read to often.


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