White Nights (1848) – Fyodor Dostoevsky

‘My God!
A Whole minute
of bliss! Is that
really so little for the whole of
a man’s life?’

I’m currently reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story – White Nights written early in his career and published in 1848. Dostoevsky has featured prominently here at Wednesday’s literature quotes. While reading White Nights I was astounded by his level of maturity and perception as a writer at just 27 years of age. Some have remarked that it’s a great introduction to Dostoevsky and if you like White Nights you will like Fyodor, and if you don’t you won’t.

Just one year after this novella was published, Dostoevsky was sentenced to death by firing squad on the 23rd of December 1849. At the very moment before the point of execution a cart delivered a letter from the Tsar commuting the sentence. Dostoevsky later alluded to his experience of what he believed to be the last moments of his life in his 1868-1869 novel, The Idiot, where the main character tells the harrowing story of an execution by guillotine that he recently witnessed in France.

Goodreads story outline (White Nights):
Set in St. Petersburg, it is the story of a young man fighting his inner restlessness. A light and tender narrative, it delves into the torment and guilt of unrequited love. Both protagonists suffer from a deep sense of alienation that initially brings them together. A blend of romanticism and realism, the story appeals gently to the senses and feelings.

Just half way through the book his powerful prose has caused me a lot of profound introspection. The excerpt below is one such example I can relate to. It was like holding a mirror up to my soul.

To give you some background to the excerpt: the narrator is a young man living in Saint Petersburg who suffers from loneliness. He gets to know and falls in love with a young woman called Nastenka. On the second night of their liaison, the young man opens up to Nastenka about his need for companionship and remarkable observations of life.

So if you have the time why not turn on the kettle and get tucked in:

“Oh, Nastenka, Nastenka! Do you know how far you have reconciled me to myself? Do you know now that I shall not think so ill of myself, as I have at some moments? Do you know that, maybe, I shall leave off grieving over the crime and sin of my life? for such a life is a crime and a sin. And do not imagine that I have been exaggerating anything—for goodness’ sake don’t think that, Nastenka: for at times such misery comes over me, such misery…. Because it begins to seem to me at such times that I am incapable of beginning a life in real life, because it has seemed to me that I have lost all touch, all instinct for the actual, the real; because at last I have cursed myself; because after my fantastic nights I have moments of returning sobriety, which are awful! Meanwhile, you hear the whirl and roar of the crowd in the vortex of life around you; you hear, you see, men living in reality; you see that life for them is not forbidden, that their life does not float away like a dream, like a vision; that their life is being eternally renewed, eternally youthful, and not one hour of it is the same as another; while fancy is so spiritless, monotonous to vulgarity and easily scared, the slave of shadows, of the idea, the slave of the first cloud that shrouds the sun, and overcasts with depression the true Petersburg heart so devoted to the sun—and what is fancy in depression! One feels that this inexhaustible fancy is weary at last and worn out with continual exercise, because one is growing into manhood, outgrowing one’s old ideals: they are being shattered into fragments, into dust; if there is no other life one must build one up from the fragments. And meanwhile the soul longs and craves for something else! And in vain the dreamer rakes over his old dreams, as though seeking a spark among the embers, to fan them into flame, to warm his chilled heart by the rekindled fire, and to rouse up in it again all that was so sweet, that touched his heart, that set his blood boiling, drew tears from his eyes, and so luxuriously deceived him! Do you know, Nastenka, the point I have reached? Do you know that I am forced now to celebrate the anniversary of my own sensations, the anniversary of that which was once so sweet, which never existed in reality—for this anniversary is kept in memory of those same foolish, shadowy dreams—and to do this because those foolish dreams are no more, because I have nothing to earn them with; you know even dreams do not come for nothing! Do you know that I love now to recall and visit at certain dates the places where I was once happy in my own way? I love to build up my present in harmony with the irrevocable past, and I often wander like a shadow, aimless, sad and dejected, about the streets and crooked lanes of Petersburg. What memories they are! To remember, for instance, that here just a year ago, just at this time, at this hour, on this pavement, I wandered just as lonely, just as dejected as to-day. And one remembers that then one’s dreams were sad, and though the past was no better one feels as though it had somehow been better, and that life was more peaceful, that one was free from the black thoughts that haunt one now; that one was free from the gnawing of conscience—the gloomy, sullen gnawing which now gives me no rest by day or by night. And one asks oneself where are one’s dreams. And one shakes one’s head and says how rapidly the years fly by! And again one asks oneself what has one done with one’s years. Where have you buried your best days? Have you lived or not? Look, one says to oneself, look how cold the world is growing. Some more years will pass, and after them will come gloomy solitude; then will come old age trembling on its crutch, and after it misery and desolation. Your fantastic world will grow pale, your dreams will fade and die and will fall like the yellow leaves from the trees…. Oh, Nastenka! you know it will be sad to be left alone, utterly alone, and to have not even anything to regret—nothing, absolutely nothing … for all that you have lost, all that, all was nothing, stupid, simple nullity, there has been nothing but dreams!”

“Come, don’t work on my feelings any more,” said Nastenka, wiping away a tear which was trickling down her cheek. “Now it’s over! Now we shall be two together. Now, whatever happens to me, we will never part. Listen; I am a simple girl, I have not had much education, though grandmother did get a teacher for me, but truly I understand you, for all that you have described I have been through myself, when grandmother pinned me to her dress. Of course, I should not have described it so well as you have; I am not educated,” she added timidly, for she was still feeling a sort of respect for my pathetic eloquence and lofty style; “but I am very glad that you have been quite open with me. Now I know you thoroughly, all of you. And do you know what? I want to tell you my history too, all without concealment, and after that you must give me advice. You are a very clever man; will you promise to give me advice?”

“Ah, Nastenka,” I cried, “though I have never given advice, still less sensible advice, yet I see now that if we always go on like this that it will be very sensible, and that each of us will give the other a great deal of sensible advice! Well, my pretty Nastenka, what sort of advice do you want? Tell me frankly; at this moment I am so gay and happy, so bold and sensible, that it won’t be difficult for me to find words.”

“No, no!” Nastenka interrupted, laughing. “I don’t only want sensible advice, I want warm brotherly advice, as though you had been fond of me all your life!”

“Agreed, Nastenka, agreed!” I cried delighted; “and if I had been fond of you for twenty years, I couldn’t have been fonder of you than I am now.”

“Your hand,” said Nastenka.

Here it is,” said I, giving her my hand.

“And so let us begin my history!”

(The following chapter – Naztenka’s Story turns everything we thought of up to this point on its head)

“The more I live, the more I learn. The more I learn, the more I realize, the less I know.”- Michel Legrand

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Posted in Reading, Reflections
One comment on “White Nights (1848) – Fyodor Dostoevsky
  1. Such beautiful and eloquent words.

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