Poor People, more commonly printed with the title Poor Folk, is the debut novel of Russian literary heavyweight Fyodor Dostoevsky, and was first published in Russia in 1846. I read it in the beautiful Alma Classics edition, which has been wonderfully and fluidly translated by Hugh Aplin.
Told in an epistolary manner, it follows two characters who live upon the fringes of society in St Petersburg, struggling with poverty rather acutely. Devushkin Alexievich is a copywriter working in an office, and Barbara Alexievna a seamstress. ‘These are people,’ Dostoevsky tells us, who are ‘respected by no one, not even by themselves’. They are infatuated with one another, but are too poor to marry. Rather, they live in small apartments opposite one another. We are witness to their back and forth of letters, and the unfolding correspondence which lets us learn about both protagonists. We are party to the workings of their minds, and their deepest thoughts and questions about one another. Barbara writes the following to Devushkin, for instance: ‘… what has made you go and take the room which you have done, where you will be worried and disturbed, and where you have neither elbow-space nor comfort – you who love solitude, and never like to have any one near you?’
Poor People begins on April the 8th, and continues in different letters by both characters, until ending in the September of the same year. When the novella starts, Devushkin has just moved into a new apartment – the one which faces Barbara’s – and devises a cunning plan with her curtains; when she loops them up, he knows that she is thinking of him, and when they are closed, he knows that it is time to go to bed. Certainly, Devushkin is a more dreamy, whimsical character than Barbara; she seems to have enough sensibility for the both of them, and thinks practically throughout. She despairs particularly about her future: ‘Ah, what is going to become of me? What will be my fate? To have to be so uncertain as to the future, to have to be unable to foretell what is going to happen, distresses me deeply. Even to look back at the past is horrible, as it contains sorrow that breaks my heart at the very thought of it.’
Dostoevsky’s use of nature is sublime, and is present from the very first letter, used as a device to lift Devushkin’s spirits: ‘This morning, too, I arose (joyous and full of love) at cockcrow. How good seemed everything at that hour, my darling! When I opened my window I could see the sun shining, and hear the birds singing, and smell the air laden with scents of spring. In short, all nature was awaking to life again. Everything was in consonance with my mood; everything seemed fair and spring-like.’
The letters are variant in length, and are all suffused with differing levels of love and despair, as well as the emergence of hope at intervals. Dostoevsky’s prose is gorgeously rich, and has a very modern feel to it. The characters alter as their circumstances do; they have been so well built, and their shifting relationship too feels true to life.
As with all of Dostoevsky’s work, Poor People is filled with beauty and passion; realistic characters are at its heart. Dostoevsky is one of my favourite authors, and I am always immediately captivated by his thoughts and stories. My experience was no different here; for those who already love Russian literature it is a must-read, and it would also serve as a fantastic introduction to the myriad of wonderful works published within the fascinating country.