Does Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Poor Folk and Other Stories speak to our troubled economic era?
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).
Portrait of Fyodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872).

In November 1844, Dostoyevsky finished writing his first story. He confides in Diary of a Writer that he had ‘written nothing before that time’. This was 22 years before the publication of Crime and Punishment, and 36 years before The Brothers Karamazov. Having recently finished translating Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, he suddenly felt inspired to write a tale ‘of the same dimensions’. But he was not only prompted by artistic aspirations. Poverty also played a part. In a letter to his brother, Mikhail, just a few months earlier, he mentions being satisfied with a work-in-progress, and his hopes for greater financial stability: ‘I may get 400 rubles for it,’ he wrote, ‘and therein lie all my hopes.’

First published in 1846, Poor Folk was both a critical and financial success, with one prominent critic hailing Dostoyevsky as the next Gogol. It is a short epistolary novel that traces a five-month love affair. And while it certainly owes something to Balzac’s masterpiece, the role that money plays in determining people’s fates has a distinctly Dostoyevskyan bite. Financial difficulties plagued the Russian novelist’s career, and are a recurrent theme throughout his work, from the destitute student of Crime and Punishment to The Gambler, written to pay off gambling debts. The writer confessed having money troubles in letters to his brother, and hoped Poor Folk could offer some kind of reprieve. It is through his pen, he says, that he hopes ‘to save the whole situation’, considering suicide as perhaps his only other alternative. Money, then, was one of the novelist’s chief motivations, and one of his signature themes. (more…)

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My 2011 nomination for The Guardian‘s Not the Booker award

58430-larsiyerspuriousbookThis is not the Booker Prize. Let’s remember that. This is something quite different. The idea of an award named Not the Booker Prize is cheeky: it playfully challenges the prestigious honour of the Booker with a counterfeit alternative, an imitation of the real thing. Or is that going to far? I would suggest that the Not the Booker Prize is not so phoney after all: it simply awards on the basis of different values. Here, we are not looking for books that fit snugly on canonical shelves. Not the Booker Prize is our chance to praise new and alternative voices, writers that colour outside the lines.

With this in mind, what could be a more appropriate winner than Lars Iyer’s Spurious? The clue is in the title, surely. Beautifully awkward and wilfully absurd, Spurious is a short, funny text that celebrates the lowdown and the everyday. If we are feeling generous, we might compare its two protagonists with any number of other haplessly comic duos: Withnail and I immediately springs to mind, or Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, or Samuel Beckett’s Mercier and Camier. But we’re already getting off the point – already lunging towards the classics and forgetting what draws us towards Iyer’s book in the first place. If we want texts of high-standing and lofty repute, we already know where to go. But the exchanges that comprise Spurious are something of an antidote, deflating egos and popping grandiose ideas. It’s a book that is, paradoxically, both below and above literary prizes and trinkets. What better candidate, then, for such a mischievous award?

On Raul Hilberg’s The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian

raulhilberg-thepoliticsofmemory-thejourneyofaholocausthistorian

As a child refugee from Europe at the outset of the Second World War, Raul Hilberg escaped with his parents to Paris, then Cuba, before settling permanently in the United States. This traumatic exile formed the basis of a lifelong preoccupation, by turns both emotional and intellectual, which culminated in the publication of his most noted work: The Destruction of the European Jews. His short 1996 memoir, The Politics of Memory: The Journey of a Holocaust Historian, tells the story of his life.

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