By Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Read by Jonathan Keeble and Julie Teal
5 hours 52 minutes
Poor Folk, Dostoyevsky’s first novel, is almost forgotten now, living as it does under the long shadow of Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov and much more. Yet when it was published in 1846, it brought him instant fame – which, even for the author who wrote it quickly in an effort to make a little money, was a surprise.
It is an epistolary novel, presenting the relationship between neighbours, who happen to be distant cousins. An older man and a much younger woman, they are both living in straightened circumstances in rented accommodation and, though their letters, reveal their thoughts, their hopes, their anxieties and their daily struggles at the lower end of social and economic life of mid-19th century St Petersburg.
Yet it was exactly this situation that was a revelation to the readers of the time, more accustomed to encountering, in literary novels, tailored emotions in a less challenged class. For the first time, ordinary life, challenging life and the effect on the individual was presented to readers, many of which could only too readily identify with the protagonists: Makar Devushkin, an impoverished clerk, and Varvara Dobroselova who hopes to work as a governess, but earns money as a seamstress. Yet this was no ordinary portrait of emotion emeshed in common hardships, but a writer in full command of his medium – even though he had only just discarded a career in military engineering to make his way as a writer.
After he left the manuscript with the publisher Nikolay Nekrasov he told himself, ‘They will poke fun at my Poor Folk.’ In fact, Nekrasov read it at one sitting at burst into Dostoyevsky’s room at 4am to shower him with kisses. ‘A new Gogol has been born,’ he declared. It sold widely, and was dubbed ‘Russia’s first social novel’. Poor Folk is fascinating as the first important step in the career of one of the great novelists.
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