Monday, January 11, 2010

A Friend of the Family

I find myself reading The Village of Stepanchikovo, a book Dostoevsky wrote while in Siberian exile.  Ignat Avsey gives a very interesting introduction to the povest, noting that it was originally intended as a play, but given no takers Dostoevsky made it into a narrative.  As it was, it took several publishers, before having the book serialized in 1859, and was mostly panned by critics.

Avsey also notes that Dostoevsky drew a lot from Gogol, and that Foma Fomich may have been a caricature of Gogol himself, which Dostoevsky had lost respect for.  He also notes other influences like Dickens, whom Dostoevsky read while in exile, and Moliere's Tartuffe.

The story revolves around a dysfunctional gentry family in a remote village in which a man of dubious nature has managed to gain sway.  Rostanev's young nephew comes to visit and is soon caught up in a maelstrom of events largely the result of Foma Fomich, who isn't formally introduced until the middle of the narrative.  Written largely for comic effect, the story is not without its insights into the crumbling aristocracy of Tsarist Russia. 

It wasn't until the end of the nineteenth century that Dostoevsky's wife approached Stanislavsky with the novella.  He apparently so identified himself with Colonel Rostanev that he had a very difficult time reconciling himself with Foma Fomich.  So, the play languished for years until finally produced in 1917, and became both a critical sensation and popular success.  Largely, it seems, because of the parallels drawn between Foma Fomich and Rasputin.

I saw a Lithuanian production of the play a couple years back with Rolandas Kazlas in the title role.  It was very well done and Kazlas was excellent.  Jonas Vaitkus is one of Lithuania's leading theater directors and a mentor to many of the younger directors today.


  1. Wrapped up the book tonight. Fascinating character study, seemingly very much in a Gogolian vein. Foma Fomich leaves an indelible impression. The story itself reads better in the form of a play, as Dostoevsky takes a few digressions that break the narrative flow, but at the same time provide additional insights into his characters. More like director's instructions. Well worth reading for Dostoevsky fans.

  2. Foma Fomich is such an interesting character. He has no clear motivations. His personality is mendacious to the extreme, yet he can reach great depths of emotions when it comes to his ruminations on fulfilling a sense of human destiny that one can almost see him as a saint, trapped in a world he can only lash out against. He has no stature except that which he can create in the eyes of others, preying on their inherit human weaknesses, yet taking no other advantage, it seems, than to provide himself an audience for his many thoughts and ruminations on personal character. He lashes out most at those he feels indebted to, like Colonel Rostanov, and diminishes those who do have a personal integrity he wishes he had in himself, like Falaley.