Review: Netochka Nezvanova – A Penguin Classic

A few months ago, Penguin Classics was offering a random classic novel to anyone who signed up.  You filled out a form and then were told what novel you’d be receiving.  Mine was Netochka Nezvanova and frankly, I was a little scared.

I worried that it might be too literary and dark, but was grateful that at least it was short (less than 200 pages).  It took weeks to arrive, so long in fact that I thought (pleasantly) that maybe it would never get here.  But then it did, and once I started reading I got completely caught up in it.

Written by Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky in 1849, the story is unfinished because the author was arrested and exiled to Siberia for his ties to a radical political group.    It was supposed to be a novel on a grand scale and this published part was only meant to be the introduction, but Dostoevsky never returned to it after his release from prison.  It was translated into English in 1984.

The book is set up into 3 parts, which vary widely in tone- all are narrated by Netochka but at various ages, so the ‘voice’ changes considerably.  Each part is set in a different location.

The first part portrays Netochka as a young child with her mother and stepfather, living in great poverty.  Poor little Netochka Nezvanova (“Nameless Nobody”).  Her father dies when she is very young, and her mom remarries a failed musician, Efimov.  “Father” has delusions of grandeur, believing he is the world’s greatest violinist.  He had some talent early on but through conceit or fear he squandered it, locking up his violin.  They live in squalor because he refuses to work, forcing his sick wife to eek out a living by ironing and doing wash.  He criticizes other musicians, sometimes comically and to the amusement of others in the theater district, who buy him drinks and goad him into giving his “expert” opinions on the musicians of the day.  He blames all of his problems on his poor sick wife, who he claims is holding him back.  He spends each day drinking and bullying Netochka, who loves him dearly, into handing over the few coins her mother gives her to go out and buy bread with.  Finally he is given a concert ticket to see a great musician, and it dawns on him that he is not the virtuoso he thought he was.  Netochka’s mother dies on the night of the concert, and “Father” goes mad, taking Netochka away but then running off into the night without her and dying alone a few days later.  Netochka winds up on the doorstep of The Prince, an acquaintance of her stepfather.

The 2nd section is set in the Prince’s household, where young Netochka is being nursed back to health in opulent surroundings, with servants and tutors.  The Prince has a daughter, Katya, who is the same age as the little orphan.  Katya rules the roost and is full of life and fun, quite the opposite of Netochka.  Netochka becomes intensely infatuated with Katya, kissing her as she sleeps (they share a room) and literally trembling when she comes near, and feeling destroyed when she is away.  Katya is by turns attracted to the quiet Netochka and repelled by her, but soon she returns her feelings and they spend their days (and nights) holding hands, laughing, crying, and kissing (lots of kissing).  This mutual crush went on until the mother and tutor became alarmed and decided to separate them.  The Prince’s family leaves for another residence and make arrangements for Netochka to live with Katya’s adult sister and her family.

The 3rd section is set at the sister’s home.  Alexandra and her husband raise Netochka as their own child, teaching her and growing to love her and marvel at her intelligence.  They discover Netochka is a gifted singer and find a tutor for her.  The sister is chronically ill and begins to neglect Netochka’s studies, but Netochka finds a key to the library and spends a great portion of time reading.  One day she finds a letter in a book that illuminates the true relationship of her caregivers, and she is tortured by this knowledge, going to great lengths to cover up what she knows.  I found this section to be the least interesting of the 3.

And then.. the book abruptly stops.  This is a fragment of a book and an early example of the work of the author who went on to write the famous Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880).  It is written with much heart and earnest expression.  It’s interesting for it’s period detail and the examination of the different social classes in Russia at that time.  I would recommend it to those who want to broaden their horizons a bit or to anyone who likes Russian literature.