P. S. The blog post contains spoilers.You can read White Nights by Dostoevsky for free online on Project Gutenberg if you wish to read the story before reading the post. It is a short story.
‘Toska’ is one of those untranslatable Russian words that elude definition. It denotes anguish, melancholia, spiritual sadness and boredom all at once. According to Vladimir Nabokov: “No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” The word seems similar to the Portuguese word ‘saudade’ but it is uniquely Russian as to the Russians it also implies carrying the heavy weight of their collective history along with centuries of living in a gloomy climate. I recently read White Nights by Fyodor Dostoevsky which comes close to capturing this elusive and undefinable state represented by the word ‘toska’.
Published in 1948, this is one of Dostoevsky’s earlier works and lacks the polish of his future novels although it prefigures some of the themes you encounter later. It is a story about a sensitive dreamer and it is a story for all dreamers. I could immediately identify with the character. He is a painfully shy man and a recluse who lives in St. Petersburg and floats through life lost in his own world of fantasies. He roams the streets of the city encountering strangers with whom he never strikes a conversation. Yet, he thinks he knows them intimately. He knows the houses and they know him too. For they appear to talk to him. We don’t come to know much about him. We don’t even know his name. He is around 26 years old and lives alone with his maid Matrona who takes cares of his apartment. He is a hopeless romantic and dreams up romances but has never been with a woman. He is an introverted and introspective man weighed down by an unexplainable despondency. His malaise reminds me a little of Chateaubriand’s René. His dream world offers him a refuge from loneliness. In fact, the novella is subtitled as: “A sentimental story from the diary of a dreamer”.
The story unfolds over four nights and a day in the nameless narrator’s life. One evening while roaming the streets of St. Petersburg, he meets a pretty girl named Nastenka who is crying on a bridge and comes to her rescue when another stranger follows and threatens her. They become friends over the next few nights and share their hopes and dreams with each other. The two lonely souls come together in their loneliness. Nastenka is a sheltered young girl who during the day is literally pinned to her grandmother’s skirt as the old lady is afraid that she will be led astray by a man. She spends her time reading and sewing and has the freedom to walk around the city only after she manages to untie herself after her grandmother has gone to sleep.
Although she warns the narrator not to fall in love with her, he quickly becomes infatuated with her. She is betrothed to another man who was a lodger in her apartment and is waiting for him to return from his trip. When he fails to show up, she thinks he has abandoned her and is miserable. The narrator is moved by her plight and helps her deliver a letter to the man. He also ends up confessing his love for her. She is bewildered but when it seems to her that her beau will not return, she says she is starting to get over him and that she loves the narrator as as he is the better person. The two start making plans for the future. But when Nastenka’s fiancé returns that very night, she excitedly flings herself into his arms. The narrator’s world comes crashing down. Nastenka herself was a dream and he falls back to reality with a thud.
It is a clichéd story of the man who falls in love with a girl who has given her heart to someone else. Yet, Dostoevsky in his inimitable style imbues it with a freshness and poignancy of its own. It is the first work of literature that I have come across which gives importance to the ‘type’ of a dreamer. The narrator delivers a long monologue on being a dreamer similar to the style of the Underground Man from Notes from Underground. He begins narrating his story in the third person calling himself a hero. He is a melodramatic and excitable man who is very awkward and shy when an acquaintance visits him but pours his heart out to the girl who is virtually a stranger. Nastenka teases him about his poetic verbosity:”You describe it all splendidly, but couldn’t you perhaps describe it a little less splendidly? You talk as though you were reading it out of a book.” It is strange and almost comical to see the way he is overwrought with emotion. Through the dreamer, Dostoevsky shows how humans are afraid to reveal their true selves but yearn for communication and connection. It takes a potential soulmate who appears to share the same temperament as the dreamer to draw him out of his cocoon.
The narrative itself exerts a dreamlike hold on us. You feel you are in a dreamscape for the story takes place during the time of ‘white nights’, a phenomenon that takes place around the summer solstice when the sun does not set completely. St. Petersburg is located near the Arctic circle and experiences the season of the midnight twilight when there is a crepuscular glow in the night sky. In French, the expression for white nights is ‘nuits blanches’ and refers to sleepless nights. The nocturnal wanderings of the narrator take place in this transitional and hallucinatory state between wakefulness and sleep, between dream and reality when our thoughts are unconstrained by our usual mental filters.
The narrator is jolted from his reverie and back to living his monotonous life with the maid Matrona. She used to ignore the cobwebs on the ceiling but after he met Nastenka, it seemed to him that she had swept all the cobwebs. But now after losing Nastenka, the house seems old and decrepit, Matrona seems wrinkled and the cobwebs seem thicker than ever. They end up exactly where they started. Nastenka, meanwhile, announces the news of her marriage in a letter and says she will always treasure the memories she had with the narrator and will view him as a friend and brother. In modern parlance, one would say that he has been ‘friend-zoned’. And here is his sweet and sincere response:
But to imagine that I should bear you a grudge, Nastenka! That I should cast a dark cloud over your serene, untroubled happiness; that by my bitter reproaches I should cause distress to your heart, should poison it with secret remorse and should force it to throb with anguish at the moment of bliss; that I should crush a single one of those tender blossoms which you have twined in your dark tresses when you go with him to the altar…. Oh never, never! May your sky be clear, may your sweet smile be bright and untroubled, and may you be blessed for that moment of blissful happiness which you gave to another, lonely and grateful heart!
Aren’t these the most beautiful and heartbreaking lines of unrequited love? In the beginning of the story, the narrator’s feverish ramblings on love made us believe that he was in love with an ideal, but how sincerely he cares for the girl who breaks his heart! He wishes her nothing but the best, and as for him, that one fleeting moment of happiness they shared can sustain him for his whole life.
“My God, a whole moment of happiness! Is that too little for the whole of a man’s life?”
*Text of passages translated from the Russian by Constance Garrett