Book Review: Netochka Nezvanova by Fyodor Dostoevsky ★★★

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“Efimov, who had more than probably married her because she had a thousand roubles, sat back and folded his arms after the money was spent, and, as if glad of an excuse, declared to all and sundry that marriage was the death of talent, that he could not work in a stuffy room face to face with a starving family, that these surroundings were not conducive to inspiration and that is was clear that he was destined for this kind of misfortune. It seems that he himself had come to believe in the truth of what he was saying and was only too pleased to find another line of defense. The unhappy, ruined genius was searching for an inner cause on which to put the blame for his misfortune and disaster.” 

Being a huge fan of Dostoevsky, and Russian literature in general, I was very excited when I came across an unassuming little copy of Netochka Nezvanova (which translates, sadly, to Nameless Nobody) in a used bookstore. I had really never heard about this book, so I did some research on it before I read it. It was a good thing too, because it turns out that the book is actually unfinished. This was Dostoevsky’s first attempt at a novel, as well, which is so important in terms of his growth and development as an author, and on his themes. There are about 180ish pages here of Netochka’s story, but Dostoevsky was arrested and exiled to Siberia before he could finish it. Then, upon his release, he abandoned the work altogether and focused on his other novels, the famous ones we have all heard of. While this may not be his strongest novel by any means, there are sparks of brilliance throughout that speak to his later books, and I found it enjoyable and fascinating as a whole.

The best part of Netochka Nezvanova, for me, has to be the first third of the novel, when Netochka is still a small child and the reader experiences her life in a tiny apartment with her mother and stepfather. Here, Dostoevsky ruminates on the struggle of an artistic genius in the form of Netochka’s stepfather, Efimov. This character study appears deeply personal to Dostoevsky and, I imagine, evokes the same feeling in any creative mind that it did in me. Efimov, we are told, is this musical protege basically, a huge talent and artistic genius. He is, however, also raving mad and sometimes wicked, conniving, and petulant. Through the eyes of the child Netochka, we are given this stark look at how someone who is naturally gifted in the arts can squander their own success.

As someone who aspires to be a writer beyond just as a hobby, I felt this struggle deep in my very core. I felt at times that I was understood better than ever before, and at other times that I was being called out for my excuses and haphazardness. Dostoevsky too seemed to be speaking from experience. He explained all too well how natural talent or passion for something is not enough. One has to be dedicated to their craft, has to work extremely hard to fine tune it, and has to turn away from self-sabotaging thoughts and excuses. I know how hard that is! It is so so easy to blame other things, fate or hardships, for your failure or immobility. When more often than not, it is your own mind, your own motivations, holding you back.

That entire look into Efimov’s character and his ultimate demise was worth reading the entire book for me. It was evocative and hinted at the themes, characters, and brilliance that would later come out of Dostoevsky’s novels.

The beginning is important too for Netochka’s character, because she is forever (well, as far as we see her before the book abruptly ends) living in the shadow of Efimov. As a child, she sees his passion and his madness and it both excites and terrifies her. She knows him to be both kind and angry. She sides with him over her own mother many times and appears to have this magnetic draw to him. She is too young to fully understand all of the things he tells her and does in his career, but she feels that warring energy in him of genius vs. madman. This ultimately shapes her own character and view of artistic creation later in her life.

The rest of the novel is equally as interesting to read, if slightly less moving for me in particular. Netochka, after the death of her mother and Efimov, is adopted and sent to live with an acquaintance of her stepfather’s. Here, the reader observes as Netochka tries to resolve her feelings about her childhood and her new life in an aristocratic household. She struggles to find her place in this world, as she grows older. One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel shows up during this middle section, in the form of Netochka’s relationship with her patron’s daughter Katya.

Although they are both still children, Netochka’s narrative makes it clear to the reader that she almost instantly falls in love with Katya. Her romantic feelings are explored for the duration of her time in this adoptive home, but then ultimately never resolved, due to the book’s unfinished end. Dostoevsky’s approach to this homosexual relationship between the girls was very straightforward, direct, and unabashed. It was refreshing to see such a bold and unadorned direction taken in a novel of this age. The interactions between Netochka and Katya were compelling and I was sorry to see that their story will forever remain unknown.

The remaining journey that Netochka experiences, in the pages left before the novel ends, brings her to another household where she develops further as a character and as a woman. Here, Dostoevsky explores her sentiments as a teenager becoming a woman and how her previous life experiences have shaped her ideals. He also further expands on her artistic inclinations, exposing in her a great talent for singing. Her growth and navigation, as both a woman and an artist, are touched on here, but unfortunately the novel ends before everything can come together. These threads are dropped and the reader never really knows what would become of Netochka Nezvanova. However, it seems like Dostoevsky was paving the way for Netochka to follow in her stepfather’s footsteps, except perhaps with a bit more compassion and grounding. She will be a musical talent, but because of her own life experiences and relationships with those around her, she is more settled as a person. Whatever direction Dostoevsky was planning to take the story, though, we will not know for sure.

Reading a book that cuts off before it is finished is an odd experience. I want to know how it ends, but at the same time, it is almost satisfying that the whole resolution of the story remains a mystery. What we are given here is a thoughtful, somber, beautifully written story with all the promise of Dostoevsky’s later works. He may not have completely honed his craft yet here, but for anyone who admires his writing, I would say that you definitely want to read this one, too. Netochka Nezvanova was the start of his creative journey and seeing how it evolved from there is wonderful.

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I have a talent for catching lizards; you’re just not letting me express it!

Thank you for reading!

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Title: Netochka Nezvanova
Author: Fyodor Dostoevsky
Genre: Classic | Fiction/Literature | Cultural: Russian
Publication Date: 1849
Page Count: 176 pages
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