An Accidental Family - Dostoevsky’s “Fathers and Sons” - Review by Dan Geddes
An Accidental Family
Dostoevsky’s An Accidental Family is probably the least known of his long novels. It is a first-person narrative, presented as the private “notes” of a twenty-year old bastard, Arkady Dolguruky. Arkady writes about the momentous events of his 19th year, when he came to know his biological father, Versilov. Arkady possesses the letter of a young widow, who stands to lose her inheritance if this letter is made public, and the plot centers around this document, which Arkady has sewn into the lining of his jacket.
An Accidental Family concerns the breaking down of the traditional Russian family, especially as depicted in novels such as War and Peace. The various families portrayed in An Accidental Family contain illegitimacy, but also other dislocations as the old landed nobility is supplanted by the new mercantile class: money replaces title.
Arkady is defiant about his own illegitimacy. His father, Versilov, impregnated his mother, Sofya, who was the young wife of an older man, a gardener-mystic named Dolguruky. Dolguruky is a largely illiterate Christian holy man, a familiar figure in Dostoevsky’s novels, who allows Versilov to live in common-law marriage with his wife; he had only married her as a promise to her dying father anyway, and almost certainly never consummated the marriage. At the time, Versilov was a dashing young estate owner, already a widower, and Sofya was a serf on his estate. So there is an economic dissonance in union of Arkady’s parents to begin with. Further embittering his sense of illegitimacy is his name, Dolguruky, a princely name associated with the founder of Moscow. During introductions, people invariably ask Arkady, “Prince Dolguruky?” Arkady not only denies this but perversely informs them he is a bastard.
The novel begins with Arkady arriving in St. Petersburg, where he is to stay with his family for the first time. He had been raised in boarding schools. He thirsts for a real father, and Versilov, whom he had met only on one extraordinary occasion when he was twelve, occupies his imagination. He longs to know, and to impress, his father.
Their common link is Katerina Nikolaevna, the beautiful young widow, daughter of Versilov’s friend, old Prince Sokolsky. Arkady happened to acquire a letter from Katerina to the family lawyers in which she asks about the steps required to have the old Prince committed. (The Prince had been engaging in erratic behavior, and also buying expensive housewares.) Katerina lives in anxiety that the letter will surface, and suspects that Arkady knows its whereabouts. Arkady falls in love with her. His father, Versilov, had fallen in love with her two years prior when they met abroad, and seemed on the brink of asking for her hand in marriage despite his own common-law marriage to Arkady’s long suffering wife, Sofya. Hence the father and son, whose growing relationship dominates the novel, share a passionate attraction for the same woman.
An Accidental Family consists largely of great scenes of dialogue, as characters speak with the precision and insight that only characters in 19th century novels seem capable of. Arkady becomes the unlikely center of the maelstrom concerning Katerina’s foolish letter to the family lawyers, as well as young Prince Seryozha’s riotous living, and his half-sister Anna Andreevna’s proposal to old Prince Sokolsky. Along the way, Arkady develops relationships with his father, mother, sister Liza, half-sister Anna, Katerina, old Prince Sokolsky, and even his auntie Tatya Pavlovna.
Despite the plot of the Katerina’s inheritance, the novel is largely episodic. Its readability depends largely on the likeability of Arkady, who presents a three-dimensional self-portrait. He prides himself on his intelligence, and yet his youthful volubility is uncontainable. In many scenes, he is unable to contain himself and insights, and the characteristic Dostoevskian melodrama ensues. Both Arkady’s inner and expressed emotions are described and dramatized, and Arkady strikes us as one of the greatest portrayals of an adolescent in Western literature.
Yet Arkady is only one of many strong characters. Versilov is a memorable character, a forerunner of Fyodor Karamazov, a man of great passions, but also of surprising intellect and insight. Versilov even has religious leanings. He can charm nearly everyone he meets, and his friends and family remain devoted to him despite the suggestions of his philandering, and the fact that he has run through several inheritances. At times, Versilov seems like a great man, and claims to be one of only one thousand in all Russia who represent the old Russian nobility. Versilov (and Dostoevsky) believe that Russia, especially in its higher types including the pure peasant, has much to teach the rest of Europe and the world. Versilov, is at any rate, a fascinating conversationalist, and we marvel at the way he holds his world together despite other’s knowledge of the baser side of his personality.
An Accidental Family feels like many other Dostoevskian works, with its St. Petersburg setting, the familial melodrama, the distinct voice of each character, the gambling scenes. Its relative neglect by scholars is somewhat surprising. The novel has been translated before with other titles, including A Raw Youth and The Adolescent. Translator Richard Freeborn decided his title should reflect the familial aspect of the novel. Dostoevsky wrote an essay wherein he stated that the families of Tolstoy’s War and Peace could only be set in historical fiction, and that the Russian family of his day was “accidental.” This observation will seem familiar to contemporary Americans, who have witnessed the supposed decline of the “nuclear” family. The theme of fathers and sons was explored in many of Dostoevsky’s great works, including The Devils, The Brothers Karamazov, and also An Accidental Family.