The Stories In My Life: Dostoevsky's White Nights sees two strangers negotiate unlikely love — and loss

  • White Nights seems to be built of a certain crepuscular dream-light, something between night and day.

  • It occupies typical Dostoevsky terrain, surface conformities covering the most awesome turbulence of conflicted souls.

  • The protagonist of the story, who is nameless, is a timid, high-strung man, painfully shy, a compulsive loner who lives a life of hyperactive fantasy.

There are stories, read long ago, which live on in the backrooms of the mind, becoming perennial furnishings of our mental lives, refusing to fade even after the passage of decades. In this column, every second Saturday of the month, I shall share one such story with you, a story which has nourished my inner life and which deserves to be unpacked and aired in the hope that it will bring you the same pleasure and insight that it brought me.

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When I first read it, many years back, I wondered why Dostoevsky had named his story ‘White Nights’. Until I realised that Dostoevsky’s St Petersburg, located in the vast northern reaches of Russia, experienced long lit-up nights in the summer when the Arctic Circle basks in its pale, chill twilight day and night. There is another reason why it is such an appropriate name. The story seems to be built of a certain crepuscular dream-light, something between night and day, something between sleep and waking — a story that moves very much in the real world yet seems to exist in some liminal, intensely charged, private universe. That’s the Dostoevsky pitch all over – from ordinary details of experience an enormous, epic plunge into the bottomless pit of anguish, soaring ecstatic soul-communings, companionship, despair, compassion. Just a man and a woman, practically strangers to one another, telling one another the story of their lives, sitting on a bench beside an embankment of the Neva night after night at the same indeterminate hour. In all these years there are certain lines from this story that my mind has held on to:

‘Now what sort of person are you? Hurry and answer me, tell me the story of your life.’

‘My story?’I cried in alarm. ‘My story! But who told you I had a story? I have no story…’

‘How did you live then if you have no story?’ she interrupted me with a laugh.

But to begin at the beginning. The protagonist of the story, who is nameless, is a timid, high-strung man, painfully shy, a compulsive loner who lives a life of hyperactive fantasy and describes himself as an obsessive dreamer, as though dreaming is a vocation, a calling. He defends his isolation zealously until it has become a choice as well as a curse, a psychological sentence he has passed on himself until it has turned into his fate. A man self-condemned to loneliness. The list of his oddities is enough to amuse the world. When he sees people of his city leaving for the countryside for the summer he falls into dejection, convinced that everyone, everyone, is leaving him behind. He imagines that houses on the streets are his personal friends and have personalities and voices in which they speak to him. He imagines that there are special shades of light in different corners of the city. He finds communication with visitors unsettling. Consequently he has hardly any friends. He has never spoken to a woman and he longs to go up to a woman and have her say a few kind words to him some time in his life.

 The Stories In My Life: Dostoevskys White Nights sees two strangers negotiate unlikely love — and loss

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, by Vasily Perov. Wikimedia Commons

Such a man meets a woman – but of course. The circumstances of their meeting are trite enough. It is at some nebulous hour of the night. She is young. She stands leaning against a railing, gazing across the river. A muffled sound of sobbing reaches his ears. Then she hurries away along the embankment. He happens to be walking along the same route. He is curious, drawn by a sense of fellowship, the fellowship of human misery. He walks behind her. She notices and crosses the road. As she walks faster a well-dressed and obviously drunk man catches up with her and appears to be about to take a liberty when our protagonist descends on him, threatening him with his stick and putting him to flight. Then, taking the woman’s hand, he offers to escort her home.

Instead they find themselves sitting nervously on a bench close to her house, engaged in a strange conversation. There is something breathless, headlong, about this conversation, for both are isolated souls, longing for someone to talk to. It does not matter to them that they are strangers. He tells her about his eccentricities, his crazy dreams, his apprehensions. They meet by appointment the next night at the same place, the same bench. She tells him how her grandmother keeps her closely confined so that she finds it hard to ever get away. Then she shares with him the reason why she is out alone at such a strange hour of the night. She is waiting for a lover to return. He had been a lodger in her grandmother’s house, a polished and well-behaved young man who had noticed her pitifully empty existence, taken her and her blind grandmother to the theatre and been extremely considerate and sensitive in his relations with her, leading her to fall madly in love with him. When the time for him to leave arrived she had made a bundle of her clothes and, climbing the stairs to his room, she had silently walked in with her bundle and sat down. He had understood, protested that he had no means to support a wife. But she made it clear that she would marry no other. So finally he assured her that he was going away for just a year and would be back when he was in a better position to marry her. They had appointed to meet at that spot exactly a year from the date of his departure. Now a year had passed. She comes out every night to wait at that very spot but there is no sign of him and she is in deep distress.

Our protagonist’s heart melts, overflowing with sympathy, but he has already fallen in love with her despite her early warning to him not to do so. As time passes, night following night, it becomes increasingly likely that the lover will never turn up. He tries his utmost to relieve her sadness, even drafts a letter to the lover, gets her to write it and personally takes it to the home of certain friends who are in contact with the lover. As she sinks into depression, slowly becoming resigned to the situation, her emotional dependence on our protagonist increases. Love for him stirs in her heart. She declares, with complete conviction, that the earlier love was an unworthy infatuation, that real, mature love has now come and supplanted the earlier attraction, that in the protagonist she has found comrade, companion, ideal lover. He cannot believe his luck. Humbly he offers her his all and she graciously accepts his love. They float in a daze of rapture, in the ecstasy of having found a longed-for soul-mate.

Until who should suddenly appear out of the shadows but the lover, come in answer to the letter and all set to pick up the relationship where it had been left unresolved. In a trice the woman flies to his side, realising that the original attachment was the real one and the subsequent one a mere consolation prize to herself! It is not fickleness but rather the tortuous complexity of two relative attachments, one of which had necessarily to take precedence over the other. Once again typical Dostoevsky terrain: surface conformities covering the most awesome turbulence of conflicted souls, love, exaltation, loss! Love slips away. Turns into just another dream for our protagonist. Typically.

It’s a story that leaves a long hang-over. Experience it.

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Updated Date: Nov 11, 2019 09:35:06 IST