Dostoevsky wrote The Eternal Husband between two of his major works,The Idiot and The Devils. It's a lesser known novel that should not be overlooked.
The Eternal Husband opens with the rich landowner Velchaninov fretting over a legal case concerning an estate. He's a hypochondriac, a flighty, nervous type who is haunted by memories from his past. Velchaninov tries to rise above his personal demons, giving himself pep talks that he is managing, even overcoming his problems. But still, the scenes of his past keep returning in his mind's eye, many of them shameful. If only he could put these ghosts away and enjoy his status as a respected landowner.
Making matters worse is the appearance of a strange man. This unknown man has an uncanny habit of reappearing again and again. Velchaninov almost feels that he is being taunted, that the flickering, inquisitive eyes of the stranger are indeed a reproach, even a challenge. Velchaninov becomes utterly paranoid until things build to a climax. The man hovers outside his lodgings. Unable to stand the suspense any longer, Velchaninov opens the door. They stand face to face, but something strange happens. Velchaninov recognises the man. He is Trusotsky. The two men were friends a decade ago. A complicating factor is Velchaninov's relationship with Trusotsky's wife, Natalya – they were having an affair. Natalya has now passed away, leaving only a daughter, Liza, who may be Velchaninov's. Does Trusotsky know? Is Liza Velchaninov's daughter?
The psychological game of cat-and-mouse played out in The Eternal Husbandreads like an absurdist farce. Both main characters, Velchaninov and Trusotsky, are highly strung and continually dance around each other, keeping their cards close to their chests, trying to outmanoeuvre each other.
What the theme of the novel is remains a mystery, however Dostoevsky excels at bringing to life our changeable, inconsistent natures, forever haunted by bad memories, paranoia and fevered daydreams. Dostoevsky doesn't paint these human failings as tragic, but rather as comic. There's an operatic, almost campy madness to most of the narrative. In one memorable scene Trusotsky raves deliriously to Velchaninov about how much he admires him, and then kisses him on the hand. Moments later Trusotsky demands Velchaninov kiss him back (“do kiss me!”), which he does, on the lips.
A highly accomplished, utterly original portrait of the human psyche in its everyday, disordered state.
The Eternal Husband, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Published by Alma Classics. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba