Mr. Mel U of The Reading Life reminded me that I have been meaning to read Dostoevsky’s story “The Crocodile” (1865) so I did. In the story, a man is swallowed by a crocodile. The creature is a bit more like a boa constrictor than a crocodile, a minor detail. The swallowed man is not harmed in any important way, although he does lose his glasses.
This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but at the same – either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles – there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter. (Ch. 1, tr. Constance Garnett)
Here we have, whatever the specifics of the situation, a self-description of the grotesque, Gogolian side of Dostoevsky, the comic Dostoevsky I have been encountering recently. The essential Dostoevsky, I will claim, is comic, although a hundred and fifty years of earnest social reformers, existentialists and mystics have tried to prove otherwise. But then the novel is an essentially comic form, both from its reliance on incongruity and from the dropping of the spectacles. Comic, but not necessarily funny; that is something else altogether.
Some of the humor of “The Crocodile” is, I fear, satirical, even allegorical. The crocodile, owned by Germans who thankfully are not obviously Jewish, represents Western investment in Russia, which will swallow any Russian who gets near it.
“Here we are, anxious to bring foreign capital into the country – and only consider: as soon as the capital of a foreigner, who has been attracted to Petersburg, has been doubled through Ivan Matveitch, instead of protecting the foreign capitalist, we are proposing to rip open the belly of his original capital – the crocodile. Is it consistent? To my mind, Ivan Matveitch, as the true son of his fatherland, ought to rejoice and to be proud that through him the value of a foreign crocodile has been doubled and possibly even trebled.” (Ch. 2)
The value of the crocodile has doubled because it is now famous. The victim turns out to be happy to be swallowed, because he too is famous:
I have long thirsted for an opportunity for being talked about, but could not attain it, fettered by my humble position and low grade in the service. And now all this has been attained by a simple gulp on the part of the crocodile. Every word of mine will be listened to, every utterance will be thought over, repeated, printed. And I'll teach them what I am worth! They shall understand at last what abilities they have allowed to vanish in the entrails of a monster. (Ch. 3)
You want relevance, there it is.
There is more, too, more gags, more absurdities. The swallowed man has a beautiful wife who immediately becomes the (willing) target of every lecher in St. Petersburg. Dostoevsky mocks newspapers, Westernizers, economists, Germans, etymologists:
“Crocodile – crocodillo – is evidently an Italian word, dating perhaps from the Egyptian Pharaohs, and evidently derived from the French verb croquer, which means to eat, to devour, in general to absorb nourishment. All these remarks I intend to deliver as my first lecture in Elena Ivanovna's salon when they take me there in the tank. (Ch.3)
The speaker is the fellow inside the crocodile. Is this Fyodor Dostoevsky or Woody Allen in The New Yorker? “All night long I could dream of nothing but monkeys,” as the narrator says.
I wonder what reformers, existentialists, and mystics do with “The Crocodile”? Pretend it does not exist, is my guess.