Other classics of the genre have been hybrids: Hoffmann’s Die Doppeltgänger [sic] is the story of conjoined twins who are also writers—rivals in art, rivals in body—each fighting to be, but unable to be, independent of the other. Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson is the story of how guilt splits a personality into schizophrenia: The second self is the conscience, always latent, or mental, and manifesting physically only when the original cheats at cards, or tries to cheat with a married woman.
To Freudians, the double is the nocturnal counterpart to the daytime bourgeois—the embodiment of the id, dispensing with law, religious strictures, monogamy, propriety. To Marxists, the double is the mascot of mass-production: a person who looks and sounds and acts like you, who doubles your capacity for labor. The double’s existence represents the strain against time, and against limited resources of energy: the double works more so you can play more, produces more so you can consume more. It’s a fantasy of slavery—of having, if not being, your own slave.
The Double, the book by Dostoyevsky, can survive any reading—even a deconstructive reading, in which the primal doubling isn’t between the hero Golyadkin and his identical avatar, but between Golyadkin and the author himself.
Golyadkin is a civil servant in St. Petersburg, but hasn’t climbed the ranks: He’s unintentionally too crude, rude, and curt, and has a tendency to blunder through every encounter. Enamored of his supervisor’s daughter, Klara, he shows up to her birthday party early and stays too late, insults his fellow guests by making nervous remarks, makes a fool of himself by trying to dance, and finally gets himself ejected. It’s at that point, wandering the embankment by the Neva, that he finally comes face to face with the man who turns out to be him. Another him.
Reading about Dostoyevsky’s life during the writing of The Double reinforces the suspicion that he shared Golyadkin’s predicament. By which I mean that Dostoyevsky’s not just writing a doubles story, he’s writing a doubled story: a version of Gogol’s The Overcoat, with a few wrinkles of The Nose. He’s also trying to write a second book to surpass, or equal, his first—Poor Folk, which was praised and even financially successful. The Double’s phantom themes are the author’s anxieties: about not being as talented as Gogol, or even as his own younger self.
This anxiety breaks out in the extraordinarily strange, break-the-fourth-wall opening to the book’s fourth chapter. It begins with a description of that party, which Golyadkin’s essentially crashing:
That day the birthday of Klara Olsufyevna […] was being celebrated by a brilliant and sumptuous dinner-party, such as had not been seen for many a long day within the walls of the flats in the neighbourhood of Ismailovsky Bridge—a dinner more like some Balthazar’s feast, with a suggestion of something Babylonian in its brilliant luxury and style, with Veuve-Clicquot champagne, with oysters and fruit from Eliseyev’s and Milyutin’s, with all sorts of fatted calves, and all grades of the government service. This festive day was to conclude with a brilliant ball, a small birthday ball, but yet brilliant in its taste, its distinction and its style …
An upscale ball deserves an upscale writer, is the implication: Dostoyevsky elevates his language, mock-elevates it, makes reference to the Bible and Semitic Antiquity, name-checks Veuve-Clicquot. But then this posturing’s suddenly interrupted—by the authorial “I,” Golyadkin-clumsy, barging in, and directly addressing the reader:
Oh, if I were a poet! such as Homer or Pushkin, I mean, of course; with any lesser talent one would not venture—I should certainly have painted all that glorious day for you, oh, my readers, with a free brush and brilliant colours! Yes, I should begin my poem with my dinner, I should lay special stress on that striking and solemn moment when the first goblet was raised to the honour of the queen of the fete. I should describe to you the guests plunged in a reverent silence and expectation, as eloquent as the rhetoric of Demosthenes …
I should describe this scene, is how Dostoyevsky narrates this scene, I should describe its food and drink and music and dress—but I can’t, because I’m not welcome here either, as a writer. Dostoyevsky laments not being up to the task, even as he’s completing the task—which is not to write about a revel, so much as it is to exorcise self-doubt.