Goodreads: A Bad Business
Age Category: Adult
Publication Date: March 29, 2022
This vivid collection of new translations by Nicolas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater illuminates Dostoevsky’s dazzling versatility as a writer.
His remarkable short fiction swings from wickedly sharp humour to gripping psychological intensity, from cynical social mockery to moments of unexpected tenderness.
The stories in this collection range from impossible fantasy to scorching satire.
A civil servant finds a new passion for his work when he’s swallowed alive by a crocodile.
A struggling writer stumbles on a cemetery where the dead still talk to each other.
An arrogant but well-intentioned gentleman provokes an uproar at an aide’s wedding, and in the marital bed.
A young boy finds unexpected salvation on a cold and desolate Christmas Eve.
It sounds funny to say I’m writing a review for an ARC of a book by Dostoevsky, but this edition features new translations by Nicolas Pasternak and Maya Slater, and it has the added benefit that I don’t believe I’ve read any of these stories in any other translation before.
The collection as a whole was hit-or-miss for me: I only liked 3 out of the 6 stories. There’s also no introduction in the ARC to help contextualize any of the stories or explain why they’re grouped together, and I see no indication there will be one in the final print.
Here are my thoughts on each story:
1. A Bad Business
Things got off to an inauspicious start for me, as I did not particularly enjoy the first story (and these types of collections often feature the “best” or most well-known story as the opening). I believe it’s supposed to be humorous, featuring a general who has high reformation ideals about mingling with the lower classes and “elevating” them while also expressing he believes in everyone’s shared humanity; his ideals don’t play out as he imagines, however, as when he crashes his subordinate’s wedding, he generally makes a mess of things and costs the poor man money he can’t afford. I get the general message, but I don’t think it’s as hard-hitting in modern-day America as I must assume it was in Russia in Dostoevsky’s day. I didn’t laugh, and I didn’t feel as if it really offered me a keen and piercing insight into anything I wanted to ponder more.
2. Conversations in a Graveyard
The second story I found much more entertaining. I was a little wary of the initial paragraphs, as they feature a narrator discussing how awesome he is even though no one appreciates it and then explaining that he felt into pondering the nature of astonishment, and I felt that I was simply in for one of those classic stories that is simply the protagonist sharing their philosophical musings, without much of an actual plot. I was wrong! This story has a bit of the supernatural, features a range of wild and slightly shocking characters in a short pace, and even got me thinking about death and what I would do if I found out I had a little “more time” after death (or what anyone would do, or what they perhaps “should” do). Definitely a winner of a short story.
3. A Meek Creature
The third story is interesting, featuring a narrator who is relating the events of his life after he comes home to find she has killed herself. The reader gets inside his head and can see where he is kind of lying to himself and how he was abusive in ways he didn’t recognize or didn’t want to, but it’s not all black and white, and the ending can make the reader wonder whether things might have been on the verge of improving before the unfortunate suicide.
4. The Crocodile
A story about a guy who is swallowed whole by a crocodile on exhibit in a museum. It’s deliciously absurd because only the narrator acts as one would expect 99% of people to react to this event: with horror and great anxiety to find a way to free the unfortunate man. Everyone else reacts unexpectedly. I enjoyed it.
5. The Heavenly Christmas Tree
Incredibly short and really depressing story about a boy whose mother dies around Christmas and wanders about looking for a bit of Christmas magic. I didn’t really see the point of the story, to be honest. And the length of this story and the final one was off-putting to me; the stories seem like afterthoughts in this collection.
6. The Peasant Marey
This one is also short and unremarkable, the narrator remembering a semi-insignificant event from his childhood that somehow holds significance for him. I found it an anti-climatic conclusion to the collection.