As the great, informative introduction by translator Jane Kentish describes, “Netochka Nezvanova” was to be Dostoyevsky’s first grand novel. It was cut short by his arrest and imprisonment to a Siberian prison camp for being part of a literary group that covered texts the government of the time viewed as radical and treacherous.
It was after his eventual return from exile that he produced his best-known works, so “Netochka Nezvanova” is the very last part of his literary career before such a transformative event in his life. It’s utterly incomplete, apparently only consisting of functionally the prelude to the main story of the planned grand novel, but is still fantastic, and a clear evolution of skills he’d gained in his yet earlier works, and a sign of themes, relationships, and character types he’d continue to explore in his later, more developed work.
Dostoyevsky’s enormous skill in psychological insight is very present here, particularly in the development of the protagonist’s father, a startlingly well-realised character. The analysis and description of him is brutal in how devastatingly accurate and thorough a portrait of a type of person most have encountered is sketched. While all the characters in the story are very well-written, noticeably moreso than Dostoyevsky’s earlier works, the lesbian relationship (as I read it) at the centre of what remains of the novel is also detailed with alarmingly keen psychological insight.
Everything in the book is very strong stuff, which is why the abrupt cutting-off point is such an awful shame. Both for what it signifies for Dostoyevsky himself, the awful years he had to go through instead of completing this novel, and for the sake of the work, as its promise lies forever unfulfilled. Dostoyevsky wrote the bulk of his work after his exile, but never returned to “Netochka Nezvanova”. As it stands, it’s a clear demarcation between his more unfocused earlier literary career, and the brilliance of his later career, but it’s such a shame it never got the chance to blossom into a wonderful, complete novel in its own right. I give it four tears, and a violin.