The epistolary story has been around for a long, long time, though I ran into someone who was under the impression that he was inventing it. “Hey, I’ve got this really clever idea…” he said and I just thought to myself, “you’ve never read Dracula, have you?”
Though instead of letters, diaries and news articles he was going to use dueling technical manuals to tell his zzzzzzzzzz….. oops! Just fell asleep thinking about how unique his take was on the epistolary story.
According to the book Points of View (eds James Moffett and Kenneth R. McElheny, Mentor Books, 1966) the epistolary story was invented in the 18th Century in order to make the fiction more precise, or rather make it as accurate to describing real life as they could get it. I’m assuming that everybody realized that fiction is always a device of artifice and decided to just use the epistolary for interesting affects on the story they were telling – like convincing everyone that Dracula was more than just an old folk tale told in Romania to frighten their children. We do the same thing today with fake documentary films telling ghost stories.
I like the epistolary story. It’s written in letters – the characters write letters to one another and that’s the only story we get. Sometimes we see manuals or newspaper articles or even journal entries interspersed with the letters to give an outside perspective on events, because the world that the letters describe is the only world we can know; the story that the character is telling is the only story he can know. This is different from an interior monologue, because he’s telling the story to someone within the story and so his point of view is affecting how characters act within the story, including the letter that they might write back.
They are one of the rare type of story that can be written in second person. “You did this…” “You did that…” The editors point out that the POV is coming from only the character writing the letter, and like the dramatic monologue he’s talking to someone directly, but this time there’s a distance between the two characters (not a spontaneous reaction) – and the other character gets to respond.
The editors picked Dostoevski’s story “A Novel in Nine Letters” because it is literally exactly as they described: a story told in letters sent back and forth between two correspondents. It’s also quite literally nine letters. What’s interesting is the way the letters cause the characters to act within the story. They show how each sees the world and each other, but more interesting than that is how those letters change their view of the world, or at least each other.
It’s a story about two gentlemen who are both friends and business partners who keep trying to meet up, but end up missing each other, so they’re forced to communicate with one another via letters.
It seems to be a comedy of errors. One character, Ivan, is pig-headed, money-driven and a bit paranoid. He suspects right away that his business partner, Pytor is trying to wriggle out of a business contract and pay what is owed to Ivan. Pytor is a bit of a dandy, though a good gentleman who doesn’t understand why his partner thinks he’s welshing. He’s a bit like Berty Wooster of Jeeves and Wooster; he’s a bit oblivious to reality and can’t quite understand what Ivan is so very peeved about, especially since his little outings are just spontaneous bits of fun. He doesn’t think anything of it – that is until we get to the eighth letter when we realize that neither Ivan’s nor Pytor’s outings were accidental.
What’s fascinating about this particular story is how misunderstanding is created between the two corresponding characters. Certainly there are outside characters misdirecting them, but because of the distance between the two in correspondence, they interpret each absence differently. One feels slighted, the other wonders if he’s got the date correct, or if his friend was mistaken like he often is.
Ivan is sure that Pytor is trying to sink him, both fiscally and socially. He becomes more and more crazed hiring cab after cab to find his friend, writing his letters at Pytor’s desk and then asking around about Pytor like he’s trying to solve some unscrupulous crime.
Pyotr as you expect isn’t terribly affected, simply going along with the directions (or mis-directions as the other characters work their magic) without questions, but finds himself in an odd predicament as he has to apologize to his friend for actions he wasn’t sure he’d done. He starts believing that he must be a giant screw-up to do so wrong by his good friend. He does correct Ivan when Ivan tells him that Pyotr mislaid the contract on their loan. “If it had been a loan,” he points out, “then there would have been a receipt, but there isn’t one.” Ivan now is certain that Pyotr is putting one over on him pretending to mislay the letter and then destroying (as he surely must have been the whole time with all of their contracts – Ivan surmises from Pyotr’s letters). But both are wrong – someone has intentionally mislaid the letter of contract.
Ivan thinks Pyotr is a weasel.
Pyotr thinks Ivan is a meanie.
Their friendship dissolves, because the letters have completely changed the images that they had had of each, and then…they find two letters that change everything. Ivan finds a secret letter that Pyotr’s wife sent to a lover and sends it to Pyotr, then Pyotr finds an illicit letter of Ivan’s wife (who had been seeing the same lover) and sends it to Ivan. It becomes clear (okay, clear-ish, I had to re-read a couple or five times) that the two have been blaming the wrong person. Their wives and the unscrupulous friends of the wives (including the lover) have been misdirecting them the whole time.
But were they easily confused? Or was something deeper going on?
Certainly the narrative between the two gets confusing. But that’s the point. Communication is never as straight forward as we would like to think that it is. We often miss each other’s meanings just as the characters in “Nine Letters” miss each other’s appearances. Through letters neither of the characters can see what the other is doing, so they dream up circumstances. Ivan believes that Pyotr is standing him up and lying to him. Pyotr thinks Ivan is joking – he, his friend, can’t possibly mean all of those hurtful things!
Even I got horribly confused and had to re-read the whole thing several times…and take notes.
What makes it worse is that this is a translation of Russian – and from a previous era – so there’s a lot more I’m trying to figure out than just what’s going on, but that too also proves Dostoevski’s point. Communication is muddled, and there are barriers there even when we don’t realize it. Letters ought to be the most straightforward way of talking. You have a piece of paper in your hand to sit with and analyze and yet still the characters get it wrong.
It’s also prescient of the Twenty-First Century where people have to discuss how to carefully format email. They don’t want to sound offensive to the other person when they don’t mean to be. I could write, “I don’t like your choices.” But unless you hear the wistful tone in my voice and see my resigned smirk and shoulders shrug, you think that I’m offended by your choices when I write that.
The two bickering gentlemen become so angry at each other that they don’t want to see the other any more, even if it took Pyotr a while to be offended. Friendships are broken, businesses are dissolved and lives are destroyed, because of miscommunication. Perhaps the greatest misunderstanding is this: letters are personal. That is the greatest myth. Letters are actually an abstraction of communication, a depersonalization of it. It strips out the things that humans look for when talking (the gestures, the tone of voice, pitch). But even then it’s still difficult. After all, the reality is that clear communication isn’t a given, it’s a skill and an art that we often take for granted.
Letters back in the day where very rarely just written on the fly. They were composed, and people who spoke before they thought, or before they listened ended up misrepresenting themselves and their issues. This is food for thought in these divisive times. And the best question I think we can ask ourselves when we hear or read a message that makes us react emotionally is this: did I hear it (read it) correctly? And then stop before we reply.