Normally we think of viral memes as the domain of social media, to be reposted and shared across platforms.
Yet, for those of you who will soon receive a copy of The Crocodile, you'll find that Dostoevsky himself prominently emblazoned one of these memes on the opening pages. It reads: "Ohe Lambert! Ou est Lambert? As tu vu Lambert?"
Translated this means: "Oh Lambert? Where is Lambert? Have you seen Lambert?"
Is Lambert one of the characters in the story? Why is this French epigraph to a Russian tale set in St. Petersburg inquiring after a French man?
First we must answer, who the heck is Lambert? Let us begin by turning to the New York Times, September 3rd 1864, the year prior to the publication of The Crocodile.
From this seemingly trivial event, the screams of "Où est Lambert?" went as viral as 'planking' did in 2014.
A mere few days after the Lambert incident on the train to Asnieres, the king of Spain visited Paris on the invite of Napoleon III. As they paraded through the Champs Elysées, they weren't met with the usual salutations but rather by 250,000 citizens crying out "Hay! Lambert!"
Napoleon the III was apparently so agitated that he gave an order to arrest anyone shouting it. Indeed 200-300 young men were arrested according to London newspapers. That being said, the impact was negligible given reports that "Lambert" was the first word heard in the morning and the last word heard at night for weeks.
Like the best memes, Lambert went international, reaching St. Petersburg soon after. Indeed the liberal newspaper, Golos, published two feuilletons devoted to Lambert and announced the upcoming local production of a vaudeville show and a drama, both entitled: 'Eh, Lambert!'
Without the proper context, The Crocodile's epigraph may seem to be merely an irrelevant throwaway; yet upon proper examination we see that Dostoevsky is invoking the trifling discourse typical of the newspaper feuilletonists to further underscore the satirical themes in the full story that follows.
Prof. Sarah Young, who penned our introduction, writes "Newspapers traded on gossip and untruth and, much like the tabloid press of the present day, owed their popularity and ability to shape the news agenda to an ability to distract readers from more serious concerns. And the main motivation behind such enterprises was, and remains, money, and the power endowed by money."
Therein lies Dostoevsky's dig into the anti-intellectual influence of capital on publishing—a relationship that surely hit a painful sore spot given the bankruptcy of his personal literary journal The Epoch, which folded immediately after The Crocodile was printed in its ultimate issue.