“‘When he’s alone he probably doesn’t look that way, and maybe never laughs,’ the prince somehow felt.”

Part One, Chapters One and Two
by Dennis Abrams

A third-class carriage on the Peterburg-Warsaw line. One man, dark and swarthy, with “thin lips…constantly twisting into a sort of impudent, mocking, and even malicious smile…Especially notable was the deathly pallor of his face…He was warmly dressed in an ample lambskin coat…” Another man, not dressed for winter, “slightly taller than average, with very blond, thick hair, sunken cheeks, and a sparse, pointed, nearly white little beard. His eyes were big, blue, and intent; their gaze had something quiet but heavy about it…” His meager traveling possessions. “…he had indeed been away from Russia for a long time, more than four years…he had been sent abroad on account of illness, some strange nervous illness like the falling sickness or St. Vitus’s dance, some sort of trembling convulsions,” and was planning to visit his relative, General Epanchin’s wife. The clerk Lebedev: Mr. Know-it-all. The blond man is Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin. The swarthy man is Parfyon Rogozhin. “You’re not from those same Rogozhins…” The last in her line. It’s been impossible to educate Prince Myshkin due to his illness. Five weeks earlier Rogozhin had misappropriated money from his father to purchase earrings to impress the rich and beautiful Natasaya Filippovna — after his father learned about it, punished him and begged for the returns of the earrings, Rogozhin fled to Pskov to stay with his aunt, arriving with a fever, “then went out and spent my last money in the pot-houses, lay unconscious in the street all night, and by morning was delirious, and the dogs bit me all over during the night. I had a hard time recovering,” and is now returning to collect his inheritance from his father, who died while he was away. As they pull into the station at Petersburg, Rogozhin tells Myshkin, “Prince, I don’t know why I’ve come to love you…Come and see me, Prince. We’ll take those wretched gaiters of you; I’ll dress you in a top-notch marten coat; I’ll have the best of tailcoats made for you, a white waistcoat, or whatever you’d like; I’ll stuff your pockets with money;…” Myshkin promises to come that evening, admitting that he likes Rogozhin, “and I especially liked you when you were telling about the diamond pendants. Even before the pendants I liked you, despite your gloomy face,” that he needs new clothes and adding that “but because of my inborn illness, I don’t know women at all.” Myshkin as holy fool, “and God loves your kind!” Lebedev attaches himself to Rogozhin.

General Ivan Fyodorovich Epanchin. His house, much of which is rented out — his other properties. His background, “a man of no education and the son of a common soldier…But he was unquestionably an intelligent and adroit man.” His love of gambling. “He belonged to a mixed society, though naturally of a ‘trumpish’ sort.” His family — wife and three daughters. “His wife was from the princely family of the Myshkins, a family which, while not brilliant, was quite old, and she quite respected herself for her origins.” Their three daughters — Alexandra, Adelaida, and Aglaya who, were of princely origin, but with little dowry, “all three three were remarkably good-looking…” The youngest, twenty year old Aglaya, was “the common idol of the house.” Prince Myshkin arrives — should he be announced? Prince Myshkin and the guillotine: After witnessing an execution in Lyons, Myshkin comes to the conclusion that “To kill for killing is an immeasurably great punishment than the crime itself. To be killed by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than to be killed by robbers…Take a soldier, put him right in front of a cannon during a battle and shoot at him, and he’ll still keep hoping, but read that same soldier a sentence for certain, and he’ll lose his mind or start weeping. Who ever said human nature could bear it without going mad? Why such an ugly, vain, unnecessary violation? Maybe there’s a man who has had the sentence read to him, has been allowed to suffer, and has then been told, ‘Go, you’re forgiven.’ That man might be able to tell us something. Christ spoke of this suffering and horror. No, you can’t treat a man like that.” Prince Myshkin wishes to smoke. The arrival of Gavrila Ardailionovich, “a very handsome young man, also of about twenty-eight, a trim blond, of above average height, with a small imperial, and an intelligent and very handsome face. Only his smile, for all its amiability, was somewhat to subtle; it revealed his somewhat too pearly and even teeth; his gaze, for all its cheerfulness and ostensible simple-heartedness, was somewhat too intent and searching.” Myshkin: “‘When he’s alone he probably doesn’t look that way, and maybe never laughs,” the prince somehow felt.” Gavrila Adrailonovich arranges for Prince Myshkin to be announced.

Interesting introduction: The swarthiness of Rogozhin in contrast to the blondness of Prince Myshkin. The comic relief of the too eager to please, Mr. Know-it-all clerk, Lebedev. The background quickly sketched in of Rogozhin and Myshkin. General Epanchin and his family. And the…oddness it the only word I can think of to describe the conversation between Prince Myshkin and the valet and the long dialogue about the guillotine and the threat of death (aren’t we all under it). And finally, the phrase “the prince somehow felt.” The word “somehow”…interesting.

A bit more about the writing of The Idiot from “reading Dostoevsky” by Gary Saul Morson:

“He began reading the novel in August 1867 and produced several outlines and plans, which bear almost no relation to the work as we know it, except that a character resembling Nastasia Filippovna appears and the hero is both an expert in calligraphy and called ‘the idiot.’ He is not at all like Prince Myshkin. Dissatisfied with what he had achieved, and rushing to submit something for publication, Dostoevskii hit on a new approach, which he liked enough to send in an opening with no idea how the novel would develop. ‘I turned things over in my mind from 4 December to 18 December’, he wrote to his friend Maikov on 31 December. “I would say that on the average I came up with six plans a day (at least that). My head was in a whirl. It’s a wonder I did not go out of my mind. At least, on 18 December, I sat down and started writing a novel.’ The ‘idea’ of this novel, he explained further, ‘used to flash through my mind in a somewhat artistic form, but only somewhat, not in the full blown form that was needed. It was only the desperate situation in which I found myself that made me embark upon an idea that had not yet reached maturity. I took a chance, as at roulette: ‘Maybe it will develop as I write it!’ This is unforgivable.” Writing like roulette: a great deal was at stake, and the outcome was left in great measure to chance, to what one could not predict. Could the necessity of writing that way be turned to advantage?”

More tomorrow…

Wednesday’s Reading:

Part One, Chapter Three


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2 Responses to “‘When he’s alone he probably doesn’t look that way, and maybe never laughs,’ the prince somehow felt.”

  1. artmama says:

    Thanks for getting us started on this new book. As usual I immediately have trouble with the multiple names used for each character. The specific physical descriptions help with this a bit, but I still had to start over and reread Chapter One for clarity. It’s a little scary to ride along with the Prince as he opens up to his fellow travelers with such innocence. I feel powerless to shut him up. I’ll have to get used to this feeling, and “suspend my paranoia.”

    • I’m thinking part of the difficulty of “getting into” the book is that we find ourselves in the position (and almost from the point of view) of Myshkin himself — plunged into a society that is difficult at first to comprehend.

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