“A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomprable, you can even fall in love with it.”

The Idiot
Part One, Chapter Three
by Dennis Abrams

Prince Myshkin meets General Ivan Fyodorovich Epanchin, Ganya in the corner sorting papers. Epanchin’s reluctance to meet Myshkin, “Besides, so far I’m unable to see between us any common…any, so to speak, reason…” Myshkin’s amiability. “there’s no reason, indisputably, and, of course little in common. Because if I am Prince Myshkin and your spouse is from our family, that, naturally, is no reason…When I was in Berlin, I thought, ‘They’re almost my relatives, I’ll start with them; we might be useful to each other — they to me, and I to them — if they’re good people.’ And I’d heard you’re good people.” “‘Much obliged, sir,’the general was surprised.” The general’s fear that Myshkin intends to stay with them. Myshkin gets up to leave, but, “The prince’s gaze was so gentle at the moment, and his smile was so free of the least shade of any concealed humanity, that the general suddenly stopped and somehow suddenly looked at his visitor in a different way; the whole change of view occurred in an instant.” Epanchin asks Myshkin to stay. Myshkin’s youthful appearance, his concern that he is boring Epanchin. Myshkin’s lack of property and money. Myshkin relates his story: The early death of his parents, Pavilschev’s concern for his upbringing, growing up in the country, the frequent attacks of his illness which “had almost made an idiot of him,” his time in Switzerland, “and that finally, by his own wish and owing to a certain new circumstance, [Schneider] had now sent him to Russia. Myshkin has no one in Russia. His education, his knowledge of Russian literature, and his talent, “My handwriting is excellent. That’s perhaps where my talent lies; I’m a real calligrapher.” Myshkin prepares a demonstration of his work. Epanchin and Ganya discuss Nastasya Filippovna: Ganya’s photograph of her, the announcement she’ll make that evening, the unhappiness of Ganya’s family. Myshkin announces he knows of Nastasya Filippovna based on his talk with Rogozhin. “Is he a serious man or just a mischief maker? What’s your personal opinion?” “‘I don’t know, how shall I put it,’ replied the prince, ‘only it seems to me there’s a lot of passion in him, and even some sort of sick passion. And he seems to be quite sick himself…” What will Nastasya Filippovna decide? The general’s concern over Ganya, “…there are only a few hours left…Do you understand? Do you? Are you willing or are you not, in fact? If you’re not say so and — you’re welcome. Nobody’s holding you, Gavrila Ardalionych, nobody’s dragging you into a trap by force, if you do see this as a trap.” “‘I’m willing,’ Ganya said in a low but firm voice, dropped his eyes, and fell gloomily silent.” The model hand of Prince Myshkin. His classic old-school calligraphy — his discourse. General Epanchin takes Prince Myshkin under his wing, promising to find him a position in the chancellery, arranges for him to rent a room (with board and maid services) in the house of Gavrila Ardalionych Ivolgin’s family, offers him twenty-five roubles to start with, and urges him to stay away from Rogozhin. The general’s reluctance to hear Myshkin’s business notification. The photo of Nastasya Filippovna. “An astonishing face…And I’m convinced that her fate is no ordinary one. It’s a gay face, but she has suffered terribly, eh? It speaks in her eyes…it’s a proud face, terribly proud, and I don’t know whether she’s kind or not. Ah, if only she were kind! Everything would be saved!” The general’s wife agrees to receive Myshkin.

I have to admit — just three chapters in and I’m hooked. I love the way that Dostoevsky puts us in the position of Myshkin by just dropping us into a society with no explanations of who is who and what is what and letting us figure it out as we go along. What, for example, is going on with Epanchin, Ganya, and Nastasya Filippovna? Is Ganya setting up a marriage? Why?

1. Once again, we have a central thread of money: Myshkin needs it, Rogozhin now has it, I’m guessing that since Ganya’s family is renting out rooms in their house that they’re in need of it…

2. Prince Myshkin’s description of his calligraphy was lovely, “A calligrapher wouldn’t have permitted these flourishes, or, better to say, these attempts at flourishes, these unfinished half-tails here — you notice — but on the whole, you see, it adds up to character, and, really, the whole military scrivener’s soul is peeking out of it; he’d like to break loose, his talent yearns for it, but his military collar is tightly booked and discipline shows in the writing — lovely!”

3. And a question — how reliable do we think Prince Myshkin’s analysis of the character of people really is?

And finally, this from the introductory chapter of Victor Terras’ Reading Dostoevsky:

“As regards the structure of Dostoevsky’s novels, the critics’ dissatisfaction is well founded. If the ideal is a well-spaced and economically developed linear plot, a Dostoevskian novel with its multitude of minor characters and subplots, inserted anecdotes, philosophical dialogues, and the narrator’s essayistic and other digressions is hardly ‘well structured.’ It must be considered, though, that this linear — or sytagmatic — view ignores the wealth of paradigmatic structures that may do quite as much to integrate the text as an elegant linear plot would: leitmotifs, situation rhyme, recurrent imagery, mirroring and doubling, symbolic foreshadowing, parallelism, literary echoes and outright quotations, and other such devices are all plentiful in Dostoevsky’s novels. This effect tends to be subliminal, and their presence has been demonstrated only through the efforts of generations of literary scholars.

Claims for Dostoevsky’s greatness as a novelist must be staked in connection with the Bakhtinian sense of the novel as an all-inclusive, wide-open expression of the fullness of life in a world in flux. The pattern of a tightly tragic plot may be discerned within this loose texture. Isaiah Berlin was, I believe, deeply wrong when he called Dostoevsky a monist ‘hedgehog’ whose art is all about a single issue, rather than a ‘fox’ with a bagful of tricks. A great novelist in this Bakhtinian sense must be a pluralist. Dostoevsky is a pluralist in a variety of ways. He has been aptly called a ‘romantic realist.’ He has been thought, certainly in the West, to be the most Russian of novelists; yet his greatest impact has been on Western readers. Dobroliubov considered Dostoevsky a champion of the ‘downtrodden,’ and his art is decidedly demotic, yet it came to be appreciated by the intellectual elite of the twentieth century, the Prousts, Gides, and Hermann Hesses.

All these contradictions are enhanced by what Bakhtin called the polyphonic quality of Dostoevsky’s art: the presence in his texts of a persistent ‘other voice,’ generated by devices such as an ironic narrator, often himself the unwary butt of the implied author’s irony, frequent ‘inner dialogue,’ multiple ambiguities, and an incessant stream of literary and journalistic quotations, echoes, and allusions.”

More tomorrow…

Wednesday’s Reading:

Part One, Chapter Four

Enjoy.

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2 Responses to “A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomprable, you can even fall in love with it.”

  1. artmama says:

    Nope, I am not hooked at this pint. Still flipping back and froth from the character list to the text and to the index of footnotes to understand the polyphony of references. I will push on because I am stubborn and thick-headed, but I am not loving this.

    I like the idea of the polyphonic qualities, and I also like the multiple layers of action and the numerous characters. It will just take me awhile to get it all synched up.

  2. artmama says:

    Nope, I am not hooked at this point. Still flipping back and forth from the character list to the text and to the index of footnotes to understand the polyphony of references. I will push on because I am stubborn and thick-headed, but I am not loving this.

    I like the idea of the polyphonic qualities, and I also like the multiple layers of action and the numerous characters. It will just take me awhile to get it all synched up.

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