Part One, Chapters 1-5
by Dennis Abrams
“Instead of an Introduction: A Few Details From The Biography of the Much Esteemed Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky” We meet Stepan Trofimovich who “constantly played a certain special and, so to speak, civil role among us, and love this role to a point of passion — so much so that it even seems to me he would have been unable to live without it.” A self-proclaimed “persecuted” man living in internal “exile” in the provinces who thought himself under constant surveillance by the authorities for his subversive poetry, but, according to the narrator, “Just the other day I learned, to my great surprise, but now with perfect certainty, that Stepan Trofimovich had lived among us, in our province, not only not in exile, as we used to think, but that he had never even been under surveillance.” Before exile, Stepan Trofimovich had given a few lectures on the Arabians, and had written a thesis on “the nearly emerged civic and Hanseatic importance of the German town of Hanau, in the period between 1413 and 1428, together with the peculiar and vague reasons why that importance never took place.” Dickens and George Sand. “I do not know if it is true, but it was also asserted that in Petersburg at the same time they unearthed a vast anti-natural, anti-state society of some thirteen members.” Stepan’s poem, a semi-allegory, resembling the second part of Faust. Its publication years afterward. An offer to become the tutor of the son of Varvara Petrovna Stavrogin, “the wife of a lieutenant general and a woman of considerable wealth.” Stepan’s two wives. His friendship with Varvara Petrovna. “The position of tutor was accepted also because the bit of an estate left by Stepan Trofimovich’s first wife — a very small one — happened to be just next to Skvoreshniki, the splendid suburban estate of the Stavrogin’s in our province. Stepan dedicates himself to tutoring, to the cause of learning and to “enrich the literature of one’s fatherland with the most profound research.” But unfortunately, “No research resulted; but what did result instead was the possibility of standing for the rest of his life, for more than twenty years, as, so to speak, a ‘reproach incarnate’ to his fatherland…” Stepan as imitator. His fondness of playing cards, and his “frequent and unpleasant skirmishes with Varvara Petrovna. His thrice yearly “state known among us as ‘civic grief.'” Varvara guarded Stepan from all “trivial inclinations,” including “falling into champagne.” “And there was nothing Varvara Petrovna feared more than a humorous vein.” The strange friendship of Stepan Trofimovich and Varvara Petrovna. Stepan’s daily letters “even while living in the same house.” Varvara’s frequent hatred for Stepan, mixed with hidden love. Her resentments. A rumor the serfs will be emancipated, Stepan’s “Hurrah” in front of an important Baron, Varvara’s “I will never forgive you for that.” Years later, Varvara is a widow, there seems to be a connection between the two that Stepan does not know how to handle, he shakes her hand on leaving her, and once again, “I will never forgive you for that.” Her costume for him. Stepan was still, at fifty-three, “remarkably imposing.” The lithograph of the portrait of Stepan, done in the 1830s, one of Varvara’s “most intimate treasures.” Stepan’s certainty that he’s been forgotten . A trip to Moscow. New ideas emerging. At first Stepan was scornful, but when he began to be remembered in various publication as a “martyr,” “All the scornfulness of his views of his contemporaries dropped away at once, and a dream began burning him: to join the movement and show his powers. Varvara’s belief in him. A trip to St. Petersburg.
An interesting start, as the first person narrator introduces us to Stepan and Varvara and rather quickly gives us at least a rough sketch of Stepan, the exile not really in exile, and his interestingly complicated relationship with Varvara.
And what struck me most about these first chapters was how often I laughed — the narrator’s rather dry sense of humor hit me perfectly. A couple of examples…
“No research resulted; but what did result instead was the possibility of standing for the rest of his life, for more than twenty years, as, so to speak, a ‘reproach incarnate’ to his fatherland, to use the expression of a people’s poet:
‘Reproach incarnate you did stand
Before the fatherland
O liberal idealist’
Perhaps the person of whom the people’s poet so expressed himself did have the right to pose all his life in this vein, if he wanted, boring though it is. But our Stepan Trofimovich in truth was only an imitator compared with such persons; then, too he used to get tired of standing and would often recline.”
“Varvara Petrovna was left a widow and clad herself in deep mourning. True, she could not have grieved very much, because for the last four years she had lived completely separately from her husband, owing to the dissimilarity of their characters, and had provided him with an allowance.”
And of course, Stepan, dismissive of the new political ideas and publications, until those publications began to remember him as a political martyr of years gone by. Marvelous.
And a little heads-up from M.V. Jones in his essay “The Narrator and Narrative Technique in Dostoevsky’s The Devils
“A casual reader might be surprised to be told that the first character to appear in the opening pages of The Devils is Anton Lavrentevich G—v. But there is no mystery. Anton Lavrentevich is the narrator. He is unique among the narrators of Dostoevsky’s four major novels in having a name, a name, a job with career prospects (though there is no evidence as to what it is or that he spend much time in it), and, to some extent, a documented past. He is evidently a man of some intelligence, wit, education, and creative imagination (capable of writing a prose work of Dostoevskian quality in fact).”
More on the narrative voice as we go along…
Part One, Chapters Six-Nine