“He was one of those ideal Russian beings who can suddenly be so struck by some strong idea that it seems to crush them then and there, sometimes even forever.”

Part One, Chapter One, Sections 6 – 9 (sorry about yesterday’s mislabeling)
by Dennis Abrams

“Instead of an Introduction” continues. Stepan and Varvara go to St. Petersburg for the winter. “By Lent, however, everything burst like an iridescent soap bubble. The dreams scattered, and the jumble not only was not clarified, but became even more repellent.” Varvara’s receptions. “Never before had she seen such writers.” Stepan penetrates the highest circles. At a public literary reading, Stepan received five minutes of wild applause, but nine years later tells the narrator, “I sweat to you and will wager, that no one in the whole audience knew a blessed thing about me!” Petitions are signed, Varvara Petrovna “was also made to sign some ‘outrageous act’ and she signed.” Varvara is held in contempt by most of the new people. Talk of reform. After a “scandal” at one of her parties (“Yes, sir, I am a general, and I’ve served my sovereign, and you, sir, are a brat and an atheist!”) Varvara is accused in the newspaper of an “outrageous act.” Three retrograde cronies. After Stepan “proclaimed that boots are lower than Pushkin, even very much so,” he and Varvara know it’s time to leave Petersburg. Five writers visit Varvara, letting her know they’re willing to let her finance their magazine, for which she receive one sixth of the net income. Varvara sends Stepan to Berlin to recover from the experience. Athenian nights. After four months, Stepan “came rushing back to Skvoreshniki.” Stepan discovers that he is a mere sponger, “and nothing more! Yes, nothing more!” “Then cane a lull which continued almost unbroken for all these nine years.” During that time, Stepan’s “nose only became a little redder, and he grew more benign.” Stepan eventually went from living at Varvara’s house to a house of his own — Varvara still paid the champagne bills every six months. Members of Stepan’s circle: Liputin, “a provincial official, no longer a young man, a great liberal and known around town as an atheist,” on his second marriage with three daughters, exceedingly stingy and little respected in town, disliked by Varvara Petrovna, but still able to get along with her. Shatov, born Varvara’s serf, the son of her valet, the object of her benefactions, but “She disliked him for his pride and ingratitude, and simply could not forgive him for not coming to her at once after he was expelled from the university…” Shatov’s marriage and separation before wandering back to “his own nest here….With us he was perpetually glum and taciturn; but occasionally, when his convictions were touched upon, he became morbidly irritated and quite unrestrained in his language…Abroad, Shatov had radially changed some of his former convictions and leaped to the opposite extreme.” Shartov’s illness, Varvara’s one hundred rouble gift, his reluctant acceptance and even more reluctant acknowledgment. Virginsky, “a local official, who bore some resemblance to Shatov, though he was also apparently his complete opposite in all respects…A pathetic and extremely quiet young man…with considerable education, but mainly self-taught,,,His spouse and all the ladies were of the latest convictions, but with them it all came out somewhat crudely…They got everything out of books…Virginsky himself was a man of rare purity of heart, and rarely have I encountered a more honest flame of the soul.” Virginsky, his wife, and Lebyadkin. The little Jew named Lyamshin. Political conversations of the little circle, “For a while there was talk of us around town, that our circle was a hotbed of freethinking, depravity, and godlessness; and this rumor has always persisted. Yet what we had was only the most innocent, nice, perfectly Russian, jolly liberal chatter. ‘Higher liberalism’ and the ‘higher liberal’ — that is, a liberal without any aim — are possible only in Russia.” Stepan’s fears of what could happen when the serfs were freed, “We, being hasty people, were in too great a hurry with our dear little peasants…” An argument about nationhood. Stepan’s belief in God, but “I am not a Christian. I am rather an ancient pagan, like the great Goethe, or like an ancient Greek.” Wine settles all arguments.

I’m loving the intro (or, to be precise, the “Instead of an Introduction), and a question — am I the only one finding it as funny as I’m finding it? The narrator’s dry asides have made me laugh any number of times…

1. “She invited writers, and they were immediately brought to her in great numbers. Afterwards they took to coming on their own, without invitation, each one bringing another. Never before had she seen such writers. They were impossibly vain, but quite openly so, as if thereby fulfilling a duty. Some (though by no means all) even came drunk…They were abusive, and considered it to their credit.”

2. Poor Varvara and the “collective letter against [her] ‘outrageous act’…in not wishing to throw the general out at once.

3. Again, poor Varvara and the five writers (three of them complete strangers) who “announced to her with stern faces that they had looked into the case of her magazine and had brought her their decision about it. Varvara Petrovna had decidedly never asked anyone to look into or decide anything about her magazine. The decision was that, after founding the magazine, she should at once turn it over to them, along with the capital, under the rights of a free cooperative; and she herself should leave for Skvoreshniki, and not forget to take along Stepan Trofimovich, ‘who was obsolete.’ From delicacy they agreed to acknowledge her right of ownership…”

4. And poor Shatov, “He went abroad with this merchant’s family, more as a baby-sitter than as a tutor; but at the same time he wanted very much to go abroad. The children had a governess as well, a pert Russian girl who also joined the household just before their departure and was taken mainly for her cheapness. About two months later the merchant threw her out for ‘free thoughts.’ Shatov went trudging after her and soon married her in Geneva. They lived together for about three weeks, and then parted as free people not bound by anything; also, of course, because of poverty.”

5. Virginksy’s family. “They got everything out of books, and even at the first rumor from our progressive corners in the capital were prepared to throw anything whatsoever out the window, provided they were advised to throw it out.”

6. And of course, finally, the whole story of Virginsky, his wife, her new preference for Lebyadkin who actually MOVED IN WITH THEM, and Virginksy’s alleged speech to his wife, “My friend, up to now I have only loved you, but now I respect you,” (unless of course, he wept and sobbed) before breaking down, dragging the giant Lebyadkin around, before breaking down once again begging his wife’s forgiveness — a forgiveness that was not granted.

Amazing all the way around, or so I think. What are your thoughts? Is the “Instead of an Introduction” piquing your interest?

Wednesday’s Reading:

Part One, Chapter Two, Sections 1-3


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6 Responses to “He was one of those ideal Russian beings who can suddenly be so struck by some strong idea that it seems to crush them then and there, sometimes even forever.”

  1. PatRosier says:

    Yes, Dennis, I am finding this not-an-introduction extremely funny. I especially enjoyed the group with their self-appointed “right” to take over the magazine. (Reminded me of the self-righteousness of some 1980’s “radicals”- I’m not denigrating the genuine radicals of those years.)

    It always takes me a few chapters to get a handle on the Russian names.

    • I was actually going to comment on that — while the book may be about Russian radicals, what it is making clear (at least in its first thirty pages or so) is that while what is radicals are radicals are pretty much the same (in their basic, not in their specifics) no matter the time or place.

  2. Eddie Chism says:

    No, you’re not the only one finding it hilarious! And yes, I’ve encountered these sorts of radicals in my lifetime as well. Very interesting how patterns repeat themselves.

  3. Catherine says:

    I’m loving the immersion in Dostoyevsky. Thanks for the motivation to keep reading, the summaries and critical interpretations.

  4. Lynn Rios says:

    Sadly my schedule barely permits time to read all the technical information required to keep up on a professional level, but I am getting a sense of the characters and their quirks. I am finding it amusing and look forward to more. I can only hope your summaries will be enough to follow the story. I am glad I did not pop into this discussion midway through the book.

  5. Ken Thompson says:

    Interesting how this is funny and it reminds me of a few people I have encountered in my life as well.

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