Part Three, Chapter Two, Section 3
by Dennis Abrams
“The End of the Fete” “The whole of that night, with its almost absurd events and ghastly ‘denouement’ in the morning, comes back to me even now as a hideous, nightmarish dream, and constitutes — for meat least — the most difficult part of my chronicle.” The narrator arrives at the ball late, “not a single family from higher circles came; even officials of any importance at all were absent — and that was an extremely marked feature.” There was scarcely one lady in attendance for every four men.” The ladies who are in attendance are not of the highest quality: “‘Certain’ wives of regional officers, of various small fry from the post office and petty clerkdom, three doctors’ wives with their daughters, two or three landowners of the poorer sort, the seven daughters and one niece of the secretary I mentioned somewhere above, some merchant’s wives — was this what Yulia Mikhailovna had expected?” The conspicuous absence of men from the nobility. Several rather quiet and respectful officers with their wives…All these humble small potatoes came, so to speak, ‘out of inevitability,’ as one of these gentlemen put it.” On the other hand, the mass of ‘perky characters’ had grown since the matinee. The personages surrounding the buffet, “in all but torn frock coats, in the most dubious and utterly un-ball-like outfits…” Yulia’s democratic attitude, “not refusing even tradesmen, if any such should happen to pay for a ticket.” How did those people get in? Liputin and Lyamshin have had their usher’s bows removed. The new role for the seminarian who had attacked Stepan. Rumors that Yulia had arranged for the fete to distract attention from the Lizaveta/Stavrogin scandal, a scandal that she had helped arrange. The snug haven of the buffet. Three skimpy quadrilles. Yulia Mikhailovna’s state of mind: “Her face was pained, her glance haughty and disdainful, yet wandering and anxious. She was controlling herself with visible suffering — for what and for whom? Andrei Antonovich looks worse than he did in the morning: “It seemed he was in some sort of oblivion and was not quite sure where he was.” Those in attendance were “casting extremely strange glances at [Lembke}, glances all too out of harmony, in their intent candor, with the fearfulness of these people.” How had it been decided that Yulia and Andrei would attend the ball? Was Yulia tormented by pride, or simply lost? The retired general’s dance, his non-stop babble. The narrator, along with Yulia Mikhailovna, von Lembke, the general, and a suddenly appearing Pyotr settle in to watch the “quadrille of literature.” Pytor insists he’s been at the buffet watching, Yulia calls him out, “Stop deceiving me now, at least, you brazen man!” “it would be hard to imagine a more pathetic, trite, giftless, and insipid allegory than this ‘quadrille of literature.'” The public turns on the ‘quadrille of literature.’ Yulia is verbally attacked by a forty year old woman, “thick-set, and rouged,’ who was not received by Yulia or anyone else, “Never in my life have I seen such an utterly ordinary ball,” and claims she attended out of naivety. von Lembke’s confusion at the quadrille, culminating in the man walking upside down in a coat with tails, “‘Scoundrel,’ he cried, pointing to Lyamshin. ‘Seize the blackguard, turn him…turn his legs…his head…so his head is up…up,’ adding “Throw out all the scoundrels who are laughing'” Lembke turns pale when someone shouts “Filibusters!” “‘Gentlemen,’ Yulia Mikhailovna addressed the oncoming crowd, at the same time drawing her husband away with her, ‘gentlemen, excuse Andrei Antonovich, Andrei Antonovich is unwell…excuse…forgive him gentlemen!” the use of the word ‘forgive.’ An announcment: “Fire! All of Zarechye’s in flames!” Half of those attending the ball were from Zarechye. The fire, just beginning was seen to have started in three separate places. “Arson! The Shpigulin men!” “And they gathered us here on purpose so they could set fires over there!” A surge towards the exit. Lembke screams “Stop them all! Let no one leave! The strictest search of every last one of them, at once!” Yulia’s despair. A man shouts for Yulia to be arrested, “Search her first! The ball was organized with the intent of arson…” Yulia gives a cry and faints “(oh, it was most assuredly a real faint)” “With the destruction of all her fantasies, Andrei Antonovich alone remained before her.” Lembke insists on going with the police chief to the fire, “Afterwards it was reported that in those moments His Excellency was already in a state of brain fever owing to ‘a suddenness of fright'” The drunkenness of those who remained. “Thus ended the fete for the benefit of the governesses of our province.”
Now that’s a party. Drunks, the wrong people in attendance, bad dancing, a failed ‘literary quadrille,’ ugly words spoken, the few survivors found passed out in the morning — with the exception of the fires set at Zarechye, it sounds like many a party I’ve been to. It was, I think, an amazing scene — and interesting in the way that Dostoevsky suddenly breaks us out of a confined space (or set if you will) to the fires outside…
A couple of things for the weekend:
1. From George Steiner,
“With reference to Tolstoy, Henry James spoke of characters surrounded by ‘a wonderful mass of life.’ this mass both reflects and absorbs their vitality; it reduces the incursions of ‘the horribly possible.’ The dramatist works without this enveloping plentitude; he makes the air thin and narrows reality to an atmosphere of conflict in which language and gesture cry havoc. The very shapes of matter become insubstantial; all the fences are either low enough for the Karamazovs to leap over or have loose boards through which Pyotr Verkhovensky can steal on his sinister errands. To combine such primacy of action with a detailed and cogent presentation of complex personalities is difficult enough in the drama (witness what Eliot terms the ‘artistic failure’ of Hamlet). It is even more difficult through the medium, however ‘dramatized’ of narrative prose. Constantly, the leisures of prose, the fact that we read a novel, put it aside, and pick it up in a different mood (none of which occurs in the theater), imperil that sense of continuous action and unflagging tension on which a dramatic formula such as Dostoevsky’s relies.
To show how he resolved some of the difficulties, I propose to look at the sixty culminating hours in The Possessed, ‘All that night, with its almost grotesque incidents and the terrible denouement that followed in the early morning, still seems to me like a hideous nightmare,’ observes the narrator. (In this novel we have an individualized narrator by whom the actions is perceived and recollected. This further complicates the task of dramatic presentation.) Throughout the wild and confused happenings which follow on this opening statement, Dostoevsky will maintain a tone of nightmarish intensity. He must parry our sense of the implausible and do some over sixty pages of prose without the material aids to illusion to a playwright.
Dostoevsky uses two exterior occurrences to condition our responses for the descent into chaos. They are the ‘literary quadrille’ which concludes the Governor’s soiree and the fire in the riverside quarter. Both are integral to the narrative, but they also carry symbolic values. The quadrille is a figura (the old rhetoric had terms which we forgo at our peril) of the intellectual nihilism and irreverence of soul in which Dostoevsky discerned the principal cause of the coming upheavals. The fire is the herald of insurrection, a malignant, mysterious offence to the normality of life. Flaubert saw in the incendiarism of the Commune a delayed spasm of the Middle Ages; more perceptively, Dostoevsky recognized in the conflagrations symptoms of vast social insurrections which would seek to raze the old cities and found instead the new city of justice. He linked the fires raging in Paris with the traditional Russian theme of a fiery apocalypse. Lembke, the Governor, rushes to the fire and exclaims to his terrified entourage, ‘It’s all incendiarism! It’s nihilism! If anything is burning, it’s nihilism!’ His ‘madness’ fills the narrator with horror and pity, but it is, in fact, clairvoyance exaggerated to the point of hysteria. Lembke is right when he shouts in his delirious panic that ‘The fire is in the minds of men and not in the roofs of houses.’ That could stand in epigraph to The Possessed. The actions of the novel are gestures of the soul when it is in dissolution. The devils have entered into it, and by some obscure accident the sparks have leapt from men to mere buildings.”
2. And finally, this from Minihan:
“Marya Timofeyevna is shown in the fairy-tale illumination of her folk-monastic speech; Bishop Tikhon in his magnificent, severe Church-Orthodox language; Shatov in the fiery inspiration of a prophet, Pyotr Verkhovensky in the disconnected, intentionally coarse and vulgar remarks of his ‘nihilistic style’; Lebyadkin in the drunken lyrics of a barroom poet; Shigalyov in the dull heaviness of scientific jargon; Stavrogin in the formlessness and artificiality of his ‘universal tongue.’ The clash and interweaving of these verbal styles and rhythms form the complicated counterpoint of the novel’s stylistics. The author makes continual use of the devices of parody and caricature. Newspaper phraseology helped him to verbally characterize his nihilists, literary works served as material for his sharp, caustic parodies. His old hostility toward Turgenev inspired the writer to take cruel revenge upon the author of Smoke. Dostoevsky portrays the ‘Baden bourgeois’ under the guise of the ‘great writer’ Karmazinov. He spitefully makes fun of his appearance, ‘shrieky and lisping voice,’ manner of ‘advancinvg to kiss one and presenting his cheek’; he parodies his conversation with him in Baden-Baden and ascribes to him the following ‘Germanophile’ declaration; ‘This now is the seventh year I’ve resided in Karlsruhe. And last year when the city council proposed laying a new drainage-pipe, then I felt in my heart that this Karlsruhe drainage question was more pleasing and dear to me than all the questions concerning my dear fatherland, throughout all the ti9me of the so-called local reforms.’ After this caricature of the ‘great writer’s’ personality there follows a brilliant and murderous parody of Enough and Phantoms. Karmazinov at the ‘Fete’ reads his tale Merci. “Mr. Karmazinov, with an affected air and intonation, announced that he ‘at first had not agreed to read on any account,’ (It was quite necessary to announce this!) ‘There are,’ he said, ‘some lines which sound so deeply from the heart, that it is impossible to utter them aloud, so that such holy things cannot be brought before the public.’ (Well, why then did he bring them?); he was, moreover, laying down his pen forever and had sworn never to write anything again, no so be it, he had written this final piece: and since he had sworn never on any inducement to read anything in public; now so be it, he could read this last essay to the public etc., etc., all in this genre.’
The parody on Turgenev’s Phantome is a chief d’oeuvre of literary caricature. With all the clarity of hatred Dostoevsky observes the wordy lyrics and pretentious fantasies of his enemy. His senile, romantic, pessimistic philosophy is satirized with extraordinary malice and verity. “Thirty-seven years ago when, you recollect, in Germany, we were sitting under an agate-tree, you said to me: ‘Why love? Look, ochra is growing all around and I love you, but the ochra will case to grieve, and I shall stop loving!’ then the fog whirled up, Hoffman appeared, a water-nymph whistled a tune from Chopin, and suddenly out of the fog, in a laurel wreath, over the roofs of Rome appeared Aneus Marcius. ‘A shiver of rapture ran down our spines, and we parted for ever.'”
In Baden Turgenev had insulted the Russian patriot and believing Christian in Dostoevsky. In the novel The Devils, he took fierce revenge upon his foe.”
The Weekend’s Reading:
Part Three Chapter Two, Section 4; Chapter Three, Sections 1-3
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.