I have a vacation coming up, so this is going to be a hodgepodge week. I am unsure whether today’s post is hodge or podge.
“A Disgraceful Affair” by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1862. Let’s see. Short – 55 pages as presented in Great Short Works of Dostoevsky, tr. Norah Gottlieb. Minor, I guess, in that it’s Big Ideas are social, not existential. Funny, dang funny.
Ivan Ilyitch, a high-ranking civil servant with democratic ideals, stumbles upon the wedding of one of his sub-sub-subordinates and decides (he has had a bit too much champagne) that crashing the party would be not a breach of etiquette but a demonstration of his noble love of mankind and disregard of rank. Ivan Ilyitch’s entry (brawn is like a jellied meat gravy):
Although a tallow candle end or some sort of nightlight was burning somewhere in the corner, Ivan Ilyitch was not saved from stepping with his left foot, clad in a galosh, into a dish of brawn which had been put out to set. Ivan Ilyitch bent down and, glancing round with curiosity, saw that there were two other similar dishes with aspic, as well as two moulds evidently full of blancmange. The squashed brawn rather disconcerted him and for one fleeting moment he considered the idea of slipping away immediately. But he decided this would be unworthy of him. (220)
With a start like this, I expected the bride to end up face down in the wedding cake. What else happens in wacky wedding comedies? The subordinate, the groom, becomes paralyzed by the presence of his boss, unable to break decorum. The other guests become drunk and hostile; Ivan Ilyitch, after an incompetent toast, accidentally drinks himself into a stupor – he is not used to vodka.
He sank onto a chair as if he were fainting, put both hands on the table and dropped his head on to them, straight into a plate of blancmange. No need to describe the general horror. After a minute he got up, evidently wanting to go away, staggered, tripped over the leg of a chair, fell on the floor with full force and began to snore… (245, ellipses in original)
Hey, my guess was close! “A Disgraceful Affair” is in the genre of The Office and other comedies of social humiliation; Ivan Ilyitch might be well played by Ricky Gervais.
In longer works, Dostoevsky employs many voices and points of view to tell his stories. He has less room here, but when Ivan Ilyitch collapses, he switches to the groom and travels back in time a bit, retelling the entire story, demonstrating why the boss’s generously meant but disastrous visit is even worse than it first appeared. I cringed while I laughed.
A Dostoevsky skeptic, or ignoramus, I enjoyed “A Disgraceful Affair” as much as any Dostoevsky I know. It lacks the chaos, hysteria, and glimpses into the abyss that his best readers love so much, but it effectively isolates Dostoevsky’s enormous comic gift.