Tuesday, July 19, 2011

No need to describe the general horror. - "A Disgraceful Affair," comic minor Dostoevsky

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.


  1. I find Dostoyevsky a maddening writer. If you were to list one by one me all his many flaws, I'd nod in agreement with every one of them. And yet - and yet ... For reasons I cannot fathom, I find myself fascinated. So many of his scenes, his characters, remain in my mind with a far more startling vividness than many a scene or character from better-constructed novels. I really do not know why this is.

    And as you say, Dostoyevsky was a very funny writer - in his big novels as well as in shorter works such as this one. It was a grotesque sense of humour, though. I am currently reading "Demons" (I read it last as a teenager, nearly 35 years ago now), and I frequently find myself chuckling.

  2. I think we read Dostoevsky quite similarly.

    This story, just because it is so narrowly comic, might be useful for the reader who has swallowed the guff of solemn critics and does not believe that Dostoevsky is a comic writer. Once they see it here, they'll see it everywhere.

    Dostoevsky's best critics are, of course, well aware that he can be hilarious, in close to a literal sense - funny with an edge of something unpleasant, grotesque, just like you say.

  3. I always find scenes along these lines to be my favorite in all the serious Dostoevsky I have read. He is a great comic writer. But then it sort of makes me even less charitable toward his serious side.

  4. It's a challenge, isn't it? Even with this short piece, one could interpret it as a reactionary defense of strict social ranks, which is not an idea I am so interested in pursuing.

  5. Yes, completely! And there have certainly been moments when I didn't really know which way to go with that.

  6. My understanding is that the existentialists and other early champions of Dostoevsky misunderstood or ignored D.'s worst or ugliest ideas. Which is productive, but is not such great literary criticism.