Tuesday, September 7, 2021

"Well, hardly on business!" Dostoyevsky has fun with masters and servants.

I last read The Idiot about sixteen years ago, and in the intervening years I have somehow managed to forget how well Dostoyevsky wrote comedy. Yes, there's a lot of absurdity, the utter ridiculousness of human activity, in The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov, but those books--at least as well as I can remember--lack the straightforward comedic writing of The Idiot. This book is, at least the first third of it, a pretty constant laugh riot.

"H'm...You see, sir, that's not what's worrying me. It is my duty to announce you, and I expect the secretary will interview you, and providing you're not--Aye, that's the trouble, sir, providing--Begging your pardon, sir, you haven't come to ask the general for money, have you?"

"Oh no, not at all. You need not worry about that. My business is of quite a different nature."

"I'm very sorry, sir. I asked because of your appearance. Will you, please, wait for the secretary. The general is engaged with the colonel at the moment. The secretary will be here presently--the secretary of the company, sir."

"Well, if I have to wait for some time I'd like to ask if you could tell me where I could have a smoke? I've got a pipe and tobacco."

"Smoke, sir?" the servant asked, giving him a look of scornful bewilderment, as though unable to believe his ears. "Smoke, sir? No, sir, you can't possibly smoke here. Why, sir, I wonder you're not ashamed even to think of it. Dear me, this is a queer business and no mistake."

"Oh, not in this room, of course. I realize I can't smoke here. I'd have gone anywhere else you'd have shown me, for I'm used to smoking, and I haven't had a smoke for three hours. However, just as you like. There's a saying, you know, when in Rome--"

"Well, how am I going to announce a gentleman like you, sir?" the valet muttered in spite of himself. "To begin with, you oughtn't to be sitting here at all, but in the reception room, because you're almost a visitor, sir, or, in other words, a guest, and I shall be held responsible for that. You're not intending to live with us, are you, sir?"

"No, I don't think so. Even if they were to ask me, I shouldn't stay. I've just come to make the general's acquaintance--that's all!"

"Make the general's acquaintance, did you say, sir?" The valet asked with surprise and redoubled suspicion. "Why then did you sat at first that you had come on business?"

"Well, hardly on business! That is, if you like, I have a certain business, but it's only to ask for advice. I've come here chiefly to introduce myself because I'm Prince Myshkin, and Mrs Yepanchin is a Princess Myshkin, the last of them, and except for her and myself there are no more Myshkins left."

"You're not a relation, too, are you, sir?" asked the servant with a start, looking almost frightened.

I mean, that's funny, right? Like a Wodehouse scene, with the valet confronting the humanity of Myshkin, who he likes as a person despite himself, but at the same time obliged to despise Myshkin for the crime of speaking to a servant as to an equal. Variations of this scene take place all through the novel, as Myshkin meets people upon his return to Russia. Characters attempt and fail to situate Myshkin within their preconceived notions of society, misunderstand him because he is guileless and they are unused to such honestly, and are in general uncomfortable around him because a man who doesn't believe in a stratified society will not easily fit into any particular stratum. This is one of Dostoyevsky's running themes in The Idiot: what do you do with the honest man who treats everyone equally? Is there a place for such a man in the real world?