|Dostoevsky in 1847|
I have been absent from the “blogosphere” longer than expected. So, it is time to return to my promise to present some special figures from Dostoevsky’s universe: the marginalized, the humiliated, the rejected, the crazy, the sick.
The man I would like to talk about today is a character in The Idiot, a novel for which I have a special affection. General Ivolgin, to describe him in a few words, is a pathetic old man, mythomaniac, quite a drinker, but in whose heart lies goodness, and that a painful awareness of his decay crosses his mind, at times. The gentle Kolya, his youngest son, torn between shame and tenderness inspired by his father, speaks to Prince Myshkin: “Look at my father, the general! See what he is, and yet, I assure you, he is an honest man! Only... he drinks too much, and his morals are not all we could desire. Yes, that's true! I pity him, to tell the truth, but I dare not say so, because everybody would laugh at me - but I do pity him!”(*). Myshkin, the “idiot”, has quickly realized what kind of man is the general, and he shows patience, respect and kindness towards him.
The reader discovers general Ivolgin’s mythomania through several episodes, some of which generate hilarity mixed with bad conscience. But the narrator – Dostoevsky does not identify him and does not clearly identify himself with him – gives an interesting portrait of the general, in which the members of his family, especially his wife, Nina Alexandrovna, are also mentionned. “... He had (...) experienced fits of sudden fury, but not very often, because he was really a man of peaceful and kindly disposition. He had tried hundreds of times to overcome the dissolute habits which he had contracted of late years. He would suddenly remember that he was “a father”, would be reconciled with his wife, and shed genuine tears. His feeling for Nina Alexandrovna amounted almost to adoration; she had pardoned so much in silence, and loved him still in spite of the state of degradation into which he had fallen. But the general's struggles with his own weakness never lasted very long. He was, in his way, an impetuous man, and a quiet life of repentance in the bosom of his family soon became insupportable to him. In the end he rebelled, and flew into rages which he regretted, perhaps, even as he gave way to them, but which were beyond his control. He picked quarrels with everyone, began to hold forth eloquently, exacted unlimited respect, and at last disappeared from the house, and sometimes did not return for a long time.”
From his first meeting with Myshkin, Ivolgin flounders in the ridiculous excesses of his imagination. As he just moved into his new home, a room rented to the general’s wife, the prince comes face to face with the general, who introduces himself: “General Ivolgin, retired and miserable...” The general asks the prince’s Christian and genreric names. As the prince answers: “Lev Nicolaevitch”, he immediately declares that he is a childhood friend of his father:
“– So, so, the son of my old, I may say my childhood's friend, Nicolai Petrovitch.
– My father's name was Nicolai Lvovitch.
– Lvovitch, repeated the general without the slightest haste, and with perfect confidence, just as though he had not committed himself the least in the world, but merely made a little slip of the tongue. He sat down, and taking the prince's hand, drew him to a seat next to himself.
– I carried you in my arms as a baby, he observed.”
Gradually, the general becomes completely immoderate. As Myshkin tells him that his father died some years ago, Ivolgin questions him about his mother:
“– Your mother...
– She died a few months later, from a cold, said the prince.
– Oh, not a cold – believe an old man – not from a cold, but from grief for her prince. Oh! your mother, your mother! heigh-ho! Youth! youth! Your father and I, old friends as we were, nearly murdered each other for her sake.
The prince began to be a little incredulous.
– I was passionately in love with her when she was engaged, engaged to my friend.”
The general continues in the same vein, when Kolya, sent by his mother, comes and asks him. In the presence of his wife and the prince, Ivolgin goes on worse and worse, inventing a new episode that Myshkin’s father would have witnessed.
“– It did not occur, it's a mistake! said Nina Alexandrovna quickly, looking, at the prince rather anxiously. Mon mari se trompe, she added, speaking in French.
– My dear, se trompe is easily said. Do you remember any case at all like it?”
When the general was gone, his wife spoke to the prince:
“– You will have to excuse very much in my husband (...), but he will not disturb you often (...) Everyone has his little peculiarities, you know, and some people perhaps have more than those who are most pointed at and laughed at. One thing I must beg of you: if my husband applies to you for payment for board and lodging, tell him that you have already paid me...”
The general, indeed, as the habit of engaging in small trickery, or even petty theft, to pay for his drink.
A few pages later, the general turns ridicule again. He emphatically tells an incident that happened to him during a trip by rail. But a member of the audience declares that she read “absolutely the same story” in a newspaper a few days ago!
“The general blushed dreadfully; Kolia blushed too (...) – I assure you, said the general, that exactly the same thing happened to myself!”
But the climax of the general’s mythomania is reached when he claims, in a passionate speech, having been close to Napoleon, in Moscow, during the Russian campaign. No less than a dozen pages are devoted to this unforgettable episode. At the turn of another fanciful story, the general suggests he was Napoleon’s pageboy.
|Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) The red boy|
“– Why, did you say... began the prince, and paused in confusion. The general gazed at his host disdainfully. – Oh, go on, he said, finish your sentence, by all means. Say how odd it appears to you that a man fallen to such a depth of humiliation as I, can ever have been the actual eye-witness of great events.”
And the general gets embarked on a story more and more incredible, that the prince listens politely and even, when it is not too improbable, he kindly approves:
“– All this is most interesting, said the prince, very softly, if it really was so... that is, I mean... he hastened to correct himself.
– Oh, my dear prince, cried the general, who was now so intoxicated with his own narrative that he probably could not have pulled up at the most patent indiscretion...”
And this is what happens: the general tells how, at night, witness of tears of the emperor, he advised him to write a letter to Josephine, and how, when Napoleon left Moscow, he asked him to write something in the album of his little sister, aged three:
“– ... and he wrote in the album: ‘Ne mentez jamais! Napoléon, votre ami sincère.’ [Do never lie! Napoleon, your sincere friend]. Such advice, and at such a moment, you must allow, prince, was...
– Yes, quite so; very remarkable.”
Ivolgin suddenly stops:
“– How I have kept you, prince! It is really most unpardonable of me.The general rose.
“– Oh, not in the least, said the prince. On the contrary, I have been so much interested, I'm really very much obliged to you.
“– Prince, said the general, pressing his hand, and looking at him with flashing eyes, and an expression as though he were under the influence of a sudden thought which had come upon him with stunning force. Prince, you are so kind, so simple-minded, that sometimes I really feel sorry for you! I gaze at you with a feeling of real affection. Oh, Heaven bless you! May your life blossom and fructify in love. Mine is over. Forgive me, forgive me!”
The next day, in complete crisis, the general has left the house and wanders in the street. Kolya tries to reason with him, but the old man is somewhere else:
“– ‘Where is my youth, where is my golden youth?’ Who was it said that, Kolia?
– It was Gogol, in Dead Souls, father, cried Colia, glancing at him in some alarm.”
The general still evokes the past, the suffering he inflicted on his family. Kolya again:
“– Look here, dear old father, come back home! Let's go back to mother(...) Why are you crying, father? Poor Kolia cried himself, and kissed the old man's hands.
– You kiss my hands, mine?
– Yes, yes, yours, yours! What is there to surprise anyone in that? Come, come, you mustn't go on like this, crying in the middle of the road; and you a general too, a military man! Come, let's go back.”
But the general continues to speak in a strange way. On several occasions, probably inhabited by his Napoleonic story, he says: “the King of Rome.” Exhausted, he sits on the steps of a porch and pulls Kolya towards him:
“– Bend down, bend down your ear. I'll tell you all... disgrace... bend down, I'll tell you in your ear.
– What are you dreaming of? said poor, frightened Kolia, stooping down towards the old man, all the same.
– Le roi de Rome, whispered the general, trembling all over.
– What? What do you mean? What roi de Rome?
– I... I..., the general continued to whisper, clinging more and more tightly to the boy's shoulder. I... wish... Kolia broke loose, seized his father by the shoulders, and stared into his eyes with frenzied gaze. The old man had grown livid... his lips were shaking, convulsions were passing over his features. Suddenly he leant over and began to sink slowly into Kolia's arms.
– He's got a stroke! cried Colia, loudly, realizing what was the matter at last.”
And a few days later, the general passes over
The tender and painful affection that Kolya feels for his father, as well as the embarrassed and worried respect showed towards him by the prince, clearly show that kindness, generosity and ideal are hidden behind the lunacy and the eccentricities of the old man. After all, there is in him something of the child, the child he remained because he could not accommodate the adult world and its meanness.
Children love stories – to listen or to tell them –, filling up their memory and their heart of dreams, beauty and life. Dostoevsky wrote somewhere that drunkards are, of all people, “the nicest.” Maybe that the form of madness as evidenced by general Ivolgin belongs also to “nice” persons, dreamers, people wounded by life who think they are Napoleon...
Before pointing the finger or condemning the Ivolgins, the gentle mythomaniacs, let us look at our masks, our hypocrisy, our dishonest compromises with “dirty things” that give the appearance of “decent”.
(*) All quotations are from the English version of The Idiot, translated by Eva Martin, e-book on www.gutenberg.org