This is the first major novel D wrote after returning from exile. I read a rather strange translation – it’s by Ignat Avsey, and he’s titled it Humiliated and Insulted. I’ve gone with Frank’s translation to title this blog. As far as the translation goes, this was the only one I could find in English that wasn’t out of print. It has a bit the feel of a vanity publication, or perhaps like Walter Kauffman’s Nietzsche – some intrusive footnotes and appendix material that somewhat sullies the translation itself. To wit – “By the standard I am now applying, Humiliated and Insulted becomes his all-time number one, then … The Double,… Brevity is the soul of wit. However, my enthusiasm for Dostoevsky-lite does not mean I am siding with the relatively small but highly eminent coterie of his detractors” (Avsey 389). Somewhat bizarre and idiosyncratic. Why would such a translator be drawn to Dostoevsky? [That’s a joke]
The novel itself is told in the first person, by Ivan Petrovich (nicknamed Vanya). For D,s he’s a semiautobiographical figure: a moderately successful young novelist whose work has just started to gain societal notoriety. In fact, at numerous points, other characters make ironical comments about a novel that sounds like Poor Folk. An orphan, Vanya was raised by his adoptive parents Nikolai Sergeich and Anna Andreyevna Ikhmenev, along with their actual daughter, Natasha Nikolayevna. The family has a somewhat complicated back-story, involving some strange business dealings with one Prince Valkovsky, the novel’s evil antagonist. The Prince paid the Ikhmenevs to act as custodians for a country estate of his, but as their daughter Natasha came of age, she and the Prince’s son, Alexei Petrovich, fell in love. The Prince had other ideas for his son’s spouse (he wants to marry him off to the daughter of a countess, so that he can fleece both of them). This led the prince to accuse the Ikhmenevs of scheming to steal his wealth through Natasha, and the families end up in protracted legal action that hangs over the plot of the novel. This also leads Mr. Ikhmenev to disown his daughter, whom he blames for all his misfortunes.
Vanya, the narrator is also desperately in love with Natasha himself. One of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the extent to which Ivan goes to sublimate his impossible love for Natasha into a sort of masochistic advocacy for her interests in her own impossible love for Alexei. I found it both unlikely and at the same time totally realistic – it’s never directly explained in his narration, but it really seems like the sort of thing the “romantic type” he is would do, and wouldn’t really be all that self-aware about.
But the novel really starts when Vanya becomes obsessed with the sight of a speechless old man, Smith, who frequents a local coffee shop. Every day, the man comes to the coffee shop and sits there, totally dejected and non-responsive, along with his similarly dejected and non-responsive dog Azorka. The old man suddenly dies, right in front of all the regular patrons; the dog dies soon afterward. Through a strange sequence of events, Vanya comes to be living in his old apartment. Eventually the old man’s 12-year-old granddaughter, Yelena Lenochka, comes looking for him and discovers that he’s dead. She starts living with Vanya, and though she is very proud and refuses almost all help, eventually accepts his kindness and starts living there.
There’s an investigator, one Masloboyev, a university friend of Vanya’s, who turns up and shows an unlikely amount of interest in Yelena’s history. Now – maybe it’s just because I’ve read so many stories of this type before, but I nearly immediately deduced that Yelena was somehow related to the Prince. In fact, in the final pages of the book, it’s revealed officially that she’s an illegitimate daughter of his, and that the Prince himself had ruined her own mother, and though her mother had always been in a position to embarrass and destroy this Prince for his wickedness, she never did. Eventually the Prince’s son Alexei falls for Katya, the spouse the prince intended for him, and Natasha is left hopeless and crushed. Once Vanya learns Yelena’s story, he has her tell it to Ikhmenev, who is finally overcome with emotion and decides to take back his own daughter Natasha, lest she eventually come to ruin like Yelena’s mother was because of the prince.
The details of the plot were actually somewhat tedious, and I found myself, at several times in the book, having trouble motivating myself to trudge onward. The relationship between Natasha and Alexei, for example, goes through so many reversals of fortune that you start to wonder why you should care about it.
But superimposed on top of what seems essentially to me to be a retelling of D’s first novel Poor Folk, but this time not in epistolary fashion, there is something much more interesting and disturbing going on. There are several occasions throughout this book where a certain kind of existential dread about all of these people and their lives makes them all at once seem like archetypes meant to speak at a higher level about our collective moral fate. It’s only an inchoate sense, from time to time – certainly D would succeed much more thoroughly in highlighting this sense, especially in Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, but it’s still there. Two aspects of the story presage things to come:
1 – “Mystical Terror” – The novel begins with a quite long set-piece detailing Yelena’s grandfather’s disconnection, obliviousness and eventual death at the coffee-shop. Towards the end of this account, after Vanya moves into the old man’s apartment, he writes that
Whether it was because of my nervous disorder, or the impressions my new dwelling made on me, or my recent dejection, at the first approach of dusk I would gradually, almost imperceptibly, enter that spiritual state (so familiar to me now at night-time in my illness), which I call mystical terror. It is a most dreadful, agonizing fear of something I cannot define, something unfathomable and non-existent in the normal course of events, but which may at any given moment materialized and confront me as an unquestionable, terrible, ghastly and implacable reality, making a mockery of all evidence of reason. This fear, totally confounding all rationalization, normally increased inexorably, so that in the end the mind – which oddly enough on such occasions can function with particular lucidity – nevertheless loses all capacity to counteract the senses. It becomes unresponsive and impotent, and the resulting dichotomy only heightens the fearful agony of suspense. It seems to me that something similar must be experienced by those who suffer from necrophobia (Avsey 51-52).
In short, the death of the old man seems somehow to place Vanya into a state not unlike what the old man appeared to have been in prior to his death. The above paragraph does not figure prominently in the rest of the novel, but it did feel as though it was hovering over the narrative nonetheless – like an un-cashed-in thought to be made more explicit in later novels perhaps.
Later, when Yelena shows up at Vanya’s door, he reports that
there was something besides pity in my feelings towards her. Whether it was the mysteriousness of the circumstances, or the impression that Smith had left on me, or my own whimsical mood – I just don’t know, but something drew me irresistibly to her. My words seemed to touch a chord in her; she looked at me strangely, not harshly any more, but mildly and steadily; then she looked down again as if lost in thought (112).
Again – there’s just the suggestion of something spiritually disturbing, something that both characters have in common – but that suggestion is not fully developed beyond passing comments like these.
2 – The Amoral Antagonist – In one of the most gripping of all the scenes in this book, the Prince meets Vanya and somehow convinces him to dine with him at a favorite restaurant of his. Vanya reluctantly accepts this invitation, and listens in horror as the Prince confesses to the most depraved sort of sexual and financial opportunism, especially regarding his son Alexei, Natasha and Katya. It’s a long and rambling speech that’s equal parts Falstaff, Iago and the Marquis de Sade. But above all the nihilistic (yet engrossing) rhetoric of the prince, what I found most captivating was the setting:
We arrived. The Prince took a private room, and with taste and discernment, chosen two or three dishes from the menu. They were expensive, as was the bottle of a fine table wine that he ordered. It was all more than I could afford. (240-241).
It’s really as simple as could be – a private room at an expensive restaurant, a spread of opulent food and drink laid over the table – really a stage-direction indicating required scenery as much as anything else. But upon starting this chapter, my mind ranged over my memories of The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan delivers his fabled “grand inquisitor” monologue in just such a setting; Dmitri enjoys a “spree” of a similar nature on the night after his father’s murder.
The prince goes on to lay out, both in all its horror and all his perceptiveness, his nihilistic rejection of both social convention and moral norms. He brags of his sexual exploits, especially with a lapsed novice nun, his manipulative financial dealings, and his intent to ruin the lives of those who deny him the sort of pleasure he has come to expect. Among that speech’s highlights:
His condemnation of Vanya’s literary romanticism and his pathetic love for Natasha:
…like some kind of a Schiller you now torment yourself on the lovers’ behalf, and offer them your assistance almost to the point of being their errand boy… I’m very sorry, my dear chap, but this really is a rather nauseating travesty of magnanimity… It’s a wonder you don’t get tired of the whole thing, honestly! The indignity of it. If I were in your shoes, I think I’d have died of misery, but it’s the humiliation, the sheer ignominy of it all! (245)
His reduction of morality to a dishonest charade necessary for our collective comfort:
You know, my poet, I want to let you in on one of nature’s secrets, which has probably escaped you altogether so far… if it could come about that each of us were to describe his innermost secrets – secrets which one would hesitate and fear to tell not only to people at large, but even to one’s closest friends, nay, fear to admit even to one’s self – the world would be filled with such a stench that each one of us would choke to death. That’s why, speaking in parenthesis, all our social conventions and niceties are so beneficial There is much profound wisdom in them, I won’t say moral, but simply cautionary, comforting, which of course is all for the better, because in essence morality is comfort – that is, has been devised solely for comfort… (250)
His strange comparison of himself to a Parisian flasher:
“You’re a poet, you’re bound to understand me, something I already pointed out to you anyway. There’s a peculiar gratification to be derived from the sudden tearing-down of a mask, from the cynicism of not even deigning to betray any sense of shame in suddenly exposing oneself to another indecently… To look at he was just like anyone else, a man in a large cloak strolling for his pleasure. But no sooner would he see some lone passer-by ahead with no one else about than he’d walk straight towards him, with the most serious and profound expression on his face, stop in front of him suddenly, fling his cloak open and expose himself in all his… glory. He’d stand for about a minute in silence, then cover himself up again and, keeping a straight face and with perfect composure, glide past the thunderstruck observer regally, like the ghost in Hamlet.”
“Well, he was mad, whereas…”
The prince roared with laughter (251).
Even his ubermench-ish affirmation of a starkly post-moral hedonism:
“Ah, you call that bestiality – a sure sign you’re still a mere babe, a tiro. Of course, I admit, independence can assume radically different… but, let us keep things in perspective, mon ami…you must agree, this is all nonsense.”
“Everything except one’s personality, one’s own self. All’s for the taking, and the world’s my oyster. Listen, my friend, I still believe one can have a good time in this world. And that’s the best thing to believe in, because otherwise one couldn’t even have a bad time- there’d be nothing left but to poison oneself… love they own self – that’s one rule I recognize. Life’s just a business transaction. Don’t throw your money about needlessly, but pay your way if you wish, and you’ll fulfill all your obligations towards your fellow man…” (254)
The prince’s speech jumps out of the book – it feels outsized considering the somewhat ordinary aspects of the rest of the plot – but it’s compelling nonetheless. It’s a sort of foil to both Vanya’s romantic-artistic sensibility and also to Katya’s and Alexei’s inane intellectual social circle.
Only later, it seems, would D fully develop the interaction between bourgeois city life, irresponsible radicalism and crass aristocratic absolutism. But the elements are all here, almost 20 years before The Brothers Karamazov. Frank says The Insulted and Injured is the weakest of Dostoevsky’s 6 major post-exile novels. I haven’t read all of them, but I’m inclined to agree. This is sort of half melodramatic Pseudo-Dickensian social novel and half something else.