Read an Excerpt
A Nasty Anecdote
This nasty anecdote occurred precisely at the time when, with such irrepressible force and such touchingly naive enthusiasm, the regeneration of our dear fatherland began, and its valiant sons were all striving toward new destinies and hopes. Then, one winter, on a clear and frosty evening, though it was already past eleven, three extremely re-spectable gentlemen were sitting in a comfortably and even luxuriously furnished room, in a fine two-storied house on the Petersburg side,1 and were taken up with a solid and excellent conversation on a quite curious subject. These three gentlemen were all three of general's rank.2 They were sitting around a small table, each in a fine, soft armchair, and as they conversed they were quietly and comfortably sipping champagne. The bottle was right there on the table in a silver bucket with ice. The thing was that the host, privy councillor Stepan Nikiforovich Nikiforov, an old bachelor of about sixty-five, was celebrating the housewarming of his newly purchased house, and, incidentally, his birthday, which happened to come along and which he had never celebrated before. However, the celebration was none too grand; as we have already seen, there were only two guests, both former colleagues of Mr. Nikiforov and his former subordinates, namely: actual state councillor Semyon Ivanovich Shipulenko and the other, also an actual state councillor, Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky. They came at around nine o'clock, had tea, then switched to wine, and knew that at exactly eleven-thirty they should go home. The host had liked regularity all his life. A couple of words about him: he began his career as a fortuneless petty clerk, quietly endured the drag for forty-five years on end, knew very well how far he would be promoted, could not bear having stars in his eyes, though he was already wearing two of them,3 and particularly disliked expressing his own personal opinion on any subject whatsoever. He was also honest, that is, he had never happened to do anything particularly dishonest; he was a bachelor because he was an egoist; he was far from stupid, but could not bear to display his intelligence; he particularly disliked sloppiness and rapturousness, which he considered moral sloppiness, and toward the end of his life sank entirely into some sweet, lazy comfort and systematic solitude. Though he himself sometimes visited people of the better sort, from his youth he could never bear to receive guests, and of late, when not playing patience, he was content with the company of his dining-room clock, imperturbably listening, as he dozed in his armchair, to its ticking under the glass dome on the mantelpiece. He was of extremely decent and clean-shaven appearance, looked younger than his years, was well preserved, promising to live a long time, and adhered to the strictest gentlemanliness. His post was rather comfortable: he sat somewhere and signed something. In short, he was considered a most excellent man. He had only one passion, or, better, one ardent desire: this was to own his own house, and precisely a grand house, not simply a solid one. His desire was finally realized: he picked out and purchased a house on the Petersburg side, far away, true, but the house had a garden, and was elegant besides. The new owner reasoned that far away was even better: he did not like receiving at home, and as for going to visit someone or to work--for that he had a fine two-place carriage of chocolate color, the coachman Mikhei, and two small but sturdy and handsome horses. All this had been duly acquired by forty years of painstaking economy, and so his heart rejoiced over it all. This was why, having acquired the house and moved into it, Stepan Nikiforovich felt such contentment in his peaceful heart that he even invited guests for his birthday, which before he used carefully to conceal from his closest acquaintances. He even had special designs on one of the invited. He himself occupied the upper story of the house, and he needed a tenant for the lower one, which was built and laid out in the same way. So Stepan Nikiforovich was counting on Semyon Ivanovich Shipulenko, and during the evening even twice turned the conversation to that subject. But Semyon Ivanovich kept silent in that regard. This was a man who had also had a long and difficult time cutting a path for himself, with black hair and side-whiskers and a permanently bilious tinge to his physiognomy. He was a married man, a gloomy homebody, kept his household in fear, served self-confidently, also knew very well what he would achieve and still better what he would never achieve, sat in a good post and sat very solidly. At the new ways that were beginning he looked, if not without bile, still with no special alarm: he was very confident of himself and listened not without mocking spite to Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky's expatiating on the new themes. However, they were all somewhat tipsy, so that even Stepan Nikiforovich himself condescended to Mr. Pralinsky and entered into a light dispute with him about the new ways. But a few words about His Excellency Mr. Pralinsky, the more so as he is the main hero of the forthcoming story.
Actual state councillor Ivan Ilyich Pralinsky had been called "Your Excellency" for only four months--in short, he was a young general. He was young in years, too, about forty-three, certainly not more, and in looks he appeared and liked to appear still younger. He was a tall, handsome man, who made a show of his dress and of the refined solidity of his dress, wore an important decoration on his neck4 with great skill, from childhood had managed to adopt a few high-society ways, and, being a bachelor, dreamed of a rich and even high-society bride. He dreamed of many other things as well, though he was far from stupid. At times he was a great talker and even liked to assume parliamentary poses. He came from a good family, was a general's son and a sybarite, in his tender childhood wore velvet and cambric, was educated in an aristocratic institution, and, though he did not come out of it with much learning, was successful in the service and even got himself as far as a generalship. His superiors considered him a capable man and even placed hopes in him. Stepan Nikiforovich, under whom he began and continued his service almost up to the generalship, never considered him a very practical man and did not place any hopes in him. But he liked that he was from a good family, had a fortune, that is, a big rental property with a manager, was related to some not-insignificant people, and, on top of that, carried himself well. Stepan Nikiforovich inwardly denounced him for surplus imagination and lightmindedness. Ivan Ilyich himself sometimes felt that he was too vain and even ticklish. Strangely, at times he was overcome by fits of some morbid conscientiousness and even a slight repentance for something. With bitterness and a secret sting in his soul, he sometimes admitted that he had not flown at all as high as he thought. In those moments he would even fall into some sort of despondency, especially when his hemorrhoids were acting up, called his life une existence manquee,5 ceased believing (privately, of course) even in his parliamentary abilities, calling himself a parleur, a phraseur,6 and though all this was, of course, very much to his credit, it in no way prevented him from raising his head again half an hour later, and with still greater obstinacy and presumption taking heart and assuring himself that he would still manage to show himself and would become not only a dignitary, but even a statesman whom Russia would long remember. At times he even imagined monuments. From this one can see that Ivan Ilyich aimed high, though he kept his vague hopes and dreams hidden deep in himself, even with a certain fear. In short, he was a kind man, and even a poet in his soul. In recent years, painful moments of disappointment had begun to visit him more often. He became somehow especially irritable, insecure, and was ready to consider any objection an offense. But the reviving Russia suddenly gave him great hopes. The generalship crowned them. He perked up; he raised his head. He suddenly started talking much and eloquently, talking on the newest topics, which he adopted extremely quickly and unexpectedly, to the point of fierceness. He sought occasions for talking, drove around town, and in many places managed to become known as a desperate liberal, which flattered him greatly. That evening, having drunk some four glasses, he got particularly carried away. He wanted to make Stepan Nikiforovich, whom he had not seen for a long time prior to that and till then had always respected and even obeyed, change his mind about everything. For some reason he considered him a retrograde and attacked him with extraordinary heat. Stepan Nikiforovich made almost no objections and only listened slyly, though the topic interested him. Ivan Ilyich was getting excited and in the heat of the imagined dispute sampled from his glass more often than he should have. Then Stepan Nikiforovich would take the bottle and top up his glass at once, which, for no apparent reason, suddenly began to offend Ivan Ilyich, the more so in that Semyon Ivanych Shipulenko, whom he particularly despised and, moreover, even feared on account of his cynicism and malice, was most perfidiously silent just beside him, and smiled more often than he should have. "They seem to take me for a mere boy," flashed in Ivan Ilyich's head.
"No, sir, it's time, it's long since time," he went on with passion. "We're too late, sir, and, in my view, humaneness is the first thing, humaneness with subordinates, remembering that they, too, are people. Humaneness will save everything and keep it afloat . . ."
1. The Neva River divides into three main branches as it flows into the Gulf of Finland, marking out the three main areas of the city of St. Petersburg. On the left bank of the Neva is the city center, between the Neva and the Little Neva is Vasilievsky Island, and between the Little Neva and the Nevka is the so-called "Petersburg side," which is thus some distance from the center.
2. These three gentlemen are all in the civil service, not the military. But civil service ranks had military equivalents, which were sometimes used in social address. The following is a list of the fourteen civil service ranks from highest to lowest, with their approximate military equivalents:
1. Chancellor Field Marshal 2. Actual Privy Councillor General 3. Actual State Councillor Major General 5. State Councillor Colonel 6. Collegiate Councillor Lieutenant Colonel 7. Court Councillor Major 8. Collegiate Assessor Captain 9. Titular Councillor Staff Captain 10. Collegiate Secretary Lieutenant 11. Secretary of Naval Constructions 12. Government Secretary Sub-lieutenant 13. Provincial Secretary 14. Collegiate Registrar
The rank of titular councillor conferred personal nobility; the rank of actual state councillor made it hereditary. Wives of officials shared their husbands' rank and were entitled to the same mode of address--"Your Honor," "Your Excellency," "Your Supreme Excellency." Mention of an official's rank automatically indicates the amount of deference he must be shown, and by whom.
3. The star was the decoration of a number of orders, among them the Polish-Russian Order of St. Stanislas (or Stanislav) and the Swedish Order of the North Star. 4. Certain Russian decorations had two degrees, being worn either on the breast or on a ribbon around the neck. 5. "Botched existence" or "failed life" (French). 6. "Talker" and "phrase-maker" (French).