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Amber Paulen

Funny Story

I’ve been busy. I’ve had a week of walking lovely visitors through Rome. Rome remains but the visitors have gone. Coming back to writing after a week away is like testing old-new shoes: it takes a day or two. Meanwhile, here’s a funny story out of The Idiot as told by General Ivolgin, a father and disgrace of his family. I’m in love with Dostoevsky’s sense of comedy; it excels far above anything contemporary—if even he too got it out of the Indépendence Belge.

“A stupid story, and briefly told,” the general began self-contentedly. “Two year ago, yes! or a bit less, just when the new —— railway line was opened, I (already in civilian dress), seeing to some extremely important matters to do with handing over my job, bought myself a first-class ticket: I got in, sat down, smoked. That is, I went on smoking, because I had lit up earlier. I was alone in the compartment. Smoking was not prohibited, but neither was it permitted; sort of half permitted, as usual; well, and depending on the person. The window’s open. Suddenly, just before the whistle, two ladies with a lapdog place themselves just opposite me; late-comers; one is most magnificently dressed in light blue; the other more modestly, in black silk with a pelerine. They’re not bad looking, have a haughty air, talk in English. I, of course, just sit there smoking. That is, I did have a thought, but nevertheless, since the window’s open, I go on smoking out the window. The dog reposes on the light blue lady’s lap, a little thing, the size of my fist, black with white paws—even a rarity. Silver collar with a motto. I just sit there. Only I notice that the ladies seem to be angry, about the cigar, of course. One glares through a lorgnette, tortoiseshell. Again I just sit there: because they don’t say anything! If they spoke, warned, asked—for there is, finally, such a thing a human speech! But they’re silent… suddenly—without any warning, I tell you, without the slightest warning, as if she’d taken leave of her senses—the light blue one snatches the cigar from my hand and throws it out the window. The train flies on, I stare like a half-wit. A wild woman; a wild woman, as if in a totally wild state; a hefty one, though, tall, full, blond, ruddy (even too much ruddy), her eyes flashing at me. Without saying a word, with extraordinary politeness, with the most perfect politeness, with the most, so to speak, refined politeness, I reach out for the dog with two fingers, take it delicately by the scruff of the neck, and whisk it out the window in the wake of my cigar! It let out a little squeal! The train goes flying on…”
The Idiot, Dostoevsky


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