This was a person or, more accurately speaking, a Russian gentleman of a particular kind, no longer young, qui faisait la cinquantaine, as the French say, with rather long, still thick, dark hair, slightly streaked with grey and a small pointed beard. He was wearing a brownish reefer jacket, rather shabby, evidently made by a good tailor though, and of a fashion at least three years old, that had been discarded by smart and well-to-do people for the last two years. His linen and his long scarf-like neck-tie were all such as are worn by people who aim at being stylish, but on closer inspection his linen was not overclean and his wide scarf was very threadbare. The visitor’s check trousers were of excellent cut, but were too light in colour and too tight for the present fashion. His soft fluffy white hat was out of keeping with the season.
In brief there was every appearance of gentility on straitened means. It looked as though the gentleman belonged to that class of idle landowners who used to flourish in the times of serfdom. He had unmistakably been, at some time, in good and fashionable society, had once had good connections, had possibly preserved them indeed, but, after a gay youth, becoming gradually impoverished on the abolition of serfdom, he had sunk into the position of a poor relation of the best class, wandering from one good old friend to another and received by them for his companionable and accommodating disposition and as being, after all, a gentleman who could be asked to sit down with anyone, though, of course, not in a place of honour. Such gentlemen of accommodating temper and dependent position, who can tell a story, take a hand at cards, and who have a distinct aversion for any duties that may be forced upon them, are usually solitary creatures, either bachelors or widowers. Sometimes they have children, but if so, the children are always being brought up at a distance, at some aunt’s, to whom these gentlemen never allude in good society, seeming ashamed of the relationship. They gradually lose sight of their children altogether, though at intervals they receive a birthday or Christmas letter from them and sometimes even answer it.
The countenance of the unexpected visitor was not so much good-natured, as accommodating and ready to assume any amiable expression as occasion might arise. He had no watch, but he had a tortoise-shell lorgnette on a black ribbon. On the middle finger of his right hand was a massive gold ring with a cheap opal stone in it.
This is Ivan’s devil, who may or may not be a figment of Ivan’s fevered imagination. He’s an extremely ordinary fellow! He doesn’t have the decency to wear horns and a cloak, like a devil should. He’s shabby, and dull and embarrassing. Ivan hates him with a passion, he represents everything Ivan despises – everything within himself he hates, facets of his boorish father and elements of Russian society that Ivan disdains. Ivan calls him stupid and foolish, which is the worst thing a person could be, to Ivan. And yet his devil is not stupid at all. He’s extremely clever, of course, because he’s part of Ivan, he shares Ivan’s brilliance. He’s articulate, even witty, and it’s obvious that Ivan has a strange delight in talking to him – in testing him and trying to catch him out, in trying to untangle his devilish riddles. Ivan has met his match, and it is piquant to him, it pierces him almost to madness. He’s sure this devil has the answers to all of his questions, all of the questions that won’t let him rest. It’s such a strange, nightmarish, beautiful passage. The devil has Ivan tied in desperate knots, trying to understand if he is real, or merely a figment, and in the end, it seems he’s both. “Yet such dreams are sometimes seen not by writers, but by the most ordinary people, officials, journalists, priests…. The subject is a complete enigma. A statesman confessed to me, indeed, that all his best ideas came to him when he was asleep. Well, that’s how it is now, though I am your hallucination, yet just as in a nightmare, I say original things which had not entered your head before. So I don’t repeat your ideas, yet I am only your nightmare, nothing more.” In an odd way, it makes you understand and love Ivan better. He’s depressed, and he’s not sure why, but you know that he feels love as well, which is something he would deny, and that he’s almost frantcially hopeful despite his cynicism. I wonder what my devil would be like, made up of all of the parts of myself and the world around me that I hate and fear. Maddeningly ordinary, no doubt, but very dull as well. Probably better not to think about it!This bread was very nice, I thought! Subtle. It has walnuts and oats, both toasted, but they’re ground to a fine crumbly consistency, so they don’t overwhelm the bread. It’s got a touch of honey, a touch of black pepper, so it’s a little sweet and a little spicy. Very good with soup, very good toasted the next day with cinnamon sugar, and lovely made into savory french toast, which I’ll tell you about another time.
Here’s Andrew Manze playing Tartini’s Devil’s Sonata.