The Story of a Nobody is a profound and moving work of fiction, combining the political tensions of the day with a tale of deep poignancy and sorrow. With St Petersburg awash with extravagant, ...(more)
For reasons which it is not now the time to discuss in detail, it was necessary for me to become manservant to a certain official in St Petersburg by the name of Orlov. He was about thirty-five years old and was called Georgy Ivanych. I entered the service of this Orlov because of his father, the famous statesman, whom I considered a serious enemy of my cause. I reckoned that by living in the son's home, from the conversations I would hear and from the papers and notes I would find on the desk, I could study in detail the plans and intentions of the father. At about eleven o'clock in the morning the electric bell in the servants' hall would usually crackle to let me know that the master was awake. When I entered the bedroom with clean clothes and boots, Georgy Ivanych would be sitting motionless in bed, not so much still sleepy as wearied by his sleep, gazing into space and displaying no pleasure at having woken up. I helped him to dress, and he submitted to me grudgingly, silently, and without acknowledging my presence; then, with his head wet from washing, and smelling of fresh scent, he went to the dining room to have coffee. He sat at the table, drinking his coffee and leafing through the newspapers, while the housemaid, Polya, and I stood by the door watching him. Two adults were obliged to watch with the gravest attention while a third drank coffee and gnawed at rusks. In all probability this was silly and very odd, but I saw nothing humiliating for myself in having to stand by the door, although I was just as much an educated man and gentleman as Orlov himself. My consumptive illness was then just beginning, and with it something else too that was perhaps rather more important than consumption.
I do not know whether it was under the influence of the illness or of a change that, as yet unnoticed, was already under way in my outlook, but I was increasingly possessed from day to day by a passionate, nagging desire for the ordinary life of an ordinary person. I wanted peace of mind, health, good air, a full stomach. I was becoming a dreamer, and, like a dreamer, did not know what it was that I actually required. At times I wanted to retreat to a monastery, sit there for days on end by a window and gaze at the trees and fields; at other times I imagined myself buying a few acres of land and living like a country squire; at others I swore to myself that I would take up academic work and be sure to become a professor at some provincial university. I am a retired lieutenant of the Russian navy, and I dreamt of the sea, our squadron and the corvette on which I had sailed all around the world. I wanted to experience once more that inexpressible feeling when, while walking through a tropical forest or watching the sunset in the Bay of Bengal, you are transfixed in rapture, yet at the same time yearn for your homeland. I dreamt of mountains, women, music, and with curiosity, like a boy, I looked closely at people's faces and listened intently to their voices. And when I stood by the door watching Orlov drinking his coffee, I felt myself to be not a servant, but a man for whom everything in the world was of interest, even Orlov.
Orlov's looks were typical for St Petersburg: narrow shoulders, an elongated waist, sunken temples, eyes of indefinite colour, and meagre growth, sombrely tinted, on head, beard and moustache. His face was sleek, scrubbed and unpleasant. It was especially unpleasant when he was deep in thought or asleep. But there is no real need to describe commonplace looks; what is more, St Petersburg is not Spain, men's looks have no great significance here, even in matters of love, and only imposing servants and coachmen need them. I mentioned Orlov's face and hair merely because there was one thing worthy of comment in his looks: that is, whenever Orlov picked up a newspaper or a book, no matter what it was, or whenever he met people, no matter who they were, there would appear in his eyes an ironic smile, and his entire face would take on an expression of light, unmalicious mockery. Before reading or hearing anything, he would always have irony at the ready, like the shield of a savage. This was an habitual irony, long held, and it had recently begun to appear on his face without any participation of his will, as if, it seemed, by reflex action. But more on this later.
After midday, with an ironic expression, he would pick up his briefcase stuffed with papers and leave for the office. He dined out and returned after eight. I lit the lamp and the candles in the study and he sat down in his armchair, stretched his feet out onto another chair and, sprawling in this fashion, began reading. Almost every day he brought new books home with him or they would be sent from the shops, and in the servants' hall, in the corners and under my bed there lay a mass of books in three languages, not counting Russian, that had been read and discarded. He read with unusual speed. Tell me what you read, they say, and I will tell you who you are. That may be so, but to judge anything about Orlov from the books he read is absolutely impossible. It was just a mishmash. Philosophy and French novels, political economy and finance, new poets and cheap "Intermediary" editions - and he read everything equally quickly and always with that same ironic expression in his eyes. After ten he would dress carefully, often in a tailcoat, very rarely in the court uniform of a Gentleman of the Bedchamber and go out. He would return towards morning. We lived together quietly and peaceably and we had no misunderstandings. He did not usually notice my presence, and when he did speak to me there was no ironic expression on his face - he evidently did not consider me a person.
Only once did I see him angry. One day - it was a week after I entered his service - he returned from some dinner at about nine o'clock looking tired and pettish. When I followed him into the study to light the candles he said to me, "There's some sort of stink in the flat."
"No, the air is quite fresh," I replied.
"And I'm telling you there's a stink," he repeated irritably.
"I open the windows every day."
"Don't argue, you idiot!" he shouted.
I was offended and was about to protest, and God knows how it would have ended had Polya, who knew her master better than I, not intervened.
"It's true, what a horrible smell!" she said, raising her eyebrows. "Where can it be coming from? Stepan, open the windows in the drawing room and stoke up the fire."
She began to huff and puff and set off walking through all the rooms, rustling her skirts and hissing with an airspray. But Orlov was still in a bad mood; he was clearly restraining himself from raging out loud, sitting at his desk and writing a letter at speed. After writing a few lines he snorted angrily and tore the letter up, then began writing again.