The Eternal Husband

Back to back Russian stories; after finishing Petrushevskaya’s novellas I wanted to tap into the pure spring of darkness and despair, Dostoevsky. I’ve been chasing down this story for awhile- it’s been on my “To Read” list since I stumbled onto it from (I think?) a list of Hemingway’s must reads. It sat on my list so long that I’ve lost what respect I had for Ernest in the ensuing period after seeing him raked over the coals by Dwight MacDonald, but I digress. The Eternal Husband follows Velchaninov’s descent into near-madness after he ushers the husband (Pavlovitch) of his ex-lover (Natalya) into his Petersburg flat in the middle of the night, Pavlovitch drunkenly hesitating outside the door while Velchaninov flings it open to confront the man he’s spotted a few times in town. Natalya is dead, and upon her death Pavlovich has discovered the infidelity, which unfortunately had resulted in their 8 year old daughter, Liza. At her death Pav began tormenting Liza, bringing her to Petersburg and abandoning her as he drunkenly filled his evenings and threatened to kill himself. Velchaninov swoops in and rescues Liza, installing her at a wealthy family’s estate in the country with lots of children to keep her busy… only she succumbs to a fever on the first night and wastes away within days. Pavlovich is seemingly unconcerned, sending 300 rubles to cover the funeral and medical costs. There is some oddness, one drunk evening Pavlovich shows up and demands to be kissed by Velchaninov after he puts up two fingers like two horns on his bald forehead. “He was not, however, perfectly certain that he had kissed him.” Another night, Pavlovich stays over after relating a tale where one man who’s been bested becomes friends with his usurper only to knife him in the chest on his wedding day (as best man). Inexplicably, Pavlovitch demands that V accompany him to the villa of his future bride’s family, a 15 year old girl who clearly loathes Pavlovich and tosses his diamond bracelet back at him. (Pavlovich = 50 years old, Velchaninov = 39.) V goes in his best suit and charms everyone while P lurks and leers like a lecherous old man. V falls a tiny bit in love with the 15 year old, Nadya, and the whole group of youngsters play tricks on P until P & V leave after a heart-wrenching song by V to Nadya. This night, P stays over again at V’s and assists V when he’s attacked by a liver ailment, pressing hot plates to his chest to alleviate the pain. A few hours later, (and after declaring “I loved you. You did not notice it. I was too insignificant to let you see it.”) P attempts to kill V with a razor, but V wakes in time and wrestles it away. Pavlovich then leaves town and gives Velchaninov a letter from his wife that confirms that Liza was V’s daughter. Then, 2 years later, V runs into P on a train after assisting P’s new wife against harassment from ruffians on the train platform. V laughingly accepts her offer to stay a month with them, and then taunts P saying, what if I told your wife you tried to kill me? P refuses to shake hands with V, infuriating V: “If I – I hold out this hand to you,” showing the palm of his left hand, where a big scar from the cut was still visible, “you certainly might take it!” he whispered with pale and trembling lips.