The novel teems with highly individual characters, vividly brought to life. From the young footman, Louison, who finds himself involved in one of Kamensky’s deceptions, to the surgeon, Professor Saint-Gratien, who attends to the Count at the hotel and is responsible for Kamensky’s unexpected appearance there, each has a specific thread to weave into the complicated tapestry of events; each might be quite innocent or part of the conspiracy.
The book is dominated by the huge, imposing, tormented figure of Count Diakonov. A character of Old Testament proportions, he would have been altogether too weighty and portentous if the author had not provided the counterbalance of Laura, who consistently brings him down to earth with her wide-eyed practicalities and Alice-in-Wonderland sense of the absurd.
The Count is a fanatical devotee of the Russian Orthodox Church and of the Czar, whom he reveres as God’s representative on earth. His banishment is therefore more than a matter of physical displacement; it is a kind of excommunication. When he is dying, however (before he comes to a Job-like conciliation with his God), what hurts him most is his betrayal by the man he believed to be his only friend in a hostile world. For Chubinov, too, who had idolized Gorin as mentor and leader, the personal betrayal is more wounding than the betrayal of the cause.
Chubinov’s character is embedded in the traditions of Russian literature: the guilt-ridden young aristocrat who eschews...
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