Some meandering thoughts, on reading the Constance Garnett translation of Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.
Before setting down my account of the strange and disturbing events which have afflicted our provincial district, till late wrapped in obscurity, I find myself obliged, lacking any literary skill, to attempt some description of a figure notable in our midst, widely esteemed, not to say renowned, for his wisdom, foresight, and imagination, to say nothing of his magnetic personal charisma. Alexander Pfeffelsky’s meteoric rise to prominence within our community has been little short of miraculous. It may even be said to belie any property of credibility, or discourage any tendency to credulousness. Of course to claim he came from humble origins would be misleading, or ingenuous, or indeed, disingenuous. His early life afforded him great opportunity, of which it may be said he took full advantage. He was educated privately (the English call this sort of education “public” for reasons which remain mysterious), in the best schools and university colleges, where he read “Greats”. Or was it “Schools”? At any rate he became adept at construing passages from the literature of dead languages, and developed a fondness for peppering his talk with classical quotation and allusion. This no doubt contributed to his wholly deserved reputation for cleverness, nay, brilliance. But if “brilliant” smacks of “brilliantine”, I mustn’t seem to imply that he flaunted his intellect in a meretricious way. His erudition was, and is, for the most part, silent and deep.
After he came down, he moved to London and devoted his professional time to the world of letters. It would perhaps be nearer the truth to say he became a journalist, but in no sense could he be considered to be a “hack”. He wrote for the most reputable broadsheets. He frequently sent despatches from Brussels, where he developed a tone described as “Eurosceptic”. There is a story, apocryphal I doubt not, that he once drew up a balance sheet listing the advantages and disadvantages of England’s remaining within the Continental trade bloc, much as a school fellow might take sides, in a random way, in an exercise for the Literary & Debating Society. The charge of “populism”, that his primary motivation was to enlarge circulation by playing to the gallery of “Little England”, rather than to express the considered view born of a profound political and philosophical conviction, is quite misplaced. His desires, his credo, his inner light and his moral compass were of the loftiest. An occasional tendency to economic terminological slovenliness can be put down to an enthusiasm to communicate a burning conviction, even if, on at least one occasion, his superior in the Fourth Estate took a different view and – well, not to beat about the bush nor put too fine a point on it – sacked him. Not that he was in the least discouraged by this set back. A great hero of his and a statesman of a previous generation, Sir Winston Churchill, once said that success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. And it may well be said that Alexander Pfeffelsky lived up to that high ideal.
Of course public life was always his goal. He entered Parliament at the dawn of the new Millennium and spent seven years learning his craft. He adopted the role, so to say, of “one nation conservative”, much like Disraeli, and became absorbed in the part. Not that I suggest for a moment that the part was assumed, theatrical, an affectation. God forbid. Then he ran, successfully, for the London mayoralty, serving two terms in that role. Midway through this period he oversaw the presentation of a Greek pageant on the grand scale, in which youths of great beauty, representing Hope and Aspiration, competed in a specially designed and constructed Olympian arena. A ceremony redolent with allegorical significance paid great homage to that which might be considered by some a Sacred Cow, that envy of the world, the national endeavour to maintain the health and wellbeing of the populace, from the humblest serf to the noblest aristocrat. Upon this unfolding spectacle, it is even said that the Monarch – it beggars belief – descended by parachute from a hovering helicopter, trailing a union flag. The Chinese delegates, who four years previously had put on their own dazzling, indeed unsurpassable display, found this to be incomprehensible. But of course irony is, for the English, the Great Private Quip.
Alexander Pfeffelsky returned to Parliament in 2016. His ascent to even further prominence was rapid. For two years he served as the nation’s major diplomat on the world stage. The great European leaders were amazed, not to say flabbergasted, by his flair and aplomb. Impatient at the slow pace of the nation’s detachment from Europe, he resigned from the government. His detractors were quick to say that he was merely positioning himself for a Quixotic tilt at the highest echelon of power, but I would insist his actions never emanated from any base self-regard, greed for power and influence, or anything other than the most exalted principles.
At long last he embarked on the glory years of the premiership. Much was to beset him. His greatest challenge was, and remains, the worldwide pestilence. His critics will say he was very slow to respond to the threat, but why should somebody steeped in the classics pay heed to our Men of Science? I will not reawaken painful memoires of a dark time which, if I said it affected him on a personal level, would be to understate the case. There is a macabre Gothic story, written by an American of the nineteenth century, born in New York, as indeed was our hero, concerning one Prince Prospero, who, while the plague devastated the land around him, was minded to lower the portcullis, pull up the drawbridge, and hold a big party, in his apartments, for his knights. This party, which is described in exquisite and agonizing detail, was attended by buffoons and improvisatori. Prince Prospero may have wished that it had never happened, but the description remains there; it looks like a party, it sounds like a party, it smells like a party…
Alexander Pfeffelsky continues to be hounded by charges of elitism, cronyism, falsification of the facts, and systemic corruption. Yet he retains a remarkable ability, on a personal level, to survive and prosper, even when all around him collapses in turmoil, chaos, and decay. Despite everything, he retains a warm place in the nation’s affection, proof of his gentleness of spirit and profound generosity of heart.