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review 2017-07-06 18:20
'The Idiot' by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

Now that I’ve reached the end of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot (this edition translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky) I have begun to see it as the story of a man scandalized by a world that disappoints nearly every effort at goodness. A man, the prince and maybe the author, who, having ventured into the world, extended sympathy out to the people he saw but has been broken by them and retreated to a shell of conservatism and safety.

 

The (relatively brief) synopsis: A young man of the Russian aristocratic class, Prince Lev Nikoláevich Mýshkin, arrives in St. Petersberg after having been raised in Switzerland where he was treated for what we assume is epilepsy. It’s told that he has seizures and was an “idiot” as well, mute and developmentally challenged as a child from the sounds of it. Arriving back in Russia he becomes known for extending sympathy and withholding judgement and for this naivete the label follows him throughout the novel as a term of abuse. He encounters several groups of people his first day back that become the basis of his social circle in Russia. Among these, a rich merchant Rogózhin, who is bullish and immediate in pursuing his desires, the Epanchin family that serves as a sort of “straight man” (or family) tumbled about by these external forces, the Ívolgin family, and Nastásya Filíppovna, a beautiful young woman who has been sexually abused by an adopted father-figure and has grown to be a troubled figure who tends to sow chaos.

 

Driving the story along is a  tortured love triangle between the prince, Rogózhin and Nastásya Filíppovna, with Agláya Epanchin, the youngest and most beautiful of three Epanchin daughters, eventually being thrown into the mix.

 

This is all hardly a skeleton of this 610 page story and if I had one piece of advice to impart before reading this book it would be to remember that it was published serially and to view it more like a television series than today’s more plot-driven novels. Chapters, much like episodes, are little stories within themselves that involve our main characters but often do not move the main story arch forward, much like a sitcom that weaves tidbits of larger romantic plots into the self-contained 30 minute adventures.

 

So if you find yourself wondering how a 20 page reading of the suicide note of the prince's consumptive neighbor ties into these primary goals, it doesn’t really, but not everything has to. Much of it is a way to imagine the simple, kind prince into contemporary — for its time — debates and conversations, which can make it feel dated. But while the specifics have changed, the conversations never change that much: faith, government, sexual mores, frivolous lawsuits, and stab-happy rival suitors.

 

The prince handles himself well in many circumstances, though is often scoffed at for some reason not necessarily related to the argument. But stepping back now and taking the novel as a whole, especially the ending, the story leaves a rather bleak impression.

 

If you are one to read the introduction or footnotes you should be tipped off by the association between this book and “Christ’s Body in the Tomb,” a painting by Hans Holbein depicting a gruesomely realistic dead body about which the prince says, “A man could even lose his faith from that painting!” Dostoevsky seems interested in what it would take to do just that.

 

The sensitive characters of this story: the prince, Nastásya, even Aglya and Ippolit, get ground down by the world they encounter. It’s a world they wish to embrace but one that is full of awful people and acts, where goodness is nigh impossible. While those who thrive in this story are the savvy and amoral. They are practical folks like Iván Fyódorovich Epanchin or cynical like Gavríla Ardaliónovich, Lebedev and Evgény Pávlovich.

 

Rogózhin seems a special case to me, too sensitive to be practical but certainly not sympathetic. In the end, he too gets broken down but he recovers mentally if not financially. He lives in a passion for the now and these can bring him as far as the breaking point but he is not introspective and doesn't really care for others so he is not haunted by the deaths and misfortunes of others. Nastásya proves almost too much for him and drives him to a sort of ruin for him though he lives and even recovers his wits. He chases a desire, lets it consume him even to disaster, but he picks himself up, dusts off his shoulders and runs headlong into the next disaster.

 

I don’t know how soon I could read this again after the couple months I spent in this world, but I would be interested to. Dostoevsky uses many long monogoues broken up only with brief descriptions of tone or intention in the character that more often confused me than enlightened. I wouldn't be surprised if whole scenes turned on a new impression of how Aglaya, Varvára Ardaliónovich, Gavríla, and others spoke or bore themselves in these conversations if I were to read them again with foreknowledge and in a different mood. Were they mocking or playful, obtuse or merely cautioned.

 

Lizavéta Prokófyevna Epanchin (Aglaya’s mother) may be the most fascinating character to revisit as she is in so much of the book and may be the most dynamic character. Lizavéta is drawn strongly to the prince and seems fascinated by him, is dedicated to being his friend, but at times it seems she is ready to throw him over for his lack of social savvy and too forgiving nature. Aglaya too acts and speak in a way that confounded me often and as she became a love interest I wondered if her feelings was genuine or cruel or something else.

 

This confusion may stem from many things, the author’s intention, different understandings of the world over 100 years apart, but leading them is a narrator whose role wasn’t entirely clear. Dostoevsky, like Charles Dickins in A Christmas Carol, let the narrator fade in and out of the story and gave them unclear powers. The narrator is not a named character, but is self-aware. They break the fourth wall,  referencing what we know or can know and even expressing difficulty in describing characters or situations. They seem omniscient, recounting private goings on and the inner thoughts and motivations of various characters, but then at moments take up a voice and explain why they do or do not know the content of some conversation or event. One story came through some reliable gossips in town and seemed the most likely version of the story, another was recounted in testimony or written in a letter. At one point the narrator says they can’t know what was said in a private conversation though just pages before they write word-for-word a long private discussion between the prince and Nastásya.

 

It can frustrating in its inconsistency, but I’m being generous and will take for granted that Dostoevsky was using the uncertain narrator to heighten moments when other characters are kept in the dark. When our protagonist is trying to learn something, when the author wants to build tension for a reveal by leaking that something is coming but making you read through to discover what it is.

 

If you’re a fan of Russian literature I hardly need to encourage you to pick up a Dostoevsky novel but if you’re not I’m not sure this is the best introduction. The best I can offer is that it is very much of the 19th century, and if you enjoy society types such as Henry James, I think you’ll find much to like in The Idiot, only a lot more of it and perhaps a bit more philosophical. Don’t treat it as a race to the finish and allow that this novel could take a while. But overall expect a thought provoking and often moving story.

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text 2015-11-01 01:02
Great Short Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Ronald Francis Hingley

Great!

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text 2015-09-06 00:23
Notes from a Dead House: I've read 75 out of 336 pages.
Notes from a Dead House - Richard Pevear,Larissa Volokhonsky,Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is this month's Classic Club read. A fictionalized account of Dostoyevsky's imprisonment in Siberia.

 

So far, even though it jumps around a LOT, it makes sense. It is just like reading someone's journal.

 

I don't think I'll be able to keep straight who is who though. Russian names are my kryptonite.

 

And this new edition changes the title. The original title of most of the other editions is The House of the Dead, and I can't say I like the change. What kind of hubristic asses are the translators anyway?

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text 2014-04-20 12:53
I would suggest the print version over the audiobook
The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Simon Vance

I had wanted to read this book for the longest time. I loved the audiobook of “Crime and Punishment” and thought this would be as good. However, “The Idiot” was a bit disappointing. The reader was not as good and the number of Russian names and places were incomprehensible to my ear. In the printed edition, the names would have been more recognizable, so I recommend reading it, not listening to it.

The story is intricate and intense. The characters are not very likeable. They are pompous, devious and scheming all the time. They thrive on gossip and rumors. They are judgmental and cruel at times, and tend to angry outbursts and sometimes violence. They seem eccentric, unhappy and unfulfilled, disloyal, often rudely arrogant and completely untrustworthy. The upper class is viewed negatively, as shallow and conniving, rarely loyal and mostly self-serving.

The main character, Prince Myshkin is supposedly an Idiot. He calls himself that, however, he seems to have more common sense at times, than all the other characters. He suffers from epilepsy, and as a result, his education was limited, yet he seems to think more logically, in his innocence, than many of those he encounters throughout the book.  He is easily admired because of his honesty, even as they laugh at his simplicity or naïveté. Each of the characters is a contrarian, taking the opposite point of view than the one prevailing in their conversations. They seem to enjoy the banter. They constantly contradict each other’s judgment so that what you think is happening is generally not exactly what does occur.  The say one thing, mean another. Myshkin’s naive remarks invariably cause havoc and/or inspire respect. Many of the characters accuse each other of being mad. Prince Myshkin, who is supposedly the least sane, is perhaps the sanest of all until the very end when the severe emotional trauma of certain events causes what may be irreversible damage to his psyche.

There are some nasty references to Jews which I found disheartening, but I believe it was because of the time in which the book was written. Many books portrayed Jews negatively. (I wonder if Jews, like the blacks and now the American Indians have done, should lobby to alter the wording in these offensive books.) Jews were definitely not thought well of in the few places they are mentioned, and they were presented stereotypically in the view of the prevailing times.

Myshkin meets a stranger, Rogozhin, on the train taking him to Russia, and from that moment, his life takes an ultimately tragic turn. Both men become involved with the same woman, Nastasya Filippovna, a beautiful but flighty woman of changeable, perhaps demented, mind. Both men love her, one in a romantic way while the other believes he loves her because he pities her. Myshkin is in and out of another romantic relationship, with Aglaya. He, like Nastasya, has issues with being faithful and true to those to whom they pledge themselves. He is almost the comic foil; he can’t win for losing. He is the most compassionate and trustworthy, but his judgment is faulty and immature. He lacks he reason to truly think through the consequences of his actions; although he analyzes the situations he is in quite logically, he makes illogical conclusions.

Myshkin is the subject of what starts out as elaborate deceptions and schemes and then become reality. He is always somewhat of a victim and a hero, at the same time. There are so many ridiculous explanations and assumptions that the truth is elusive; facts are not facts, rumors take on a life of their own, the pomposity of the elite class is irritating. They are all responsible for their own failures and disasters. Their own behavior brings them down and they move each other around like pawns in a game of chess.
The book is brilliant but it should be read, not listened to so that the characters are more easily identified by name recognition. Sometimes the reader’s interpretation was frantic with emotion and often the dialogue seemed too long. At times I felt as confused as Myshkin, however, the author examines the minds of his characters in great detail and with enormous depth so that I was able to get to know Myshkin.

All for the love of the woman Nastasya Filippovna, Myshkin and Rogozhin ultimately destroy themselves and the woman. There are so many betrayals; brides and grooms are left at the altar, and often mental incompetence is almost presented as the norm. It is as if what we call sanity is unattainable or non existent.

It was not until the very last part of the book that it all began to fall into place for me which is probably the mark of the exceptionality of this book. This great author was able to hold my attention, guide me through my confusion and finally allow me to reach the end without having thrown up my hands in despair and frustration!

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review 2014-03-24 03:09
Considered One of the Greatest Novels for Good Reason
The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky,Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear

On the surface this novel could be read as a psychological thriller, family drama, and murder mystery--with enough of a twist to satisfy an Agatha Christie fan. It's rather beside the point though, and the reveal is hardly the climax of the book. This is after all one of the most celebrated works of not just Russian, but world literature, one of the candidates for greatest novel ever written. My introduction to Dostoyevsky was an excerpt from this novel, the chapter "The Grand Inquisitor." And not in a literature course, but a philosophy course, where it was used to raise issues about the nature of God and the problem of evil. It's the speech of (and a story by) the atheist Ivan Karamazov he tells to his devout brother Aloysha. And to give Dostoyevsky his due, he props up no straw man--it's a powerful indictment of God.

Not that I always appreciated the religious-themed passages. My Dostoyesky could go on and on... Those of you who complained about the speechifying in the novels by Russian-born Ayn Rand? The similarities in style are no accident--she was a fan of Dostoyevsky--certainly not of his philosophy, to which she was diametrically opposed, but of the way he wove such themes into plot and character. Sometimes I felt preached at in this novel--I particularly found the chapter on the sainted Zossima's teachings an unbearable slog, and by midpoint I decided to skip the rest of that chapter. Maybe some day I'll go back, but I rather doubt it. But believe me, that was the only part I skipped or wanted to skip. The eldest brother Mitya sometimes came across as too-stupid-to-live and the youngest Aloysha too goodie-goodie. And every female character was a drama queen--not that the men fare much better. But as long as the focus was on the brothers and their relationships with each other and their odious father, I was riveted. And certainly each of them were more engaging to follow through hundreds of pages than Raskolnikov, the monomaniacal and repulsive center of Dostoyevsky's <i>Crime and Punishment.</i> Certainly I'd be much more likely to read more of Doestoyevsky than Tolstoy, whose <i>War and Peace</i> bored me to tears (although I did rather relish <i>Anna Karinina.</i>) I do absolutely think <i>The Brothers Karamazov</i> lives up to its reputation as one of those great works everyone would learn a lot from being acquainted with--and an engrossing story as well.

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