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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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review 2015-12-16 13:13
The Bride Prize: Allan's Miscellany 1839 - Sandra Schwab

I really liked this novella. It was a historical romance that did not sacrifice the history for the romance. It was sweet and light without being too fluffy. And best of all, the MC were middle class and working class (artist) - no dukes or earls. 4 stars and I would recommend.

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review 2015-05-01 10:01
Unfortunate mix.
On the Auction Block (Slave of the Aristocracy Book 1) - Ashley Zacharias

This would have been great as a PWP. With the W standing for "with".


It had a lot of dub con/non con, bdsm, slavery and humiliation stuff. Not exactly my cup of tea.

But it was mostly well done (if you take it as a fantasy) and the writing was better than with most of those books.


What I didn't like and didn't understand was the mix of a novel plot into this sex fantasy.


It was confusing. Sometimes it read like a strange and not really well thought out SciFi novel with an alternative society. And then it was just about doing the dirty.


The writing was really not bad, but the characters were basically not there.


So, not a good mix for me.


Maybe I'd think differently if the kink was closer to my own :-)



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review 2014-05-08 18:30
Belle Epoque - Elizabeth Ross

I loved it!


Bell Epoque was a solid read all the way through. The setting and characters were well done. I love reading about books set in Paris. The subject matter was interesting and unsettling to say the least. To be a foil for the rich. To be plain and unattractive in the company of rich pretty women to illuminate their attributes.


I will re-read and suggest this book to all who will listen and become interested.

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text 2013-11-26 19:36
David Kidd
Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China - David Kidd,John Lanchester
All the Emperor's Horses - David Kidd

Dear David Bowie fans, yes indeed, these two titles are the same book. So if you're having trouble finding All The Emperor's Horses, try looking for Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China.

I loved this book! It's the true story of a very young American man living in China who marries into an aristocratic Chinese family shortly after the Maoist revolution. For generations the Yu family has been living a life of elegance and splendor in their mansion which is crammed with antiques and gardens. But the writing is on the wall that their customs, their money, and their ancestral home are all coming to the end. As an outsider/insider, David Kidd poignantly shows the end of a very long era. There were many funny and sad incidents, each so strange they could never have been imagined.

I'll give you one highlight from the book that takes place in the very beginning and is not very spoiler-y: David and his bride Aimee were eager to marry immediately, because her father was dying and after his death mourning custom would make them wait for a year. But the American consulate recognized neither Chinese civil marriages nor marriage ceremonies of any religion other than Christianity. However no Christian church in China was willing to sanction an interracial wedding. Not to mention that the bride's family only wanted a Chinese wedding. Luckily, the janitor at the consulate had a brother who was a Chinese Christian minister. Not only that, the minister could even say one sentence in English ("I am Reverend Joseph Feng.") Saved! One of David's friends who was present at their wedding was William Empson, the English poet and critic.

One thing that I really liked about this book was that it was NOT racist, which is what I would have expected from a 1960 memoir about 1940's China. I got a faint sense that David Kidd thought he was better than everyone else, but there are many possible reasons for that. To the extent that the story was about him and not what he observed going on around him, it was actually the story of an arrogant person who is humbled and changed. The edition I read had a preface by John Lanchester, which I thought was very appropriate because David Kidd reminded me of the protagonist of Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure--cultured, wry, more interested in beauty than a typical person is--not unhinged or murderous, though.

Since I first heard about this memoir through David Bowie's top 100 books list, I have to mention the most Bowie-esque part. At a party, one guest was "attired as a Mongolian princess, complete with oiled black hair encrusted with coral and turquoise, an arranged over a frame of what looked like horns." An English guest exclaims over the costume, and David Kidd informs him that it's no costume, she really is a Mongolian princess. Intrigued, the English guest asks the princess for a dance. "I hadn't the heart to tell him that the Mongolian princess was really a Mongolian prince."

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