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.
So, as I'm not very good at sticking to my guns I thought I would try something different this month. When it comes to classics, non-fiction and German books I am always daunted by the prospect of reading them, although there are so many that I want to read. The trouble is I always think that they are going to be hard work which mostly they aren't, at least not when you get into them. As I always find the first few pages slow going I quite often get distracted by contemporary fiction. I'm generally a mood reader and it is easy to distract me. So I have decided to plan my 'set' genres and leave my just-for-fun open. I don't know it if will work but I have chosen 'Orange is the New Black' as my non-fiction, which I started last month; Crime and Punishment as my classic, the pretty cover lured me in; and AchtNacht for my German book, the new thriller from Sebastian Fitzek. So far so good, I've made inroads into all but Crime and Punishment and I am liking them so far. We'll see what happens.
One of the things that I have come to see that is a key ingredient of succeeding, not just in the modern world, but pretty much everywhere, is to be able to interact and socialise. The thing is that you could be one of the most brilliant minds out there but unless you are able to sell yourself, and your ideas, then unfortunately you probably aren't going to get anywhere. Sure, there are people out there who manage to get a 'lucky break' (and I believe Einstein was one of them) but the reality is that if you spend your life waiting for that break, you are probably never going to ever get it. In fact, you'll probably simply end up being little more than a footnote in history, though I have to admit that considering all of the people that have ever lived, more likely than not we are all going to be footnotes.
Anyway, the story is about a bureaucrat in the Russian Bureaucracy who is mid-ranking, but not so high up that he would be considered, or even welcomed into, the nobility (according to Wikipedia he is a titular counciler, which is rank 9 on the table of ranks). Looking at the tables it certainly seems that he isn't low ranking, but then again I would hardly call him high ranking either – it seems that he is at one of those ranks which provide a comfortable living, but not really have all that much infuence. The problem is that our hero is a bit of an anti-social character, but the doctor prescribes the solution of going to a party, however he ends up going to the wrong party, and after making an idiot of himself, gets kicked out. Actually, this almost sounds like the type of advise a clueless psychologist would offer.
This is where the bulk of the novel starts because on the way home he meets somebody who sort of looks like him, but is much younger, and much more dashing, than he is, to the point that everybody likes him, and our hero eventually goes insane and is dragged off to the mental asylum. This is the thing about new people, especially dashing and popular new people – they have the ability to take the attention away from us, and this has the effect of making us really, really jeolous. In fact I have known people who will work their way into the lives of new people, and either cosy up to them, or become a toxic leach, and they usually do this because, well, are are pretty insecure in and of themselves and are basically preventing themselves from having these dashing individuals come in and undermine their position (though of course their positions are generally all in their heads anyway).
It is interesting that Dostoyevski uses the idea of the double, or the Doppleganger, in this book, because the idea is that this person comes in and takes your place. This isn't the demonic creature, that basically kills you and then infiltrates your circle of friends, but rather a dark, rather human, aspect – it is the fear of becoming obsolete. In a way our protagonist sees a lot of himself in his double – maybe this is what he was like when he was much younger, but as he grows older, and his life begins to stagnate, this younger version of himself is coming into his life to take it away from him. Yet it is even more horrific when it seems that all of our friends are turning from us to this new person, yet we don't trust this new person – it is not that he is doing anything bad, it is just that our perception is that this person is dangerous, and we want everybody to see how dangerous this person actually is. The catch is that sometimes we might be right, otherwise we might be dead wrong.
Yet maybe it is just that psychological fear within us – is it the case that the older we get the more anti-social we become, or does it have more to do with the fact that the older we become, the more people we encounter that are not all that pleasant. In a way the more people that hurt us, the less trustworthy of people we become, and while it is all well and good to say that we should treat everybody like a blank slate, sometimes it isn't the easiest of things to do, especially if you are working in a position, such as a ticket inspector on public transport, that tends to bring out the worst in people. In fact, sometimes I wonder whether a ticket inspector would actually admit to people that they are ticket inspectors, or whether they just say that they work for the public transport authority in customer service?
Yet, it is one of those roles that seems to bring out the worst the people, that seems to attract the wrath and aggression of the community around you. Sure, that may also be the case with politicians, yet the thing is that they have this ability to be able to shield themselves from the world – the thing with most, if not all, politicians is that around half of the electorate didn't vote for them, and half of the electorate really doesn't like them. Is it also the case with police officers, but I'm sure there are countless numbers of occupations out there where all you tend to get is criticism as opposed to thanks and gratitude.
This, unfortunately, has its ability to wear one's character down, so no wonder our hero becomes ever more cynical and anti-social. In a way he is jealous of his double, namely because he does see himself in him, yet doesn't know how to break out of his own shell, and his own paranoia. In a way it is not that his double doesn't like him, or is trying to poison his world, but rather our hero is looking at him from the outside, wanting to be like him, to be accepted, but somehow failing immensely. Yet while we are watching the events unfold through the eyes of our hero, I can't help but think that maybe, just maybe, we are also in the position of the double – in the end it all comes down to attitude – the double succeeded because he didn't let the hero's hatred get to him, and simply got on with life, while the hero let his range and jealousy burn up inside of him until he snapped.
A challenging read which plumbs psychological depths and questions the morality underpinning 'crime and punishment'. I found the brutal killing and attendant emotional turmoil both disturbing and fascinating in equal measure and the abundant food for thought truly marks this book out as a classic.