Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The IdiotThe Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Please note that spellings of names may vary, as the novel was originally written in the Cyrillic alphabet.)

This was rather a dense read to start at the beginning of a brain-deadening summer. That's probably why I chose to pick it up on audio and listen to it while I drove myself in air-conditioned comfort.

At any rate, one cannot think of Russian literature and think of light, fluffy pleasure reads. Even the happiest stories have a bitter edge to them, coming out of that era and place. This is no exception. Long conversations may be trudged through, all to throw out one bit of dark foreshadowing. Minute details are picked over, all to delay the inevitable moment of horror. If nothing else, Dostoevsky knew how to draw out the inevitable.

The events of The Idiot take place over the course of less than a year, six months of which are glossed over in a few short paragraphs. The story covers the arrival of the innocent, goodhearted Prince Myshkin in Petersburg (now St. Petersburg), where he meets the family of General Ipanchin and is captivated by a photograph of Nastassya Filippovna. By that evening, he's proposed marriage to the lady, only to have her stolen out from under him by Rogozhin, a young man he met on the train and who's just inherited a million rubles. Rogozhin offers Nastassya Filippovna one hundred thousand rubles to spend the night with him, and, apparently overwhelmed by the notion of becoming a princess, she refuses Myshkin and accepts the money.

Six months later, Myshkin seems to have given up on her and is courting Aglaia Ipanchin, the youngest of the general's daughters. But she's not convinced Myshkin is free of the supposedly loose woman's clutches, and forces a confrontation. Meanwhile, Myshkin inherits a sum of money from a distant relative, nearly gives up half of it to a man claiming the right, makes a lot of friends, engages in long, philosophical conversations, gets tangled up in society gossip, and has several epileptic fits while under extreme stress. This last is enough to horrify people who want no part in a sick person's physical manifestations, though Dostoevsky's view is less judgmental. He speaks of a feeling of enlightenment filling Myshkin's mind when he goes into these episodes, and seems to imply his illness is what gives him his saintly outlook. By the standards of 1869, when the book was published, his view is liberal, though hardly enlightened by modern standards.

The title of the book is used ironically. Myshkin may be trusting and naive, but such trust draws out the better nature of everyone he meets. He enriches the lives of almost everyone he comes in contact with, and it's he alone who understands what plagues Nastassya Filippovna. He has great insight into the human mind, and his compassion serves him well in relieving his curiosity about the evils of human nature.

In some ways, I wanted to compare this to Jane Austen's work. It deals with the subjects of courtship and scandal and eligible bachelorhood. Much of the narrative takes place in drawing rooms or over dinners or in public gatherings. Also, the dialogue is similar, in that characters talk about subjects not immediately related to the narrative for pages and pages. In the end, though, it's far too dark for a comparison, nor does it read like a response to Austen's lighter fare.

Though I listened to this on audio, I don't recommend readers coming to Russian literature for the first time do the same. The Russian naming convention can be confusing if you're not used to it, and most of the characters are referred to by three or four names within the text interchangeably. That can be easier to keep track of on the page than on the audio, where losing track of a character can throw you out of a scene entirely.

The audio is good quality, though. Robert Whitfield has an array of accents which made it clear who was speaking, though some of them are obnoxious. (The girls' mother sounds froggy.) I understood every word of the narrative, and it moved along briskly, despite its density.


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