THE IDIOT BY FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY

I’m a very cynical man. I wish I wasn’t, to be honest. I wish I could accept things, accept people, on face value. My life would likely be happier that way. As it is, however, I see duplicity and selfishness [not to mention stupidity] in everything. Take the recent attacks in Paris. Terrorism is disgusting, of course, and I would never seek to justify such actions, but also disgusting, to me, was the reaction from the general public and their democratically elected leaders. I just wish we could have one tragedy that wasn’t immediately hijacked by people [often hypocritically] wanting to pat themselves on the back.

In the aftermath of the attacks, free speech, or freedom of expression, has become the focus and, well, that doesn’t sit right with me. Who actually believes in freedom of expression? I mean, really? No one. Everyone waving that flag recently is doing so in full knowledge of the fact that our so-called enlightened and free societies stifle free speech and freedom of expression on a regular basis. Just recently, in fact, a British comedian was sacked, on the basis of public outcry, for saying things that were deemed offensive and controversial. I’ve seen people going after songs, books, political groups, etc. Freedom of expression? You must be joking. Almost all this recent upswell of interest in it amounts to is ‘look at me, look how free and liberal I am! Please follow my twitter! Or share my meme! Or ‘like’ my comment or picture or blog post!’

And what about those world leaders? I reserve a special kind of disdain for them. There’s not a government in the world that values free speech. Not one. No exceptions. They all manage and manipulate information for their own ends. And all that blather about peace? Peace? The two-facedness is extraordinary. How many of those world leaders have sanctioned a war, how many have been apologists for massacres and atrocities? The Palestinian and Israeli leaders were both at this peace rally….just let that sink in. But it’s not just them, not at all. There were a whole bunch of war-mongering, morally dubious people in attendance. All this tragedy is, all any tragedy is, to these people is a photo-opportunity.

Anyway, that is how I see the world. This is only one example, there are millions; it doesn’t have to be something so extreme or overtly political, it is simply a fact, for me, that the world is full of self-serving, mean-spirited and grasping people. Into this world, into exactly this kind of world, walks Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. Myshkin is the idiot of the title. That title has a three-fold significance; if refers, first of all, to his illness. Myshkin has fits, which many of the characters believe may have left him mentally impaired; even the man himself admits it may once have been the case. It also has a slangy meaning, i.e. it indicates someone who is stupid, a fool. Certainly Myshkin is described as being just that numerous times throughout the text; it is, in fact, one of the first things that Nastasya, the principle female character, says to him. Finally, the title is ironic, because the Prince is far from stupid; he is perceptive and sensitive and intelligent. It is actually many of the novel’s other characters who are idiots.

As far as critical and popular opinion is concerned Dostoevsky wrote four major novels. Of these four I think it is fair to say that The Idiot causes the most consternation, that it is viewed as being the least successful. Indeed, it is well known that Dostoevsky struggled to complete his novel to his own satisfaction. His struggles were not merely artistic ones; apparently he was gambling heavily, was in a lot of debt, and so rushed to get the work out there. This perhaps explains why there is a marked difference between Part One and the rest of the book.

The character of the Prince is, to my mind, only superficially the same character across the two parts. In Part One he is a meek and shy and a somewhat otherworldly or ghostly figure; in part two [by which I mean everything after Part One] he still displays those traits, but is more of a [real] man; he has a greater emotional range, is, for example, more irritable and negative. Furthermore, the style also changes. Part One is episodic; it is psychologically shallow. Dostoevsky was influenced by Don Quixote and Pickwick Papers and that influence is clear in the first section of the book. Yet in part two suddenly characters do begin to reflect, the prince especially. In part two, one finds oneself in what you might call a more recognisably Dostoevskian novel.

This may give the impression that I consider part two to be superior, but actually the opposite is the case. Indeed, I would argue that the first part of the book, which is roughly 200 pages in length, is very strong; almost as strong, in fact, as anything Dostoevsky wrote. Furthermore, while it is true that all of his major novels include memorable scenes and passages, those in Part One of The Idiot are his most moving for me personally. These include the two discussions Myshkin has about capital punishment; the story of the children and poor Marie; the general and the lady with the lap-dog [which is also funny]; the opening scene on the train with Rogozhin; the night of Nastasya’s birthday party, when the guests play a game of telling each other the worst thing they have ever done. I think about these scenes often; almost every day one of them will be on my mind.

“To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible.”

While I loved Part One, and felt conflicted to say the very least about the rest, it would be shortsighted to divide the book in two and praise one half and criticise the other. Unfortunately, although the quality and enjoyment does noticeably drop off after the excellent opening section, some of the problems that dog The Idiot do so throughout. In a previous paragraph I mentioned that it houses some of his finest scenes or set pieces, but it is also the case that it includes some of his most ridiculous – Nastasya throwing the 100,000 roubles into the fire, and going off with Rogozhin mere seconds after agreeing to marry Myshkin, for example.

The book at times resembles a farce. The behaviour of some of the characters is just so wild and unpredictable, especially the women, that one struggles to take them seriously. It is not that one doesn’t understand why they do what they do, it is simply that they flip from one extreme to another without going through, without having the time to go through, the necessary introspection; characters simply behave, rather than react or evolve. There is nothing organic about their moods and behaviours; it’s like watching a firework that someone has set off in a confined space. Maybe that is intentional; I did consider whether The Idiot is actually meant to be a farce, a comedy, but, although I do think Dostoevsky is funnier than people give him credit for, to imagine him as a comic writer seems a stretch too far.

It is worth pointing out that The Idiot is very talky, to use a vulgar phrase. That may bother some readers, those who prefer action of course, but it wasn’t too much of a problem for me, in and of itself. More of an issue is the nature of these conversations. Dostoevsky’s dialogue is always improbable, but here it can be infuriatingly so. For example, at least four times during the opening of the novel someone says to Myshkin something like ‘I don’t know why but I like you.’ Dostoevsky was not the most subtle writer, so you expect this kind of thing to a certain extent, you expect to have everything fed to you, but multiple characters repeating the same phrase, thereby making the same point, which is that people find themselves inexplicably drawn towards Myshkin, so many times is a bit much. It’s as though Dostoevsky didn’t know how his characters ought to interact with Myshkin. They all do so awkwardly, signifying the author’s own awkwardness in relation to the Prince.

Furthermore, some of the conversations are so tedious as to be almost unreadable, for me at least. For example, after an attack Myshkin is recuperating and is visited by most of the main players from Part One. At one point he is also visited by some characters we haven’t met before, but who obviously know the prince. There then follows one of the most interminable, and I would argue absolutely pointless, conversations in any book I’ve ever read. I don’t like giving away plot developments but I think it is necessary to illustrate what I mean. One of the characters, Burdovsky, accuses Myshkin of having, in a sense, swindled him out of money. Myshkin, it is asserted, was given free treatment in Switzerland by the boy’s father, and so ought to reimburse him a significant sum of money. Myshkin is about to agree when Gavrila, who has been investigating [completely unknown to the reader – in fact the whole story was completely unknown to the reader until this point] announces that the boy is mistaken and that the man who treated the Prince isn’t his father. Lizaveta then jumps in and lambasts the boy and the Prince, who admits, during her interrogation, that he will, the next day, give the boy the money anyway. So, Dostoevsky introduces a story line and characters that we were previously unaware of, has them go through the entire episode in dialogue, and the outcome is that the boy was mistaken about his father anyway! Eh? Why bother then? Even if you were to ignore the anti-climatic ending, it’s still not an exciting little story; it’s simply dreary writing.

Unfortunately, Dostoevsky does this kind of thing numerous times in the book; new story lines drop out of the air like bird shit, with no foreshadowing at all, no sense of development, no hint, no clue; it’s just boom, now the Prince is rich [this does actually happen]. The upshot of this is that you read The Idiot knowing that absolutely anything could happen; and that this anything needn’t make any sense in relation to the current action. The Prince could have two wives…here they are, they’ve just turned up in Petersburg….the Prince could have a crime-fighting dog…he just forgot to mention it till p.450…he also was once the king of Siam…and a ninja…he has the philosopher’s stone in his pocket…look, there it is, let’s have a forty-page conversation about it!

All of this will, I imagine, put some of you off reading the book, but that isn’t my intention. Many people love The Idiot, either unreservedly or with the ability to overlook its flaws, so perhaps I am in a minority. In any case, it is still an important work, and one that, more significantly, is occasionally as beautiful and profound as its author hoped it would be.

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2 comments

  1. I *did* enjoy The Idiot very much when I read (though not in the translation you show) although I found the Prince’s character inconsistent and the women’s behaviour infuriating. But I expect Dostoevsky to be flawed and talky, so I know what I’m getting into when I start one of his books. And the high points always make it worthwhile! 🙂

  2. I love Dostoevsky. When I posted my ten favourite novels last year one of his was in there, and another, Demons, could also have made it. The Idiot, however, is terribly flawed, almost fatally. The first part is brilliant; it has so many moving passages, but beyond that it is a real struggle. I don’t think, by his own admission, Dostoevsky really knew how to proceed. His characters just talk, to no purpose half the time.

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