Monday, May 31, 2010

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Post 001)

Third year of university? Was that when I first read Dostoevsky? Maybe it was second year. Or the summer between perhaps. It doesn't actually matter. It hasn't been that long and I haven't exactly read him extensively. I've read four novels and some short stories. Not exactly an expert on the man or his work. The thing about Dostoevsky is that you need to be in the mood for long reads, lots of Russian names, and even more Russian nicknames. It requires some dedication, not just casual reading. It took me three tries before I made it past page 50 of Devils (or The Possessed or Demons or whatever title the translator/publisher decided to use for its edition of the novel) and, when I did make it past page 50, I spent a solid week reading the book. Spending a good six hours a day at minimum reading and trying to keep it all in my head. But, it's worth it. I'm not sure how much I'll write about The Idiot, which I've read around 70 pages of so far. But, I'd like to start with what I've read of Dostoevsky so far...

The first book of his I read was Notes from the Underground, which was in an edition with The Double as well. I read them both together. Notes was disturbing. I liked the structure of laying out a series of ideas, concepts, beliefs, and arguments before delivering a short story to complement them. Interesting way to go about writing a book and also showing where Dostoevsky was at the time: not entirely ready to merge the two. In a sense, it's almost like a rough layout of what he often tries to accomplish in his work: the expression of philosophical, psychological, spiritual, and political ideas through narrative. The second part of the book isn't divorced from that, but he hadn't fully integrated things yet. The Double was an earlier work that's mostly forgettable, honestly. Not a bad novel where a man is plagued by a double that takes everything he has, driving him to madness. It ends with you wondering if there ever was the other man at all. You've no doubt seen stories like it since.

Crime and Punishment is as good and worthwhile as everyone says it is. A man convincing himself of the rightness -- of the nobility -- of killing another person... and learning that maybe he wasn't so certain about it. If you've never read it, you should -- but skip the epilogue as it's pure bullshit. Trust me on that.

Devils warrants a reread since it's much too large for a single reading. It revolves around various political ideas as a group of revolutionaries prepare for whatever it is that revolutionaries do. Unlike Crime and Punishment, which is very focused on one character, this is very much an ensemble piece. One of the central characters, Stavrogin, is about as horrible a character as you can imagine despite being at the core of the group of conspirators. Things do not happen in obvious ways here and does push a bit too far to the political/philosophical discussion at times to the detriment of the plot, but Dostoevsky does some great character work.

Actually, while reading Devils, I thought it would make a fantastic mini-series. Each chapter has the right amount of plot to work as a 45-minute-to-hour episode. And the censored chapter, "At Tikhon's" is brilliant.

I've also read several short stories, but only "White Nights" stands out. A nameless narrator who is lonely and cannot stop thinking. In many ways, Dostoevsky wrote a lot about the idea of the young man who has ideals or dreams that don't match with Russian society. The sad, lonely, pathetic life of the young man if you will. None of his central characters fit in or seem content with the world around them. Often, this leads to anti-social activities such as murder or revolution or smaller crimes.

The Idiot also contains a character like that, Myshkin, is the eopnymous 'idiot,' but his ailment is one where he doesn't overthink things, he relies on feelings -- he thinks with his heart instead of his brain, basically. While I'm not far in, he makes for an interesting contrast to other Dostoevsky protagonists that I've encountered. He's eager to talk, friendly and without any pretense. I read a chapter today where he tells a story of the village he'd stayed in for the past several years, abroad to treat his ailment and 'fits.' There, a young woman was seduced by a French merchant and ran off with him only to return days later, exhausted and hurt from walking back. She's scorned and mocked by the villagers -- treated like a reptile he says. Her mother calls her a disgrace. No one will give her work. Her mother barely feeds her despite her caring for the woman through a sickness that eventually takes her life. At the old woman's funeral, the pastor rails against the daughter, blaming her for her mother's death, turning the whole affair into another excuse to pile on Marie (her name). During this time, Myshkin notes the behaviour of everyone and is sickened by it. He sells a diamond pin and gives Marie the money. Some kids see him being kind to her and, at first, scorn him, too, but they soon begin talking to him and he basically brings them about to his way of thinking, which pisses off the villagers even more. They begin to bring her food and love her the way that Myshkin does (which is a pitiful love, not a romantic one). Eventually, she dies, too...

Myshkin is meant to be a representation of Christ and his ideals and while a little heavyhanded, it works so far. The story has only just begun, so I imagine we'll get plenty of complications -- and probably a lesson about how such ideals cannot work, even in Christian societies.

I also have The Brothers Karamazov, but aren't sure if I'm ready for that one yet. Certain works require a basic level of knowledge -- not just about literature, but about the world, a certain amount of experience, and I'm not sure if I have enough yet. Then again, first reads before you're ready are often good since they get that pesky plot shit out of the way and allow future reads to focus on the language, the subtext, and the larger ideas.

My next post on The Idiot in the coming days perhaps.


AJ said...

Awesome post.

I flashback to our discussion as I entered Dominion House to greet you and a group of English majors:
"Adam, who is the best novelist of all time?"


"THANK you."

Chad Nevett said...

HAHAHA! I remember that. I miss those days of discussion. Usually, me against everyone, but you had my back.

Jeff said...

Good decision switching this out with a Spider Man novelization.

Haven't read it but "Notes from Underground" is one of my all time faves.