Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (Post 005)

I finally finished this today. I had gotten distracted by the blogathon, comics that needed reviewing, and weekends spent elsewhere than my apartment. I jumped back in last night for the chapter in Part IV that actually made the novel worthwhile after a lot of tedium and concern with the manners and games played by the social class depicted here. Our dear 'idiot' Myshkin is in love with Aglaia and she seems to be with him... except when she insists she isn't, which is a lot. I found all of that terribly frustrating and dull. But, that could be due to my lack of patience with that sort of bullshit. I don't play games when it comes to women and don't tolerate it when they play games with me. Reading about that sort of thing leaves me cold.

Then again, that's all these people do. They say one thing while thinking another and quickly turn about and do the opposite while meaning a third thing. They're all people of whims and that gets tiresome, because there's no consistency beyond there being no consistency.

That said, the final 50-60 pages of the novel are rather strong. Where it takes a turn is Aglaia taking Myshkin to Nastasya's to hash out the weird love/hate thing going on. Dostoevsky has the two men involved stand off to the side, neither sure what will happen, while the women trade barbs and sarcastic comments, trying to see what's going on with Myshkin. In the end, Myshkin chooses Nastasya in an odd scene that's absolutely heartbreaking and powerful. It's a very cinematic piece of writing by Dostoevsky. I could see it happen ala a Leone showdown.

Part of me wishes the novel ended there. One of the areas I've always had problems with Dostoevsky is his endings. Crime and Punishment's epilogue is absolutely awful. The same happens here even though it's three more chapters plus an epilogue/conclusion chapter. I think it would have been more powerful to end on Myshkin choosing the crazed Nastasya over the... well, equally crazed Aglaia. Everything that came after was anticlimactic despite its drama. It couldn't match Myshkin having to choose. His wedding to Nastasya plays out as you expect and what happens after is a little surprising, but doesn't lead anywhere interesting.

I'm not sure what I think about this novel. I really liked the first part and one chapter of the fourth, but the rest... granted, that great chapter from Part IV is great in part because of the build-up of tedium and such. You can't just make great drama happen, it needs the proper foundation. Still... this novel was disappointing. And I've enjoyed most of the Dostoevsky I've read. The Double was a little obvious and some of the short stories I've read haven't blown my mind, but Crime and Punishment and Devils were both fantastic.

I think the problem is that Dostoevsky tried to satirise this class of people. The wealthy folk who spend their days visiting one another and playing these little games. That they lead to tragedy is interesting, I suppose, but you have to wade through the crap far too much. Maybe the lesson is that, yes, they're awful, but Myshkin likes them and sees their goodness... except he's ruined by them. By all of them. There's a sense that he had to do what he did, because of all of them. Because they so looked down upon Nastasya, he had to go to her and redeem her. She was his Mary Magdaline...

I can see why this is one of Dostoevsky's ignored/less favoured works. Maybe when I return to it years from now, I'll appreciate it more. Maybe I'll research it and find the 'best' translation and see if that helps. For now, I'm moving on to the "Legion of Fire" Babylon 5 trilogy by Peter David. A nice trio of light read books before getting into something heavy again.

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