A Short Review of another story I love ❤️
A four-part epic which will test your powers of stamina, The Idiot is Dostoevsky's attempt to highlight the greed, material wealth and snobbishness of a society obsessed with family politics, rank and greed.
Be prepared for an omnibus version of an intense soap opera that is relentless, rambling and passionate in its pursuit of truth and love.
'The Russian soul is a dark mystery - a mystery to many.' After reading this book you'll no doubt agree, or be more confused than ever.
By concentrating on a single protagonist, Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, 27, an innocent, childlike figure who returns to St Petersburg after four years of treatment for epilepsy in a Swiss clinic, Dostoevsky manages, just, to maintain a strong grip on proceedings. From the first few pages to the last, you're never quite certain just what will happen to this sickly yet enigmatic male as he arrives by train in St Petersburg trying to justify his existence.
He's a prince, from good stock, but he has no money and only a few possessions in a bundle. He knows nothing of women and is hardly educated because of his illness. The scene is set for a kind of social experiment - how will a compassionate, good natured man cope in such an immoral jungle of a place?
Something is rotten in St Petersburg. Money rules and it takes a youth, Kolya, to point it out : 'And have you noticed, Prince, how everybody's on the make these days?'
We meet ambitious go-getters, discontents and money-lenders all striving to balance societal responsibility with religious feeling.
Christian values of meekness and charity, it could be argued, are embodied in the character of the idiot. Perhaps this is what the author wanted, to portray a Christ-like figure living amongst modern people, being revered, upsetting the status quo, never truly finding happiness.
You'll have to dig deep to unearth the nuggets, and be wary of stopping half way through, tempted to take a break, promising a swift return. Don't stop, carry on, the rewards will come.
Throughout the book the emphasis is on the reaction of those around Lev Nikolayevich. His social awkwardness, lack of nous and simple heart make him a figure of ridicule and intrigue. No one quite knows what to do with him.
Two young female characters, the witty and impulsive Nastasya Fillipovna, and the looker Aglaya Yepanchin, become caught in a kind of love triangle. On the one hand they see him as a possible wealthy suitor, on the other he's dismissed as a bit of a weirdo. There are dense pages of dialogue, wonderfully painted characters, melodramatic twists and turns. The importance of money, status and the family name persists.
All the while, there is Prince Myshkin, like a lamb to the slaughter, called an out and out holy fool by a scoffing Rogozhin, madman and eventual murderer of Nastasya. He ends up in Siberia for his crime, as did Dostoevsky in real life, for political subterfuge, not murder.
And others chip in as the novel develops. Myshkin is labelled a booby, dunderhead, ridiculous person, sheep, fool, freak and let's not forget idiot. People just don't get him, they find his demeanour, responses and stories a little strange. His description of the face of the executed man, in a story he tells to the three daughters of Madame Yepanchin, is deliciously dark and disturbingly detailed. Here is a man drawn to the sufferings of the soul which is why he's attracted to a painting - The Body of the Dead Christ by Hans Holbein - when visiting a friend's house.
Many of the characters cannot get their heads around the fact that he suffers from fits and that these fits allow him certain unique insights into the essence of life itself.
'If in that second, in the final conscious moment before the attack, he could have managed to tell himself clearly and deliberately: Yes, for this moment one could give one's whole life!'
Again, Dostoevsky was drawing on his own experiences as an epileptic, using direct knowledge to further reinforce the idea that, in the character of Lev Nikolayevich, we have a human untainted by the exploitative vices of society, an outsider, a pure yurodivy (Russian for God's fool).
Yet still, the merry-go-round of social torture goes on. He falls in love with Nastasya, and she with him, up until their marriage day when Rogozhin lures her away at the last moment. Theirs is a fatalistic relationship, destined to end in tragedy.
'Well that's...the sort of thing you read about in novels!' Nastasya concludes.
Aglaya, youngest daughter of general Yepanchin, eggs the Prince on, teasing him to the point of absurdity because, deep down, she despises him. Beautiful but bored, she goes to great lengths to test his mettle, even sending him a hedgehog in a box as a gift!
There are valid doubts about the handling of the narrative in some stages of the book, particularly part four, where confusion reigns over the emotional lives of the two feuding females, Nastasya and Aglaya. Who loves who and why? And what is Lev Nikolayevich going to do about it? He unbeknowingly stirs things up, a benign if infuriating force for good.
Dostoevsky himself wasn't sure about this novel. In an effort to be all encompassing, it can end up going round in circles; there are too many twists and turns and the narrative, whilst dense and never boring, at times has to revisit previous goings on. Loose ends are hurriedly tied up in the final few pages, which is a little disappointing after 652 or is that 667 in total?
You have to learn to swim in the murky currents of many a chapter. But take deep breaths alongside materialists, atheists and nihilists and eventually you'll surface, in quiet disbelief. Take your copy down from the dusty shelf and plunge in!
All in all, a rare literary treat, a classic Russian story with bubbling sub-plots galore, doom threatening, enlightenment just around the corner, fated lovers in inner turmoil, and a faded Prince returning to Switzerland in search of a cure.
I read this masterpiece so long ago, but can still feel all the little things I felt when I read it the very first time ☀???