Dostoyevsky and I, Part II

Several weeks ago I wrote a blog about my recent impressions on rereading Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky. I said then I would continue with The Idiot, and possibly share more thoughts about the novel and the author.

I finished The Idiot last week, and I scratched my head for several days to organize my thoughts and feelings. What can I say? My reaction is much the same as when I read Crime and Punishment.

But let me start with an essay by Garrison Keillor recently published in The Washington Post about the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature award. While I don’t agree with him regarding Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing, something in his statement resonated with me. “Millions of people around the world understand the concept of reading books for pleasure…Praising the dull and deadly is a time-tested way to demonstrate intellectual superiority.”

No doubt that The Idiot demands intellectual rigor and pleases those who want to be challenged. It is a difficult read, but it possesses a magic that cannot be denied and is hard to define. To begin with, the premise of a perfectly beautiful human being — ‘the idiot,’ the selfless, the one who forgives everybody, the childish, innocent main character, Prince Lef Nicolaievitch Myshkin (or Muishkin, in an alternative English spelling) — charms and disarms the reader from the very beginning. He is the ‘lamb.’ He is infantile, sickly (epileptic), and astonishing in his intelligence and in his ability to understand people. He is the ‘poor knight,’ ‘a Don Quixote, only serious and not comical.’ Who can reject this concept, or not appreciate the obvious difficulty of presenting such a character in a realistic novel format? Dostoyevski believed that human beings were inordinately complicated and that one could never understand them fully (or know everything about them), which resulted in writings that were deliberately less than clear for readers and critics alike.

Then there is the alluring classical love triangle between the young prince, ravishing Nastasia, and young and beautiful Aglaia. Will he marry the first or the second, or, as most people suspect, neither of the two? I could easily state that in fact the triangle is a pentagon, because in addition to Myshkin’s love for the two women rivals (platonic, Christian love), we encounter Rogojin’s love for Nastasia (passionate love), and the feelings Ganea experiences first for Nastasia, and later on for Aglaia (that originate from vanity). There is also Hippolyte and his ‘confession,’ the self-absorbed, attention grabbing opposite of Myshkin.

It is impossible not to detect and respect the philosophical and psychological overlays of the novel, even if some less astute readers — myself included — do not grasp all the details, symbols, and theories involved. There is no doubt that one should read Dostoyevsky multiple times to discover the many layers and the depth of his prose.

Among the countless scenes, there are those that cannot be explained (Why did Aglaya send the hedgehog to Myshkin? Why did Myshkin and Rogojin walk to Rogojin’s home on opposite sides of the street?), and those filled with tension and a powerful, raw beauty that hold you breathless and stand out like jewels in a crown (the scene when Nastasia throws the money into the fireplace, and the one in which Rogojin takes Myshkin into his bedroom and reveals Nastasia’s dead body with a knife wound in the chest).

I found it interesting that in the novel Dostoyevky says it is more important to let the facts speak for themselves and simply tell the story, rather than explain everything (I guess in its modern version this is the ‘show versus tell’ advice). Here is one example: “…the actors in our story had become so changed that it is almost impossible for us to continue the tale without some few explanations. Yet we feel that we ought to limit ourselves to the simple record of facts, without much attempt at explanation…”). Yet I found that he does tell (explain), perhaps more than is necessary sometimes.

I also found the writing negligent by today’s standards, with long paragraphs that do not bring the reader along, and monologues that have little in common with the main theme of the novel. The scenes follow like beads on a string, touching each other, yet clearly separated, individual entities brought together for the convenient progression of the story. Many scenes end with a cliffhanger that represents a respected trick of the trade, but is not a substitute for an intricate, realistic and well thought out plot.

The most incredible segment is Part 1 of the novel. Almost 200 pages long and describing just one day in the life of our poor main character, it starts with a sleepless night on a train travelling from Warsaw, then continues through many consecutive hours of visits and conversations in the salons of Saint Petersburg, and culminates with the burning or singeing in a fireplace of the fantastic amount of a hundred thousand rubles for the sake of pride and love. The hero (and the reader) meets among others, in agonizing succession, Rogojin, Lebedeff, General Epanchin and his wife and three daughters (Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya), Gavrila Ardalionovitch (Ganea), his mother, sister, his younger brother Colia, and his father, General Ivolgin, Totski, Ptitsin, Nastasia Philippovna, plus a number of shady characters in Rogojin’s entourage. It all feels like a disoriented walk through an area devastated by calamity.

While I was reading this novel things were going on in the world. Bad things: hurricanes, a mass shooting, fires in California, all providing a dramatic background to life in old Russia, where conflicts were internal to people and the burning was of the soul. Yet here is a little fact from the novel that made me think of today (and of a few centuries ago):

“…Take a little powder, about a thimbleful, or perhaps two,” Aglaya tells Myshkin about how to load a pistol, when she fears he might be challenged to a duel, “and pour it into the barrel. Better put plenty. Then push in a bit of felt (it must be felt for some reason or other); you can easily get a bit off some old mattress, or off a door; it’s used to keep the cold out. Well, when you have pushed the felt down, put the bullet in; do you hear now? The bullet last and the powder first, not the other way, or the pistol won’t shoot.”

The Second Amendment was adopted in 1791; Dostyevsky wrote The Idiot in 1869; and I couldn’t stop myself from comparing Aglaya’s words to the arsenal used by the Las Vegas shooter several days ago.

Dostoyevsky is relevant today for his influence in world literature in general and for his keen analysis of the human heart. Many things have changed and advanced since he wrote The Idiot, but we, humans, have clearly not.

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