Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

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Monday, May 23, 2011

The Idiot

The Idiot
Fyodor Dostoevsky
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Everyman's Library

Readalong hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey

Part One
I finished the first part of The Idiot today, a little behind schedule. I first read The Idiot back in high school, and I remember carrying the Signet paperback around with me and reading it at every opportunity. Even at age fifteen, I knew Prince Myshkin was a holy fool and a Christ figure. I'm not sure if I understood much of the historical context, and I don't know what I made of all the philosophy, but this book inaugurated my lifelong love of Russian literature.

A few things that I probably missed on the first read: the first part of the novel (175 pages) takes place during one long day (Aristotelian unity!). At fifteen I hadn't seen La Traviata, nor had I read Dumas, so the references to camellias and La Dame aux camellias wouldn't have meant much to me. La Traviata tells the story of the doomed Violetta, a courtesan who nobly gives up her lover (so that the lover's sister can marry without scandal). At the end of the opera, Violette dies of consumption, but not before being reunited with her lover, and singing a beautiful aria.

The Idiot begins with a chance meeting on a train. Prince Myshkin, an impoverished Russian with a noble name (but not a rouble to his name) meets a social climber (Lebedev) and a rogue who has recently become heir to a fortune. The name of a stunning courtesan, Nastasya Filippovna, is first mentioned in this first scene of the book. Part One of the novel ends in Nastasya Filippovna's apartment.

Even this far into the novel, I am struck by how rich it is. Dostoevsky had a genius for writing about corruption, love, and money, and the complicated chaos that ensues when the three are combined. Prince Myshkin appears to be either a simpleton, or a saint. Throughout the first part of the book, people insult Prince Myskin, and call him an idiot to his face. At the same time, Myshkin has an uncanny ability to endear himself to strangers, conjure the truth from liars, and see into the hearts of women.

The character of Nastasya is the most entrancing and confusing after Myshkin. Brought up by her guardian, the wealthy and corrupt Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky, Nastasya became her guardian's mistress. You don't have to look any further than recent headlines to recognize the arrogant, entitled, narcissistic personality of Totsky--who once, he has corrupted Nastasya, ruined her reputation, and earned her hatred and contempt, is eager to marry her off.

Corruption and money seem to be at the core of The Idiot. My first reading of this novel took place so long ago, I've forgotten most of the plot details. The characters, especially Myshkin, have stayed with me. Having read Crime and Punishment within the last couple of years, I'll be interested to see how The Idiot compares. And I've developed some understanding of Russian names (the variations on characters' names can be a serious obstacle to understanding Russian novels). It helps to know that it is customary for Russians to address one another by first and middle names (everyone has a middle name, as well as a last name). The middle name is the patronymic, and the patronymic is formed by adding an ending (for example, -in, -ev, -ov,-ovich for men, and -eva, -ova, -ina, -ovna for women) to the given name of someone's father. So, for example, Afanasy Ivanovich Totsky (his father's given name was Ivan). Then, if that isn't confusing enough, Russian first names are often given diminutives, or nicknames. So Katerina becomes Katya.For a reader who doesn't know all of this, reading a Russian novel can be extremely confusing--you might even think that a new character is being introduced, when really the main character is being address by a diminutive combined with her patronymic.The patronymic can also be used affectionately and made diminutive. In general, Russians express affection or respect through all the various forms of address, and something of the relationship between two characters can be conveyed by the way one character addresses another.

As with many great classic books, I'm struck by how relevant The Idiot is.Older, powerful men still exploit younger beautiful women. Money still corrupts. The innocent or pure are still assumed to be idiots.

Thanks to Allie at The Literary Odyssey for hosting this read-along. If you aren't already a reader of Allie's blog, you should really check it out. Allie has challenged herself to read 250 classic books, and her reviews and other posts are always thought-provoking.


Aisle B said...

I feel like an "idiot" for not having read this one.

Timeless classic and reading your review made me realize how much more I have yet to discover.

Thanks again for making me broke! Excuse me we have to share the blame when I break the book budget ;P

KC said...

Great review- I am not familiar with the opera or Dumas' works that are referenced, so thank you for the quick summary!

I agree that the core points of this book (money, greed, corruption) are the same today as they were in Dostoevsky's time.

Grad said...

When I was a student in Dublin the International Opera Festival was held there and I was taken on a date to see to La Traviata. Wow. Libiamo is still one of my favorite pieces from an opera. I also have a love of Russian literature. However, I've never read The Idiot. I'll have to load it onto my Kindle. Will go right now and check out Allie's blog.

bibliophiliac said...

@AisleB-book blogging has been really tough on my bank account! I read reviews and make lists....
@KC-The Idiot is so rich in cultural cross-references (I guess that's one reason it's a classic)..

bibliophiliac said...

@Grad-don't you love how easy it is to add a new book to your collection on your e-reader? I hope you will fall in love with Dostoevsky like I did.

steveedo said...

I'm two years late here, I know. I've seen no update to your review, but I assume you finished the book. I first read the Idiot over 20 years ago, and it was for me then like a personal tragedy--the most powerful novel I had ever read. I've re-read it twice since and still find it overwhelming. Dostoevsky himself was disappointed with it, I think because Myskin's goodness and beauty of soul do not alleviate the suffering of others but make that suffering far worse. A testament to Dostoevsky's greatness as an artist is that, once his characters take form, he, the author-creator, in a sense relinquises control and allows their fates to play out. He himself was probably surpised--and at times disappointed--at the results.

One comment about Lebedev: I would hardly label him a social climber.
A money grubbing clown--disgraceful, but very funny--who does openly what others do secretly, he is despised by society, knows it and doesn't care. His one virtue is that he is not a hypocrite.

bibliophiliac said...

@steveedo--"His one virtue is that he's not a hypocrite" -- I like that! Thanks for bringing The Idiot back to my attention. Maybe I will reread it again this summer. It is a book that deserves to be read over and over.

steveedo said...

It's a great re-read. I feel the book doesn't get attention it deserves, and I appreciate your excellent review.