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sirius

Romance and other things

JOINT REVIEW AT DA WITH JENNIE, REPOSTED WITH HER PERMISSION

The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear

Sirius:

Dear readers,

When Jennie mentioned in one of her DA posts that she was reading “The Idiot”, I decided that this was going to be my chance to stop being intimidated by Dostoevsky and actually try reviewing one of his books. I loved those of his works which I managed to finish, do not get me wrong, and when I talk about being intimidated, I mean that I get into a “who am I to critique the master” mindset, and I feel like I need to get over it.

“At around nine in the morning towards the end of thawing November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full steam.”

On this train we meet for the first time Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin and the second main character of the upcoming drama Parfyon Rogozhin. We learn that Prince Myshkin has had some kind of epilepsy-like illness for most of his life and has been treated in Switzerland for it for years. Now he is coming back to Russia, not really knowing what to expect, because except for distant relatives who did not reply to his letter, he has no family.

Rogozhin also seems to have had a drastic change in his circumstances – his father recently died and left him a huge inheritance. Rogozhin talks about the woman whom he is very much in love with and over whom he argued with his father shortly before his father died. Her name was Nastasya Phillipovna.

Jennie did the beginning of the book lead you to expect a different story than what happened next?

Jennie:

First of all, I totally know what you mean about critiquing great literature; when I went to grade this book in my log, I found it difficult – I don’t feel I can use the same set of criteria I do for “regular” books.

To answer your question, I wasn’t sure what to expect but I found the train scene a little confusing. I was trying to get a sense of who these people were and where the fit in Moscow society. I think one of the things that weirds me out about Russian classic literature is that it’s lousy with princes, and I’m trained from a more Western perspective to think that prince=big deal. Whereas no one seem impressed by Myshkin’s title and in fact they seemed contemptuous of him. I wasn’t sure where the story was going next.

Sirius:

That’s because he is not a Prince :). I mean I understand that the closest translation of the title “Knyaz” in English is Prince, but I found it weird every time his translated title was mentioned. Yes, the “Knyaz” title was even given to some younger brothers of Russian Tsar, so the person who had the title *could be* pretty high on the nobility ladder, but there were also many small ones whose significance would not come close to how a Western reader would think of “prince”. The Russian language also does have a word for “Prince” which has the same meaning as it does for you guys – but purely as a word which came from another language, since Russia never had Princes and Princesses (okay, there was a German princess marrying a certain Russian Tsar, but those are titles which never became native Russian as far as I know).

Jennie:

Very informative! Thank you. That will help me in my further reading of Russian literature, I’m sure.

Sirius:

Another reason why I was intimidated by the book is because I found it very easy to write a two sentence review about it – “This is the story about Christ like character, whose human side is also shown brilliantly. The end”

Jennie:

Exactly. When I started reading The Idiot, my first thought, practically, was “so he’s a Christ figure, right?”

Sirius:

But this covers everything and at the same time nothing. I am not a big fan of thinking about the author when I write book reviews, in fact I am not a fan of thinking about the author at all when I write book reviews, but there are exceptions to every rule.

Jennie:

I know what you mean, though at the same time I felt like I understood something more about the book, almost had an “aha!” moment when I read that Dostoevsky had epilepsy himself.

Sirius:

I feel like I have to think about Dostoevsky when I think about this book, because he was a deeply religious man. Religion played such an important part in his life and of course the book reflects that.

When Prince Myshkin talks about what a person condemned to death feels in the last moments before he is to be hanged or beheaded, the utter hopelessness the soul goes through and what one may feel if the death punishment was substituted for exile at the last moment, I was sure that all those were thoughts Dostoevsky himself went through when his death penalty was changed for the lesser punishment.

“Perhaps there exists a man who has had his sentence read out to him and had been allowed to suffer before told: “Be off, you’ve been pardoned.” That man could tell you perhaps. Christ himself spoke of such agony and terror. No, a man should not be treated so!”

Jennie:

Yes! I’ve noticed, also, that Dostoevsky’s writing has a preoccupation, perhaps, with crime. There’s Crime and Punishment, obviously, but also The Brothers Karamazov, in which a crime occurs as a rather big part of the story. There are several points in The Idiot where murders are brought up and the thoughts of the murderers are examined by the characters.

To get back to your point, though, that scene was a moment in the book where I felt a real connection to and understanding of the characters, which is something I don’t always have when I read older literature, particularly translated older literature. So I really appreciate those moments when they come.

Sirius:

Definitely, but I also think that he was mostly concerned with the exploration of crime because he was interested in the redemption of the murderer through accepting Christ. In this book in particular, do you think the murderer accepts Prince Myshkin at the end?

Jennie:

Hmm. That’s an interesting question. I think the murderer was so focused on slaying his own particular demon (eventually, literally) that he was unable to accept Myshkin. Myshkin (or Christ) did not figure into it for him. I also read some commentary that focused on the contrast between Myshkin and the murderer as light vs. dark – which I suppose would make the murderer a Satan figure. That might be going too far, though.

The murder itself had a sense of inevitability about it, though – Myshkin tried to save other characters from themselves too many times and failed each time.

Sirius:

See I think he wanted to accept Myshkin, (exchange of the crosses for example) and I think at the end he did (after the fact that is – whether it was too late or not, remains to be seen). I did not think of him as a Satan figure, I thought of him as the man whose own passions overwhelmed him to such degree that he as you said tried to slay his own demon.

Jennie:

Did Myshkin then redeem him? Several characters are sacrificed, in a sense, but I don’t know that the murderer achieved redemption – unlike, say, the murderer in Crime and Punishment.

Sirius:

I did think that the story was going to have strong religious connotations almost from the very beginning.

What did you think about religious themes in the book?

Jennie:

I felt that Myshkin’s Christ-like qualities (compassion, innocence, a lack of judgment so complete that other characters think he’s mentally challenged) were consistently contrasted with the corruption of Russian society – the cynicism and faithlessness of most of the other characters. I suppose that makes Nastassya Filippovna his Mary Magdelene.

Sirius:

One of the things about this book that I find so fascinating was the way it was both – a story with clear parallels to Christ’s life and teachings and a study of the complexities of human nature. Remember when Myshkin has a prediction that if he does not leave this world now it will be his fate? I cannot find the quote but I thought it was a clear reference to the temptation of Christ. So we have moments like this and at the same time we have passion, love, murder, and love triangles, which to me did not feel cheap or melodramatic, I just felt that it all was woven together really well.

Jennie:

Yes, the parallels are never too heavy-handed or overdone. The story is rooted in reality. I wasn’t surprised, somehow, to find out after I had finished reading it that The Idiot was originally published in serialized form. It has a certain rhythm that suggests the weaving of everyday life with these higher themes (as well as aspects that yes, in other hands might seem melodramatic).

Sirius:

If Nastassya Filippovna is Mary Magdalene, I wonder whether Aglaya reminded you of anybody?

Jennie:

I think of Aglaya as Myshkin’s sort of attempt to fit in and live a conventional life. That makes it sound like he didn’t really love her, though of course he clearly did (at times I wondered why; I wasn’t a big fan of Aglaya’s). But to continue the Christ metaphor, perhaps choosing Aglaya was Myshkin’s mirroring of Christ the man? The “human” side of him, rather than the divine, who inevitably sacrifices himself for the good of others (or in this case, at least tries to)?

Sirius:

To come back to corruption and faithlessness of the Russian society – yes, but I loved how complex most of the secondary characters were. I think Dostoevsky showed that every one of them was worthy of redemption if they so chose, but how many would choose, that’s the question of course.

Jennie:

That’s a great point! One of my favorite secondary characters was General Ivolgin – often just referred to as “the General.” A drunkard, a liar, and an embarrassment to his family, the General is sometimes a figure of fun in The Idiot. Yet Dostoevsky imbues him with a certain dignity in the end, and of course Myshkin never treats him with anything less than respect. There’s a whole little bit where the General is telling some horrible, embarrassing, obvious lie to Myshkin and Myshkin is worried that by his reaction he will embarrass the General – by seeming not to believe something that is clearly a fantastical story. I loved that.

Sirius:

Lets take Aglaya for example. I am not sure what I think about her. I definitely pity Nasstasya, but Aglaya? I just don’t know. On one hand she seems to love Prince:

“There is not one person here worthy of such words!” Aglaya burst out. “None of them here, none of them is worth your little finger, not your mind, nor your heart! You’re more honest than any of them, nobler, better, kinder, cleverer! There are some here not worthy of bending down and picking up the handkerchief you’ve just dropped… Why are you abasing yourself, setting yourself lower than them? Why have you got everything twisted up inside, why is there no pride in you?”

On the other, by saying “why is there no pride in you” she seems to completely misunderstand him – because she seems to mistake as you said his absolute lack of judgment of others for well, something else. Is this why she was being so cruel to him at times? Because she wanted to see him as she wanted him to be not as the man he really was?

Jennie:

I think my feelings about Aglaya were very similar to yours. She’s very young, of course; I have to keep that in mind. But while I pity Nasstasya, like you (and understand her self-destructive impulses, even while at times decrying them), Aglaya seems in her own way unworthy of Myshkin. (Of course, being worthy of a Christ figure is probably kind of a tall order.) She seems to take pride in the very qualities that she wants to destroy in him. She’ll defend him to others but she’s embarrassed by him herself. I don’t think Aglaya is capable of appreciating what she has in Myshkin.

Her occasional cruelty and capriciousness were one of those things just I didn’t get; characters sometimes behave in ways in Russian novels that feels just bizarre to me, and I end up putting it down to a combination of cultural, historical and perhaps even translation issues. Though in the case of The Idiot, I’d guess it’s chiefly a cultural thing; Aglaya was mirroring the behavior of a society that valued being sophisticated, ironic and even cruel over being sincere and kind.

I will say that I did feel for Aglaya in the final confrontation between her, Nasstasya and Myshkin; the age old, “it’s either her or me!” imperative felt very relatable.

Sirius:

I agree that it is a cultural thing, but I actually did not think that her cruelty had anything to do with her being a character in a Russian novel. As you said, she mirrored the behavior of society but at the same time I can see the possibility of a high-born (or relatively high-born – she is not nobility after all) young woman from any society behaving like that because the guy is kind and sweet and tries to respect everybody whether they deserve his respect or not, and she wants to hold her head high and hold on to whatever her idea of pride was. I can see a guy behaving like that to a woman as well, of course, I am just saying that I did not see anything specifically Russian in this particular instance.

Jennie:

I guess I’m comparing her to the women in 19th century British novels, who tended to be more subtle in their cruelty. A lady-like façade of graciousness seems to have been more of a valued quality in British society than Russian society, at the time – at least in my reading.

Sirius:

I felt for her quite often, but I pitied most of the characters in this book – as you mentioned before they all were very flawed and often not very likeable people, but the writer made them all worthy of pity for me. The potential for them to get better was shown at least, even if most did not take advantage of it.

Jennie:

Yes! I appreciate that sense that Dostoevsky believes in the good in people; that compassion. Very much an aside, but I reminds me of what I love about Wes Anderson films – when people get on him for being too twee or whatever, I always have to point out that what I love about his films is his compassion for his characters, who by and large are flawed in many ways, but who are almost always given a chance, at least, at redemption. (I never imagined I’d be comparing Dostoevsky and Wes Anderson.)

Sirius:

I know that my thoughts about this book did not even scratch the surface, but for what it is worth, I give it an A.

Jennie:

Yes, I could go on forever, but I also give it an A.