Thursday, 8 December 2016

The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky


After "The Brothers Karamazov", "Crime and Punishment" and "The Demons", "The Idiot" is the fourth book that I read by that amazing author, Fyodor Dostoevsky. Of his major work, only "Tales from the Underground" remains unread, along with his main short story collection, "The Eternal Husband and other stories." While reading a Dostoevsky work is some what challenging, at the end of each novel, I have been inspired to read his other works. It is only with a handful authors that I attempt to read comprehensively, by selecting most of his or her work - Albert Camus, Chinua Achebe, Gunadasa Amarasekara, Simon Nawagattegama comes into mind along with Dostoevsky, with probably Alice Munro, in the coming years. When I first started reading Dostoevsky, I didn't really worry about which translation I was reading - but Constance Garnett translations were the most common. But of late, I have been so much taken up with his work, that I have made it a point to read what is now considered his best translations ( i.e. the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations ), and have made it a point to purchase Vintage editions of these translations - even of those work that I have already read ( so that I may re-read them on a more leisured pace, if such  a day of luxury becomes available ).

      The novel centers around the character of Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin who arrives in St. Petersberg,  from Switzerland where he had been recuperating, seeking his only known relation, distant, in  Madame Epanchin, wife of General Epanchin.  He makes quite an impression among the the Epanchin family, the three daughters and the other local crowd. But he cannot help falling for Nastasya, an educated girl, but one who has been "a kept woman" as her benefactor  turned seducer seeks a way out of freeing himself form her. Rogozhin, who competes with the Prince to win her, Agalya, the youngest daughter of the Epanchins, with whom the Prince has a close relationship, the vainglorious Ganya who is also in love with Agalya, the consumptive Ippolit who resents the healthy society around him and is wont to denounce even those who are willing to help him, make up some of the more interesting characters of this grand novel.

   While the novel takes a somewhat long wounded journey through its narration, as is Dostoevsky's trade mark, it is rich with insights on the human mind, their behaviour, and philosophy, which makes reading Dostoevsky so much rewarding. I copy below a few such quotes that made an impression on me.

- "Inventors and geniuses, at the beginning of their careers (and very often at the end as well ), have almost always been regarded in society as no more than fools.... if decorous timidity and a decent lack of originality have constituted among us up to now, according to a generally accepted conviction, the inalienable quality of the sensible and respectable man, it would be all too unrespectable and even indecent to change quite so suddenly. What mother, for instance, tenderly loving her child, would not become frightened and sick with fear if her son or daughter went slightly off the rails:' No, better let him be happy and live in prosperity without originality,' every mother thinks..."

- "Russian liberalism is not an attack on the existing order of things, but is an attack on the very essence of our things, on the things themselves and not merely on their order, not on Russian order, but on Russia itself.... Some of our liberals, still not long ago, took this hatred of Russia for all but a genuine love of the fatherland and boasted of seeing better than others what it should consist of; but by now they've become more candid, and have begun to be ashamed of the words 'love of the fatherland'."

 - "Indeed there is nothing more vexing, for instance, than to be rich, of respectable family, of decent appearance, of rather good education, not stupid, even kind, and at the same time to have no talent, no particularity, no oddity even, not a single idea of one's own, to be decidedly 'like everyone else.'... a proper education, but without knowing what to apply it to; there is intelligence, but with no ideas of one's own; there is a heart, but with no magnanimity, etc... There are a great many people in the world and even far more than it seems; they are divided, as all people are, into two main categories: one limited, the other " much cleverer." The first appear happier. For the limited 'usual' man, for instance there is nothing easier than to imagine himself a unusual and original man and to revel in it without any hesitation. As soon as a man feels in his heart just a drop of some sort of generally human and kindly feeling for something or other, he immediately becomes convinced that no one else feels as he does, that he is in the forefront of general development. As soon as a man takes some thought or other at its words or reads a little page of something without beginning or end, he believes at once that these are 'his own thoughts' and were conceived in his own brain. The impudence of naivety."

- "For socialism is also a product of Catholicism and the Catholic essence. It too, like its brother atheism, came from despair, opposing Catholicism in a moral sense, in order to replace the lost moral force of religion with itself, it order to quench the spiritual thirst of thirsting mankind and save it not through Christ, but also through violence!"


  The Prince here, a epileptic, who at an earlier stage has been of a simple minded nature due to more reasons than his medical condition,wins over the hearts and minds of the society that he associates with. Agalya, who falls in love with the Prince simply based on how he conducts himself,  says this to him before they express their love for each other.

"No one here is worth your little finger, or your intelligence, or your heart! You're more honest than all of them, nobler than all of them, better than all of them, kinder than all of them, more intelligent than all of them! There are people here who aren't worthy of bending down to pick up the handkerchief you've just dropped.."

Each of the characters here are worth pondering over. Rogozhin, who will go to any extreme to have what he wants, even if it means that he wouldn't be able to safeguard it, is the Prince's main antagonist;  Lebedev, a liar and a hypocrite, to whom gossip of his society is essential for his sustenance is presented in such a manner that the layers of the man is revealed at various stages of the narration; Ganya, the handsome mediocre young man, who is overcome with so much ambition that he is willing to rid himself of each ounce of his dignity, for materialistic gains; Natasya, to whom cruel fate has dealt a severe blow whist still a child, who shows instability, and hence is unable to take control of her life, irrespective of the suitors fighting for her; Agalya, the prettiest of the Epanchin girls but idealistic and haughty, leaving her suitors speechless many a time with her ways; all these characters make up a background in 19th century St. Petersberg, in a narration which questions the ideals of the time, passions which cannot be overcome and often results in an unfortunate end. Then the important question as to  who or what makes a person an idiot. Prince Lev, the protagonist in this novel, is startlingly honest. At times his courage is stupendous, and the mere suggestion that he was simple minded at an earlier stage of his life is almost unbelievable. For a reader, the stark, almost childish honesty that is obvious in him makes one attached to this character. Yet, he is a man who errs and has defilements which in turn lead to certain actions.  Not withstanding a few defilements his righteousness wins the reader over, and leaves him sad when he falls.  The character is presented in such depth, that the reader is left a troubling feeling that labeling him as "an idiot", is an injustice and is unwarranted.   Yet the strife of the time, doesn't leave him a chance to mature to his full promise as he comes to an unfortunate end.

This has been a book that I have been looking forward to read, especially due to the reference to it in a previous Pulitzer winner ( Tartt's The Golden Finch ), a couple of years back. With some luck I may be able to finish the aforementioned works by Dostoyevsky.  If I live to do it, a second reading of Dostoevsky's work is due at some stage.

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