Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Idiot

The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
1868, 633 pp. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

It is difficult to find something clever to say about Dostoevsky that hasn't already been said by Vladimir Nabokov. Somewhere around the The Idiot's ninety-seventh engagement scandal (page eighteen, in other words) I took a break and picked up The Inimitable Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse, the delightful experience of which may have led me to the first original insight anyone has had regarding Dostoevsky since the publication of Lectures on Russian Literature. You see, Dostoevsky's books are always a certain proportion of time-filling social scandals (mostly revolving around engagements, marriages, affairs, and the like) weighted against a certain proportion of philosophical dialogue and melodramatic actions determined by the necessities of philosophical attitudes. In Crime and Punishment, the ratio is something like 40/60, in Demons, it is probably closer to 50/50. The Idiot is about 90/10, and consequently, it reads like a P.G. Wodehouse novel from hell, bloated to six times its normal length, perhaps written in a long, dark winter of the soul, under the influence of mystical Christianity and ineffective doses of Zoloft. Both books involve domineering matriarchs, preposterous and ineffectual noblemen, social scandals, manipulative friends, and protagonists who are idiots. I consequently spent four hundred pages wishing fervently that Jeeves would shimmer into the room and solve all of Myshkin’s ridiculous problems with the clever application of some purple socks and a rather noisy cummerbund.

The Idiot is the story of Prince Myshkin, who (as everyone who ever discusses the book is required to quote) is meant to be a "positively good man." He is epileptic and simple-minded, totally trusting and naive, and at the beginning of the book returns to Russia from a sanitarium in Switzerland. He promptly meets and has scandals with a variety of characters representing a cross-section of Russian society and opposing philosophical types. Most important of them is the dastardly Rogozhin (in typical Dostoevsky fashion, he has dark hair, dark clothes, dark features, dark eyes, and lives in a dark house) and the beautiful but difficult Nastasya Filippovna. These three form the love triangle of sorts which is at the ostensible center of the novel. The love triangle becomes sort of a love dodecahedron with the inclusion of the wealthy Epanchin family, whose youngest daughter Aglaya is sometimes apparently in love with Prince Myshkin. General Epanchin's clerk Ganya is of the poor Ivolgin family, and at the beginning wants to marry Nastasya Filippovna, who herself is the mistress of the vile Totsky, friend of General Epanchin. Will Myshkin marry Aglaya or Nastasya Filippovna? Will Nastasya Filippovna marry Myshkin or Rogozhin? Inquiring minds want to know.

Part One moves along at a decent pace. It establishes the characters and their relations to one another, and sets up a good bit of melodrama. Things looked promising, and I began to look forward to the murder: this is Dostoevsky, after all, so there must be a murder. In fact, as I read along, I began to formulate the theory that a given Dostoevsky book is only as good as its murder. I will venture to disclose to you that the murder is not committed until the gap between pages 606 and 607, some three hundred pages after my interest died a sad, lonely death. Nabokov wrote in his lectures on Dostoevsky that "[he] was more of a playwright than a novelist. What his novels represent is a succession of scenes, of dialogues, of scenes where all the people are brought together--and with all the tricks of the theatre, as with the scène à faire, the unexpected visitor, the comedy relief, etc." This is exactly true in The Idiot, at times in a sense that strains credibility well past the breaking point. At several points characters launch into monologues that last for ten or twelve unbroken pages, while about a dozen people apparently sit around watching. At parties people vanish into the background until Dostoevsky needs them again, and anyone can arrive from any distance away if it is convenient for Dostoevsky's purposes. If this was an occasional habit, it would be tolerable, but as the bulk of the book it is desperate stuff. It is also clear that once he'd completed Part One, Dostoevsky had no idea what to do. Parts Two and Three are a grasping, underplotted mess which not only fail to build tension and propel the plot, but instead provide a host of distractions and opportunities for the characters to behave in ways quite contrary to Dostoevsky's descriptions of them.

This last point is a fatal one. Like a playwright, Dostoevsky is in the habit of describing people and places once, at their introduction, then never again. There is no texture of sensation in his books, nor hardly any visual sense. His characters are defined by the ideas and social positions Dostoevsky wants them to represent, so when they behave in a contradictory manner, the reader has no sense of the human being to fall back upon (which would create a sense of complex and unpredictable characterization) but instead simply gets the sense that Dostoevsky is confusing himself. If his characters seemed to be evolving in some direction, a few strange actions would be understandable, but his characters rarely, if ever, evolve. At the end of the book Myshkin is still an innocent, well-meaning idiot, Rogozhin is still dark and treacherous, and so forth. We are told that both Nastasya Filippovna and Aglaya are beautiful and enchanting, and goodness knows Myshkin spends a lot of time falling in love with them, but they never behave other than as selfish, spiteful, cruel, damaged harpies. There is nothing lovable (or interesting) about either of them. Moreover, Nastasya Filippovna and Rogozhin spend the majority of the book offstage. Parts Two and Three and most of Four are dedicated to Myshkin's interactions with the Epanchin and Ivolgin families at various dachas outside of Petersburg. He spends much more time telling Aglaya he loves her (for unclear reasons, since she seems to enjoy humiliating and ridiculing him in public) than doing anything else, all of which is totally extraneous to the actual story. I am aware that the overall point is to demonstrate the corruption and cynicism of Russian society by holding it up to comparision with Myshkin's saintly behavior. Balzac did this quite effectively in Le Père Goriot thirty-three years earlier, and recognized that the best technique to employ was a loss of innocence. Myshkin does not evolve enough to warrant this theme, nor do we get a sense that the Epanchins and the nihilists are representative types instead of individuals who just happen to be a bit bitchy. And if this is the theme, the love triangle is a distraction. If the love triangle is the theme, the social criticism occupies too much of the book, is too fitful and unfocused, and does not seem to advocate anything save for a vague mystical Christian idealism.

The only really notable figure of the book's interminable middle stretch is Ippolit, a consumptive nihilist who has resolved to kill himself. His attempt ends in failure and public ridicule, but apparently Dostoevsky was interested enough in his character to revive him under a different name four years later in Demons, where as Kirilov he is one of the novel's most interesting characters. Dostoevsky seems to have reversed the Marxist dictum: for him, it is farce first, then tragedy. Here the point seems to be to ridicule nihilism, in Demons it seemed to be to warn of its dangers and perversions.

These structural flaws aside, it must be said (at the risk of being accused an inveterate Philistine) that Dostoevsky's prose is abysmal. It is possible that accurate translation is simply impossible, though I trust the Pevear/Volokhonsky team, having read their Crime and Punishment and Demons last year and enjoyed them both. I'm currently reading their translation of Bulgakov, and see no problems. Really, the failure is with dialogue, and since Dostoevsky is such a theatrical author, this is deadly. The example given below is a trifle unfair, since it deals with an absurd subject; however, it is at a serious moment of the book, and is meant to be taken seriously, so I consider it fair game. Imagine the voices of actors trying to deal with this material, or read it out loud and see if it sounds at all passable:

“Did you receive my hedgehog?” she asked firmly and almost crossly.
“I did,” the prince replied, blushing and with a sinking heart.
“Then explain immediately what you think about it. It is necessary for my mother’s peace and that of the whole family.”
“Listen, Aglaya…” the general suddenly began to worry.
“This, this is beyond all limits!” Lizaveta Prokofyevna suddenly became frightened of something.
“There aren’t any limits here, maman,” the daughter replied sternly and at once. “Today I sent the prince a hedgehog, and I wish to know his opinion. What is it, Prince?”
“You mean my opinion, Aglaya Ivanovna?”
“Of the hedgehog.”
“That is…I think, Aglaya Ivanovna, that you want to know how I took…the hedgehog…or, better to say, how I looked at…this sending…of the hedgehog, that is…in which case, I suppose that…in a word…”
He ran out of breath and fell silent.

If only Fyodor Dostoevsky had been given a hedgehog.

Would we put up with this from anybody else? It may be that this is Officially Classic Literature, and that it is a relic from a different place, time, and literary tradition, but somebody somewhere once defined a classic as a work which can stand up to criticism indefinitely. This is not such a book. And, to add insult to 633 pages of injury, at the end it turns out that the entire book was pointless. The perfectly good, Christ-like prince accomplishes nothing except making a lot of lives worse, and returns to his sanitarium, having witnessed a murder of a character we have not seen enough of to care about and who has behaved so badly that it is impossible to imagine him caring either.

Pevear and Volokhonsky seem to have translated all of nineteenth century Russian literature into English. The Double was Nabokov's favorite of Dostoevsky's work, and James Wood thinks that The Eternal Husband is excellent. Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated both. There's a whole world of Turgenev, Gogol, and Pushkin they've brought into English, not to mention vast swathes of Tolstoy, Bulgakov, and Chekhov. There is so much in the world to read, life is so short, and The Idiot is so very, very long.

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