Friday, 15 July 2005

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Idiot (1868)

Translation: David Magarshack, 1955
Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 1301

Humour is not a quality usually associated with the nineteenth century Russian novel. Generally, people in the West think that they are lugubrious and depressing, if such universal works of literature could be said to express a single emotion. The name most likely to be cited as an exception is Gogol, and certainly not Dostoyevsky, even though the younger author greatly admired and imitated the older in his early years. Yet there is considerable amusement to be had from The Idiot, in which the author pokes fun at society manners in a way that is hardly stereotypically Russian. Indeed, there is one passage, where a mother laments that her daughters remain unwed only to torment her, that a reader encountering it out of context might well assume that it had been written by Jane Austen. Of course, there is also the major irony that the man condemned by polite society as an idiot is the only character that the reader feels they can look up to.

Naturally, humour is not the main, or even an important part of The Idiot. It is, on the other hand, the most surprising - particularly since this is the third time I have read the novel, and it is not an aspect I remember from earlier readings (though they were, admittedly, quite some time ago). Another point to make is that the humour comes through in David Magarshack's translation; it is very easy to lose this when creating a version of a novel in another language. (Apparently the early translations of Dickens into Russian are a case in point.) Magarshack translated many Russian stories and plays into English (as well as non-fiction), including just about all the Russian literature that appeared as Penguin Classics, like this one, and any of his versions can be recommended despite now being quite elderly.

While it is true that in general Dostoyevsky's mature novels are concerned with the psychology of the central character, this is true in The Idiot in an indirect manner. The novel is not about the development of Prince Myshkin himself (which is minimal except for the final crisis), but about how his personality affects those around him. The Prince has grown up in a Swiss sanatorium, under treatment for his periodic epileptic fits. At the beginning of the novel, he returns to Russia, penniless, for the first time since early childhood, and almost immediately inherits an unexpected fortune. While not really the idiot that many think him, his illness has left the prince with a strange diffidence, which allied to his virtuous, simple and open personality makes him stand out as completely different to the polite society around him; in a supposedly Christian country, he is a truly Christlike individual, yet is almost completely alien to those around him - a satirical point if ever there was one, yet not something strongly emphasised by Dostoyevsky. Despite the author's strong political convictions, he does not seem to want to write about the shortcomings of the Russia of his day.

Instead, as I have indicated, The Idiot is about Prince Myshkin's impact on the worldly upper class in St Petersburg and Moscow. Initial reactions include bafflement, rejection and amusement, and through the whole novel most characters regard him with either indignation or affection, often alternating in a single individual throughout. This is one reason why the Prince's character cannot develop, for he is the novel's only stable reference point, the reverse of a much more common literary structure where the background characters remain static and the main ones evolve in the foreground. (This makes The Idiot sound experimental, and it is far more mainstream for that to be a way to categorise it. It does in fact feel very finished, more so than, say, The Devils, and this is an amazing feat, considering the rapidity with which it was written and the motivation behind the composition, as hack work to pay off pressing gambling debts.)

As with all Dostoyevsky's central characters, Prince Myshkin has an autobiographical feel to him, and it is true that the writer shared the suffering of epileptic fits with his creation. Additionally, he was also something of an outsider and certainly an idealist, but there were many aspects to his personality not shared by his creation, such as the compulsive gambling that led him to write the novel so fast and which is documented in the more clearly autobiographical The Gambler. I don't know what it is that Dostoyevsky does, by the way, but he is one of the best writers at the trick of making central characters seem to be the author himself, rivalling the Dickens of Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, or Great Expectations.

The novel is not entirely even in standard. The second half of Part Three is not so good, with the tedious confession and attempted suicide of Ippolit, and the correspondence between two women who admire the Prince. Things pick up again in the final part, but to my mind this must be the most disappointing fifty pages in any of Dostoyevsky's mature novels.

The "holy fool" is not a particularly frequent central character in modern fiction, perhaps because they are a type which it is hard to give a believable internal life, and because they seem rather passive. Outside of Dostoyevsky's writing, the examples that come most easily to mind are from medieval stories or work derived from these (such as the opera Parsifal). Dostoyevsky used the type again, to a certain extent, in Alexey Karamazov, but the only clear literary example I can think of taking a central role is Mervyn Peake's Mister Pye; Forrest Gump might be one from film. I suppose that they are not characters who occur frequently in real life either, and I suspect that if they did they would be just as disconcerting to meet as Prince Myshkin is depicted as being. The hermit is something associated with the true spirit of (pre-Communist) Russia, the solitary monastic life being much more important to the Orthodox Christian tradition than to the Catholic, so it may be that in Prince Myshkin Dostoyevsky idealised himself into a tradition that idealised Russia. Whether he is autobiography or symbol, or both, isn't really important; this is a great novel whatever you decide.

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