November 18, 2008

The Idiot (1868 novel)

Written by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Aside from the handful of backlogged reviews I posted last Wednesday, I'm sure all of you (there has to be at least one semi-regular reader out there) have noticed the site has been a little dead the last couple of weeks. The reason is that my current trek through the works of Akira Kurosawa has led me down a road I've never before traveled: 19th century Russian literature. Scoff if you will but, while I have occasionally dabbled in bits of reading considered above the average, my high-school educated, film novelization accustomed mind nonetheless filled with doubts as I looked upon the 700-page, tiny text monstrosity that lay before me. I figured I'd give the first few chapters a read and see how it went from there. Suffice it to say, I got through with surprising ease, even if it did take much longer than expected.

Nastasya Fillipovna was adopted at a young age, and groomed and educated as the perfect concubine for an aging man name Totski. When he decides to settle down and marry, he figures the best way to part with his young mistress is to place a large dowry on her head, luring in any suitors willing to overlook her former status.

Gavrilya Ardalionovich Ivolgin is the young secretary of a general, and is convinced his lack of abilities is directly tied to his meager income. So, with the help of General Ivan Yepanchin, he sets out to woo the striking woman, with his eyes firmly set on the dowry.

Parfyon Rogozhin is a wealthy thug living off the fortune of his late father. He wanders the streets with a posse of scoundrels and brutes, using cash or threats of violence to push his way through obstacles. He quickly develops an obsessive passion for Nastasya and is willing to completely overlook the dowry. Hell, he'll even throw 100,000 roubles of his own cash on the table if she says yes.

It's into this situation that our hero enters. Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin is among the last of a dying family line. After spending the majority of his young life in Switzerland receiving treatment for debilitating epileptic seizures, he's returning to his homeland, penniless, with the hopes of settling some business with a distant relative, the wife of General Yepanchin.

He is the idiot of the title, not because he lacks knowledge or intellect, but because he lacks the ability to lie. While the members of Society put on false faces and work their sly manipulations, this man enters into their midst, unafraid to gently state his blunt, and often shockingly astute, observations. But these are never mean, never used to harm or offend. In fact, he has a naivete that keeps him focused on the positive in people and he uses his sharp insights in attempts to heal or console. Society, of course, doesn't always like it when people see through its curtains, so he quickly builds just as many enemies as friends.

It's within hours of his arrival that the prince, his business left unsettled, finds himself among the guests at a party where Nastasya will choose her fiance. To the horror of Gavrilya and Rogozhin, there's an instant connection between herself and the prince. He is able to see the suffering in her eyes, the depravity which she endured before being cast aside by Totsky. She sees in him genuine compassion and, more importantly, respect.

Hell of a story, right? Well, this is only the first of four parts. Nastasya, fearful that she, an impure woman, would somehow break the innocence of the prince, runs off with a gloating Rogozhin... and six months go by.

The business the prince was so eager to attend to, we learn, was a surprising bit of inheritance he earned. He heads off to the city to get things settled and start building a new life before returning to the friends he met that first night in town. One would think such a change in fortune would skew the naive outlook this man has on life, but the prince is still the kind-hearted man we knew and loved. And this has led him to a bit of ridicule when it's found out that people have started playing on his sympathies by milking him for money. One such man is Lebedev, a worshipper of the rich who used to hang with Rogozhin's posse, but now goes out of his way to welcome the prince into his home, eager to serve the man's every need with the hope of laying a finger on just a tiny portion of the man's wealth. And yet, it is this man who will go further and further out of his way to help the prince, and become one of his most beloved companions. Such is the power of the prince to inspire others to greatness while repelling others to childish disgust.

With Rogozhin and Nastasya temporarily out of the prince's life, a new romance starts to form between him and Aglaya, the youngest of General Yepanchin's three daughters. Like her mother (I love the character of her mother), she has little patience for the flights of fancy the prince is prone to, but can't help but look in awe at the care and attention he offers others. It looks like bright things for these two - which means the dumps once again for her other suitor, Gavrilya - but...

Nastasya won't stop haunting the prince. He feels she was the ultimate missed opportunity to help a person in need. She feels he was the ultimate treasure that she let get away. The two keep swinging into one another both in thought and in person. And Rogozhin is always there to break it up.

Rogozhin and the prince form an intricate duality to the story. The prince is the outsider, approaching society with an innocence that can be beneficial to those willing to listen. Rogozhin is the insider, the symbol of all that is cold and corrupt about wealth and status. And, yet, they form an almost brotherly bond over their passion towards the increasingly troubled Nastasya. A bond that will carry us to the tragic, yet necessary, conclusion.

I won't say any more for fear of giving things away. This is a marvelous book which succeeds at sweeping the emotional connections of a group of characters off to an epic level of social exploration. Yes, it's long, and there's some little tangents here and there that add little to the broader material, but it's still a damned compelling read.

That said, there is one thing that almost kills it. Ippolit is a teenager slowly dying of tuberculosis who takes a strange sort of glee in sharing his misery with others. While I can understand the existence of his character as yet another contrast to the prince, he's far too overused, and comes in for long stretches of the story to offer up little more than a wall for the plot to slam into, and his lengthy rants are a chore.

But that's it, the only major complaint I have for this classic novel. I'm sure some with a much higher appreciation than me for classic literature will read my review and snicker at the simplicity of it. But, hey, it's the best I can offer at the time. Take it or leave it.

My review of The Idiot (1951 film).


Anthony Williams said...

I shall consider this review the Cliff notes of 'The idiot'. Now, the next time I'm at a party or social gathering, I can drop a "Has anyone read 'The idiot'? Fascinating piece of 19th century Russian literature :p. -- Seriously, congrats on getting through this. Compelling or not, that's a Hell of a big task.

NoelCT said...

Glad I could help by boosting your faux social intellectualism.

And now the next (first?) time you watch THE PRODUCERS, you'll know what one character means when he calls the other a "Prince Myshkin".