January 21, 2009

The Insulted and the Injured

1861 novel
written by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A few years ago, young Ivan "Vanya" Petrovich published his first novel, which was quite a rousing success. In the time since, he's been struggling to piece together what he can of a followup as he finds his attentions constantly drawn elsewhere. You see, he's desperately in love with his childhood sweetheart Natasha Nikolayevna, but her parents are uncertain about the financial future of a novelist, so they convince the two to hold off their marriage until Vanya is a bit more stable. During that break, Natasha meets and falls for Alyosha, the kind yet flighty son of a wealthy Prince. Vanya, desiring Natasha's happiness above all else, finds himself the supporting player to the unfolding affair between the passionate woman, the apologetically unfaithful new man in her life, and their respective parents who are in the midst of a harsh economic feud.

I know all of this sounds a bit melodramatic and bland, but I was surprised at the energetic humor Dostoevsky layers throughout the material as our hapless young hero, Vanya, finds himself yanked every which way. At first, he's a bit unsympathetic and weak and you just want to smack the dude and tell him to stand up for himself, but there's a clever twist part way through were we realize he's far more perceptive than the rest and sees a wicked crash in their future that he's trying to blanket them all for.

So, yes, it really is quite an interesting read, but the most gripping part of the story is a largely unrelated subplot. Vanya's apartment once belonged to an old man our hero used to observe, who would walk into the same restaurant every night, a mangy dog at his side, and just sit and stare before leaving. When an incident leads to that man dying in the author's arms, Vanya can't help but start wondering at the mystery of this man's life. Hence, he rents the dude's apartment and starts going through his stuff.

Yeah, yeah, it all sounds a bit creepy, but Dostoevsky gives Vanya enough innocence to make it work. Especially when, one day, a 13-year-old girl named Nellie walks through his front door and asks where her grandfather is. After a few clipped meetings that all end with Nellie running away, Vanya tracks her to a filthy boarding house where the girl is forced into prostitution to repay her late mother's debts. Vanya is just as horrified at this revelation as we are and uses some friends with underworld connections to free the girl into his care ... only to find himself stuck in a cramped apartment with a tragically damaged girl he knows next to nothing about.

Right there, in the scenes between these two, are where the true depths of the novel lie as they find themselves in a relationship that's innocent yet uncomfortable, childish yet complex. Sadly, Dostoevsky somewhat fumbles around, introduces an out-of-left-field fatal illness, and never pays off half of what he sets up.

In fact, much of the novel suffers from coincidence, the chance meetings of random people who nonetheless are revealed to have ridiculous connections, not the least of which is a paternity issue raised in the final chapter that's meant to be shocking, but I dismissed it early on as a possibility because it was just too contrived. And Dostoevsky didn't prove me wrong.

I don't have enough experience with Dostoevsky to say where this fits into his larger body of work, but I see it was the first novel written after a long, painful exile that included time in a labor camp and an execution that turned out to be a horrendous practical joke. By the time THE IDIOT came around eight years after this, he was much deeper and tighter as an author, so I'm guessing most of the problems here are just signs of inexperience which would smooth out down the road.

And, problematic as it can be at times, with plotting that does occasionally stretch credibility, it is an interesting read filled with colorful, human characters, some damned compelling relationships, and wonderful insights into a time where death was all-too-common and no-one was a mere phone call away.


(my review of the 1965 film adaptation, RED BEARD)

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