The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In her review of David McDuff’s 2004 translation of The Idiot (I myself read the 2002 Pevear and Volokhonsky version), the novelist A. S. Byatt describes the difficult circumstances of this strange novel’s composition:
The writing and publication of the novel were certainly both tortured and strained. It was written abroad, unlike his previous novels, for serial publication, put together by his second wife and stenographer, Anna Grigoryevna. Their daughter died during the writing. Dostoevsky gambled suicidally and had epileptic fits. Anna preserved the notebooks, which show that both plot and characters were in a state of fluid and volcanic chaos, even while the book was appearing. The good prince appears in the early notes as proud and demonic, and the rapist of his adopted sister (a prototype of Nastasya Filippovna). He also commits arson and wife-murder. The first part of the novel, as it appeared, is acknowledged to be powerful. Dostoevsky appears not to have had a clear idea of how to proceed. The second two parts are phantasmagoric and rambling, unplotted and fitfully energetic.
This authorial chaos may well explain the novel’s inchoate quality; it took me three weeks to read, largely because I had no idea what was going on in parts two and three, which come between the incomparably powerful first and last sections. I cannot think of another novel that begins as strongly as The Idiot: the entire first part, nearly 200 pages, is a work unto itself, a tragedy obeying the Aristotleian unities of time and action (albeit not of place), occupying roughly a single day and focusing on the prince’s first encounters with the novel’s two opposed heroines.
In the first chapter, we discover Prince Myshkin on a train; he is returning to Russia from a four-year stay in a Swiss sanitarium where he was being treated for epilepsy. This obscure and unworldly nobleman encounters the merchant Rogozhin on the train, which immediately involves him in an endlessly ramifying and maddeningly complicated marriage-and-money plot centered around two women: Nastasya Filoppovna, a beautiful young woman widely regarded as “fallen” or “ruined” because she was sexually exploited by her rich benefactor after her parents’ deaths (Wikipedia oddly describes her as a femme fatale, which, given her fate, is quite inapt); and Aglaya Epanchin, the youngest and most beautiful daughter of a rich family headed by an imperious matriarch.
The novel’s structure is more complex than it appears. Dostoevsky seems to have been attempting an early version of the Henry James point-of-view method, wherein the narrator is restricted in knowledge by the perspectives of the characters on the scene, particularly Myshkin himself. Each of the novel’s four long sections centers around an event—Nastasya’s gathering in part one, the young men’s attempt to extort Myshkin in part two, the chaos at the vauxhall in part three, and Myshkin’s appearance at the Epanchins’ social gathering in part four. Whatever occurs outside of the lead-up to these events does not belong to the narrative proper, and the narrator is always either backtracking to fill us in or else bringing spies and go-betweens onstage to provide exposition. As a result, the reader is usually as confused as is Prince Myshkin about what the novel’s cast of schemers and plotters are doing; I myself don’t believe that I am in full command of the plot. (Compare this narrative diffidence to the calmly all-knowing narrative voices in novels such as Middlemarch or Anna Karenina.)
Dostoevsky is on his way to the embedded member-of-the-community narrator that he will use to such brilliant effect in Demons and The Brothers Karamazov; the partially omniscient and partially situated narrator of The Idiot is an uneasy and not always successful experiment in refusing the European novelist’s nineteenth-century role, following Scott, of universal historian. The brittleness of narration here, possibly caused by Dostoevsky’s confused circumstances, will be an effect later consciously sought by the modernists (e.g., Conrad, James, Woolf, Faulkner).
The overall tone of this book is hard to describe. Myshkin’s endless difficulties with the possibility of marrying into the Epanchin family are an amusing misfit of authorial sensibility and novelistic subject matter, as if Dostoevsky were trying to write a Jane Austen novel. The novel’s other major narrative strands, focused on the increasingly menacing Rogozhin and and the dying young nihilist Ippolit, take place on the other hand in a proto-Kafka world of haunted and decaying urbanity. It is in Rogozhin’s dark, warren-like house that the prince encounters the novel’s main visual motif, Holbein’s painting of Christ in the tomb, an image signifying the possibility that there is no transcendence or holiness, that rotting meat is all we are:
And the horror of the Rogozhin plot—very much including Nastasya Filoppovna’s lost childhood, taken from her by her predatory “benefactor”—gives force to the nihilistic speculations of Ippolit. Ippolit’s “confession”—a suicide note for a suicide that he fails to complete—contains one of the most horrifying episodes I have read in a great novel: the young man’s dream of a monstrous insect loose in his family’s house. The novel does not avoid the possibility that such inhuman horror is the truth of things; and Dostoevsky’s willingness to put this vision into an ostensibly realist social novel about rich people’s courtship rituals gives The Idiot a grandeur and scope that earlier and later novels (those of, say, Austen and Kafka) lack because they embody only one or the other side of the human/inhuman boundary.
The prince is supposed to be “a positively beautiful man,” to quote from Dostoevsky’s famous letter stating his intentions, and even something of a Christ figure. One of the characters tells him that he has “inherent inexperience,” which may be taken to mean that he is somehow not party to original sin. Aglaya berates him by saying that he has only truth but no tenderness. Like the insect in Ippolit’s dream, Myshkin is a monster in the drawing room. He subjects society to supra-social standards from the perspective of which society’s mating dances and money-grubbing appear muddled and vile, an affect the novel’s diffident narration reproduces.
Various characters misinterpret the prince as a democrat and even a feminist, due to his sympathy for the novel’s “fallen woman.” As his climactic speech at the Epanchins’ society evening reveals, he is no such thing: he is rather what the mature Dostoevsky was, a fierce partisan of the Orthodox Church and the Russian empire.
For Myshkin, nihilism and socialism and democracy (and, by implication, feminism as it is a development of these) are Catholic-inspired holdovers of Roman statism, forcing brute and schematic ideologies on living populations. (This is a ravingly anti-Catholic novel, rather like Brontë’s Villette, with which I suspect it has a number of other affinities. One of the novel’s most appealing characters ends up as a Catholic convert; we are supposed to take this as a bitter and painful irony.) Dostoevsky’s purpose in foregrounding “the woman question” is to suggest that its only answer is Myshkin’s absolute and Christ-like pity for the “fallen” Nastasya Filoppovna.
Dostoevsky has no regard or respect for the society that violated and rejected Nastasya Filippovna and little but contempt for the world of money that is replacing the old aristocracy and its minimal sense of decency. This novel is under no illusions about what people—what women—are subjected to in the world. But in seeing past society to the spider or saint creeping behind the furniture, the novel has no choice but to reject any merely political or social solution. Politics and society are the problem; within their domain, the holy will be crushed like an insect in a dog’s mouth, and the corpse of Christ will hang in the merchant-murderer’s dank house.
Looked at this way, The Idiot could not be anything other than disorganized and disagreeably heterogenous. It is an attempt to put into form an encounter between the mundane and the absolute that the novel as a literary genre had not yet described, though the allusions to Cervantes and Flaubert suggest important precursors.
The young Lukács, before converting to Marxism and its imaginary and authoritarian solutions, asserted that Dostoevsky did not write novels—that his books are the epics of a new world that has not yet come into being. This is too narrow a conception of the novel, perhaps, but we can say that in the flaws and fissures of The Idiot, we perceive the pressure of our total confusion in a world “abandoned by God.” And we can admire Dostoevsky’s attempt, however unsatisfying, to find a form adequate to that confusion.
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