The Idiot was the book chosen for me by the Classics Club Spin earlier this month. I have to confess I wasn’t thrilled when I saw that this was the book I’d have to read but, as so often seems to happen with my spin books, I ended up enjoying it much more than I’d expected to. This wasn’t my first experience of Dostoevsky’s work; I’ve tried twice to read Crime and Punishment and both times gave up after a few chapters. Luckily, I’ve had more success with The Idiot!
The ‘idiot’ of the title is Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, a young man who, as the novel opens, is returning home to Russia after spending several years at a Swiss clinic receiving treatment for his epilepsy. On the train to St Petersburg he meets for the first time the man whose fate will become entwined with his own: Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin. Rogozhin is passionately in love with the beautiful but self-destructive Nastasya Filipovna, who has suffered a series of misfortunes that have led to her being labelled a ‘fallen woman’.
With no family of his own in the city, the prince introduces himself to the Epanchins, to whom he is distantly related. This family consists of General Epanchin, his wife Elizaveta, and their three daughters, Alexandra, Adelaida and Aglaya. As the story progresses, Myshkin becomes romantically involved with both Nastasya Filipovna and Aglaya Epanchin, but his inability to read between the lines and understand that people don’t always say what they really mean leads to trouble in his relationships with both women. His path will also cross again and again with Rogozhin’s, but while the prince pities Nastasya and hopes to save her from herself, Rogozhin’s love is of the violent and obsessive kind.
The intensity of Rogozhin’s personality is very different from the prince’s own gentle, peaceful nature. In fact, Myshkin seems to possess such simplicity of character, to be so trusting and gullible, so incapable of dealing with the subtleties of St Petersburg society that people think he must be an idiot. Of course, Myshkin is not really an idiot – that is, he doesn’t lack intelligence – but he is what Dostoevsky himself described as a portrayal of a ‘completely beautiful human being’. He is a genuinely good, kind-hearted person, but ironically it’s his goodness and his willingness to always see the best in people that are his weaknesses when it comes to negotiating complex social situations and dealing with people who are less honest than himself.
The edition of The Idiot that I read was the one pictured above, published by Everyman’s Library and translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky. This would maybe not have been my first choice of translation (this is the third of P&V’s Russian translations I’ve read and I’ve decided I’m not really a fan) but this is the book I already had on my shelf so it made sense to at least try it. Having said that, I found their translation of this particular book perfectly readable – though with a few strange word choices – and I’m sure I would still have found The Idiot a challenging read regardless of who it was translated by!
To clarify what I mean by ‘challenging’, I didn’t have any problem actually following the plot and understanding what was going on. This is really more of a character-driven novel than a plot-driven one anyway. Although I found it quite absorbing and was never bored, the pace is uneven and there are some long diversions in which various characters discuss religion or politics or philosophical ideas. Three chapters, for example, are devoted to a long confessional letter written by Ippolit, a young man who is dying from consumption – however, I thought this was one of the most powerful and moving sections of the book.
What I did struggle with at times was trying to interpret the actions and motivations of the characters, particularly the two main female characters, Nastasya and Aglaya. I won’t attempt an analysis of those two characters here, except to say that they are both so complex I’m not surprised the unsophisticated, unworldly Myshkin found it difficult to understand what they were really saying to him!
I enjoyed The Idiot a lot more than I thought I would, but I know I would have to read it again to be able to fully appreciate it. I don’t think I would want to do that in the near future but I will certainly try Crime and Punishment again and maybe The Brothers Karamazov as well.