Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Idiot - Fyodor Dostoevsky

1869; 578 pages.  Genre : Russian Lit.; Classic Lit.  New Author? : Yes.  Overall Rating : 9*/10.

    After 4 years of being treated for epilepsy in Switzerland, Prince Myshkin returns home to Mother Russia.  He has almost no money, knows no one, and has no idea how he's going to survive.  But it doesn't bother him; he will trust in the goodness of others and endure.   Whatever happens, will happen.

    What will he think of his countrymen?  And what will they think of him?

What's To Like...
    The crux of The Idiot is this : if you took a person who embodies all the Christian ideals, and plopped him down in mid-19th century Russia, what would happen?  Dostoevsky's opinion is that they would like him initially, and even confide in him because of his simplicity and lack of guile.  But ultimately they would scorn him as an idiot, and this is the author's scathing indictment of his fellow Russians.

    But Dostoevsky presents his characters so well, and makes their scorn seem so reasonable; that you can't help but see things their way as well.  And the Prince's goodness does have a small-but-positive effect on those around him.  Alas, the reverse is true as well.  The Myshkin at the end of the book has acquired a bit of a "taint", which the Myshkin at the beginning of the story didn't possess.   He is now wiser to the ways of the world, but it came at a cost.

    Dostoevsky also uses The Idiot as a vehicle to present his views on a whole slew of topics.  Here's some that I noted : Capital Punishment, Love, Gossip, Turning the other cheek, Forgiveness, Honor, Atheism, Slander, Fraud, Politics, Gun Control, Death, Charity, Suicide, Catholicism, and Jealousy.

     He creates a fascinating "anti-Myshkin" in Parfyon Ragozin, and it is enlightening to watch their interaction.  And ultimately, like a great Shakespearean play, we come to realize that a tragic ending is inevitable.

Kewlest New Word...
Charivari : A noisy mock serenade typically performed by a group of people in derision of an unpopular person or in celebration of a wedding.

Excerpts...  (and there were lots to choose from)
    "There's not one person here who is worth such words," Aglaia burst out.  "There's no one here, no one, who is worth your little finger, nor your mind, nor your heart!  You are more honourable than any of them, nobler, better, kinder, cleverer than any of them!  Some of them are not worthy to stoop to pick up the handkerchief you have just dropped... Why do you humble yourself and put yourself below them?  Why do you distort everything in yourself?  Why have you no pride?"  (pg. 319)

    There is, indeed, nothing more annoying than to be, for instance, wealthy, of good family, nice-looking, fairly intelligent, and even good-natured, and yet to have no talents, no special faculty, no peculiarity even, not one idea of one's own, to be precisely 'like other people'.  To have a fortune, but not the wealth of a Rothschild; to be of an honourably family, but one which has never distinguished itself in any way; to have a pleasing appearance expressive of nothing in particular; to have a decent education, but to have no idea what use to make of it; to have intelligence, but no ideas of one's own; to have a good heart, but without any greatness of soul; and so on and so on.  There is an extraordinary multitude of such people in the world, far more than appears.  (pg. 431)

"Better be unhappy and know the truth, than be happy and live like a fool."  (pg. 487)
    This is Russian Lit - it's long; every character has two names; it's a difficult read; and there's a lot of drama and not much action.  You have to accept those things going is, and read it a bit at a time.  For me, 15-30 pages per sitting seemed right; and it took me a month to get through The Idiot.  But I found it to be a masterpiece.

    Dostoevsky's question - would a righteous person survive in a decadent society - can be applied to modern-day America as well.  One wonders if the USA today is like 1869 Russia - a half-century away from a thoroughly corrupt 1% being forcibly overthrown by a 99% that's poor and getting poorer, and without any hope for improvement of their lot.  9 Stars.

No comments: