Review: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (translated by David McDuff)

The Idiot begins on a train to St Petersburg, sometime in November in the late 19th century. The titular idiot, the blonde Prince Lev Nikolayevich, 27, is returning from Switzerland after four years of respite for his health. What Russia is like now, he can’t imagine. On the train he meets a dark-haired man of similar age (so you know he’s going to be bad), Parfyon Roghozin, who tells him about the tribulations of a woman called Nastasya Fillipovna. The two part ways, but you can sense that they are now somehow bound, as if they’ve entered into some kind of pact. It is this that drives the core of The Idiot’s narrative.

In St Petersburg the prince seeks accommodation and work, falling in with the circle of General Ivan Fyodorovich Yepanchin and his family, including his three daughters, whose marital negotiations provide further diversion. Downtown there’s Gavrila “Ganya” or “Ganka”, Ardalionovich and his indebted, adulterous and drunken father, who is driven by a furious ambition to increase his standing. He believes he is the prime candidate for betrothal to Nastasya, with a large sum of money on the table thanks to one of Nastasya’s lovers who wants to be rid of her. Overwrought hijinks follow, most of them centred on marital and related financial negotiations; think of it as the Real Housewives of St Petersburg. The dozen or so main characters take a steamy summer trip to Pavlosk and their dachas, where the intrigue sharpens.

The Idiot is so big and all-encompassing – comprising character study, social commentary, soap opera, philosophy, literature, politics, history – that its puzzles shift constantly under you. Not least the one in the title: why is the prince an idiot? He is mainly so in a pejorative sense, because he has epilepsy (as did the author), which is what sent him to Switzerland in the first place. Before treatment he was in his own words essentially illiterate, a babbling fool. But this is not the only reason people call him an idiot. He is seemingly completely without guile, immune to the games and affectations of St Petersburg society. He can be relied on to call things as they are, no matter the cost to himself or others; this makes him a somewhat awkward, unpredictable party guest. At last perhaps he is an idiot for seeing the best in people, for seeking understanding in the least comprehensible actions. He’s an idealist, an “impossible democrat”, one character says at one point, and they don’t mean it kindly.

Equally fascinating is Dostoyevksy’s depiction of what characters refer to as “the woman problem”. All of his characters are complicated, but it is his women who are perhaps most compelling. There’s Lizaveta Prokofyevna, the General Yepanchin’s wife, who shares the prince’s awkward foot-in-mouth problem. Her youngest daughter Aglaya is superficially an ideal woman, coquettish and decorous as appropriate, but harbours a secret desire to get away with a scandal. And then there’s the alluring Nastasya herself, who sees herself as many other talk about her, as a “fallen woman”. It is this that makes her so compelling to the prince (he has a terrible saviour complex), but also what drives her to cruelty. If she is so bad, why bother trying to be good?

The further I got into The Idiot, the more I thought that it revolves around questions of dignity. Dostoyevsky depicts a society in a severe state of decline, almost apocalyptically so (a reminder that there’s always someone who feels so at any particular time). There are hints of the revolution and paroxysms of violence to come. How to live well, or at least with dignity, in such times? Dostoyevsky shows a small snapshot of ordinary society doing their best, even when it drives them to the utmost perversity. The question comes to a head around Ippolit, a young man dying of consumption who decides it’s better to end his life on his own terms rather than wait for nature red in tooth and claw to claim him. But Dostoyevsky can’t resist undermining even this poor and angry soul with a cruel joke.

Another way to read The Idiot might be to ignore the story itself and choose to see it as a hook to hang Dostoyeveky’s observations of life and society, such as his pity for ordinary people:

to be wealthy, of decent family, of decent appearance, not badly educated, not stupid, even kin-hearted, and at the same time to possess no talent, no special quality, nor even any eccentricity , not a single idea of one’s own, to be decidedly “just like everyone else”.

Although they might behave as if they know their place in society, each of Dostoyevsky’s characters are alienated in some way, particularly the prince, who is painfully aware that there is something about life that eludes him:

I kept thinking that if I were to walk straight, walk for a very long time and go beyond that line, the line where the earth meets the sky, there the whole riddle around me would be solved and instantly I would see a new life, a thousand times more powerful and noisy than our own.

The prince is fascinated by people at the very edges of life, particularly those condemned, such as Ippolit or a prisoner whose execution in the French Revolution is stayed (something that also happened to the author).

Reading The Idiot is like eating a very rich desert: you don’t need much at a time, and it sits in your stomach. The dialogue sometimes approaches the incomprehensible, and I don’t think the translation is entirely to blame (in the end I had to imagine the kind of rhetorical battles seen in politics where the meaning is hidden to all but their intended targets). The rituals of St Petersburg society are arcane and difficult to relate to, even as they are fascinating. But then there’s a passage that stopped me in my tracks, such as Aglaya’s passionate demand for what she wants in a partner:

To you I want to say everything, everything, even about the most important things, when I want to; for my part, and you must hide nothing from me. I want to talk about everything with at least one human being as I talk to myself.

Despite such startling moments, The Idiot concludes almost hopelessly. To what end? As one character argues, “What matters is life – nothing but life”, but Dostoyevsky somehow transforms what could be a trite motivational pillow into something as rich and complicated as life itself.

Gay rating: 2/5 for suggested queer desire between Nastasya and Aglaya.

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