Dostoevsky: Crushing Dreams and Writing So Well

It’s been over a week since I finished a book, which kind of stresses me out. At the same time, I had to get through a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, so I was kind of expecting it. Saying “had to get through” is misleading, because it makes it sound unenjoyable and tedious, but it was not tedious and it wasn’t not enjoyable. The reason I won’t say it was enjoyable is because book #13 of 2015 was The Idiot. If you’ve read it, then you understand.

My brother gave me both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov for Christmas (I was on a Russian Lit kick this winter, I guess.) I asked one of my friends – who’s read both – which she would recommend reading first. She told me: “The Idiot made me lose faith in humanity, and The Brothers Karamazov restored it.” I always like hearing the bad news first, so I dove into The Idiot.

And it was so good. Undeniably, it shook my faith in humanity, and I may or may not still be slack jawed and frowning from that ending, but it was bleak in the greatest possible way. I don’t even know how to discuss this book, or really any of the classic Russian novels I’ve read. It’s such a specific type of literature that I haven’t seen recreated in any other genre, region, or era of literature. I don’t know what it is about them, but it feels like every single one encompasses so much more than 600-1000 odd pages of words… Everything is so over the top, so dramatic, and so extreme that reading it was like tearing through nine full seasons of a soap opera in a weekend. There is that much emotional turmoil.

I’ll try to expand on the premise of this one, on a really bare-boned level: the main character, Prince Myshkin a.k.a. The Idiot, has been away from his home country of Russia at an institution in Switzerland for four years, being treated for his “idiocy.” As far as I can tell, his “condition” was diagnosed because he’s sensitive and perfect, but times have changed so who knows. The novel begins as he’s returning to St. Petersburg to “be among people.” Myshkin is pure and simple and so deep-down good that it’s painful. He’s a beautiful character, and he deserves the best, but of course what he gets is instead a messy love triangle with status-, image-, and wealth-obsessed people.

The novel features characteristic references to enormous morality questions, tragic love, dramatic irony, breaking the fourth wall at some points, and ultimately made me consider life, love, good, and evil in ways I never had before. Dostoevsky was a genius, and I know I’m not doing so well at explaining this specific book, but he could write about anything (does write about anything, actually, this book is full of seemingly extraneous detail) and make it gripping. A scene where a character reads his suicide note aloud at a party was just as intense and interesting as the scene when the drunken Lèbedev rants for pages about things that make absolutely no sense and ultimately contribute very little to the plot.

The ending, though, was perfect. It was also devastating, and left a heavy sense of hopelessness in me, but it was also kind of the only way it could have ended. I read some of the introduction before I started (I read the Pevear Volokhonsky translation, by the way, those two translators are the only way to go) and it included letters from Dostoevsky in the midst of writing The Idiot. He was coming off Crime and Punishment, about the infamous Raskolnikov, a guilty character, and was therefore embarking on novel with a pure and innocent main character. His goal in his words: “to portray a positively beautiful man.”

But then of course, The Idiot ended up being maybe his darkest novel. I love reading about Dostoevsky’s writing process. Based on what I’ve read, he was one of those authors who came up with a character, or a vague premise, and then let the story write itself based on what would happen to the characters, and their reactions to situations that would arise. So in this introduction, it’s interesting to see how The Idiot inevitably deviated from the original purpose to instead reveal much darker revelations about human nature.

Again, didn’t really explain the book too well, and I’m sorry. I would recommend it (or anything by Dostoevsky, it takes work to read him but he always makes it worth the effort) (that was very obnoxious and preachy, sorry.) Some last minute observations and weird, coincidental things concerning this book :

  1. My edition’s cover art was designed by none other than Peter Mendelsund! So that’s kind of funny, I have a feeling I’m going to be keeping an eye out for cover art information from now on.
  2. I finished this book, with it’s bleak and hopeless ending, on the cold, windy night of Friday the 13th. I’m serious, the wind was howling as I read the last ten pages. It was incredibly satisfying.
  3. Normally I’m not too superstitious, but this was also the 13th book I finished this year… on Friday the 13th… does this mean I’m going to give birth to the devil? I just want fair warning.

And the final funny thing: I finished this book the night before Valentine’s day. The best way to set the mood for romance is to spend the day reflecting on a novel that left me gutted with serious trust issues. ◊

There was this contrast between us, which could not fail to tell in both of us, especially me: I was a man whose days were already numbered, while he was living the fullest immediate life, in the present moment, with no care for ‘ultimate’ conclusions, numbers, or anything at all that was not concerned with what… with what… well, say, with what he’s gone crazy over;”

– Ippolit comparing himself to Rogozhin, 406

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