Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Would it be too presumptuous for me to compare Dostoevsky with Cormac McCarthy? I love their frank writing and the light that shines through their dark stories. The characters too. There are the ones you love to hate -who are easy to hate- and the ones who are green and innocent, who are just trying to get through the day, who are begging your forgiveness and respect, who you want to root for and blow wind in their sails. It all makes for such a satisfying meal of a book! Be forewarned, though, that Dostoevsky being a 19th century Russian novelist gives everyone long multipart names with nicknames and titles thrown in for good measure - best to print out a character list for quick reference while reading.

In The Idiot, we have prince Myshkin who has just arrived from a long stay at a Swiss mental hospital to rejoin his distant Russian relatives. They are not quite sure what to make of him as he seems to be a bit naive on the expectations of society. He takes things literally and speaks from the heart. He has nothing but the best of intentions and believes people generally want to do good and be kind. It doesn't take long for him to realize he is in over his head and he's got most of them so bafflingly wrong. His misinterpretations and mishaps have people laughing openly and calling him 'idiot' (an expression so humiliating it makes me cringe). One can't help but notice, though, the irony when you are introduced to the workings of Russian (and probably other cultures') high society with their crazy, cruel and shallow ways. Just who are the 'idiots' after all? It's times like this you just want Myshkin to hold his ground and lash back in revenge. But why? Revenge is not always all its cracked up to be. Ultimately you know Myshkin is the only sane one, it's just that society isn't ready for him yet. It's easy to believe, too, that his kindness and simple, easygoing attitude left its mark on some of the characters in a 'pay it forward' kind of way. I love the quote from page 378 that talks about 'scattering the seeds of charity and kind deeds'. We could all afford to do more of this towards our fellow human beings.

The prince's conversation seemed simple enough, yet its very simplicity only made it more inappropriate in the present case, and the experienced attendant could not but feel that what was perfectly suitable from man to man was utterly unsuitable from visitor to a manservant. And since servants are far more intelligent than their masters usually suppose, it struck the man that there were two explanantions: either the prince was some sort of impostor who had come to bed of the general, or he was simply a little bit soft and had no sense of dignity, for a prince with his wits about him and a sense of his own dignity, would not sit in an anteroom and talk to a servant about his affairs. pg15

What if I were not to die! What if I could go back to life - what eternity! And it would all be mine! I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one! pg54

We have nothing but secrets here, prince, you see - nothing but secrets. It has to be so, it's a sort of etiquette; it's stupid. And in a matter which above everything needs frankness, openness and stragihtforwardness. There are marriages being arranged. I don't like these marriages . . . pg73

He crossed the dinging-room into the hall on the way to his rooms. As he passed the front door, he heard and noticed some one outside making desperate efforts to ring the bell. But something seemed to have gone wrong with the bell, it only shook without making a sound. Myshkin unbolted the door, opened it, and stepped back in amazement, startled. Nastasya Filippovna stood before him. He knew her at once from her photograph. There was a gleam of annoyance in her eyes when she saw him. She walked quickly into the hall, pushing him out of the way . . . pg92

Nothing helps a man to reform like thinking of the past with regret. pg228

He had a foreboding that if he remained here even a few days longer he would be drawn into this world irrevocably and that his life would be bound up with it for ever. But he did not consider it for ten minutes; he decided at once that it would be impossible to run away, that it would be almost cowardice, that he was faced with such difficulties that it was his duty now to solve them, or at least to do his utmost to solve them. pg287

Well that's how you knock a fellow out completely! Upon my word, prince, such simplicity, such innocence, as was never seen in the Golden Age - yet all at once you pierce right through a fellow like an arrow with such psychological depth of observation. pg289

In scattering the seed, scattering your charity, your kind deeds, you are giving away, in one form or another, part of your personality, and taking into yourself part of another; you are in mutual communion with another, a little more attention and you will be rewarded with the knowledge of the most unexpected discoveries. You will come at last to look upon your work as a science; it will lay hold of all your life, and may fill up your whole life. On the other hand, all your thoughts, all the seeds scattered by you, will grow up and take form. He who has received them from you will hand them on to another. And how can you tell what part you may have in the future determination of the destinies of humanity? pg 378

Now I've worked it all out, and waiting for you to ask you all about foreign countries. I have never seen a Gothic cathedral. I want to go to Rome. I want to visit all the learned societies. I want to study in Paris. I was preparing myself to studying all last year, and I've read a great many books. I've read forbidden books. pg 402

I've always heard too much that was bad about you, more than what was good; of your pettiness, the exclusiveness of your interests, your stagnation, your shallow education, and your ridiculous habits. Oh so much is said and written about you! I came here to-day with curiosity, with excitement. I wanted to see for myself and make up my own mind whether this uppercrust of Russian society is really good for nothing and has out-lived its time, is drained of its ancient life and only fit to die, but still persists in a petty, endless strife with the men of the future . . . pg516


Anonymous said...

This sounds good; I want to want to read it. But...it's Russian. And depressing. And...Russian.

Thank you for sharing the quotes, though. They're amazing.

This is Bookzilla, btw. Neither Blogger nor Blogspot are letting me comment while logged in.

Trish said...

I'm not always in the mood for this heavy stuff either; right now, though, it just really appeals to me.

Tracy said...

It definitely sounds very Russian. I do want to read Dostoevsky - watch out for my next year's mini-challenge 'Oh, Those Russians'

Trish said...

Russians are a dour bunch, aren't they? I'll be interested to follow your challenge if they haven't broken me by then.

Tracy said...

Definitely not the most optimistic writers, Trish. You're more than welcome, but you'll have a long wait - it'll be 2013's challenge - don't think I can cope with any more challenges this year (and Boney M have a lot to answer for :) )