Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Reality Bites - The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sprawling nineteenth century novels  it would seem don't really come like this.   Not for the Idiot a 6 part Sunday night drama in the run -up to Christmas nor the scrabbling around of a Hollywood script editor to churn it all down to a two hour screenplay.  Not to say these acts would be impossible - Russian TV attempted the serial thing (although it was 10 parts) and Kurosawa adapted some of the work into a piece of Japanese cinema.  But the difference from say a Dickens and Austen is the sheer amount of intellectul material FD throws at the page.  To continue the cinematic theme one Polish film was made based solely around the last 20 pages of this tome.

However that weight is not always necessarily a good thing nor does it make the Idiot an easy read. As it was written in instalments - common for the time - characters can come and go.  Large polemics can be advanced by characters where it is difficult to identify the context.  Using similar forms writers would rely on plot devices - cliff hangers and so on to give the reader some sort of guide or helping hand through the hundreds of pages.  Plot is not really the thing for FD here (although there is one which is not negligible) rather the force of ideas and strong central characterisation are what pulls you through.

The book begins with a return as a train pulls into St. Petersburg from the outskirts of Western Europe.  For FD this was also a sort of return -  his last novella the Gambler being set solely in the casinos of the West - as he himself gambled his way across the city states of 19th Century Europe. He wrote this work when abroad.  In a sense that dislocation is reflected in the work itself as although set in his regular haunts of St. Petersburg - the urban setting does not have the same central role as in Crime and Punishment or the Double.  In fact more than half the work takes place in a Russian resort town Pavlosk - near the city - fairly anonymous and removing the tensions of the urbanisation of Russia which is a continual theme of Dostoevesky and indeed Russian literature.

The returner is Prince Myshkin - the "Idiot" - who has been released from an asylum in Switzerland being treated for epilepsy (FD's own condition).  Given the nature of the novel it is not really revealing much to say that the narrative arc of the work sees the Prince returning to hospital care.  So in a sense the whole book is coverage of a period of so-called lucidity from Prince Myshkin.   The title is a bit of a deceit but again symbolic of Tsarist Russia as Myshkin has the title but little else in terms of property or money.   What he does have though is purity and child-like innocence as he has developed in a cocoon thousands of miles away from the internecine tensions of St. Petersburg.  He is thrown into the deep end of the messiness and realities of human interaction almost immediately as he meets a character on the train - in some ways his polar opposite - Rogozhin.

Rogozhin is from the merchant class and is cash-rich but a nasty piece of work.  In one scene he literally buys off one of his potential suitors for 100,000 roubles.  This is a not very thinly disguised show of disdain that FD has for the new social forces in Russia.  The Prince gets deeply involved with the subject of Rogozhin's crude financial passion:  Nastasia Fillipovna.  This is because Myshkin tries to get established in St. Petersburg by calling on a distant relation - he subsequently becomes inveigled with her whole family - the Yepanchins whose patriarch is a General.  Nastasia is a beautiful young woman - who by the nineteenth standards of the time - is a fallen woman - kept by an older man and acquaintance of the General.  She is treated like a piece of property (not unusual for a society having only recently ended serfdom) who although with great beauty is seen as damaged goods thus open to being passed around any men.  It is the General's assistant Ganya who seems to have the biggest obsession with her. although he is also hedging his bets with one of the General's three daughters.

Yet it is Ganya that Rogozhin attempts to buy off  in a drawn out scene at Ganya's apartment where the Prince intervenes and offers to marry Nastasia as an alternative to a life with Rogozhin.  This tension between the naive romanticism of Myshkin versus the brutal wealth and violent passion of Rogozhin is a constant throughout the work.    Nastasia herself cannot decide - as her "ruined" past (which is only hinted at) means she could only deserve the nasty side of life in Rogozhin.  This has predictably tragic consequences.   It would be inaccurate to call this a love triangle - Myshkin in particular is pretty ambiguous about his feelings for Nastasia which again has consequences for him.  This unusual relationship may provide one of the frames of the work but it intersects with so many other complicated elements.  One thing that is noticeable is the continual use of ensembles - Rogozhin has a gang (quite humourously drawn),  the Yepanchins and the suitors for each of the daughters, a group of nihilist -light young men  led by Burdovsky pursue Myshkin for some non-existent legacy.  This is pretty difficult to follow particularly when they are all gathered together!

This mighty character list exposes I think the strengths and weaknesses of FD  - he has a real insight into human behaviour and character which the reader can recognise 150 years later but the work is so sprawling there seems to be inconsistencies over which character has which behaviour.  Ganya in ther first book is pretty villainous - this alters in the second book where he comes to Myshkin's aid and then he sort of disappears.  Probably one of the curses of writing such a long piece of work in instalment format.  

To some extent this same problem can be seen in the polemic that comes from the mouths of the characters but essentially they are Dostoevsky's voice or his caricatures of ideological opponents.  Within an hour of his return to Russia the Prince is sharing his experience  of facing death then being reprieved (exactly what happened to Dostoevsky twenty years before - causing his prison exile),  Dostoevsky seems to be making the points fairly randomly as the work does not have the binding coherence of a clear narrative development.  A scene where all characters have to outline the worst thing they have ever done seems more like a philosophy tutorial .  The Prince's mega-rant  near the end of  the book against Catholicism and Athiesm and the Russian character and everything really is an immediate precursor to an epileptic attack - almost like FD was venting and getting everything out of his head.  

This latter speech actually occurs in quite a funny context as Myshkin is now attempting to declare his love for the Yepanchin's youngest daughter Agalaya  - who in a way reciprocates him and definitely shares his naivety - and he makes this speech at a party in their honour hosted in honour of their potential engagement.   He then accidentally breaks an antique Chinese vase something he explicitly declared he would not do.    This relationship is doomed just as inevitably as the smashed antique.

So the work ends with Myshkin's return to hospital, Nastasia's death at the hands of Rogozin and the lack of marriage to Agalaya.  The Idiot's venture into the "real world" seems to have been a disaster but ultimately through his insight and openness many people have been affected by him - as he does inspire loyalty, friendship and in an extremely distorted way  love.    There is a lot more in the work - many other characters who touch the reader with their truth (albeit not always consistently) - the matriarch Lizaveta, Ganya's drunken father, the opportunist hanger on Lebedev.

I don't think anyone has ever quite written a novel like this - it is sprawling, confusing and packed full with contradictory and developed political and personal argument.  Ultimately though like the Prince's brief time  which is documented amongst the maelstrom of humans it is very worthwhile even if he does end up back in hospital.  A book that will stay with me but has taken me a long time to think about - this has taken 6 months to compose.  Worth it though, definitely worth it.