Reading Resolution: “The Idiot” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

9. A book written in Russia: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

List Progress: 22/30

Man, there is a good book in here, but it’s 200-300 pages shorter than the actual thing.

The Idiot is an 1868 Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, famous for works such as The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment (which I read a few years ago and enjoyed). The book follows the titular “idiot”, Prince Myshkin, a simple, innocent, and, above all, good, man trying to navigate his way through Russian high society. Where works like Crime and Punishment sought to interrogate the worst that people can be and how society reacts to those perpetrators, The Idiot seeks to set a good and pure man loose in the world and record how the world responds. (The answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, to take advantage of him at every turn.) There are a lot of big ideas and statements at play, but they are lost in infinitely too much page space.

The book is divided into four Parts, and Part One could have easily stood on its own, and perhaps should have. It is a tight story of the prince coming to St. Petersburg after years receiving psychological treatment in Switzerland, and getting immediately caught up in the affairs of a high class general’s family and their relations, culminating in a long, tense dinner room scene that flips your expectations of how the prince gets along in the world. Upon finishing Part One, my question was where it would go from there. Apparently Dostoevsky was thinking the same thing. The Idiot was serialized and written in an experimental style where events were decided on as they came about, trying to follow what actions the characters would take rather than trying to construct any sort of plot. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really work. A time skip between Part One and Part Two contains so many events that it could have been a book on its own, and it is baffling that those events were kept “off stage”. Characters treat all interactions as matters of life and death and fly into rages or passionate love or crushing despair at the drop of a hat. Their emotions feel too big to be human, but their lives too mundane and full of minutiae to be archetypal. 

There are a lot of powerful moments in this book, and as it was culminating, I did find myself caught up in the adventure now that we had some plot momentum once more. And if nothing else, The Idiot gave us the character of Nastasya Filipovna. I was not expecting a book from 1868 to contain a character who was the victim of grooming, much less treat her with so much dignity and respect. Nastasya Filipovna was groomed and abused by an aristocrat as a child and teenager and entered her adult years as “damaged goods” through no fault of her own. But rather than be crushed, her hurt turns into anger and she lashes out against everyone who tries to deny or pity her. She will not be set aside when she is no longer wanted like a doll, but will make her trauma everyone else’s problem. She is a great character and the book has the most life by far when she is directly involved.

I am glad I got to experience all of the good parts of The Idiot, but if I had to do it again, I probably wouldn’t. 600 pages is a very large amount to wade through for some good scenes, no matter how good they are.

Would I Recommend It: Not really. Or read Part One and stop there.

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