Classics Club #8: ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky ****

Having so enjoyed The Double last year, I was very much looking forward to reading Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, particularly to see what his longer fiction was like.  The novel, which was first published in 1869, centres upon Prince Myshkin, who has returned to Russia from an asylum in Switzerland; he ’emerges as a unique combination of the Christian ideal of perfection and Dostoevsky’s own views, afflictions and manners’.

The translation in the Wordsworth Classics edition which I read was pleasingly Constance Garnett’s; from what I have read thus far, and with my knowledge of Russian literature, I believe that she is about the best.  Instead of reading the introduction before beginning the book, I decided to leave it until afterwards, so that I could make my own mind up about Dostoevsky’s plot, themes and messages.  Agnes Cardinal, the author of the introduction, throws up something rather interesting about the whole: ‘The fundamental tension at the heart of this novel, therefore, is also its triumph…  We know that The Idiot was the favourite [of Dostoevsky’s] among his fictions, and it is certainly his most intellectually daring as well as his most modern creation’.

The first sentence of The Idiot sets the scene immediately: ‘At nine o’clock in the morning, towards the end of November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed’.  Throughout, Dostoevsky’s descriptions are a real strength; of the first character whom he introduces, even before his name is given, he says the following: ‘What was particularly striking about the young man’s face was its deathlike pallor, which gave him a look of exhaustion in spite of his sturdy figure, and at the same time an almost painfully passionate expression, out of keeping with his coarse and insolent smile and the hard and conceited look in his eyes’.  One immediately gets the sense that Dostoevsky is a very perceptive and knowing author.  Such attention has been paid to even the smallest of details throughout.

Prince Lyov Nikolayevich Myshkin was sent to Switzerland ‘on account of a strange nervous disease, something of the nature of epilepsy or St. Vitus’s dance, attacks of twitching and trembling’.  Myshkin believs himself to be ‘an invalid [who has] not had a systematic education’.  He has travelled back to St. Petersburg in order to search out his cousin, Madame Epanchin, whom he believes to be his only living relative: ‘The lady was particularly delighted with this dry subject [of familial history], for she scarcely had a chance of indulging her tastes by discussing her pedigree’.

The structure of The Idiot is clever in that each subsequent chapter follows a different character whom Prince Myshkin meets along the way; in consequence, we definitely get a feel for the whole cast.  The characters are all so different, and each one is wholly memorable long after the final page has been read.  Dostoevsky really gets inside the minds of his creations, particularly with regard to Prince Myshkin and the consciousness which he has of his place in the world: ‘”At such moments I was sometimes overcome with great restlessness; sometimes too at midday I wandered on the mountains, and stood alone halfway up a mountain surrounded by great resinous pine trees; on the crest of the rock an old medieval castle in ruins; our little village far, far below, scarcely visible; bright sunshine, blue sky, and the terrible stillness.”‘

Stories within stories manifest themselves here, and many ideas are at play.  The politics which Dostoevsky weaves in, along with his interesting take upon Russian society and the problems which its citizens faced, are fascinating.  The only downside for me was the slight predictability of some of the plot points and the rather peculiar ending, but in the grand scheme of things, it worked marvellously.

The Wordsworth Classics edition contains a list of primary characters, as well as a list of suggested further reading and some notes on the text, all of which are nice additions in a very inexpensive format.  The whole has been so well written, and Garnett’s translation is a fine one.  So much thought has clearly been put into her every turn of phrase, there is a marvellous flow to the whole, and no words have been wasted.  The backstories of each of Dostoevsky’s characters are well-crafted and believable, and we learn about them as the novel progresses; it is almost as though we are drip-fed information about them and their pasts.  It is fair to say that he is a master at crafting a compelling story which pulls the reader in.  So far, he is my favourite Russian author, and I cannot wait to delve into his other works.

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6 thoughts on “Classics Club #8: ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky ****

  1. You make this sound so much more interesting than anyone else has thus far! I think I’ll give it a go at some point, I will read Crime and Punishment first though, since I’ve got it already. I always imagine Russian authors to be really difficult!

    • Fabulous! I think it’s well worth it, but I’d recommend starting with his ‘White Nights’ beforehand. It’s beautifully written, a lot shorter, and available for free online – what’s not to like!? I think you’re an absolute legend for starting with ‘Crime and Punishment’ – that’s the one I’m working my way up to. I love Russian authors; if you get the right translation (and I normally go for Constance Garnett), they are such fabulous, fascinating reads.

  2. I only got to The Idiot last year and I really loved it – but I’ve found that I love everything of his I’ve read so far! I wouldn’t personally say Garnett is the *best* translator of Russian classics, although she was a crucial pioneer in bringing them to an Anglophone audience. I find it’s best to read around if you can and find the translators that work best for you!

    • Same here! I was told by my Russian lecturer at Uni that if reading any Russian literature, Garnett should be searched out before anything else, and I suppose it’s stuck with me. I think she’s brilliant, though, so I do tend to go for her translations at present. Thank you for the advice!

  3. Pingback: Farewell, Classics Club List! | theliterarysisters

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