Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent was first published in Russia with the literally translated title of A Raw Youth in 1875, and is presented in Dora O’Brien’s new translation by Alma Books. O’Brien has previously – and seamlessly – rendered many works of Russian literature into English, by the likes of Tolstoy and Turgenev. Dostoevsky feels like the feather in an already well-decorated cap. With regard to Dostoevsky’s canon, The Adolescent is one of his later works, published just five years before The Brothers Karamazov.
Our protagonist is Arkady Dolroguky, a nineteen-year-old, and the illegitimate son of a landowner and a maid. The setting is the Russia of the 1870s, ‘a nation still tethered to its old systems and values but shaken up by the new ideological currents of socialism and nihilism’. (NB. I could happily write an entire essay linking the tumult of modernity and the break-up of traditional Russia in the novel). As is the case with all of Dostoevsky’s work, politics are ever-present, but never dull or overdone; indeed, in The Adolescent, the same pattern has been followed, and the historical and modern world unfold majestically along with Arkady’s own coming of age story. Similarly, as often happens with documents of Russian life in novel form, an incredible amount of themes have been explored here, from capitalism and its evils, to all-consuming loves, and familial relationships.
The beginning intrigues: ‘Unable to hold back, I’ve sat down to record the story of my first steps on life’s path, when I could actually get by without doing so’. Arkady’s first person narrative perspective is both engaging and enlightening; one gets a marvellous view of the protagonist – his hopes, his fears, and his state of mind throughout. The reasoning which he gives for fashioning his autobiography is thorough, and not quite what one might expect. Arkady is a clear and often complex character, struggling to come to terms with his life and his place within the world.
The style of the prose is rendered in what is almost a colloquial fashion; the entirety feels very fresh, perhaps due to its new translation. Regardless, O’Brien has rendered the whole marvellously. In no place is the prose stilted or clumsy; there is very little repetition, and a wonderful fluency to the whole. The Adolescent has been well structured too; the shorter sections inside longer chapters help to nicely break up the reading experience.
It is worth mentioning that The Adolescent begins in much the same way as Alma’s other publications, with a series of sketches and photographs about the author and his circle, and a useful list of the extensive cast of characters. The reading experience here is an incredibly pleasant one, and at no point did I feel daunted by the length (five hundred plus pages) of the novel. As a parting thought, I shall leave you with what Albert Camus wrote: ‘The real nineteenth-century prophet was Dostoevsky, not Karl Marx’.