Candid Book Club: The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

In the latest installment of the Candid Book Club, Lana shares her thoughts on being tickled and tortured by one of Dostoevsky’s most admired works. 

The Idiot was my constant companion for more than a month; my old Penguin Classics copy, after being lugged, unread, to New York and back, became battered and torn, a physical symbol of my waning enthusiasm. Once the novelty of pulling out the old ‘I didn’t know Dostoevsky wrote a book about you’ gag had worn off, the daunting task of the philosophical Russian tome ahead came into focus. To say this novel was a slow burner is an understatement. Though complex and satirical, touching and frustrating, thought-provoking and rigorously self-reflective, satisfying bedtime reading it was not. 

Dostoevsky begins his story on a train heading to St Petersburg, where we witness the meeting of the dark and tempestuous Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin and a compellingly eccentric outsider: the eponymous idiot. Our protagonist is a charmingly chaotic figure who struggles to consolidate well-meaning sincerity with the demands of polite society – no, not Bridget Jones, but Prince Leo Nikolaevich Myshkin, the last in a line of revered Russian aristocracy who is the object of derision because of his pervasive epilepsy.

Renee Zellweger Idiot GIF-source

There are enough complex characters in this novel to rival Geroge RR Martin: aside from the bolshy new-money arrogance of Rogozhin, we meet the accomplished Yepanchins and their ravishing daughter Aglaya, the refined but highly-strung Ganya Ivolgin and his unstable family, and a broad assortment of other oddballs and social climbers. Another major presence in the novel is the scandalous Nastasya Fillipovna: after having been raised under the patronage of the leery Totsky, and subsequently forced to live as his concubine, she terrorises St Petersburg with her captivating beauty and capricious attitude. The limits of her self-indulgent cruelty are exposed during a tragic episode in which she threatens to burn thousands of roubles, just to shame Ganya into exposing his money-driven motives for marrying her.

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This was certainly not a novel propelled by narrative; on the contrary, it’s difficult to describe any discernible narrative at all. There’s the ongoing saga of the prince’s infatuation with Nastasya Fillipovna, her rejection of him, her engagement to and rejection of Rogozhin, the prince’s relationship with Aglaya and his engagement to Nastasya Fillipovna. There are the sub-plots concerning the illness and unsuccessful suicide of Kolya Ivolgin’s mischievous friend Ippolit, and the death of General Iglovin.  This jumble of drama is framed by the prince’s induction into society, but is by no means driven by it.

One of the funniest and most relatable passages in the novel is the prince’s audience with the haughty and influential Princess Belokonsky: the Yepanchins are afraid that the gathering of important and proper people will be swiftly ruined by the prince’s unconventional behaviour. As the prince puts it: ‘It seems to me you’re afraid I might perpetrate some howler in – that aristocratic society.’ Aglaya warns him that ‘if you start talking about anything like capital punishment, or the economic position of Russia, or about “beauty saving the world”[…]’, he’ll be in serious trouble – sounds like a normal night at the pub to me. The prince’s reaction will be very familiar to anyone who’s ever been plagued by an ounce of social anxiety:

Well, now you’ve made quite sure that I will talk of something “serious” and perhaps even break the vase. A moment ago I wasn’t afraid of anything, and now I’m afraid of everything. I’m sure to perpetrate a howler […] I’m sure I’ll start talking from fear and I’ll break the vase from fear. Perhaps I’ll fall down on the slippery floor, or something of the sort, for that has happened to me before. I shall dream about it all night.

I feel you, man. Despite his best efforts, the prince finds himself in a vehement tirade against Catholicism and smashes the priceless Chinese vase to smithereens in the middle of dinner.

Harry Potter Idiot GIF-source

The mix of the generic setting with the myriad of distinctive elements has a Dickensian ring about it: both Nastasya Fillipovna and Rogozhin’s band of outsiders and the mischievously biting sarcasm of the real fool Ferdyshchenko are skillfully curated touches that elevate the polite society novel. The bizarre additions of the compulsive liar General Ivolgin and Mrs Yepanchin’s Mrs Bennett-esque bumptiousness lend the society an element of hyperbolic satire that Armando Ianucci would be proud of. That’s not to say that the novel doesn’t have its dark moments: highly strung Ganya Ivolgin slaps the prince round the face, an episode filled with tragic implications that inspire pity like an RSPCA ad. The climax of the novel comes in the form of Rogozhin’s vicious murder of Nastasya Fillipovna, which, though violent and disturbing, was about as much of a surprise as Barry Manilow coming out of the closet.

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The critical consensus is that The Idiot is a sort of thought experiment, exploring how a figure of Christ-like innocence would be received in polite society. It’s so long, and full of so much anecdotal detail, that it simulates the concurrent pressure and boredom of the society in question. Throughout my time with The Idiot, I couldn’t help but wonder… Who is the titular idiot, really? Perhaps it’s an ironic moniker for our insightful prince, or an apt one for the lying Igolvin, misguided Ganya, cruel Rogozhin, silly Aglaya or scandalous Nastasya Fillipovna. Or maybe it’s me, for thinking that a translation of one of the most revered novels of the nineteenth century would be a leisurely holiday read. 

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