Thank you, General Ivolgin (Dostoevsky read-along, Part I)

For some reason, I’ve always liked reading Russian Literature.  It may be the names – which I know so many people struggle with – since my lifelong involvement with chess has made names of Russian origin more common to me, and hearing conversation in Russian at countless chess tournaments almost makes me feel like I could speak the language myself if I had to.  Of Dostoevsky, I’ve only read Crime and Punishment and The Inquisitor, but I’ve dabbled in Tolstoy and Chekhov and Turgenev over the years as well.  Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” remains one of my all-time favorite short stories.  I had bought an ancient, yellowed paperback copy of The Idiot at a Marion County Public Library book sale a year or so ago, figuring it would be an edifying read at some point; then along comes Allie at A Literary Odyssey with another read-along of that very title.  I couldn’t resist.

This first post of the read-along deals with Part 1 of the book (roughly 175 pages).  I feel like I am still getting to know these characters, but they are almost all quite interesting.  The Idiot himself, Prince Myshkin, is eminently likeable.  He takes people at face value and there is not a shred of artifice in him – at least not in part one.  One can tell he often doesn’t quite know what to make of people and their behavior.   The other characters often mock him, often blatantly at first, but later more gently or only to each other.  His demeanor endears him to many, even though he is known to have recently returned from a sanatorium in Switzerland and subject to “fits.” For my part, I found him the most sane character thus far introduced.

The action takes place in St. Petersburg (I own a chess set purchased there!) and much of it revolves around the mysterious Nastasia Phillipovna.  A compelling, somewhat mysterious woman whom men swarm around like flies to a rib roast.  The first section of the book ends at a surreal ‘party’ at her house with multiple suitors all there because they want to marry this woman.  One of the suitors is Myshkin, who has fallen in love with her after seeing only a portrait of her.

Minor characters abound as well.  One of my favorites was General Ardalion Alexandrovich Ivolgin, a retired general drifting into senility that Myshkin apparently will share a boarding house with and one who he ‘goes out drinking with’ as well. Ivolgin gave me my only ‘laugh out loud’ moment (at a point where I could really use one “in real life” too) in part one, where he is telling a story of a train trip he was on where he was smoking a cigar in his carriage, admitting it was ‘not allowed, but not prohibited either’ he is later joined by two ladies with a little poodle.  They were haughty and angry over his smoking a cigar, but didn’t complain verbally (he argued, “if they didn’t like the cigar, why couldn’t they say so?”).  He goes on to say:

                “Suddenly and without the very slightest suspicion of warning, ‘light blue’ (the lady in the light blue dress) seizes my cigar from between my fingers, and, wheugh! out of the window with it!  Well, on flew the train, and I sat bewildered, and the young woman, tall and fair, and rather red in the face, too red, glared at me with flashing eyes.  I didn’t say a word, but with extreme courtesy, I may say with most refined courtesy, I reached my finger and thumb over towards the poodle, took it up delicately by the nape of the neck, and chucked it out of the window, after the cigar.  The train went flying on, and the poodle’s yells were lost in the distance.”

I found this passage terribly amusing and was disappointed to learn a couple pages later that the story did not likely actually happen to the poor old general, but was only a repetition of something he read about in the paper.  (He swears it actually happened to HIM, however).

I think of interest to note is that the term “idiot” has, I believe, somewhat a different usage today than in the 19th century.  Today’s common usage would be something like, “Oh, him? He’s an idiot” or “I forgot all about it. I am such an idiot!” Whereas I think it was once more of a clinical term.  I remember reading old census records when doing genealogical research and the form asked the respondent to note if any children were “idiotic.”  Somewhere I read that idiot referred specifically to an adult with a mental age of three years old.  Oh well, I’m enjoying the book so far and look forward to part two…

Fyodor Dostoevsky


  1. Dee said,

    May 20, 2011 at 11:01 am

    “Idiot” makes me think of Shelley’s beautiful line:

    “……. if madness ’tis to be unlike the world.”

    I think that Dostoyevsky’s use of the term and name “idiot” is more like that …..


  2. May 21, 2011 at 5:38 am

    If you have read a fair bit of Russian lit, can you recommend one that gives a really good insight into the place as opposed to the people? I am halfway through Anna Karenina but I don’t actually feel it tells me much about Russia itself…Thanks!


    • Jay said,

      May 26, 2011 at 9:18 am

      That’s a good question. I probably liked best the Short Story collection I have. Most of what I’ve read was written a long time ago. I remember in college I read Martin Cruz Smith’s “Gorky Park” which would be a more contemporary glimpse (but still Soviet era).



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: