Some Additional, Final Thoughts on Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot”

“It’s a madhouse! A maaaaadhouse!!” – Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) in the original Planet of the Apes…

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I finally finished Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, last Friday (yes, a day late for the readalong) In this book, almost every single character is either mad (in the “crazy” sense), or believed to be mad, or declares one or more of his fellow characters to be mad. I’ve never seen anything like it. It makes for disconcerting reading, and distracts one from thinking or realizing “what is this book ABOUT anyway?”

I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. I know what it’s about to ME, however. The titular character, Prince Myshkin, has returned to Russia after several years in a sanatorium in Switzerland, where he was treated for epilepsy and for being an “Idiot.” Though now well, he too easily takes people at their word, and is incredibly naive which, naturally, lands him in trouble frequently. The main source of his “troubles” is that he falls in love. Twice. Once with the strikingly beautiful “fallen woman,” Natasia Fillipovna, and then with the (also beautiful) young daughter of a general, Aglaya Ivanovna.

What I think the novel is saying, perhaps, is that civilization has reached the point that a transparently, unfailingly good and altruistic person “doesn’t stand a chance” in a world of greed and self serving motives. Myshkin will believe anything anyone tells him. He wants to like everyone, or at least find a reason to like them. Try to murder him? No worries. He will “understand” your motives and still be your friend. Mock him? He will fall in love with you for all your other qualities. Laugh at his proposal of marriage? No matter. All you need do is apologize with apparent earnestness and all will be forgiven.

So what is to become of a man like this? Well… ***SPOILER ALERT!*** one of the women he “loves” is murdered by his enemy/friend and the other marries a rich, expatriate, Polish nobleman, who turns out to be actually “none of the above” and turns her against family and friends. This sends a reeling Myshkin back to an asylum, perhaps suggesting that is the only place for someone of such a pure and noble nature in Dostoevsky’s 19th century world. Kind of a downer, huh? Thus, I was fairly disappointed with this book, even though shining through the translation was much of beauty and interest, including some deep thoughts on capital punishment. I’ll lea e you with the following beautiful passage so you hopefully won’t feel to negatively about this book:

“An old, forgotten memory awoke in his brain, and suddenly burst into clearness and light. It was a recollection of Switzerland, during the first year of his cure, the very first months. At that time he had been pretty nearly an idiot still; he could not speak properly, and had difficulty in understanding when others spoke to him. He climbed the mountainside, one sunny morning, and wandered long and aimlessly with a certain thought in his brain, which would not become clear. Above him was the blazing sky, below, the lake; all around was the horizon, clear and infinite. He looked out upon this, long and anxiously. He remembered how he had stretched out his arms towards the beautiful, boundless blue of the horizon, and wept, and wept. What had so tormented him was that he was a stranger to all this, that he was outside this glorious festival.”

This recollection occurs when he – as he frequently found himself – was at a loss to understand the actions and motives of other characters in the novel. Not a bad read, but I much preferred Crime and Punishment to this one.

Your thoughts…?

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Busy busy busy…

Two things must happen today. I must escape the office – in the midst of a short-staffed quarter-end – long enough to run downtown (and then back) for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library book club meeting, and I must, MUST finish Dostoevsky’s The Idiot!

I’m in the home stretch of the latter, with perhaps 90-minutes of reading to go. My feelings about this book have been very ambivalent (“very ambivalent?” can one say that?), and I look forward to trying to write a post about it. It’s one of the more quotable books I’ve read this year, and I find myself highlighting a ton of observations and witticisms. But it’s also just crazy. It’s “all over the place,” and I don’t really know from one chapter to the next what the plot or theme is supposed to be. After reading the autobiography of Anthony Trollope earlier this year and about his attention to plot detail, I suspect he would run from The Idiot in terror…

For the KVMLBC, we read “Wampeters, Foma, and Granfallons,” which is essentially a collection of Vonnegut’s non-fiction writings or transcripts of speaking addresses he gave at various places. This was a much easier read for me, although I must say I begin to grow fatigued with Vonnegut’s pervasive pessimism about our species. He’s so brilliant and “convincing” though that it’s difficult to escape “unscathed” (or “un-depressed?”) after reading him.

These two books briefly intersected in Vonnegut’s essay “Excelsior! We’re Going to the Moon! Excelsior!” (one of my favorite ‘chapters’ and originally published in the New York Times). He talks about the important symbolism of the first human footprint on the moon and quotes the Russian: “One sacred memory from childhood is perhaps the best education,” said Feodor Dostoevski. Vonnegut also says, “I hope that many Earthling children will respond to the first human footprint on the moon as a sacred thing. We need sacred things. The footprint could mean, if we let it, that Earthlings have done an unbelievably difficult and beautiful thing which the Creator, for Its own reasons, wanted Earthlings to do.” Very nice.

I’ll let you know later how things went today. My time at the coffee shop is running down and I must report to the salt mines, er, office, shortly…:-)

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Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” – thoughts on Part II (and Nook app issues…)

I finished reading part two of this novel for Allie’s read-along on Sunday. On Memorial Day, however, “disaster” struck. I open up my Nook app on my iPad and none of my highlighting and notes from yesterday are there. This was, needless to say, very annoying. I’m not sure why/how this could have happened. I did notice when opening the app later in the evening, it initially acted like my library was “empty” (what?!) so I closed and reopened and there were my books. “Phew!” on that at least. I don’t sync my iPad (which includes a backup step) that often so now I have concerns about losing all “my brilliant highlighting.” Has anyone out there who uses the Nook app ever had this happen before? Any thoughts on how to prevent a recurrence?

But anyway, back to The Idiot…

“I declare, this is a lunatic asylum!”

So says Mrs. Yepanchin near the end of part two. I must say I often found myself in complete agreement with her. What stood out to me in this part of the book was that, while part I ended in a mad dash of men who were after the hand of Natalia Phillipovna, part II seemed to contain a whole flock of men who wanted a piece of Prince Myshkin’s “fortune.” I began to think of the common phrase “It’s a man’s world!” (certainly more true in the 19th century than today) and wondered, what is it that most men want the most? Why, women and money (or power) are most often near the top of the list. I don’t know if Dostoevsky is making a comment on this in the first two parts of The Idiot or not.

In part II we also find our hero, Prince Myshkin, suffering an epileptic fit. In this case it happened at a fortuitous time as it saved him from violence at the hands of the scoundrel, Rogozhin. I found Dostoevsky’s thoughts and descriptions of the Prince’s “state of mind” in the time leading up to the attack fascinating. Did he have personal experience with mental illness or epileptic episodes? Perhaps one of my fellow read-alongers will know…

Later, Mrs. Yepanchin also offers up, “I certainly shall go mad if I stay here!” I, however, think I shall “stay here” and continue reading this novel…

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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

May Reading: The Month Ahead

Well, April was not a stellar month for me as far as blogging frequency goes, but I got a decent amount of reading done.  In May I will try to do better about blogging, but here’s what I have on tap to read this month:

Desert Spear by Peter Brett

I feel like I’m kind of cheating here, since I had hoped to finish this in April, BUT… I have just over 100 pages to go, and the story is really picking up.  This is the second book of a trilogy (book three due out sometime this year? <fingers crossed>).  The first of the trilogy was The Warded Man (known as The Painted Man outside of America).  A fantastic (post-apocalyptic?) world populated by great characters and plenty of ‘demons’ to be killed.  A great adventure.

Life by Keith Richards

This is my book club’s May selection.  The biography of the iconic guitarist from The Rolling Stones promises to be entertaining reading, and I can’t wait to get started.  Our club has also read Eric Clapton’s autobiography, which was not surprisingly met with mixed reviews by my eclectic group…

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’m participating in Allie’s read along over at A Literary Odyssey.  I actually cracked the book this afternoon, reading the introduction to my 1969 edition.  I’m supposed to have Part I (about 175 pages) read by the middle of May for the first of four scheduled posts in this read along (it encompasses both May and June).  Can’t wait to read this one either.  I’ve already read Crime and Punishment years ago and felt it was quite good.

We Make a Life by What We Give by Dr. Richard Gunderman

Late in March, I went to a lecture by the author (who also happens to be a former college roommate of mine!) and was quite impressed and moved  by his thoughts on philanthropy and ethics.  It was somewhat of a reunion for me as well, since I hadn’t seen my old friend in many years.  The book is actually a collection of essays, several of which I’ve read already, but I need to give it my full attention for a few days and finish it.  It is very thought-provoking and full of ‘deep thoughts’ – and I don’t mean the Jack Handy kind…

The Fear by Peter Godwin

I’m about a third of the way through this book already (somehow I got entangled in April, reading more books at one time that probably ever before; I’m trying to right my ship in May).  It’s the disturbing story of Zimbabwe under the despotic rule of Robert Mugabe.  I first heard of this book on NPR and “just had to read it…”  Oh, and I’ll also have a Vonnegut title for the KVML Book Club meeting on May 26th.  I’m not sure which book we’re reading this month though, as I had to leave the last meeting a little early.

That’s it.  (Isn’t that enough!?)  How about you?  What are you reading in May?  (You know I can only read about five books a month, so I need to live, er… read vicariously through others to get enough of a fix…)

A Little Dostoevsky This Spring?

So… anyone want to read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot with me in May & June?

I’m 90% sure I’m going to jump into Allie’s Dostoevsky Readalong at A Literary Odyssey.  I’ve participated in a couple of her readalongs before, and it’s a great way to have kind of an online book club meeting.  It’s a long book, but the read along is divided into 4 parts, so there’s less “pressure” <shudder>.  Well, why am I explaining this, you probably already have clicked the link above to check out the details.  Although the picture below says May/April 2011 readalong, it really is May/June.