Book Review: ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Idiot Dostoevsky

The Way Way Back:

I read my first Dostoevsky novel back in high school, or I think I did. The point is, I was too dumb at the time to make heads or tails of it. My appreciation for literary works had yet to develop. By now, it might have budded a bit.

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is the third book by him that I’ve read in adulthood. Last year I ostensibly grumbled my way through the behemoth of The Brothers Karamazov, and subsequently, the comparatively short Notes from Underground. The Idiot was long. At times hilarious, at times frustrating,  I came out of it unsure whether to sympathize with Myshkin or to despise him for his naivety.

Savior?

The blurb on the back cover of the book stated that Dostoevsky saw Russia’s redemption in this poor hero. However, as genuine as the prince might be, I could not shake the feeling that even Dostoevsky despised the fellow to a degree, even if only subconsciously.

Rather than redemption, what I saw were two extremes, neither of which could lead to a functional society. Those around the prince were absurd, dramatic, selfish caricatures of people. Irrevocably locked into their close-minded and solipsistic pursuit of furthering their own agenda.

But the prince is just as solipsistic. Or is at times. Dostoevsky paints the man as having acute perceptions of the truth of matters at times, only to remove this discrete faculty at other times, leaving the prince in a state of pure bewilderment concerning the effects of his behaviors and words. I fail to see how someone who lacks all manner of evaluative abilities can serve as a redemption for society in particular. As a society is built upon the relationships between individuals, one who lacks an aptitude for categorizing the actions of those around oneself might have a difficult time engaging said society to any positive degree. The prince lacks this acumen.

A Little of This, A Little of That:

I do respect the honesty of the character. But again, this seems to come and go. After reading a number of footnotes, I realized that this might be because Dostoevsky rushed the second part of the novel, and perhaps did not give the character the proper attention to ensure that he remained consistent throughout. This inconsistent honesty concerns only the prince’s honesty with himself at least. With others, he does seem to maintain a genuine approach, not purposely hiding or contorting anything in his interactions.

Timeless in All the Right Ways:

But the book itself is worth a read. Despite being nearly one hundred and fifty years old, it reads with a feel that is more modern than many of his contemporaries (I’m thinking of you Dickens). He has wit. He understands people. And I laughed out loud several times. Modern authors rarely manage that. The humor he wields is on par with the likes of Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, and, oddly enough, Terry Pratchett. And that is what made it through in the antiquated translation that I read; I do hope to read it in the original one day.

The story can be, and often is, dark, and Dostoevsky demonstrates the worthiness of his reputation for being bleak. But, such comedy is perhaps to be valued the most, finding a reason to laugh in the face of the absurdity of life. Being able to crack a smile, even when it is -30 centigrade outdoors.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 1858 Rubles