When The Classics Circuit announced it’s Imperial Russion Tour I knew exactly which book I would be choosing. You see I hate an unfinished book and a dusty copy of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been sitting on my shelves. I began it once in earnest as I was working my way through the Russian classics but somehow it never stuck and it was abandoned to the shelf. However now I had a reason to take it off and dust off the cover for another try. Yes, in my heart I did want to re-read Anna Karenina or War and Peace but I told myself that I must finish what I once started. And so began my seconding reading of The Idiot.
The first thing one must understand about the “idiot” is that he is not. Prince Myshkin is only a man who has been waylaid by illness (epilepsy)for most of his lifetime and so has been hampered in developmental and social skills, he is naive and kindhearted. He is truth and honesty and charity all in one. This is what dark Russian literature calls an “idiot”. He is in turn revered and ridiculed. The revering of course comes as it usually does after a large inheritance is bestowed upon him after his return to Russia from Switzerland where he has been in treatment for his condition. Upon returning he becomes part of a tangled love affair that never really comes to fruition between a fallen woman and a virtuous young lady.
I wish I could say that The Idiot had a motivating plot or good ending but like many good Russian novels of its kind it does not. It is a story of religion, romance, passionate hatred, murder, money and exasperatingly long dialogues. However it is exactly what one expects from the works of it’s time and place. In it are true gems of philosophy, religion and modern thinking. However one must often wade through a hundred pages of what seems like nothing to get to them. As most Russian literature of this time the work is deeply cynical and dark. Motivations rely on money, greed and passion of the most deplorable kind. Virginia Woolf once compared Dostoevsky to Shakespeare. While I will not go that far I will say that he is an essential if one wants to become acquainted with the literature of this time and place. One must also understand the storyline may not be so complete because the main message is about what is being said. One of my favorite lines on religion and faith within the novel is:
“The essence of religious feeling does not fall under the province of any reasoning, or any crimes and misdemeanors, or any atheist doctrines; there’s something else here, and it will always be something else, there is something that atheist doctrines will eternally glide over and they will eternally be speaking of “something else“.
Another of my favorite lines described family in a way that was so rich in truth:
“Though they did not understand the fact entirely (for it is difficult to understand), still they sometimes suspected that everything in their family somehow did not go like it did in all the others. In all the others everything went smoothly, with them it was a bumpy ride; everyone else glided along as if on rails- and they were constantly going off track.“
So in the end was it worth the 667 pages for a few gems of literary writing….yes, I think it was and it is no longer an unfinished book for me which is a pleasure in itself. But one can’t help but wish for happiness for the “idiot”. However I recommend the book no matter but I do warn it is a commitment. I now look forward to Crime and Punishment soon but not before some lighter reading in the meantime.