Thursday, September 02, 2021

"The nastiest Christian I've ever met"

And some books are just not meant for one ... I picked up The Idiot because I was more or less housebound for a few days and tired of dipping half-heartedly into insubstantial books I had already read. I hadn't looked into Dostoevsky at all since re-reading Crime and Punishment fifteen years or so ago, and The Idiot was one of the few long novels in the house I had never read. I knew even less about it than I do about the author's other major late works, The Possessed (to use its most familiar title) and The Brothers Karamazov, neither of which I own.

I don't exactly regret reading it, now that I've finished, and nothing stopped me from tossing it aside halfway through (I didn't), but it hasn't raised my estimation of the author. (The gratuitous title of this post, by the way, is a mot of Turgenev's.) For 600 pages various infuriating characters, including the feckless hero Prince Myshkin, rant and rave, shift emotions with little prelude or logic, and essentially do nothing (until the final pages). In his rare moments of coherence Myshkin reveals himself as the worst kind of spiritual reactionary, engaging in anti-Western (and vehemently anti-Catholic) tirades that embarrass even his not exactly progressive social circle. Granted some cultural differences (and exasperation on the part of the reader), but I found it difficult to follow and mostly not worth the trouble. To be fair, there are some brilliant set-pieces, but they can't redeem the novel as a whole.

I can, however, see why Kafka regarded Dostoevesky highly, and in saying so I don't mean to sneer at either writer. Strip Dostoevsky of the political and religious baggage, a few dozen patronymics, and a few hundred pages, and you have the core of a potentially interesting existential or psychological novel, even if the result might turn out to be deemed ultimately unsuccessful. But everything in this novel speaks of artistic force, and nothing of artistic control.

I would have been amused, however, if Edward Gorey (who did cover art for a few of Dostoevsky's other works) had been given the opportunity to illustrate this one. His gentle satirical eye would have provided welcome relief.

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