The reader who came in from the cold

Hey, Classics Challengers, long time no post. But I’m back.

Let’s see, we’ve read a novel by a woman and for the second book of this challenge, I said, let’s read a Russian novel. And let’s read it during winter, so we get the real feel of St. Petersburg or Moscow or wherever the novel may lead you.

idiotWell, I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1869 novel “The Idiot” for reasons explained here. And for reasons explained here, you’ll see why I haven’t posted about this challenge for nearly a month.

First off, I must confess, I chose the book because it seemed short. The copy I have is slim, but thanks to the thinness of the paper, it was 603 pages long. I could read for days and it didn’t look like I had made any progress. It was like that progress bar that moves forward a millimeter at a time when you’re downloading the Cliff’s Notes of a Russian novel with a dial-up modem. At times it was demoralizing, especially when reading during the coldest February ever in metro Detroit, where I call home.

Let’s start with the good stuff. It was really easy to read. The edition I had was pretty. Oh, and it was easy to read. OK.

The trouble is, I didn’t want to read it. The plot is, um, well, I think “plot” is too defining a word in this instance because, well, there ain’t one, not in any traditional way. It’s a series of events that feel disconnected and repetitive and don’t lead to any sort of climax.

Prince Myshkin comes back to Russia from Switzerland where he spent several years being treated for epilepsy. Myshkin is the idiot of the title, though he is the only person in the novel who may not actually be a congenital idiot. That’s because most of the characters are inbred aristocracy, clinging to a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore.

Upon his return, Myshkin looks up his only, and very distant, relative, Madame Yepanchin, who is charmed by his innocence and takes him into the busom of their family, sort of.

I really don’t know where to go from here. The novel goes in so many different directions that it’s not worth detailing it. It’s a novel of ideas, not a novel of character or plot. The characters come in and out of the novel for no apparent reason, playing games with the hearts and minds of other characters in so many ways, it’s impossible to tell what any of them are truly, at heart. Because Myshkin does not know how to and has no inclination to play those games, he is at odds with society and everyone thinks him an idiot.

So this goes on for more than 600 pages and SPOILER ALERT! nothing matters in the end. Myshkin, a Christ-like figure who believes his purpose is to save people from themselves, is sent back to Switzerland, his epilepsy has returned, and the aristocrats who had been toying with him are proved right: Society is not ready for an honest man.

That’s not to say there isn’t compelling writing. One scene early on, in which a great beauty toys with her suiters by throwing a hundred thousand rubles on a fire and daring one to rescue the money is tense and uncomfortable to read as it plays out. But scenes like that are few and far between. Instead, we have too many scenes in which someone stands up at a party and tells a story or pontificates or reads a long newspaper article while those around him react.

Then there’s the characters: The women are ninnies. There’s no other word for it. They love this one, then they don’t, then they do, then they send notes back and forth through an intermediary. It felt like junior high.

Near the end, I turned to Spark Notes not because I didn’t understand what was happening, that was easy enough. I just couldn’t understand why it was happening. What was I, as a reader, supposed to get out of it? What did it all mean? It turns out it was just variations on a theme that had been playing out in a long, unending circle over and over.

Perhaps long Russian winters teach them the value of patience. Mine wore thin and it’ll be a cold day before I tackle another Russian novel.

How was your experience? Let me know in the comments.


11 thoughts on “The reader who came in from the cold

  1. Pingback: Classics Challengers: It’s time for little gems | Shelf Improvement

  2. Ok, just a little more Nabokov, on Dostoyevsky: “My position in regard to Dostoevski is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me–namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevski is not a great writer but a rather mediocre one–with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.” On Tolstoy he’s a bit more kind…”Tolstoy is the greatest Russian writer of prose fiction.”


    1. Sounds like you should be writing this blog. Thank you so much for the comments. Gogol’s been on my radar since “The Namesake,” in which Gogol’s works play such a major role. Didn’t care much for “The Namesake,” and that’s probably why I’m not running off to find his collected works. Interesting comments from Nabokov, though. Seems I’m in good company when it comes to my feelings about Dostoevsky.


      1. Thank you so much for starting this fun reading challenge and generously opening it up to all! Before Dead Souls I had only read the short story “The Overcoat” (again, years and years ago), which I recommend, probably don’t need to read much more than it to get a decent taste of Gogol. The Nabokov commentary definitely was interesting; he certainly was not lacking on the strong opinion front. The back cover copy quotes the Christian Science Monitor, “Read this and envy Professor Nabokov’s students.” I think if I had been one of his students I would have been shaking in my boots.


  3. As if stumbling across at the finish line, I sort of made it through Volume 1 of Dead Souls. I say “sort of” because the book is notorious in its incompleteness – only 1+ parts exist of a 3 part novel. I couldn’t decide on which translation to read, so armed with one hard copy and two virtual ones on my smartphone, I leapfrogged translations, chapter by chapter. Since I didn’t studiously compare side by side, I can’t say I have a particular favorite; at least not until “the end,” anyway. Susanne Fusso’s updated translation (of 1942/48’s Bernard G. Guerney’s) did not to include any of part 2 because supposedly Gogol believed he had destroyed every bit of manuscript, so it could be considered in a way inauthentic to include a cobbled part of part two, and worse, allegedly the writing does not match the caliber of book 1. Plus, reading the book, the end of part one truly feels like the end of a volume, as it is often referred, which is further established by its being published as a stand-alone volume in 1842, leaving Russians and the world waiting decades and eventually forever for a finale. The book reminded me Nabokov in humor, absurdity and the hero as anti-hero, so I checked out Nabokov’s “Lectures on Russian Literature” for his two cents. Like its sources, it can drag on a bit, but I appreciated his insight and passion. One sentence (thinking here of your commentary on the word “noticed”): “But a creative reading of Gogol’s story reveals that here and there in the most innocent descriptive passage, this or that word, sometimes a mere adverb or a preposition, for instance the word “even” or “almost,” is inserted in such a way as to make the harmless sentence explode in a wild display of nightmare fireworks; or else the passage that had started in a rambling colloquial manner all of a sudden leaves the tracks and swerves into the irrational where it really belongs; or again, quite as suddenly, a door bursts open and a mighty wave of foaming poetry rushes in only to dissolve in bathos, or to turn into its own parody, or to be checked by the sentence breaking and reverting to a conjuror’s patter, that patter which is such a feature of Gogol’s style.” That was one sentence, followed by this other: “It gives one the sensation of something ludicrous and at the same time stellar, lurking constantly around the corner–and one likes to recall that the difference between the comic side of things, and their cosmic side, depends upon one sibilant.”


  4. This is pretty much how I felt about Middlemarch, except that was an interminable 800 pages! I am at a loss why people love it (Middlemarch) so much. While I enjoyed Silas Mariner, I’m almost chagrined to say I sleepwalked through Jane Austen novels, and only midway through Middlemarch did I connect the dots about the Austen-Eliot lineage. As the New Yorker succinctly surmised “Without Austen, No Eliot” ( Anyhoo, I love the Russians and am still immersed in Dead Souls – more TK. Crime & Punishment being my favorite book of my 20s, I enthusiastically embraced Brothers K and The Idiot back in the day, although for me neither hit the mark of C&P. That said, I have a special, dark place for The Idiot. In the midst of reading it, decades ago, I met some friends for dinner in a Korean restaurant and launched a question about the idea of honor: was it still relevant in our time? My friend Julie’s husband slyly asked me why I was interested in this topic, and I talked about The Idiot and its interest in the notion of honor. Julie’s husband dismissed the idea, saying he didn’t think it was relevant at all and we went on with our dinner. But it seemed like things were never the same with my friends, this couple. Years and years later, said husband dropped dead of a heart attack, and several months after that it was revealed that he had been carrying on multitudes of S&M types of affairs to psychopathic proportions. My friend Julie worked through it with therapy, a best-selling memoir, and an appearance on Oprah. For me, I’ll always feel a certain kinship with the Idiot as I found out about the dishonorable truth even after the wife did.


    1. Wow. That’s more interesting than “The Idiot!” I remember liking a lot of “Middlemarch” but if anyone asked me to relate the plot, I don’t think I could. Nor could I name one character.


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