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.
Well, 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.