Sunday, January 4, 2009

Book Review: The Idiot Fyodor Dostoevsky

I've finally finished this, the eighth of Dostoevsky's novels, after an on again, off again relationship which spanned nearly the length of a school year.

I'm busy, okay?

Nevertheless, I'd recently taken it upon myself that, in the space of this winter break from school, I would finally finish the novel. Well, I'm proud to report, as I already have in my opening sentence, that I have finished--and that I have this to say about the book.

The plot goes something like this: our protagonist, Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin arrives by train in Petersburg after spending the entirety of his childhood in a Swiss institute, where he has been cared for and treated for his epilepsy. The definining attribute of the character is his utter innocence, developed from his long absence from "normal" society. He's often described, and accused of, acting very childlike, which, when combined with his epilepsy, earns him the moniker of idiot. The story soon develops as the presence of the Prince is felt throughout the new society in which he finds himself. The most notable storyline is the developing rivalry between Aglaya Epanchin and Natasya Fillipovna, two women vying, strangely, at times, for the Prince's heart. And I'll tell you right now, the ending, is amazing.

The most unique thing I've enjoyed about Dostoevsky's writing is simply the way in which it is presented. His narrator is not a typical omniscient third-person, but rather, the story is told from the point of view of a character, best described as anonymous observer and historian. What I mean to say, is that the book is written mainly in second-person, in that the narrator directly addresses the reader as if telling the story aloud. This perspective gives Dostoevsky a masterful amount of control over the flow of information. At times, the narrator will discuss the entirety of a family's history, or the innermost workings of a character's thoughts; but when needed, the narrator will feign ignorance, shut the door to his own omniscience and build tension between the story and the reader. He also uses this technique in books like The Brothers Karamozov, Crime and Punishment, and Demons, to the same effect.

The second point that I'd like to make is that this book is very much grounded in reality. It doesn't have a mushy, Jane Austenesque, hollywood ending. I like it that way. Inevitably, in every book I read, I'm subconsciously trying to figure out the ending, fitting the plot to the three-act outline, finding the important metaphors and reading into them the deeper meanings being shoved at me by the author. I couldn't do that here. Try as I might, this book refused to go where I thought it would, but for the simple reason that the characters actually make decisions like human beings. The plot moves, not by the narrator, but by the events themselves. Everything about the plot feels very much like the historian narrator is decribing, not telling, the story as it happened. It was very refreshing.

And so ends my long affair with The Idiot. I've had fun, I've spent too long reading it, and I think now it's time for me to read some lighter fare. Time for a literary break.

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