I’ve always wondered why history chooses certain books for preservation, for posterity and others are discarded. It is said that a classic is a book that is still being read 100 years after its publication. For this reason, and if for no other reason, “The Idiot” deserves to be read. Like Gabo once said about Dostoevsky (or maybe it was Tolstoy?) “(…) reading it was an agony, sweating and struggling through each word (a paraphrase)”. Borges once said “(…) if something doesn’t come naturally, if you find yourself struggling through reading something, you shouldn’t for it is not for you (also a paraphrase)”. That is of course wrong – and Borges should posthumously thank God that nobody followed his advice or he too would be lost. Yet I digress.
All that to say, this is a hard novel to read. If you are struggling, know you are in good company. The prose is thick, it is old Russian and translated – and I imagine it also loses something going from Russian to English. For those who know, they say that Russian is a beautifully poetic language – the language of artists and, yes, novelists. Much of that doesn’t cross the language barrier.
What fascinated me most was a glimpse first-hand into the life of pre-revolutionary Russia; when there were still nobles and lords, when the Tsar was hanging out in Petersburg and his subjects, those not plowing the potato fields, were engaged in mischief. It is full of quotes that are as relevant today, almost two hundred years later and a world away as they were then, showing that humanity changes much and also not at all:
“I’ll tell you one fact, ladies and gentlemen” he went on in the same tone, that is, with extraordinary enthusiasm and warmth and at the same time almost laughing, perhaps at his own words, “a fact, the observation and even the discovery of which I have the honor of ascribing to myself, and even to myself alone; at least it has not been spoken of or written about anywhere. This fact expresses the whole essence of Russian liberalism of the sort I am talking about. First of all, what is liberalism, generally speaking, if not an attack (whether reasonable or mistaken is another question) on the existing order of things? Isn’t that so? Well, so my fact consists in this, that Russian liberalism is not an attack on the existing order of things, but is an attack on the very essence of our things, on the things themselves and not merely on their order, not on Russian order but on Russia itself. My liberal has reached the point where he denies Russia itself, that is, he hates and beats his own mother. Every unfortunate and unsuccessful Russian fact evokes laughter in him and all but delight. He hates Russian customs, Russian history, everything. If there’s any vindication for him, it is perhaps only that he doesn’t understand what he’s doing and takes his hatred of Russia for the most fruitful liberalism…”
One can see people today even debating the same ideas, their merits and their dangers.
The Idiot is mostly a novel about mischief. The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, is “entirely positive… with an absolutely beautiful nature” according to Joseph Frank. He loves two women, one perhaps a scoundrel and the other also naive and somehow star-crossed. Neither love works out – but, that is the nature of love. It could be a simple novel, but it is complex – coming as it does from the mind of a master. We read the old books to look back in the past, to remember that there were sophisticated people walking the planet long before we arrived to stumble across it glued to our IPhones; and to realize that while technology “progresses”, humanity – our dreams, fears, concerns. Our morality. Is really rather quite static.