Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I just finished Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot" (I read the Project Gutenberg release of Eva Martin's translation from 1914.) I've been meaning to read it for years; there was a recent Russian TV series, of which I watched several episodes and understood... nothing. So when it came up in the "Recommended" list on Textonphone, I couldn't resist.

First of all, if you've never read it, I highly recommend it. Second, you'll probably want to read a newer translation - the language in this one makes things seem even more alien than they were already, and the transliteration of Russian names is also strange to my eyes: "Lef" would usually be written "Lev" today; "Colia" would be "Kolya"; "Muishkin" would be "Myshkin" or "Miyshkin". Enough of that, though...

Social manners and mores have changed so much since Dostoyevsky's time that it seems like an entirely different world. The hero, Prince Myshkin - the "idiot" of the title - is an epileptic who was a helpless invalid for the first 24 years of his life; at the beginning of the novel he is just returning to Russia after five years of treatment in Switzerland. He is trusting and open; he observes the people around him and reacts to them almost like a child. Dostoyevsky intended Myshkin's attitudes to be a counterpoint and commentary to the conventional attitudes of the people around him; what he could hardly have imagined is that the world and its attitudes would change so much that the prince would be the only character who makes any sense.

Case in point: Nastasia Filipovna, the woman with whom the prince's fate is intertwined. She is the daughter of nobility who fell on hard times; they died when she was a young girl, and she was taken as a ward by Totsi, a wealthy friend of the family. When she was twelve or so, Totsi realized that she was quite beautiful and took her as his mistress instead of his ward. At the time of the novel, she is in her early twenties and is no longer Totsi's mistress (in fact, he's afraid of her.) Everyone reviles her as a fallen woman; wealthy men openly negotiate to possess her beauty and the money that Totsi will give her husband, but just as openly despise her. Yet from the moment that the prince sees her portrait, he falls in love with the sadness and suffering he sees in her face and is deaf and blind to how society sees her.
It struck me, as I was reading, that today she would be on Oprah and have a best-selling memoir; she would be regarded as a victim of child abuse, not as a low woman.

It also just struck me that this is a blog post, not a book report. I'm going to bed.

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