If someone were to ask me which book by Dostoevsky would be the best to start with, the most obvious answer would definitely be Crime and Punishment, and indeed it is the first book by him that I myself read as a teenager. It is also the one that hooked me, and that would end up making me read almost all of his works in the following years. Still, Dostoevsky really wrote five great novels, and each one can be recommended as a perfect starting point for different reasons. Since I had to choose one and didn’t want to take the most obvious route, I instead settled on one that is maybe not as prominent, and that for some reason hadn’t stayed in my mind as much as the other four, but that I vaguely remembered loving a lot when I read it fifteen or so years ago.
As for Dostoevsky’s intention for this book, he wrote: “The chief idea of the novel is to portray the positively good man. There is nothing in the world more difficult to do, and especially now. All writers… who have tried to portray the positively good man have always failed… The good is an ideal, but this ideal, both ours and that of civilized Europe, is still far from having been worked out. There is only one positively good man in the world – Christ.” The hero of this book, Prince Myshkin, is no Christ by far, he is a sickly young man prone to dramatics and overexcitement, but nonetheless a good man who all too easily places trust in his fellow humans, always tries to do the right thing, and doesn’t have a single deceitful bone in his body. He is called an idiot, senseless, and foolish to his face, even by his friends, but he does not take it to heart. Although he may seem a simpleton, he is not, and that his honesty and good-naturedness is so quickly mistaken for stupidity is telling in itself.
When Myshkin comes to Petersburg after having spent some years in Switzerland for the treatment of his illness, some kind of epilepsy, he swiftly becomes intrigued by the beautiful but troubled Nastasya Filippovna. Although she only rarely appears in the story, she looms over the proceedings like an infernal spectre, interfering in people’s life through her schemes, and ruining some of them in the process. But she ruins herself too; because of the abuse she suffered by the man who raised her, she considers herself damaged, and thus sabotages her own happiness constantly. She alternates between rejecting Myshkin, whom she loves because he is the only one that can see her true nature, and wanting to be saved by him. They are surrounded by a cast of memorable characters, each of them unique and developed with care. There’s a drunkard who likes to tell tall tales, a sinister, wealthy merchant who would do anything to make Nastasya his, a headstrong young woman who falls in love with Myshkin, her mother, who is called eccentric for all the wrong reasons, or a consumptive nihilist struggling with death’s approach, and they are only a select few of all those relevant to the story.
As mentioned above, Dostoevsky wanted to portray a good man, and aside from the issue of what exactly it is that makes someone good, the more compelling question here is how other people react to this good, and what is done to it when it is exposed to the banalities of human existence. After he finished the book, Dostoevsky wrote: “I am not satisfied with the novel; it has not expressed a tenth part of what I wished to express; nevertheless I shall not renounce it, and I love my idea…” How strange to think that he even considered renouncing a book that, in my eyes, is excellent on so many levels. For instance, he succeeded in conveying a lot of thought-provoking ideas on the ideal of good through a riveting story, and that he made the character of Myshkin as memorable and engaging is a triumph in itself. Usually, the good character is in the shadow of the flawed one because it is harder to care about someone who has no negative attributes; we all have flaws, so how can we truly be invested in the fate of someone without them? This problem is partly solved by Myshkin’s illness, which makes him more vulnerable; also the reaction of others to his peculiar nature arouses sympathy. But even apart from that he is a character that provokes intense compassion and an irrepressible desire to see him succeed. That Nastasya Filippovna, who plays such a vital role in Myshkin’s downfall, also manages to break my heart in sympathy for her, is just the cherry on top of an already outstanding characterisation.
Basically everything that makes Dostoevsky such a brilliant writer is on display in this book: a thorough understanding of people’s motivations and the intricacies of human relationships, an extraordinary talent for writing complex and intriguing characters, and the ability to tell stories that are so captivating that it is difficult to even think about putting the book down, even though many of his books, as is this one, are rather lengthy. If I wondered before this reread whether it would hold up to my memory of it, I needn’t have worried. I even believe that I loved it more this second time around because I am at a different stage in my life now, and some parts just hit closer to home. Before this, I hadn’t read one of Dostoevsky’s book in many years, but as one of the favourite authors of my youth he always held a special place in my personal pantheon of great writers, and I’m glad that the magic is still there.
Anyway, this review has gotten away from me completely and become much too long, so the gist of it is this: I love this book because it is truly excellent, and I am convinced that Dostoevsky is one of the most brilliant writers of all time. If you want to read one of his books, start with one of his five great novels, which aside from The Idiot and Crime and Punishment include The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, and Notes from Underground. Each one of them is absolutely worth reading, and to rank them is certainly impossible.
CBR12 Bingo: Gateway