The Adolescent: Dostoevsky the dramatist

School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.

The AdolescentThe Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback

Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading

Political theater, poetic farce

Orhan Pamuk’s Snow begins as a novel that had a good shot at feeding the intellect but instead contorted itself into a soap opera complete with convenient fixes for its weaknesses.Snow - Kar

Snow · Orhan Pamuk · 2002
Maureen Freely translation · Vintage, 2005 · 463 pages, paperback

A political coup that manipulates the theater to confuse and gain power? A string of suicides inspired by Turkey’s uncertain position on the East-West divide? An exiled poet who just might find enlightenment in the forsaken streets of his home town? Pamuk’s writing in Snow (originally published in Turkey as Kar) is too placid for the story he wanted to tell. We read the few moments of heightened drama in this novel in a detached way, as if we’re too tired to keep our eyes open and our brains can’t hold onto the words we’re reading: we just don’t care.  Continue reading

Pity the fool

“In a world where God is simply dead flesh, a good man becomes simply an idiot.” – AS Byatt, “Prince of Fools,” The Guardian, June 2004

the-idiotThe Idiot · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1868-’69
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2003 · 633 pages, paperback

Dostoevsky explained in a letter to a friend, and later to his niece, that his project in writing The Idiot was that of portraying a “perfectly beautiful man.” This man, Prince Myshkin, the titular “idiot,” is an epileptic who returns to Russia after four years in a Swiss sanatorium.

Myshkin isn’t an intellectual idiot; his idiocy stems from naivety and simple-heartedness. Myshkin is an idiot because he is foolish to the nastier, baser parts of man and to the cruel reality of an impure world.

Dostoevsky writes goodness with the same attention he gave meanness in Crime and Punishment. He writes it as an otherness, received only with reservations, suspicion and disbelief. Goodness disintegrates, is dragged through the street and becomes tangled up with the coarser parts of society until it is unrecognizable and even damaging.

Continue reading