Despite the harsh circumstances besetting his own life - abject poverty, incessant gambling, and the death of his firstborn child - Dostoevsky produced a second masterpiece, The Idiot, just two years after completing Crime and Punishment. In it, a saintly man, Prince Myshkin, is thrust into the heart of a society more concerned with wealth, power, and sexual conquest than the ideals of Christianity. Myshkin soon finds himself at the center of a violent love triangle in which a notorious woman and a beautiful young girl become rivals for his affections. Extortion, scandal, and murder follow, testing the wreckage left by human misery to find "man in man."
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I avoided this book for a long time: who wants to read a book about a person who's so good everyone around him thinks he's an idiot?
Boy, was I wrong. This is an intense and brooding novel, filled with Dostoevsky's usual array of deeply conflicted characters and blistering monologues. The idiot himself, Prince Myshkin, is no pushover: maybe he's a bit naive at times, but he insists on treating people as equals and assuming their good intentions until contrary evidence is overwhelming. He suffers from epilepsy, and in the course of the novel has a couple of seizures that dramatically alter the direction of the story.
Superficially, the novel is about Myshkin's conflicted relationships with two women: Aglaya, the youngest daughter of a distant relative, with whom he is in love; and Anastassya Filippovna, a "fallen woman" who's been fobbed off by her former lover and who seems to be drifting from one self-destructive relationship to another. Myshkin may have loved her once, but now he mainly pities her. Aglaya, who at one point seems willing to marry Myshkin, ultimately breaks off because of his obsession with Anastassya.
But that's only one small facet of this complex, teeming book. The characters are captivating, the scenes at times almost hypnotic in their intensity. I've only read a few of Dostoevsky's novels, but so far I'm inclined to say this is probably my favorite.
Robert Whitfield (=Simon Vance) gives a stellar reading. Of particular note is his ability to distinguish the voices of the many women in the book: sometimes the shading is subtle, but I always knew instantly who was talking. Well done, highly recommended.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like if a person as selfless and beautiful as the Jesus portrayed in the bible? Someone so in tune with humanity so aware of its horrors and imperfections, yet so wholly consumed by his love of humanity that he would destroy himself just for the chance of allowing you to save yourself?
That was what Dostoevsky was attempting to do, and by the gods, he did it. The story may not be for everyone, but if you stick with it you will be amazed. This is far and away my favorite Dostoevsky novel, and I have read all of them.
Considering how difficult it is to find a decent reading of any of Dostoevsky's longer works Robert Whitfield is incredible. Every character has a voice that you can recollect instantly when it hits your ears. He engages the writing and manages to bring life to it even with this dated translation. You will find no better on Audible, and you would do you well to treat your soul to this difficult, but compelling novel.
The novel itself starts with figures of Christ, the Anti-Christ, and the False Prophet conversing together on a train, and from there things proceed until both Myshkin and Rogozhin stand at opposite ends as Nastassya Filippovna fights between salvation and damnation even as the sins of her humanity where down on her conscience and soul.
There are of course, more characters, more events. A Dostoevsky novel could never be otherwise, and by the end of the novel you will see yourself in one of the characters. You have to, the whole of humanity is on display here through the interactions his characters. They are all simultaneously real and unreal. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky creates characters that turn their humanity to 11 and engage your very soul with their complexity and utter irrationality.
Dostoevsky is attempting to show us the truth that Christ offered us: no one can save us, nor can He cannot save, He can only open the door. Only we ourselves can choose to enter that door through which salvation is attainable. It is hard, no, impossible, and Dostoevsky, like the his Christ knew this and the book conveys this understanding with an undeniable beauty. We are evil, we are kind, we are a paradox capable of the most horrendous acts of selfishness and kindness, often within quick succession. This is what it is to be human, and Dostoevsky relishes it and rejects any and all ideas that would take away our free will in deciding how to live our lives.
You will not feel clean after reading this novel, it will sting, it will pull and eat at you for days after the final words has crept through your headphones and left you in silence. But there is beauty in it. A poetic perfection that makes itself more and more manifest with every listen. Though written in the mid-19th century, we are no different than the world Dostoevsky knew and loved. Buy this or don't, it your choice. Just know that as of right now, you are 650 pages away from growing a soul.