The Idiot

Last week I finished reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. I think it took me about four months to finish it — not just because it’s a difficult book, but because I haven’t had a lot of time and energy for reading, which, in itself, is a shame.

This is not the first Dostoevsky I’ve read, but it’s the first I’ve read in over ten years. I read both Notes from Underground and The Grand Inquisitor while I was still in high school, and found it fascinating (or so my notes at the time say), but my reading tastes went in other directions, and didn’t return to classic Russian literature until I picked up Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a couple of years ago.

Although I tried to allow a bit of space between these two tomes, my mind is naturally going to compare the two. This, of course, might be quite unfair, especially since I rank Anna Karenina as one of the best novels I’ve ever read.

Overall, I have no harsh words for The Idiot; I only wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if I (1) had a different translation of the work, and/or (2) had a better understanding of Russian society in the 19th Century. It might’ve also helped if I’d managed to read it over a shorter timeframe, rather than stretching it out for so long that I started to forget where some of the characters fit in with the rest of them.

In regards to the first point: I read the Wordsworth Classics 1996 edition, which actually doesn’t mention anywhere who did the translation (at least, it doesn’t mention it anywhere that I can find within the covers of the book). Perhaps the translation is actually accurate, but it seemed to lack refinement.

The other thing that made me wary of this edition was the presence of typographical errors. Well, ok, there probably weren’t that many, and sometimes it was something as simple as an inverted comma that was facing the wrong way, but there were enough to make me question the quality of this edition.

Side note: I’d bought this book second-hand from a charity book sale. I sometimes wonder with second-hand books if the previous owner donated it because they disliked it or simply because they could no longer keep it (e.g. moving somewhere a lot smaller or far away).

One review I found on GoodReads appeared to have the same issue with the translation of the text. The reviewer had read an edition translated in the first half of the 1900s, and he questioned whether it was well overdue for a revision. It seems that their edition was also written in an excessively melodramatic way.

So, really, I’m not sure if The Idiot was meant to be very dramatic or not, but some of the characters and scenes seemed almost Dickensian in their exaggerated expressions and qualities. Characters like Lebedyev and Ippolit, in particular, were quite bizarre. Aglaia Ivanovna and Lizaveta Prokofyevna also come across as nearly deranged in certain parts. And my impression of Ferdyshtchenko is not dissimilar to my memory of the serpentine Uriah Heep from Dickens’ David Copperfield.

(And let’s not get started on Rogozhin or Nastasya Filippovna…)

It is interesting, though, that I’ve never found these exaggerations of character to be out of place in the Dickens novels that I’ve read. This makes me wonder if it’s only because I was expecting a much more serious novel (along the lines of Anna Karenina) that I was taken aback by the melodrama in The Idiot.

In regards to the second point: The blurb of the novel declares that in The Idiot, Dostoevsky “supplies a harsh indictment of the Russian ruling class of his day”. The vast majority of reviews I have read/skimmed through after finishing this book seem very positive — most people are in awe to some degree over this work. A few people do agree, however, that, taken purely as a story-telling novel, readers may be left wanting. The true genius is in the way Dostoevsky reflects Russian society …or so I’m led to believe.

My knowledge of 19th Century Russian society is limited to whatever I happened to learn from Anna Karenina. This is probably not enough for me to fully appreciate whatever social commentary is woven into The Idiot. Any allusions, nuances and insight are probably a bit lost on me.

Strangely enough, however, rather than putting me off reading any more Dostoevsky, this has heightened my interest in his other works, such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. I suppose I just have to look for more recently revised editions.

6 thoughts on “The Idiot

  1. You make a good point about knowing who translated a book. And typographical errors would put me off the book as well. I’ve never read anything by Dostoevsky, but studied him in passing when I was in college. If I ever read any of his works, I’ll keep your experience in mind and get a translation that seems more reputable.

    • Yes, don’t read the Wordsworth edition! However, since writing this post, I did some research and found that Dostoevsky tended to write quickly with few revisions because he was in a lot of debt and needed money (gambling habit, apparently). This might explain why his work doesn’t seem very refined (?)

  2. As a translator, I cannot believe that the translator is not mentioned. 😮 That’s just terrible. I can imagine how bad the translation must be. So sorry that you had to struggle through it.

    I haven’t read this title but I enjoyed Notes from the Underground (in Slovenian since that’s what I am). The Idiot is my good friend’s favourite book though and I trust her taste. I really cannot imagine her liking a melodramatic book so much. I would bet that your translator didn’t pick on certain nuances.

    I appreciate more and more the quality of Slovenian translation. I grew up with certain expectations so now I find English translations severely lacking. The worst example is Pippi Longstocking. I don’t know which edition I read but it was just so basic and drab and unappealing, compared to my beloved Slovenian translation I grew up on (and it shows, Pippi is my spirit animal).

    • That’s interesting to know! Maybe if I find a different translation of The Idiot, I’ll give it another chance!

      This might be a bit of a shock, but I’ve never read Pippi Longstocking. I suppose I didn’t really read the popular books when I was younger (except Harry Potter but I was slow to pick that up too). If you say she is your spirit animal though, then I’m sufficiently intrigued!

        • Haha I guess there are too many books for everyone to read everything, even Harry Potter!

          Yes, definitely, I’ll find the most recent translation of Pippi that I can! If it’s still underwhelming, I might consider learning Slovenian 😉

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