Friday 8 January 2010

The more glaring the absurdity, the more strongly I believed in it

The title of this post is a quotation (p. 246) from Dostoevsky's 1875 novel The Adolescent (sometimes also known in English as The Raw Youth), and reflects the dangerous and wholehearted naivety of the book's narrator, Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky.

Dostoevsky never does anything by halves, so he mercilessly and minutely describes the painful and prolonged repercussions of Arkady's immaturity, selfishness, and stupidity; he does this specifically in relation to a compromising letter written by the beautiful Katerina Nikolaevna. How Arkady has come to possess this letter, why everyone is desperate to get their hands on it, and what it means for those who want it, are at the heart of Dostoevsky's penultimate novel.

A pretty basic concept, but Dostoevsky's novel was, to me, shockingly hard to follow and the revelation of Important Things generally much too portentously represented. A large part of why the convoluted plot was so difficult to keep track of is that, entirely unlike his other works (according to my previous experience with him), the characters in The Adolescent are so vaguely drawn as to be, at points, indistinguishable. And if you're having trouble differentiating between Anna Andreevna and Katerina Nikolaevna - arch enemies at war over a rich old prince! - then something's gone very wrong.

This novel, of course, is filled with those lengthy meditations on humanity's great failings and its great potential that characterize Dostoevsky's novels and, indeed, are integral to making The Brothers Karamazov (to me) probably the greatest novel ever written. For example, here's Versilov expounding on his great vision for the future of humankind as it transcends its belief in and reliance upon an externalized divinity:
I imagine to myself...that the battle is over and the fighting has subsided. After the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm has come, and people are left alone, as they wished: the great former idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like that majestic, inviting sun in Claude Lorrain's painting, but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. My dear boy, I've never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly; they would hold hands, understanding that they alone were now everything for each other. The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality, would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly... (pp. 470-71)
Gorgeous, hair-raising, painfully naive and beautifully inspiring precisely for being so. Yet, such compelling meditations seemed somehow unconnected from the nitty gritty of the actual plot in The Adolescent, whereas in the other Dostoevsky books I've read, they were absolutely and perfectly necessary to one another.

I think the problem, in the end, is that Dostoevsky's vision for this novel appears to have been, to my surprise, that it would function as a sort of exploration of what it means to write fiction. The majority of the book, which comprises Arkady's "Notes" on the social disasters surrounding his possession of Katerina's letter is, in the end, commented on by a character mentioned but never "used" in the novel - he reads the "Notes" and his response to Arkady is all about how they could function as the basis of a literary work and what it means to be create literary art. This epilogue was very awkwardly done, in my opinion, and seemed to further diffuse rather than unify the book's disparate elements discussed above.

Overall, The Adolescent wasn't satisfying but it had such profound and beautiful moments that I couldn't bring myself to stop reading it even as I found myself more irritated than impressed. But perhaps, had I read The Adolescent before I read The Brothers Karamazov, I would have adored the former; this is the risk for the literary genius - that his or her readers will read their best work first, condemning everything else to comparative mediocrity.


Eva said...

I sometimes worry about that with classic authors! I've only read Crime & Punishment, which I loved, but I have Brothers Karamazov patiently waiting for me on my shelves. It sounds like maybe I should read some of his less well-known works first!

Heidenkind said...

I've never read either, so Dostoevsky is safe from me. ;) But I think that's the danger with every author, isn't it? There's always that favorite book that you love, and the rest never quite measure up.

Stefanie said...

I was thinking as I read that I should read Brothers K before I The Adolescent, but then you made such a good point that now I have to rethink that!

Bookphilia said...

Eva: If I had my reading life to do over again, I might well read only the lesser known works of classic authors, just to save the best for last.

heidenkind: Very often, but not always. I love everything David Mitchell has so far published. All for different reasons.

Stefanie: Do it! And then you'll have The Brothers Karamazov to look forward to still...!