Last night on Sydney Harbour the new artistic director of the Sydney Writers’ Festival Jemma Birrell launched the 2013 festival program – ‘A criminal mind, Molly Ringwald & a seduction artist walk into a … Have we got a story for you’. The festival runs from 20-26 May 2013 and looks fantastic.
I’ll be writing more about the festival here soon, but for the moment I’m very excited to be on a panel with two of the world’s great readers, critics and writers – Geordie Williamson and James Wood – speaking on a panel chaired by Tegan Bennett Daylight called The Uncommon Reader. We’ll be talking about what makes a good reader – and sharing some of the books which have inspired and compelled us. Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot will be among the books I’ll be talking about. It’s sometimes my favourite novel of all time, always in my top 10.
The Idiot is the story of Prince Leo Nikolayevich Myshkin, a young Russian so honest and ingenuous that on first sight he’s taken for an idiot. His open demeanour draws people to him and friends feel compelled to confide in him, yet they are never quite sure if the prince’s peculiar, penetrating perceptions are the fruit of profound wisdom or madness.
As one friend says to him: ‘Why, Prince, your simplicity and innocence are such as were never heard of in the golden age, and then, all of a sudden, you pierce a fellow through and through, like an arrow, with such profound psychological insight!’
While Dostoyevsky was struggling with the manuscript of the novel, trying to focus his vision of the idiot Prince, whom he wanted to be a convincing, perfectly good man, he wrote to himself on 8 April 1868: ‘NB The prince – Christ’.
Shortly after marrying for the second time, in 1867, Dostoyevsky travelled with his wife to Europe. In Basel he saw a painting of Jesus by Hans Holbein which he found so confronting that he stood frozen before it for 20 minutes. His wife recalled that ‘the figure of Christ taken from the cross, whose body already showed signs of decomposition, haunted him like a horrible nightmare. In his notes to The Idiot and in the novel itself he returns again and again to this theme.’
Wracked by debt and debilitating epileptic fits that recurred almost every ten days, and grief-stricken following the death of his baby girl in 1868, Dostoyevsky wrote: ‘After all this they demand from me a work of pure art and poetry, without strain, without tearing passions, and point to Turgenev and Goncharov. Let them remember under what conditions I do my work.’
Under these excruciating conditions, Dostoyevsky wrote The Idiot, working and working at his new novel, tearing up pages and starting again. At the time he was preoccupied by the Gospels, the work of Ernest Renan (whose bestselling Life of Jesus – which depicted Jesus as a mortal man and not the son of God – had been published in France in 1863) and Shakespeare’s Othello, with its themes of jealousy and passion. He wrote:
‘I thought from 4 December to 18 December inclusive. On the average I made six different plans (no less) daily. My head was turned into a windmill. How I did not go mad, I don’t understand. At last on 18 December I sat down to write a new novel and on 5 January I had already sent off five chapters of the first part to Moscow.’
Unlike his compatriots Tolstoy and Turgenev, Dostoyevsky had no independent income and was forced to earn his living from writing to deadline, so he was forever writing in haste, desperate to earn his next payment.
The Idiot opens with the meeting of two extraordinary young men, Prince Leo Myshkin and Parfyon Rogozhin, on a cold November morning in a carriage of the Warsaw train as it approaches St Petersburg at full speed. These two bizarre men are immediately drawn to each other. Their strange passions, and their love for the same woman, ignite Dostoyevsky’s intense, explosive novel about love, desire and jealousy, suffering and madness.
The novel races along as swiftly as the trains Dostoyevsky’s loquacious character Lebedev so abhors, its action consisting predominantly of conversations – heated discussions, intimate confessions, fierce pronouncements – that erupt in set pieces in houses, salons and drawing rooms across Petersburg and the country town of Pavlovsk.
Soon after his arrival in Petersburg from a clinic in Switzerland the prince visits a distant relative, a Princess Myshkin married to the prominent General Yepanchin. The Yepanchins have three beautiful, accomplished daughters, but the beauty of their youngest daughter Aglaya is matched by only one other woman in Petersburg: Nastasya Filippovna. Through the prince the lives of these two beautiful women become inextricably linked: Aglaya forms a perverse, ambivalent attachment to the prince, but his heart has already been stricken by Nastasya Filippovna.
When the prince first sees Nastasya in a portrait, her dazzling beauty pierces him to the depths of his soul. He finds her beauty ‘quite unbearable – the beauty of that pale face, those almost hollow cheeks and burning eyes – a strange beauty!’ and falls into a peculiar, bold species of love with her.
The prince has been treated in Switzerland by a doctor renowned for his work with idiocy and insanity. Like Dostoyevsky, the prince is an epileptic, and the novel includes a vivid description of the onset of an epileptic fit. The prince’s detailed story of a man who faces execution, only to be given a last-minute reprieve, is also based on Dostoyevsky’s own life.
Born in Moscow in 1821, Dostoyevsky was the second son of a surgeon and a cultured woman from a merchant family. His father expected him to become a military engineer, and he was sent to the Academy of Military Engineering in St Petersburg. But after his father’s death in 1839 – he was rumoured to have been murdered by the serfs on his small estate – Dostoyevsky left the army in 1844 to become a writer. His first published work was a translation of one of his favourite authors, Balzac‘s Eugenie Grandet.
He then wrote a novella, Poor Folk, which so impressed two of his friends that they rushed over to Dostoyevsky’s house at 4 am to tell him it was a masterpiece. By his mid 20s Dostoyevsky had become a prominent literary figure in St Petersburg.
In April 1849, Dostoyevsky and other members of the Petrashevsky Circle, a group of socialist intellectuals dedicated to illegal terrorist agitation with whom he mixed, were arrested and imprisoned. Dostoyevsky’s first epileptic fit followed soon after. Eight months later, on 22 December, Dostoyevsky and the other prisoners were led into a square and sentenced to death by firing squad. Only at the very last moment were they told that Tsar Nicholas I had spared their lives. It turned out the mock execution was part of their punishment.
The experience of imminent death sent one prisoner mad on the spot – and marked Dostoyevsky for the rest of his life. Instead of execution Dostoyevsky was sent to Siberia for four years of hard labour. Here he spent many hours reading the Bible, which convinced him of the power of the beliefs of ordinary Russians and confirmed his faith in the Russian Orthodox Church. So passionately did Dostoyevsky value his faith in Christ that he later wrote that he would ‘prefer to remain with Christ than with the truth’.
While in Siberia Dostoyevsky married, in 1957, and two years later he was permitted to return to St Petersburg, where his wife died in 1864. His beloved brother died soon after and Dostoyevsky became addicted to gambling, and was plagued by debt and epileptic seizures.
After accepting an advance on a new novel, he had still not begun writing it less than a month before the deadline. So he hired a stenographer and, remarkably, dictated The Gambler in the remaining few weeks. It was published in 1866. The stenographer was 22 year old Anna Snitkina – and she and Dostoyevsky were married the following year. They left Russia soon after.
When he returned to Russia in 1873 Dostoyevsky had become famous throughout the world for his novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot and The Possessed (1871-72). His last novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was completed not long before his death in 1881, by which time he had come to be seen in Russia as a prophet. Like the funeral of his contemporary Tolstoy (whom he never met), Dostoyevsky’s funeral was a national event, thronged by 30,000 mourners.
Dostoyevsky was writing during a time of great ferment and upheaval in Russia, a time of modernisation and westernisation of which he was deeply suspicious. In The Idiot the onrush of change is symbolised by the ominous presence of the railway – ‘this network in which men are entangled’ – which is spreading across Europe and Russia. Lebedev sees the railway as the sign of humanity’s ruin, and is mocked for his belief:
‘Not the railways – no, sir!’ retorted Lebedev, losing his temper and at the same time enjoying himself immensely. ‘The railways will not pollute the waters of life by themselves alone; but the whole thing, sir, is damned, the whole spirit of the last few centuries, taken as a whole, sir, in its scientific and practical application, is perhaps really damned, sir!’
The Idiot is remarkable for Dostoyevsky’s profound and unnerving understanding of the human soul. Nietzsche called him ‘the only psychologist from whom I have anything to learn.’
Two of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers were haunted by The Idiot – Akira Kurosawa and Andrei Tarkovsky. Kurosawa’s 1951 film Hakuchi is based on The Idiot. Set in Hokkaido in the snow and blizzards of northern Japan, the story takes place following the Second World War and the central Prince Myshkin character is a war veteran.
Unfortunately Tarkovsky’s dreams of interpreting The Idiot for cinema were never realised: the Soviet film authorities rejected his proposal. Instead, the devastated Tarkovsky accepted an invitation to work in Italy and died in Paris four years later, in 1986. A Russian miniseries made for television in 2002 and screened in 2003 was the first screen version of the complete novel.
Iggy Pop’s debut solo album, The Idiot, was also inspired by Dostoyevsky’s novel.