Sunday, May 12, 2013

Some Russian stranger

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, no one has ever recommended I read you. None of my friends my age, to my knowledge, have ever read you. I, in a certain sense, could be considered never to have read you. All the while, I really enjoyed reading The Idiot. Thank you for writing it.

I don't know anything of 19th century Russia. What I do know of it, which is nothing, I know from reading The Idiot. I don't know the type of aristocracy that exists there, I've only read about it. I've read an account of it, rather. I do not know much of anything about what I read, but I read it.

Jeff Kirshman (sports editor Jeff) quoted someone in the final sports desk meeting before last summer, that as an aspiring writer, you should read stuff that intimidates you. OK so he paraphrased. But Dostoyevsky, you son of a bitch, you are intimidating.

The only reason I knew who Fyodor Dostoyevsky was is I remember my dad read a book by him several years back, and so enjoyed his name, Doh stoi yeff ski, that he often said it in a certain gruff, low voice. And that he would, when inquiring about my English classes in high school, ask if I read any Doh stoi yeff ski. He would say it so that the Doh was a regular quarter note, the stoi slurred into the yeff, which was staccato, as was the ski. If you don't know exactly how he said it by this point, I'm sorry for wasting so much of both of our time.

Anyway, my impression of this guy was simple: gruff, Russian (Grussian). After reading For Whom the Bell Tolls, I wondered if Dostoyevsky was like a Russian Hemingway. I wanted to read something by the guy who had inevitiably earned the favor of my father. So while perusing my mom's vintage boutique, Birdsong, located in Elkhart, Ill., right off I-55, where you can fulfill all your vintage clothing/book/miscellaneous needs, and my mom might have Mac(s) with her, and you could pet him, and tell him hi for me, ... I saw an old copy of The Idiot. The cover was black and white, featuring a fair haired and bearded young man, whose eyes carried both frightened vulnerability and determination. This was the Idiot, I supposed. I decided to grab it, and that I would read it at some point or another, and see what this Russian guy was about. I remember liking the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, so why not Fyodor here?

I met the Idiot, and Fyodor, and a lot of semicolons. The Idiot, Prince Myshkin, which is a great name that I one day would absolutely consider endowing to a cat or dog, is more than a dim-witted royal junkpiece. He's epileptic. That's what "idiocy" is. The disease translates fairly well to the modern slang colloquialism. The Prince is an utter dupe, he takes everything at face value and doesn't learn from being duped in the past. He is, at first acquaintance, the most wholesome person one could ever meet, and never shows any depth of character beyond that. He is honest for better and worse, and has an inherent trust, or rather, love, of everyone he meets.

It's hard to know what you want for Prince Myshkin, should his climax be to climb out from under his illness, to break through and be 'cured'? (The novel used single quotes for every quote, and double quotes for quotes within quotes.) Or should he fall in love with the beautiful Nastasya Fillipovna, who is also crazy? Or should he settle for Aglaya Yepanchin, who is the more decent looking, slightly crazy but more home-y type who loves him for his simplicity. My personal hope was for Vera Lebedev, the landlord's lowly daughter, but it wasn't to be.

Should he even have a love interest? After all, he's mentally ill. Perhaps if he helps everyone else find their dream match, I'll be satisfied as a reader. Also, reading from his perspective becomes grating and difficult when someone is pulling his leg. As a character, he's sympathetic, frustrating and ultimately pitiful.

If anything, Dostoyevsky's writing struck me as brave. Whenever I pick up a 'classic' novel, I fear that it will have a cliche ending, excusable via grandfather clause of it setting the bar for said cliche, but nevertheless disappointing. This novel was unique, and I found it bold to write a story with a mentally ill person as the main character. Because of this, you can never doubt that Dostoyevsky knew exactly what he was looking to do with the story, otherwise he would never have dared to tell it in such a way. If I lived in 19th century Russia, I think I would find it a fascinating commentary on my civilization. As it is, it is a fascinating social commentary given the time and place. The narrative is intricate, but the story was long, at about 660 pages.

Dostoyevsky used semicolons and colons seemingly as often as commas and periods, pretty well thwarting my Ernest Hemingway comparison. But I'd say he tackled the subject he aimed for with the exact type of fortitude and informed confidence that made Hemingway great. And there were a couple passages where the novel gets on a roll and makes you laugh or leaves you agape, similar to how Hemingway throws himself into drunken tirades or explodes his own powder kegs at a climax. It was a translated work, so any superior manipulation of the language itself was lost, which is most unfortunate.

Fyodor. No one recommended you to me. You were dead for a century before I was born. You wrote in the other hemisphere, about the other hemisphere, for the other hemisphere. You didn't even write these words; some bloke named David Magarshack translated them. But hey, I read your story about Prince Myshkin. And I rather liked it. Thank you.

--Eliot Sill

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