As compared with The Idiot, this book was way, way easier to understand. As opposed to the 15+ randomly related cast of characters, most of the main action of this (also much shorter) novella takes place between two principal characters: Valchaninov, an almost 40 urbane Petersburg bachelor, and Pavlov Pavlovich, a provincial official and serial cuckold.
The two become re-acquainted after nine years apart – V had worked in P’s town, and spent almost a whole year in regular attendance P’s (and P’s P’s wife’s) house. P stalks V around Petersburg, haunting his existence with his crape hat. Quote here. It’s quite Larry-David really, th obsession with the crape hat, the preoccupation it engenders.
As the action unfolds, the reader quickly surmises that V has cuckolded P, and that, though maybe not fully conscious of this, P has tracked him down to exact his revenge. It turns out P’s wife has died, and he’s brought his daughter to Petersburg. Of course it’s actually V’s daughter. The two quarrel and the daughter takes ill and dies. Eventually, P convinces V to attend the party of the family of a 15-year-old that P is supposedly secretly betrothed to. Of course V ends up charming the very same girl (though he has no actual designs on her). The two become engaged in a death struggle, and V narrowly escapes murder. Towards the end of the story, two years later, V meets P on the street with his new wife (not the 15-year-old), and draws his wife into conversation, and is of course more charming an P. Also in the entourage is a young officer P is still tolerating.
The book itself is, as Frank points out, classically structured, also ballet-like in the parallels and contrasts it generates between the two main characters. It finds a way to adapt the language of 19th century romance novel, and its usual moves, but to draw out a more interesting portrait of the psychology of cuckoldism, urbanity, etc.
On the other hand, this book contains no lengthy religious diatribes, nothing more than the most subtle and undeveloped critique of nihilism, etc. Still, it was pleasant enough to read.