The Adolescent

This is Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel.  I had read in a couple of different places that this was the weakest of his major works, and it turns out (at least to me) they were right.  In fact I have very little to say about it.  Let’s see.

A brief summary: The first-person narrator, Dolgoruky, is the illegitimate son of Versilov, a literary-minded aristocrat, and one of his serving women.  Dolgoruky grew up aware of who his true father was, but also ashamed of his illegitimacy, and beguiled by his actual father.  He spends most of the book tracking his father’s actions.  The plot elements get confusing: most of it centers around a group of foppish men-about-town, with a complicated network of younger mistresses, secret marriage agreements and intrigue.  There is also a stock scam that figures prominently (though I had trouble telling exactly how).

Like is Demons, much of the action that determines the characters’ problematic interactions occurs off stage (and again, in Switzerland, where a tangled web of false marital promises were made between 4-6 central characters before the start of the action).  Unlike in Demons, where the plot confusion seemed all to hang together in an intuitive way, one that has establishes a unity of place and time, here it just seemed to plod along towards a conclusion.  And whereas in Demons there was a political and cultural subtext to the various romantic intrigues, here there wasn’t, or if there was, it was too subtle for me to detect.

There are some funny sequences – for example Dolgoruky accompanies a group of young dandies (and hangers-on) to a restaurant, from which they are eventually removed because they refuse to stop harassing the other guests.  The most touching aspect of the book is Dolgoruky’s evolving understanding of, adoration and then at times hatred for his father.  It reminded me of D’s much earlier Netochka Nezvanova.  Then, the hero was a heroine, a more Jane-Erye figure, with a similar sort of conflicted relationship with her aristocratic benefactors.  Here some of the details are different, but the feel is the same.  Another interesting wrinkle is the emergence, towards the end of the novel, of Dolgoruky’s legal father, a sort of “holy fool” wanderer who dispenses obscure folk wisdom.

The book eventually comes to an end as Versilov falls under the care of his younger mistress.  He seems to have reformed his philandering ways.  The final chapter of the novel is a letter from Dolgoruky’s childhood tutor, who is supposed to have read the manuscript we just read, and is commenting on it.  This seemed forced and inelegant.  Then again, much of the purpose of the book was to illustrate the limited, egocentric perspective of its 22-year-old narrator, and in that, it was successful.

Regarding the thoughts from my earlier post:

A.  The Othello thing did continue throughout the book – three times in fact.

#1: Right after Dolgoruky fails in what he thought was a romantic rendezvous with Katerina Nikolaevna, the 0bject of his affection for most of the book (and the woman with whom Versilov ends up):

Versilov said once that Othello did not kill Desdemona and afterwards himself because he was jealous, but because he had been robbed of his ideal… I understand that, because to-day my ideal has been restored to me! (online text here)

This is presented in typical Dostoevskyian fashion – the narrator is experiencing the opposite of what he describes.

#2: After that failed rendezvous, Dolgoruky tells Versilov about it, and Versilov was caught unaware (he was, after all, pursuing Katerina Nikolaevna the whole time):

If I were Othello and you Iago, you could not have done better. . . . I am laughing though! There can be no sort of Othello, because there have been no relations of the kind. And why laugh indeed? It doesn’t matter! I believe she’s infinitely above me all the same, and I have not lost my ideal.

#3: Towards the end, when Versilov begins what he calls his “resurrection” – Versilov is speaking again:

It’s like those PAINFUL scenes which you sometimes find in the works of great artists, which one remembers ever afterwards with pain; for instance, Othello’s last monologue in Shakespeare, Yevgeny, at the feet of Tatyana, or the meeting of the runaway convict with the little girl on the cold night at the well, in ‘Les Miserables’ of Victor Hugo; it stabs the heart once for all, and leaves a wound for ever.

I’m not sure why this caught my eye, other than the fact that Othello is a play I’ve really enjoyed reading several times and seeing performed.  Frank suggests these allusions are just attempts to attribute more seriousness to the book’s theme than is warranted.  That seems a little unfair but I don’t know what else they’re for.  Any ideas?

B. The Great Gatsby thing.  The Adolescent does prove similar to Gatsby in a lot of ways, but it’s just not as good.  A narrator with some homoerotic tendencies, stuck among a group of people he’s mildly disgusted with, a central figure who redeems himself through confused romanticism, etc. etc.  But the unity of action achieved in Fitzgerald’s book, just I guess the craft aspects of novel-writing, succeed much more there.

Regarding the overall project – Now, I’m going to read the many different shorter pieces that make up the rest of the Diary of a Writer.  this is good because as the school year has started again I have less time to devote towards these massive novels.  Reading them over an extended period of time just doesn’t work – you lose the thread of things.  But most of the Diary of a Writer entries are less than 20 pages, and were meant to be consumed separately.  And then, after that, all that’s left is The Brothers Karamazov – I might get there by winter break, or it might have to wait until spring or summer…

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