The Modern Library Giant dust jacket of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot

The Idiot (Идиот)

  • Author:  Fyodor Dostoevsky  (1821  –  1881)
  • Rank:  #54
  • Published:  1869
  • Publisher:  Russkiy Vestnik
  • Pages:  597
  • First Line:  “At nine o’clock in the morning, towards the end of November, the Warsaw train was approaching Petersburg at full speed.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘And all of this, all this life abroad, and this Europe of yours is all a fantasy, and all of us abroad are only a fantasy . . . remember my words, you’ll see it for yourself!’ she concluded almost wrathfully, as she parted from Yevgeny Pavlovitch.”
  • ML Version:  MLG #60  (1952)
  • Film:  1946  (dir. Georges Lampin), 1951  –  ***.5  (dir. Akira Kurosawa), 1958  (dir. Ivan Pyryev)
  • First Read:  Fall, 1997

The Novel: How to adequately describe the impact of Dostoevsky?  In a very large sense he rewrote the very concept of the novel, moving away from the stories of Scott and Austen and Dickens and refining the psychology that went into the creation of character and narrative.  He refined the very notion of what a person was before Sigmund Freud had so much as written a single word.  In the course of his career he wrote two of the very finest novels ever written, a brilliant short work and several very fine short stories.  The Idiot gets lost in the shuffle when people talk about the great all-time novels because of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, but it is right there among the very best novels.

The Idiot of the title is poor Prince Myshkin (“His eyes were large, blue and dreamy; there was something gentle, though heavy-looking in their expression, something of that strange look from which some people can recognize at the first glance a victim of epilepsy.”).  His is the struggle of a purely good man, untouched by the larger machinations of Petersburg society, struggling in a world of romance and politics, of hatred and love.  His goodness and simplicity are contrasted from the very first page with Rogozhin (“His thin lips were continually curved in an insolent, mocking and even malicious smile.”).  His soul is torn between the pampered, more experienced Nastasya Filippovna (“her eyes were dark and deep, her brow was pensive; he expression was passionate, and, as it were, disdainful.”) and the young, beautiful Aglaia (“Aglai’s future husband was to be a paragon of all perfections and achievements, as well as the possessor of vast welath.”).

The novel balances between the light and the dark.  Myshkin’s highs (“His mind and his heart were flooded with extraordinary light; all his uneasiness, all his doubts, all his anxieties were relieved at once; they were all merged in a lofty calm, full of serene, harmonious joy and hope.”) are balanced against the darkness and eventual descent into violence and madness of Rogozhin.  This perhaps might be the darkest of Dostoevsky’s major novels – in the end, nothing can be done for any of them and we move to the final tragic scene: “every time the delirious man broke into screaming or babble, he hastened to pass his trembling hand softly over his hair and cheeks, as though caressing and soothing him.”

note:  all quotes are from the Constance Garnett translation

The Akira Kurasawa 1951 film version of The Idiot

The Film:

Akira Kurosawa’s film version of The Idiot doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.  Part of that is because while it is a very good film, it is not a great film and when you’re Kurosawa, your few films that aren’t great tend to get swept under the rug.  The other part is that the film did not end up how Kurosawa wanted it.  It is, like Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons, an ambitious attempt to film a great work of literature and bring it all to life that was taken away from the director, chopped down to a more manageable film length, with the missing pieces never to be recovered.  So, in all three cases, we can not judge what was attempted.  We can only judge the results.

In this case, the results are quite good.  Masayuki Mori gives a fine, under-stated performance as the idiot prince, but, as usual, it is Toshiro Mifune who steals the show.  Mifune plays Rogozhin and his intensity brings the film to life.  His performance is a reminder, not only of the deep, fascinating dark aspects of the secondary characters in the Dostoevsky novels, but also of the fierce passion with which Mifune attacked the acting profession.

The film moves well without dragging, is smart, manages to capture the psychological insights of the novel without ever devolving into a greatest hits version of the novel.  It is well-directed, well-adapted, well-acted and certainly well-made.  It is a tragedy that we can not see the full vision that Kurosawa had for the film.  But we can be thankful for what we have.