Monday, 20 July 2015

The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The Adolescent and I have a little history. I tried to read it last year (August) for the seventh Classic Club Spin and not only did I not read it but it sparked quite an aversion to Dostoyevsky's works: rather unfortunate, as at the time I was attempting to read all of his novels (which I had to put on hold as a consequence, so I switched to Chaucer; a very good move, happily). I haven't read any Dostoyevsky since May 2014 when I read The Village of Stepanchikovo and this is why: this was the block. However, one of my 2015 Challenges is to read a book for every year of Queen Victoria's reign, and for 1875 it was either this or a Henry James novel (Roderick Hudson) which I frankly could not face! Thus, last week was the week to read The Adolescent. I knew it would be a struggle, and I knew I probably wouldn't like it, and I was right. But I am at least happy I've finally read it.

In 1875 as Tolstoy's Anna Karenina was being serialised in 'The Russian Messenger' (Ру́сский ве́стник), Dostoyevsky's The Adolescent (Подросток, 1875; also known as The Raw Youth) began to appear in 'Notes of the Fatherland' ('Отечественные запискиi'), a rival literary journal. It was originally to be titled 'Discord', and it tells the story of the adolescent Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky, the illegitimate son of  Andrei Petrovich Versilov, a landowner. Dolgoruky has suffered the embarrassment and indignation of being illegitimate all of his childhood, writing in the early part of the novel:
"What's your last name?"
"Prince Dolgoruky?"
"No, simply Dolgoruky."
"Ah, simply! Fool!"
And he's right: there's nothing stupider to be called Dolgoruky without being a prince. I drag this stupidity around on my back without any guilt. Later on, when I began to get very angry, to the question "Are you a prince?" I always answered, "No, I'm the son of a household servant, a former serf". [referring to his legal father, Makar Ivanovich Dolgoruky]
Then, when I got angry in the last degree, to the question, "Are you a prince?" I once answered firmly, "No, simply Dolgoruky, the illegitimate son of my former master, Mr. Versilov."
And a few paragraphs later,
Finally, one of my classmates, a very sarcastic fellow, with whom I spoke only once a year, said to me with a serious air, but looking somewhat askance:
"Such feelings, of course, do you honour, and you undoubtedly have something to be proud of; but all the same, if I were in your place, I wouldn't be celebrating my illegitimacy so much... you sound like a birthday boy!"
Since then I have stopped boasting that I was illegitimate.
I repeat, it's very difficult to write in Russian: here I've scribbled a whole three pages on how I've spent all my life being angry over my last name, and meanwhile the reader has surely concluded that I'm angry precisely because I'm not a prince, but simply Dolgoruky. To explain and justify myself would be humiliating for me. 
Resentful of his lowly status Dolgoruky dreams of becoming a Rothschild, the family headed by James Mayer de Rothschild who in the 19th Century were believed to possess the largest private fortune in the world. As he dreams he remains in conflict with his father Versilov who to him represents 'old Russia', whilst Dolgoruky embodies nihilism, the philosophical belief that nothing has meaning or purpose, a movement particularly strong in 1860s Russia, which Dostoyevsky explored in, for example, Crime and Punishment (1866), The Brothers Karamazov (1880), The Idiot (1869) and Demons (1872; also known as The Devils and The Possessed). 

I say I struggled with this - it isn't a bad novel at all. Dostoyevsky pens an adolescent in conflict perfectly; a little too perfectly - Dolgoruky was for the majority of the novel infuriating, unpleasant, and tedious, which naturally made for an infuriating, unpleasant, and tedious read. It's a novel that divides Dostoyevsky fans: some love it, some loathe it. I'm nearer the 'loathe' base, but I don't believe that it is badly written or not worth bothering about. It's humorous at times (I think the fact that Dostoyevsky could be funny surprises some people!), and poignant if one can get over one's dislike for the protagonist. It reminds me a little of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951) in its tone, particularly the opening, which I'll compare:
The Catcher in the Rye
If you want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have two haemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty person about them. They're quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They're nice and all - I'm not saying that - but they're also touchy as hell. Besides, I'm not going to tell you my whole goddamn autobiography or anything. I'll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.
The Adolescent
Unable to restrain myself, I have sat down to record this history of my first steps of my life's career, though I could have done as well without it. One thing I know for certain: never again will I sit down to write my autobiography, even if I live to be a hundred. You have to be all too basely in love with yourself to write about yourself without shame. My only excuse is that I'm not writing for the same reason as everyone else writes, that is, for the sake of the reader's praises. If I have suddenly decided to record word for word all that has happened to me since last year, then I have decided it as the result of an inner need: so struck I am by everything that has happened. I am recording only the events, avoiding with all my might everything extraneous, and above all - literary beauties. A literary man writes for thirty years and in the end doesn't know at all why he has written for so many years. I am not a literary man, do not want to be a literary man, and would consider it base and indecent to drag the insides of my soul and a beautiful description of my feelings to their literary marketplace. I anticipate with vexation, however, that is seems impossible to do entirely without the description of feelings and without reflections (maybe even banal ones): so corrupting is the effect of any literary occupation on a man, even if it is undertaken only for oneself. The reflections may even be very banal, because something you value yourself will quite possibly have no value in a stranger's eyes. But this is all an aside. Anyhow, here is my preface; there won't be anything more of its kind. To business; though there's nothing trickier than getting down to some sort of business - maybe even any sort.
I should note that I'm not alone in making this comparison however Donald M. Fiene of the University of Tennessee argues that it is mistaken, and that it is The Brothers Karamazov that influenced Salinger, and furthermore there's no evidence to suggest Salinger even got around to reading The Adolescent. Even so, I thought it was worthy of a mention!

So, to finish up: The Adolescent is an interesting work because it is a key part of Dostoyevsky's output, and it shouldn't be dismissed. Dolgoruky is an excellent character, too. The problem with it is, in short, it was such a slog to read. One I'm happy to have read, but I took little pleasure in the reading! I much prefer his other novels, particularly The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Notes from Underground (1864), which I'm planning on reading in September.

Further Reading


  1. I struggle with Dostoyevsky too, but I really think it's because I just don't get him. I have high hopes that one day the light will go on and I'll say, "Okay, I finally get it. That's what he's trying to convey!", but so far it hasn't happened.

    I haven't read The Adolescent but I'm certain that I'd enjoy it more than Catcher in the Rye (cough, choke!). ;-)

    1. I think I prefer Catcher in the Rye, at least it's shorter :)

      What have you read by Dostoyevsky? I really have liked what I've read so far, but he certainly isn't easy to figure out!

    2. Not many. I've read The Gambler, which I loved, The Idiot, which confused me, and I think I've read Notes from the Underground but I remember nothing about it. I'm going to read it again this summer in my tri-novel project of Fathers and Sons, What is To Be Done? and Notes from the Underground.

      I really feel that I understand so little about Dostoyevsky that it's preventing me from really "getting" his works. I'm hoping just by reading more of them that I'll start to get him, but we'll see. I think that he was a very complex man.

    3. I didn't like The Gamber but loved The Idiot! (I named one of my budgies Myshkin).

      I'm going to re-read Notes from Underground in Sept for Fanda's challenge, so I'll look forward to see how it fits in with those other novels you've mentioned :)


Popular Posts of the Year