Travelling the World with Books

A blog in which I describe a literary project to Travel the World with Books. I will include synopsis's of the books, historical context, conversations with my reading partner and my thoughts on the books. Feel free to comment any thoughts or recommendations for foreign books I can read.

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10. 24th June 2018

Booklist Updates

Since the last entry I’ve updated the booklist (chapter 4) by removing the Noam Chomsky book (see chapter 7 for more details) and added ‘Americanah’ from Nigeria and Red Dust from China. Lucie has read both these books whilst I was reading ‘The Idiot’. Currently she is just finishing ‘Red Dust’ and is due to start ‘The Idiot’, whilst I have recently finished said book and have started ‘Americanah’.

 

Conversation on ‘The Idiot’

As I just mentioned, a few days ago I finished our Russian book - ‘The Idiot’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Having told Lucie this she asked me some questions and an interesting conversation ensued. I’m going to give some developed answers to these questions as a sort of review, instead of a block of text like my last entry.

 

Q: So how did the book hold together for you?

A: Being a book much larger than any I’ve previously read, a lot more happened. This manifested itself in a quite different shape to most books, which usually look rough like this:  introduction, problem, journey, solution. Instead, the book was formed of smaller substories that occured one after the next. For example, something might happen, and then Dostoevsky would take a few chapters to describe the reactions of the characters involved, reflections, repercussions and any follow up events. Then something else, large unrelated, would happen, maybe a meeting of two characters, or a party, and a thorough description would ensue. In such fashion the novel is formed.

    Despite this the novel holds together well. Though the events are not obvious continuations of the past events, and there is no material goal or mission, there are things that are happening continuously, across all the subsections. The obvious examples of this are character and relationship development. Each character changes slightly with each event (if they are involved of course - not every character in part of every section). Also, we as the reader learn something new about the personality of a character by seeing how the behave in each individual situation. Something Dostoevsky does is, among other things, design his sections to emphasis an aspect of a particular character. One part might show how noble the Prince is, another how disloyal Lebedev is, a third how unstable Nastasya Filippovna is. In this way one feels like each substory has a purpose to the over all novel. This also means that the substories are continuations of each other in an abstract way - though what is happening is unrelated (mostly), how the characters react and behave are subconsciously informed by what happened in past episodes.

    All these ideas are easily transferred to relationship growth - relationships change with each sections, are in formed by past sections and are sometimes the focus of a substory. These elements create the continuation of the story and therefore hold it together. There are some other themes that in a small way appear across the substories, such as the main theme of the book - the inadequacies of society contrasted with an idea of ‘a positively good man’; and the love life of the Prince.

 

Q: What insight did the book give you into society at the time?

A: The most striking thing as a modern reader of this older book is how capilatist the society seemed at the time, compared to the country’s more recent communism. This is interesting as it is a perspective on the book that didn’t even exist at the time it was written. In fact the society Dostoevsky portrayed was one of absolute capitalism - every man only thinking for himself, desiring most deeply money and status, respecting others purely for their fortunes, nearly everyone prepared to scam and trick others to make that extra bit more. All these ideas were strong themes in the author’s commentary. Examples of such things are the prevalence of money lenders and passages describing how they alter rates and require steep interest rates; parents choosing husbands for their daughters purely on wealth and social status (which is also shown to just be a reflection of one’s wealth); people adjusting their prices based on who their selling to and how much they think they can get off them. This all interests me as, like any good book, it makes one think about how things are today - I live in a western capitalist country, where there are large signs that capitalism doesn’t really work: making the rich richer, giving too much power to profit focused bodies etc., but then compared to ‘The Idiot’s society, our capitalism is much less extreme: it hasn’t completely altered the minds of the people or become the most important thing to everyone for example. Sure, these things have happened in small degrees, even big degrees in some minorities, but the scale is different to that of Dostoevsky’s society.

    Another aspect of the society at the time which Dostoevsky tells us a lot about it the gossipy, fickle, disloyal nature of the rich. This is also a theme in Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’, though in that context it is the subject of comedy, which it definitely isn’t in ‘The Idiot’. I think this sprouts from the complacency of those that inherit a fortune, and don’t have to earn or maintain it. With such a life, I’m not surprised these people turned to nosing about other’s affairs, pouring emotional energy into scandals and talking about friends and foes behind closed doors. But in a society built from the top down (as it is in capitalist countries), it is unhealthy to have such things at the top. For example, at the end of the book something happens to do with the Prince and two other characters, which soon becomes public and everyone is talking about it. Dostoevsky then steps out of the narrator voice and talks to us as author to reader: he tells us we can’t be sure of what actually happened because there are so many versions of the story going around that the truth is almost at insignificant as all the lies. This is a very interesting method to show how society will take such an event and twist it and spread it, talk about it and critique it. The term ‘none of your business’ clearly didn’t exist back then.

 

Q: Which character did you disagree with most? (Lucie also elaborated that this question was always more interesting to her than it’s opposite, because the answer always reflects the personality of the reader and how they interact with a a text)

A: My personal least favourite character is Lebedev. Though other characters commit terrible crimes and brake unbreakable promises, Lebedev was the one who annoyed me most. This is because I disagree with his personality, who he is and how he acts. The others I just referenced do such things because of a plethora of past events and emotions that have built up, yet with Lebedev, nothing has caused him to be how he is - there is no good reason - he just is. You see he becomes quite close the the main character, the Prince, throughout the novel because the Prince stays in his house when the story is set in Pavlovsk. When the two characters are conversing, Lebedev is always calling the Prince ‘my honour’ and ‘mighty, gracious prince’ and saying things like ‘your word is my command’ and ‘I am yours!’; on the surface this seems nice and like the guy just has some weird inferiority complex, but no. Like my mother once said (it’s probably a proverb of some sort, but in my mind it’s a piece of motherly wisdom) ‘action, not words’. Despite saying all these complimentary words, he does not mirror them in his actions. This for me is just dishonesty - he is basically lying to the Prince nearly all the time. Personally, when people say they’ll do things, or speak to you in a certain way, yet not act upon it, I get quite annoyed. If I say I will do something, or make a commitment, then I will do it or provide a completely valid reason well in advance why I can’t. This is one of the reasons why I dislike Lebedev so much. Another is that he is quite manipulative. This is mainly with the Prince, but also with the other characters. Whenever he is talking it seems like Lebedev has some ulterior motive, something that he wants from the other person that purely benefits him, in short is he always trying to twist others and make them think things that will ultimately benefit only him. Again this is dishonesty and disloyalty to the person. I think shows that I strongly value honesty, which, of course, I do and always have.

 
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