The Adolescent

12 January 2012 § Leave a comment

Somehow, I ended up only being given one book for Christmas this year – Dostoevsky’s messy, jumbled, neglected novel The Adolescent (also known in English as A Raw Youth, thanks to Constance Garnett). I’ve  described Brothers Karamazov as being like a soap opera, but The Adolescent  approaches the daftness of an opera plot. There is impossibly tangled intrigue; in one part of the plot, a young girl is planning to marry an old man for his money, but her plans are at risk because the old man’s daughter may succumb to the proposals of the young girl’s father and then the marriages would be illegal. There are secret documents, a gang of fraudsters, fallen women and philandering men galore, lust, betrayal, a mad gambling scene, a wicked French whore, and plenty of hiding behind doors. No-one dresses up as anyone else, but we’re not far off that level of silliness. It kept the pages turning though, and I had to read quickly before I lost track of what was going on.

It doesn’t help that Arkady Makarovich, the narrator, is the adolescent of the title, and that Dostoevsky portrays the self-centred arrogance of the teenager all too vividly and accurately. Furthermore, he takes the interesting step in this, his penultimate novel, of trying once again to write in the first person, so there is no escape from Arkady’s tediousness. Many of Dostoevsky’s early stories, as well as Humiliated and Insulted and Notes from Underground were written in the first person, and he never quite pulls it off. I think it’s because being inside the head of his central character prevents him from giving us the acute psychological analysis that he does so well – the trick with Dostoevsky is that we come to understand his characters better than they do themselves. In the same way, the first person narrator cannot plausibly delve deep into the consciousness of the other characters either. Dostoevsky’s literary genius really starts with Crime and Punishment – and he struggled with that until he devised to his intimate third-person narrative form.

There is some interesting stuff in The Adolescent though, and it provides clues to how Dostoevsky’s mind is working in the years leading up to Brothers Karamazov. I was particularly struck by Versilov’s lovely vision of  a post-Christian world, a golden age in which people live calmly, rationally, freed from superstition and fear  because they know that they are alone in the universe. It’s a lovely, soothing contrast to the horrors that Ivan Karamazov imagines, and I came across it just in time for making the case for atheism in my final chapter. There did that surprise anyone?

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