“The Adolescent” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Sometimes it’s worth writing about a book one doesn’t understand simply to register one’s lack of understanding. Since those who may wish to know something about this work could no doubt easily find those who understand it far better than I do, I’ll try not to detain you long: I’ll keep this as short as I can.

The Adolescent (translated by Constance Garnett as A Raw Youth) should have been a great novel. It is, in terms of length at least, clearly a work of substance; and it was published just a few years after the towering masterpiece Demons, and a few years before what many would say is the even more towering masterpiece The Brothers Karamazov. Just one year after the publication of this novel, Dostoyevsky wrote The Meek One, one of the finest of all novellas. Admittedly, The Adolescent has something of a reputation of being “disappointing” – that is, in less euphemistic terms, “poor” – but it is not unreasonable to expect so great a novelist, neither serving his literary apprenticeship nor declined into the twilight years of creativity, to produce something that is, at the very least, of some merit. And maybe this is. Maybe it is working on some plane to which I, with my limited perceptions, did not have the key. But whatever merit the novel possesses, I regret to say it escaped me.

I read the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, and in the preface, Richard Pevear makes the case that Dostoyevsky wrote not four major novels, as is generally acknowledged, but five, The Adolescent being worthy to be ranked alongside Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, and The Brothers Karamazov. Pevear’s defence of this novel is certainly a brave attempt, but I can’t frankly say I’m convinced.

I do take Pevear’s point, though, that Dostoyevsky is very successful in maintaining throughout the long narrative the voice of the adolescent narrator. But possibly, this is where the problem arises. Dostoyevsky had used the first person narrator successfully in shorter works such as Notes from Underground and The Meek One, but had avoided it in his other longer novels. There, he had developed a technique whereby different narrative voices weave in and out, some knowing more than others, some knowing virtually nothing at all and relying on stories heard at second hand; and we get, as a consequence, a composite picture, not always entirely coherent, and frequently enigmatic. And, yes, his finding the right tone of voice for his adolescent narrator, and maintaining it across so long a stretch, is indeed, as Pevear says, impressive; but I wonder if this single narrative viewpoint restricted him.

The adolescent narrator is Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky. Despite his patronymic, his father isn’t Makar Ivanovich: Makar Ivanovich is but the peasant husband of Arkady’s mother. Arkady’s real father is Versilov, who, over the course of Arkady’s narrative, is presented sometimes as a demon, sometimes as a saint. I suppose that at the centre of this novel – insofar as it can be said to have a centre at all – is Arkady’s desire to know his real father, and to be acknowledged by him. But whatever that centre may be, even if it exists, it is obscured by a plot of whirling extravagance. Illegitimacy, disputed fortunes, incriminating letters, a blackmailing ring, suicides, sexual exploitation, eavesdroppings … there’s something happening on every page, and it becomes hard keeping track of it all. One often sees complaints about certain books that “nothing happens”: here, there is so much happening all the time that one wishes at times for things to stop happening for a while. And never did I have to consult so frequently the list of principal characters the translators so thoughtfully provide: none has the vividness of the characters in Dostoyevsky’s other novels, and quite often, they seemed to me interchangeable.

In short, I found it difficult to keep up with the intricacies of the plot. But worse, after a while, I found I’d stopped caring. I found I’d stopped caring about who was eavesdropping on whom, or why, or how, or what information was revealed. I persevered, though: a writer who has given me so much surely could not produce a book utterly devoid of interest. I started wondering whether I was simply looking at it the wrong way. Perhaps it made sense to think of it as a sort of “satyr play”. In Athenian drama, a trilogy of tragedies – such as The Oresteia – was often followed by a “satyr play”, in which the themes that had been addressed in the tragedies were now addressed from a comic angle. Maybe, I told myself, that, after the immense tragic dramas of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons, Dostoyevsky was following them up with a “satyr novel”. He most likely hadn’t intended any such thing, I told myself, but if that gives me a key to the work, it might be an idea worth holding on to. And at times, such a approach seemed to make sense. Arkady, for instance, tells us at one point that he has a great “idea”, an overriding thought that rules his life. We have seen in Dostoyevsky’s other novels characters ruled by these Great Ideas. But Arkady’s Great Idea was not about God, or about human suffering, or about sin and redemption, or about atonement, or about any of these things: it is merely that he wanted to make a great deal of money, and hence, gain power and respect. That’s it. The only way to take this, I felt, was to see it as a sort of self-conscious parody of Dostoyevsky’s earlier novels.

Sadly, seeing this work as a sort of “satyr novel” didn’t work for long: for if the intention had indeed been to give a comic perspective on tragic themes, then some humour wouldn’t have been out of place. Now, despite his reputation for deadly seriousness, Dostoyevsky was often a very funny writer: sadly, though, he wasn’t here. Even for laughs, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and Demons give us far more.

Towards the end of the novel, Makar Ivanovich, Arkady’s legal father, suddenly arrives on the scene, and he turns out to be a Tolstoyan peasant-saint, full of great wisdom. And he tells a story, which is reproduced in full. It starts off like one of those Tolstoyan fables. But fables are supposed to be simple stories: this one gets so intricate and involved, that it became almost as hard keeping up with it as it was keeping up with the rest of the novel. Did Dostoyevsky mean this as a joke? It couldn’t be a parody of Tolstoyan fables, as Tolstoy hadn’t written his fables when Dostoyevsky was writing this. And if it was indeed meant as a joke, then, once again, a few laughs wouldn’t have gone amiss.

You get the picture. I am afraid I got nothing at all out of this novel. The fault is entirely mine, I’m sure, but it remains for me a huge enigma: it’s not that Dostoyevsky doesn’t succeed in what he is trying to do, it is more that I can’t figure out what he is trying to do in the first place. Dostoyevsky’s was indeed a very strange mind.

In the meantime, if you’re an admirer of Dostoyevsky but haven’t yet read this, don’t let me put you off: this post is intended purely as a record of my personal impressions, nothing more. I don’t insist on anything.

Dostoyevsky’s great novels are to a great extent improvised: even when at advanced stages in his writing, it’s clear from his notes that he is still experimenting with different possibilities. This may not seem the most promising way of writing novels, but in his case, it worked superbly. But not, I think, here. Where we speak of him “improvising” in his other novels, here, he seems merely to be making it up as he goes along.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Yes, I use “improvising” the same way, although I did not realize it. “Improvising” is good, so I need another phrase when whatever is going on ins bad.

    I admire your varying and creative attempts at entering the spirit of the novel. A noble effort. I haven’t read it.

    Reply

    • Yes, it has long struck me that “improvise” implies doing it well, whereas “making it up as you go along” implies quite the opposite.

      I did try my best with this one, but sometimes, it’s best just to accept defeat and move on… I’m enjoying Tristram Shandy now, and am attracting glances on the commuter train when I laugh out loud…

      Reply

  2. I appreciate your honesty and admire your effort to appreciate The Adolescent. I haven’t read it, and judging by your opinion of it I probably won’t any time soon. I certainly don’t think that you missed some hidden meaning that would have made you like it more, a great novel should be great at every level of understanding. Between you and me, I like Dostoevsky a whole lot when he’s being funny, but the rest of the time (most of the time) he depresses me 😄 Not to mention his obsession with religion… Still, he had a very unique quality, that I think Dostoevsky had in common with Tolstoy: a strong and unapologetic urge to write down his opinion of the way the world should be, very arrogant, but at the same time very honest and unconventional.

    Reply

    • Hello Elisabeth,
      I found it particularly painful reading this book as I am a very great admirer of Dostoyevsky. I doubt there was an significant “hidden meaning” that I missed; it is more, I think, that my receptivities aren’t adequately tuned to whatever it is Dostoyevsky communicates here.

      I have had a very troubled relationship with Dostoyevsky. When I first encountered his works as a teenager, I was overwhelmed, and read all four of his major novels in my teens. Later, in my mid-20s, doubts set in. I felt he was too hysterical, too undisciplined and unstructured, etc etc. But the strange thing was that even when I had turned against him, so much of what I had read by him remained very vividly in my mind. It was in my 30s I returned to him, and, as in my teens, was, again, quite blown over – although, I suspect, for different reasons.

      Nowadays, I find him a very troubling writer, but feel it is worth being troubled by him. He has been, and continues to be, a major presence in my literary awareness. I just wish I could have got something out of this one!

      Best wishes, Himadri

      Reply

  3. He is very troubling, yes. Like you, I read him first as a teenager, and enjoyed him very much. In my thirties he somehow didn’t fit at all and now I’m returning to him again. But in small doses.

    Take care, Elisabeth

    Reply

  4. Posted by BROCK HURSTON on February 16, 2020 at 11:38 pm

    I am glad to have found this post. I bought the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation at a used book store because I had absolutely loved the first two Dostoyevsky novels that I read (C&P and The Brothers K) and was excited to check out another of his works. I am 100 pages in right now and have been debating whether to put the book down for the last 50 pages. I too am referencing the list of characters at the front of the book far more than usual and find myself not really caring about much of what is going on. While its admirable how convincing Dosteyevsky’s adolescent narrator sounds, frankly, this 20-yr-old is much more difficult and less fun to follow than the narrators of his other two books. After reading this post, I think I’ll have to put this one down and maybe try The Idiot. Thanks 🙂

    Reply

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