Dostoevsky’s Adolescent.

I’ve just finished one of the most annoying novels I’ve ever read, Подросток (The Adolescent, aka A Raw Youth). If it weren’t by Dostoevsky I’d have given up on it as soon as I realized what a mess it was, but the true Dostoevsky fan wants to read everything — there are always good tidbits hidden in even the mushiest mess. But I’m taken aback by how seriously the novel is treated by those who write about it (Prof. Thomas Beyer has a useful little summary of criticism here); it’s never called one of his greatest, but it’s discussed with far more gravitas than is generally granted to The Gambler, the last of his novels I trashed. In fact, my discussion of The Gambler gives a clue as to what has gone wrong here:

I can’t help but think that one of the problems with the novel is the choice of first-person narration; Dostoevsky originally planned to write Crime and Punishment that way, but eventually settled on the brilliant third-person approach that allowed him to open the story up and give it depth. But that was a lot of work, and he didn’t have time for it with The Gambler.

The problem here is even worse, because at least the gambler, though a young man, was not quite so callow; Arkady Dolgoruky, the narrator here, is barely 20 and understands nothing whatever about life or people, let alone how to tell a story — the narration is full of “but I will jump ahead here and explain something so the reader will understand” and “then I came to a realization, but I won’t tell the reader about it at this point.” And the effect is very much like reading the diary of an actual adolescent: “I have a brilliant idea that I’m organizing my whole life around, but I won’t tell anybody… OK, I’ll tell you: I’m going to become rich as a Rothschild! But I won’t use the money to live like a rich man, I just want to be strong and independent, I’ll live simply and maybe use the money to help humanity! I hate my father but I love him… I despise my mother but I love her… I hate women but I want to marry one but then I’ll keep her in line… I know I shouldn’t go see this guy but I’m doing it anyway… I know I shouldn’t have done that stupid, awful thing but I don’t regret it, I’m proud of it!” etc. etc. Every once in a while I would try to imagine what the book would be like if it were told in the third person; Arkady would still be a young idiot, but he’d be viewed from a distance, like Raskolnikov, and the story would have some perspective. As it is, Arkady is the quintessence of the unreliable narrator.

Now, the unreliable narrator can be used effectively; a classic example is the first chapter of The Sound and the Fury, told from the point of view of the mentally retarded Benjy (“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting”). Faulkner makes you work hard to try to figure out what’s going on. But that takes up less than a quarter of the novel; the second chapter is told by Quentin, the third by Jason, and the final part is third person omniscient. That gives you a well-rounded picture of events. Here we get nothing but Arkady’s self-indulgent, self-lacerating, self-centered ramblings, and as a result we can’t believe anything he tells us, and there aren’t really any other characters. People talk about Versilov (his biological father) as a vivid character who takes over the novel, but to me he’s not a character, just the object of Arkady’s ever-changing emotional reactions. And the plot! I’ve complained about melodrama before, and accepted that I need to come to terms with it because it’s central to Dostoevsky — he’s simply not interested in “ordinary” life the way Tolstoy and Turgenev are, he only cares about moments of heightened intensity, and he’s not particular about how he gets them: endless coincidences, overhearings, surprise encounters, you name it. But it’s just too much for me. After a while (especially when a revolver started getting waved) I thought maybe he was deliberately hyping it for comic effect, but I’m pretty sure he just can’t help it. He was aware of it, too; Mochulsky says “The writer cautioned himself against misuse of the device of enigma and endeavored to free himself from his main failing: excessively complicating the intrigue and overloading the action.” But he couldn’t.

I think Kafka got something essential from that aspect of Dostoevsky; think of “Das Urteil” (“The Judgment”), which starts off in normal bourgeois fashion and ends in wild, melodramatic tragedy. Dostoevsky would have loved it! But it’s very short (less than ten pages in my Sämtliche Erzählungen); if it were extended much longer, it would have become ridiculous, as does The Adolescent. I can’t help but wonder what Dostoevsky’s reputation would have been if he had died just after publishing this, never having written the Writer’s Diary or The Brothers Karamazov — I suspect he’d be remembered as a very fine writer like Turgenev rather than Tolstoy’s equal and rival. Fortunately, he survived and triumphed.

Let me end with one of those tidbits that made me keep reading. Versilov says he can’t stand sanctimonious people who insist on puncturing other people’s lies; they have no heart:

Друг мой, дай всегда немного соврать человеку — это невинно. Даже много дай соврать. Во-первых, это покажет твою деликатность, а во-вторых, за это тебе тоже дадут соврать — две огромных выгоды — разом. Que diable! надобно любить своего ближнего.

My dear boy, we must always let a man lie a little. It’s quite innocent. Indeed we may let him lie a great deal. In the first place it will show our delicacy, and secondly, people will let us lie in return — two immense advantages at once. Que diable! one must love one’s neighbour.


  1. Ha. No sooner had I finished the post than I picked up the issue of the NYRB that was lying around and started Fintan O’Toole’s review of a biography of Eugene O’Neill:

    Of all the great playwrights, Eugene O’Neill is undoubtedly the worst. At times, even late in his career, he produced work so gauche that without his name on the playbill, one might ascribe it to an overwrought adolescent. In 1936, O’Neill won the Nobel Prize. Just two years earlier, he had produced Days Without End, a drama of religious crisis that is utterly, though alas unintentionally, hilarious. In the climactic scene, the protagonist John Loving, split into two antagonistic halves called John and Loving, wrestles with himself beneath a crucifix in a Catholic church:

    John: The Cross!

    Loving: The symbol of hate and derision!

    John: No! Of love! Mercy! Forgive!

    Loving: Fool! Grovel on your knees! It is useless! To pray, one must believe!

    John: I have come back to Thee!

    The exclamation marks rain down on us like arrows on a medieval battlefield. Where on earth does such preposterous stuff come from?

    Birds of a feather!

  2. John Cowan says:

    It’s all very well for O’T to say this is preposterous, but the fact is that people do speak melodramatically in melodramatic situations. The problem is not that the language is unrealistic, but that it offends O’T’s refined sensibilities.

  3. Stu Clayton says:

    People do get melodramatic, but they don’t say things like “No! Of love! Mercy! Forgive!” unless they’re intellectuals having a hissy fit. The best of them avoid exclamation marks in favor of italics or bold type.

  4. SFReader says:

    Dostoyevsky was obviously a crime fiction writer who wrote psychological thrillers for money.

    The critics got the genre wrong as always.

  5. David Marjanović says:

    in favor of italics or bold type.

    Or   s p a c e d – o u t   type, which they then use for whole   p a r a g r a p h s .

  6. John Cowan says:

    I don’t say this is particularly well-written melodrama (much better is available in lots of 19C plays), but dissing melodrama as a genre is as senseless as dissing any other genre.

  7. Dostoevsky used first-person narrative in Notes from the Underground, perhaps more successfully.

  8. Yes, far more successfully. Note that Notes from the Underground is far shorter — a novella rather than a novel. And note also that there is essentially no plot; it’s just the Underground Man reminiscing and venting.

  9. He also used first-person narrative in Notes from the Dead House, which is more like a personal memoir, but lightly fictionalized (to evade censorship, I would imagine). One of his most powerful books, along with the four great novels and the Notes from the Underground. I need to reread all of these!

  10. Question of lying is very close to Dost’s heart and you keep picking up on it. The last time it was some incoherent ramblings (not yours, from a book) about how lying can get to the truth, but i am too lazy to search for the post.

  11. John Cowan says:

    Dostoyevskian lying in 2018 here at the Hattery, with a link to an earlier discussion of lying in Russian generally in 2015. This naturally leads to Dostoyevsky-pessimality, the opposite of Pareto-optimality; it is a state of society in which no one can be made worse off without making at least one person better off.

  12. I couldn’t finish The Adolescent. Granted, it was 20 or 25 years ago, when I was in my 20s – but when I was 30, I read The Demons in two sittings off a CRT monitor. In my 40s, I swallowed The Idiot in less than a week. It must have been the book’s fault, then, not mine. Dostoevsky knew how to suck readers into his febrile swamps when he really wanted to.

    Krotkaya is also narrated in the first person.

  13. There’s nothing wrong with the first person; it just has to be suited to the story. Elsewhere it is; here it isn’t.

  14. I like this post, although I can’t agree with the sweeping criticism of The Adolescent, which I loved. Russian Dinosaur’s responded here .

  15. If everyone agreed with me, life would be so boring! I might well have liked the novel better at another time, but all I can do is report on my actual reactions. I look forward to seeing what Dino had to say when I wake up with a fresh brain tomorrow…

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