8.10.10

Byatt on Dostoyevsky and Execution

Byatt reviews the Penguin edition of Dostoyevsky's The Idiot
Ignace Fantin-Latour, Self-Portrait (1860)
A. S. Byatt celebrates David McDuff's 2004 translation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1868 novel, The Idiot, for its portrayal of the condemned man:
I think The Idiot to be a masterpiece - flawed, occasionally tedious or overwrought, like many masterpieces - but a fact of world literature just as important as the densely dramatic Brothers Karamazov or the brilliantly subtle and terrifying Devils. In those two novels, as in the simpler Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky had plots and political and religious ideas working together. In The Idiot he is straining to grasp a story and a character converting themselves from Gothic to Saint's Life on the run. What makes the greatness is double -the character of the prince, and a powerful series of confrontations with death. The true subject of The Idiot is the imminence and immanence of death. The image of these things is Holbein's portrait of Christ taken down from the cross, a copy of which hangs in Rogozhin's house, and which was seen by both Dostoevsky and Prince Myshkin in Basle. It represents, we are told, a dead man who is totally flesh without life, damaged and destroyed, with no hint of a possible future resurrection. The form of the novel is shaped by the inexorable outbreak of Dostoevsky's deepest preoccupations. It is the quality of Dostoevsky's doubt and fear that is the intense religious emotion in this novel - to which Lawrence was no doubt reacting.

I had known, without fully understanding before I read this excellent new translation, that the idea of death in this novel is peculiarly pinned to the idea of execution - what I had not thought through was that in a materialist world the dead man in the painting is an executed man, whose consciousness has been brutally cut off. [Read more]

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