A ratio of one post of complaints to three or four of appreciation seems allowable for any book, much less a big Dostoevsky novel. By any sane aesthetic standard, Dostoevsky’s books are such messes. The Idiot is the messiest I know. So this will be my single post of whining, after which I will restrain myself to backhanded compliments.
Dostoevsky’s method is the key here, the method I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, where he makes elaborate notes for the novel which he ignores while pacing back and forth, dictating the novel. Up against a brutal deadline, the results are sent off to the magazine with almost no revision.
The Idiot is the first long novel written this way, and it shows. Dostoevsky botches some basic novelistic components. Characters and storylines are introduced, pumped up, and then forgotten for hundreds of pages. New characters and plotlines crush the momentum of old ones.
He is especially bad with transitions between scenes. The first of the novels four parts takes place in a single day, so in a sense has no transitions. It is light, rapid, energetic, logical in its own crazy way, a wild ride for the first two hundred pages in the Penguin edition, composed, I read somewhere, in a single twenty-two day burst. But Dostoevsky founders when he switches to Part II and has to shuffle the characters around and let six months pass. After this point whenever he switches sections or subjects he has to spend some pages clearing his throat before moving on to something better. Readers of Wuthering Expectations should recognize the phenomenon.
Sometimes it is best for the narrator to confine himself to a simple exposition of events. This is how we shall proceed with the rest of our account of the present catastrophe with the general; for no matter how hard we may try, we are confronted by the decided necessity of allotting to this secondary character in our story rather more attention and space than we had hitherto proposed. (IV, 3)
A simple way to say this is that The Idiot is a heck of a first draft. If only we had the second draft. If only Dostoevsky had had time to say to his assistant “I was just thinking aloud there – you can cut that bit.” By The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky has learned a lot about working within his crazy method.
Dostoevsky has a minimal visual imagination. A huge part of the aesthetic power of fiction is unavailable to him. He cannot even imitate his idol Nikolai Gogol. Dostoevsky does not see the scene he is writing. Or he sees a bare stage and a set of actors. His strength is animating those actors. Dostoevsky was a great actor. But I am not writing about his strengths now.
“’It seems to me that I have just written something terribly stupid; but I don’t have the time to correct it, as I said; what is more, I promise myself that I won’t correct a single line of this manuscript, even if I notice that I contradict myself every five lines’” – this is not the narrator but a character speaking, in Part III, Chapter 5. But Dostoevsky does, in fact, correct and revise. He does it in the next novel. And the next and the next, until he really does run out of time.