The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Adolescent
Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Dora O’Brien)
Alma Classics: £8.99 rrp.: 654pp.

The adolescent holds a precarious position in western culture, perhaps because of the precariousness of its subjects. It’s a time when a person’s values from political, to relational, to sexual are never so intensely questioned by a person. Teen movies and sitcoms have probably done the demographic a disservice, and the idea of rebellion doesn’t necessarily have to be a loud and an anarchic affair but there is some truth in it – at some point in one’s life, you must try and understand the world in your own terms. The time for realising that you can’t understand everything comes later. The Bildungsroman is affectively the novel of adolescence and becoming. But every novel is arguably a process of realisation, a multitude of anxieties in figuring out what works and makes sense for the times that it is being written in whilst also figuring how it relates to the past and future. It is no surprise then how much cultural interest there is in the adolescent or the person ‘coming of age’.

Dostoevsky’s characters were not all adolescents, but a lot of them seemed to be in a similar position to one; discovering this new consciousness and in a situation of trying to understand how that conscious really influenced their world and in turn influenced them. Ironically, The Adolescent is not held as in high regard as his other works, and has not just been neglected but maligned by some critics, so is a new translation justified? Dostoevsky is eternally interesting even when he’s ‘bad’. You could argue that The Adolescent resembles an adolescent; unruly, rejecting form, concealing information, and trying to understand and comprehend ideas beyond comprehension. And like an adolescent trying to find a moniker, a sign of individuality, the novel has had many names and titles; ‘The Raw Youth’, ‘An Accidental Family’ and ‘Discord’, but Alma have chosen to settle on The Adolescent, which I think was the wisest choice.

In the 19th century bildungsroman there was an important trait: the protagonist of one was usually fatherless or parentless. Dickens of course provided many examples of this, but the young man or woman (as it unfortunately was most often a male), needs to educate oneself and has to find their own way of life away from the home. Arkady then is the illegitmate son of Versilov who married beneath his class in his serf Mother. He is fatherless in the biological sense and his ‘real’ father is absent. Ironically Arkady shares his surname with the founder of Moscow, Prince Dolguruky and is repeatedly mistaken as an heir of. He is in name but not in person: this is something that novel continually questions the philosophical implications of.

But to consider the times in which we’re in, here is Arkady at an auction:

“There were those who got excited and those who remained silent and waited, and there were those who bought and then regretted it. I didn’t have any sympathy for a certain gentleman who hadn’t listened carefully ad had by mistake bought a milk jug made of German silver instead of sterling silver, paying five roubles instead of two for it.”

This illuminates the tension that is central to the novel and the jugs represent this idea of similarities being completely different. So what is the difference? Like the jugs, Arkady is stumped in battling and raging against Versilov, a man who isn’t really his father, only something that resembles and represents him. The novel was published in 1875; around that time Marx was reconfiguring the way people understood what money was, or for that matter wasn’t, and this question of what the essence of a thing is, was transcending culture western culture. Dominant Kantian thought for a long time had posited that essence was elusive and unobtainable, but for Hegel who was influential on the thought of Marx, there was a difference between something’s Being and its Essence, or what lies behind the thing that looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like. For Hegel, “the truth of being is essence.” In Logic Hegel went on to write: “In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished. Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other.” (Author’s emphasis)

I’m not saying that The Adolescent is imbued in Hegelian philosophy (it might be, but I don’t know enough about Hegel, or philosophy for that matter), but I think that the passage above provides some of the backdrop, and the important way in which Dostoevsky is using the Bildungsroman form: there is no real other for Arkady, only a man representing himself as the other. It is the opposite of when Stephen Dedalus would try and leave both the family and the strict Catholic environment he had grown up in (Arkady recounts in the first few pages what it is like at school that both invokes Madame Bovary and the school days of Stephen Dedalus), but Arkady is instead returning to his surroundings that would otherwise prevent or obscure the journey of self-education.

The Adolescent is arguably paradoxical then in its approach to the form. If anything, it’s the opposite of self-discovery or education, or is at least mostly an unconscious process, because Arkady already has, what he calls his “idea” of living. Part of the problem for Arkady is to get over this “idea”, but as the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that this idea is not as enlightening or constant as it seems:

“The most frenzied dreams escorted me right up till the discovery of the “idea”, when all the those foolish fantasies turned sensible and went from the dreamy realm of fiction to a rational form of reality.”

The idea is elusive as the portrait he is painting of himself, but although the novel may be a form of self-discovery for Arkady, it is up to us to see through him whilst also being enveloped in his viewpoint. This after all is Dostoevsky writing this novel and Arkady like most of Dostoevsky’s characters has been thrust into a world where he is making choices and decisions that he does not necessarily understand the implications of, even when he thinks he does. And so the adolescent is the perfect medium for Dostoevsky, because who else represents the world better than an age group that is stereotypically thought to know more than it already does?

What’s remarkable about the The Adolescent is how a lot of it appears to be caught in a direct tension conscious and unconscious. Arkady knows that he has to discover something but he does not know what he will become as a result. Something is truly compelling Arkady to write this; you lose count of the times Arkady refers to feelings and urges that can’t be ‘controlled’ or are not comprehensible. The opening words for instance are “Unable to hold back…”. What then is the reason for him not being able to do so any more, even though he knows to write an autobiography “a man must be all too miserably enamoured with his own self to write about himself without shame”?

Is it Arkady’s idea? As you read on, you’ll see it become an occlusion, but also does represent part of Arkady’s journey at hand, knowing that it must be broken down or parsed to see the deeper meaning of. Look for instance around the constant references to ‘seemliness’. It is a novel about seemliness after all; people seem like his father but are not; people seem to be princes but are not; ideas seem to represent things but they don’t; instead, it is a constant case of abstraction, resembling and mirroring reality. And in a way, it is a novel that seems to be a novel yet takes from fictional memoir or at times drama, never fully whole and rounded, like the adolescent who sometimes seems to be an adult and sometimes seems to be the youth.

As a result, nobody knows. Things only ‘seem’, or as Hegel stated, “there is only the diversity and reference to an other”. Arkady doesn’t even know what his “idea” is that he persistently reminds us of. He is aware of these new different codes of reference like dreams, and knows that what he is not entirely aware of is a powerful thing:

“Let the reader remember my dream! If there was such a dream, if it could burst out of my heart and express itself that way, it means that I not so much knew as had a premonition of an awful lot of what I’ve just explained, though I only actually truly discovered it “after it was all over”. There was no knowledge as such, but my heart was throbbing with premonitions and evil spirits had taken over my dreams.” (Author’s emphasis)

The passage shows how many different levels and directions of thought Arkady is trying to comprehend. There’s the references to the dream and its symbolic powers which would of course be taken upon by Freud, but the narrator describes it as been taking over with ‘evil spirits’ which would signify a much more religious inclination. Yet it is his heart that throbs like a romantic, and then he seems to also rail against ‘true’ knowledge. It’s ironic because it appears that the Arkady is fully aware that he is writing for the audience, yet we as the reader not entirely sure who that the audience is us.

We’re frequently reminded of Hamlet in The Adolescent (as we are in most bildungsroman’s: think of Stephen Dedalus and his ‘Hamlet hat’); the sense of a father being replaced by somebody who isn’t the father, but having to live, not only domestically, but politically under him as well (Versilov and Arkady regularly exchange political ideas, but it’s that sense of abstraction in who Versilov represents, or for that matter, doesn’t represent and in the sense an element of King Lear; the constant sense occlusion and particularly the recurring motif of a letter). Arkady and Hamlet both wanted to conscientise themselves to become that person who was in their father’s place and Hamlet showed the tragedies that can occur in trying to do so. But Arkady is constantly aware of his excess unlike Hamlet was. He is aware of the excess of knowledge that is to be had about the self, but not sure what the knowledge is (he is “unable to hold back” remember). There are frequent references to ‘blushing’ and ‘crying’, these excessive displays of emotion that signify more for the observer than for the person in question. Perhaps that is all that matters, the act that represents it. In Robert Brownings ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842: a dramatic monologue which The Adolescent verges on at times) the Duke in question constantly refers to the blush of his Duchesss even when he doesn’t appear to be describing her as ‘blushing’ (“She had/ A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad”): obviously what we perceive the blushing to be, may different to the Duke’s perception, but arguably the Duke is effectively blushing to the reader – revealing more than he intended to.

The TLS suggested that the reason for the novel’s failure was that it had similarities or elements to most, if not all, of Dostoevsky’s novels. Unfortunately this is a lesson learnt in adolescence; nothing is original and there are too many influences on us to ever be original. But there are lessons to be taken from that; the new edition of this novel comes at a time when the world we’re in appears to be clinging onto old ideas of how the world should work from economics to ecology. In the same way that we ignore the lessons of youth, we ignore Dostoevsky at our peril.

Thanks to Alma for providing a review copy

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