The Adolescent or A Raw Youth
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
English translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Everyman�s Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (2003)
This is an excellent translation of a book I first read about fifteen or sixteen years ago as A Raw Youth, translated by Constance Garnett. I still prefer her version of the title, but this new translation is every bit as powerful as Garnett�s. It renders Dostoevsky�s heightened form of literary delirium into compulsively readable English that remains true in feeling to the period in which the novel is set.
The Adolescent was first published in 1875, while Leo Tolstoy was at work on Anna Karenina. As with much of his later work, Dostoevsky used The Adolescent to reveal what he saw as the gradual disintegration of Russian life and society. By taking as his main character and narrator an illegitimate nineteen-year-old boy, he brought something new to the Russian Novel, while offering readers a glimpse into the minds of people who were members of �accidental families.� But his main concern was the Accidental Family in a larger, broader sense, as it represented the general population descending into a state of disorder.
This is all discussed more accurately and eloquently in Richard Pevear�s introduction, which, I confess, I haven�t thoroughly read. But I did read the translators� notes as I encountered their numbered references in the story, and which are located somewhat inconveniently at the end of the book. The notes offer interesting tidbits about contemporary events as well as Russian history and literature. They illustrate how Dostoevsky was well up on the news of his day, and just how well read he was. The book also contains a useful chronology placed against a background of literary and historical events.
And now, a little about the story itself: Owing to his unstable childhood, Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky, the narrator and adolescent in question, leads a solitary life in which he comes to possess a certain powerful �idea.� This idea is quite advanced and unusual for someone his age, but, given his personality, it is a logical development. He also feels �safe in his idea,� because he knows he can embrace it and put it to work at any time. He is even arrogant as a result. But he keeps putting it off. Or, rather, life�s events prevent him from going ahead with his idea. His situation is such that he needs to do, understand, or take care of, just one more thing � then he can fall back into his idea. He resents the constant interference of others, but is powerless to resist becoming involved in their intrigues. At the same time, he is the first to admit that he is far too impressionable for his own good, and that the slightest distraction sends him headlong into the nearest trouble. In the process, he causes plenty of trouble himself.
It isn�t long before Arkady�s idea takes a back seat to the tumultous life of his family, with whom he has been recently reunited. His natural father, Versilov, is a highly intelligent person of noble background, a perceptive remnant of Old Russia filled with contradictions, to the point that it appears he might possess two distinct personalities. His mother is a peasant married to an uneducated-but-wise and kind-hearted wanderer, Makar Ivanovich, who is Arkady�s legal father. Arkady has a sister, and also a half-brother and half-sister from Versilov�s first marriage.
The real trouble begins when Arkady is entrusted with a certain �document� � a letter written by a beautiful, enigmatic young widow which states that her father, who is a wealthy old prince, is mentally unstable and should be committed. Arkady secretly keeps this document with him twenty-four hours a day, sewn into his coat. The document is worth a tremendous amount of money; some people, including members of Arkady�s own family, either think it was destroyed or want it to be destroyed; others hope it exists and want it for its blackmail value. To complicate matters, Versilov is in love with the young widow � and so is Arkady.
There are dozens of minor scandals and intrigues that swirl around the main story, each bringing with it more insight, and none of which can be deemed extraneous. Arkady presents each bit of knowledge in its turn in his �Notes,� as it happened and as he came to understand it himself. And that is his goal. Writing everything down without trying to hide his own mistakes and embarrassment is the only way he can put matters to rest.
An equally important facet of the novel is Arkady�s desperate need to know and understand his father, who had always kept him at arm�s length. First he hates him, then he loves him to the point of worship, and back and forth it goes throughout the story according to his father�s strange actions and confessions, none of which I will give away here. I also won�t tell what happens to the �document,� or how the story itself is finally resolved.
Suffice it to say, The Adolescent is a great book on many levels: first, a real story is told; second, it is full of suspense and humor; third, it drives itself forward relentlessly; fourth, it gives a valuable understanding of its times; fifth, like all of Dostoevsky�s work, it makes you think. This is Dostoevsky�s last major work before his final masterpiece, The Brother�s Karamazov. It is a commanding literary performance given by a writer who knew how to challenge his readers, and how to entertain them as well.
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Two excerpts from The Adolescent
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
translated by Richard Pevear
and Larissa Volokhonsky
Unable to restrain myself, I have sat down to record this history of my first steps on life�s career, though I could have done as well without it. One thing I know for certain: never again will I sit down to write my autobiography, even if I live to be a hundred. You have to be all too basely in love with yourself to write about yourself without shame. My only excuse is that I�m not writing for the same reason everyone else writes, that is, for the sake of the reader�s praises. If I have suddenly decided to record word for word all that has happened to me since last year, then I have decided it as the result of an inner need: so struck I am by everything that has happened. . . .
. . . I flew to the roulette table as if my whole salvation, my whole way out, was focused in it, and yet, as I�ve already said, before the prince came, I hadn�t even thought of it. And I was going to play, not for myself, but for the prince, on the prince�s money; I can�t conceive what drew me on, but it drew me irresistibly. Oh, never had these people, these faces, these croupiers, these gambling cries, this whole squalid hall at Zershchikov�s, never had it all seemed so loathsome to me, so dismal, so coarse and sad, as this time! I remember only too well the grief and sadness that seized my heart at times during all those hours at the table. But what made me not leave? What made me endure, as if I had taken a fate, a sacrifice, a heroic deed upon myself? I�ll say one thing: I can scarcely say of myself that I was in my right mind then. . . .