The Adolescent by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Translated by Dora O’Brien

Reviewed by Karen Langley

Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky is best known in the west for his novels Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons/Devils/The Possessed and The Idiot. His shorter works such as Notes from Underground, The Gambler and The Double are also highly thought of, but there are many of his books which seem to have escaped recognition. One such is The Adolescent, written between Demons and Karamazov and up until recently not regarded very highly (one commentator calling it a bad novel). However, a sparkly new edition from Alma Classics, freshly translated by Dora O’Brien and with excellent supporting material, will hopefully do much to rectify this.

I’ve seen the book translated in the past under the title of An Accidental Family and certainly the family featured here is a very odd and distinctive one. Dostoevsky’s novels tend to fall into two types – those told by an omniscient narrator, or those related by a breathless and possibly disturbed character, and The Adolescent falls into the latter category. Our narrator and protagonist is one Arkady Makarovich Dolgoruky, a young man with a very troubled background. Legally the son of Makar Dolgoruky and Sofia Andreyevna Dolgoruky, his biological father is one Andrei Petrovich Versilov. The former are serfs; the latter a landowner; and Versilov seduced Sofia away from her husband, producing two children with her (Arkady and his sister Liza) before setting off on a variety of travels with Sofia in tow. Arkady has spent little time with his family; shunted from pillar to post, including an unpleasant period in a boarding school, he’s grown up somewhat alienated from not only his family but the world in general.

“Why should I unequivocally love my neighbour or your future mankind, which I’ll never get to see, which won’t know about me and which in turn will turn into dust, leaving not a single trace or memory behind (time counts for nothing here), when the Earth will in turn become an icy rock and will fly off into the void with an infinite number of similar icy rocks? In short, you can’t imagine anything more pointless! So much for your teaching! Tell me, why should I be noble, especially if nothing lasts beyond a moment?”

But Arkady has an “idea”; his plan is to become rich, a “Rothschild”, though quite how he’s going to do this is debatable. He claims he will save, go without, buy and sell – anything to make the money he desires. But the reader suspects this is unlikely, and indeed as the book progresses he does little but fall into debt.

“But isn’t this all so materialistic? Will today’s world come to an end only because of finances?”

The Adolescent is divided into three parts, and in the first we meet all the main characters (helpfully set out in a list at the front, should the reader become a little undone by the plethora of slightly related, half related and not even related people in the story!). For it seems that Versilov has plenty of children all over the place, and Arkady comes into contact with two in particular, Anna and Andrei. Taking up work for old Prince Sokolsky, Arkady becomes embroiled in a network of confusion and intrigue, much of which involves inheritances and incriminating documents, which he really can’t follow. The story unfolds almost in real time interspersed with some flashbacks, and we follow Arkady as he spins from one bizarre event to another, seemingly with little control of his fate despite his protestations, and with little real comprehension of what is going on around him. In case this all sounds a little like a knockabout comedy, you can be assured that it really isn’t. The moments of farce are balanced by darker events; in fact, the first section of the book ends with Arkady being left with a very troubled conscience after a tragic development triggered by his actions.

“I realized at last that I had before me a man who right then needed to have at least a towel dipped in vinegar placed on his head, if not to have some blood let.”

In part two, events have moved on a little; Arkady has befriended Prince Sergei Sokolsky (confusingly unrelated to the old Prince…). Their relationship is an odd and unstable one, which Arkady finds hard to understand, unaware as he is of the various undercurrents and machinations taking place around him. He gambles (in scenes reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s great work The Gambler); gets himself into uncomfortable situations; falls in love; is lied to and manipulated; struggles with his conflicted feelings for his mother and sister (and indeed his biological father); and ends this section of the book re-encountering Lambert, one of his tormentors from school, and falling ill.

“Here they all are, dashing and hurtling about, and how do we know that it isn’t all someone’s dream, and that not a single one of these people is real and authentic or a simple action a true one? Someone who has dreamt all this suddenly wakes up and everything disappears.”

Part three sees Arkady recovering, but the plotting around him continues. He meets his legal father, the frail but garrulous Makar, and in some very poignant chapters develops a rapport with him. Versilov is even more central to the story in this section, and Arkady struggles to cope with their relationship, which becomes even more complicated as they are attracted to the same woman…Meanwhile, Lambert turns out to be no angel and becomes involved in the plot involving the incriminating document. This leads to a number of dramatic events and an action-packed denouement.

So why is such a fast-paced, fascinating book often overlooked? Well, Dostoevsky’s style may have something to do with it – the breathless, often chaotic sequence of events may not be to everyone’s taste and the narrative has constant twists and turns. However, the book has also been published under the title The Raw Youth which certainly conveys Arkady’s rough and undeveloped temperament, and since he’s telling the story himself the style is probably deliberate. Abrasive, abrupt, rude and emotional, his hormones are obviously raging away throughout the narrative and his behaviour is erratic and often confused. His patent immaturity means that he never grasps the subtleties going on around him and constantly misreads situations and behaviour, misunderstanding most of those with whom he comes into contact.

“Yes, I’m a pathetic adolescent who doesn’t know good from bad one minute to the next.”

However, on top of the simple study of a youth in search of a father figure, and struggling to cope with the fact there are two candidates, there is the more universal subject of the generational differences between parent and child (perhaps echoing Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons). Russia was still in a state of flux when Dostoevsky was writing, with society undergoing changes and both old and new viewpoints are reflected and discussed in the book, which like many of his works is a novel of ideas. At one point, the young Prince lauds the idea of renouncing society and going off to live on the land, noting that his ancestors toiled by the plough, and there is the sense that the nobility feel themselves to be in decline.  The presence in the background of a group of revolutionaries only adds to the feeling of instability. The book also draws on familiar themes which appear in Dostoevsky’s other works, notably the gambling trope and the idea of a ‘double’; the latter is a strong element in part three of the book and an important part of the build up to a truly exciting climax.

There is also the question of nurture versus nature. Arkady’s childhood is an unhappy one, which presumably has much to do with his state of mind, and his need to be accepted for what he is. But it is interesting to consider whether his relationship with his natural father is stronger or better than that with his legal father; and whether surroundings and upbringing have more to do with family relationships than blood.

The Adolescent really is an unjustly neglected book. As a study of the coming of age of a confused young man, it couldn’t be bettered for capturing his mindset; and as the saga of a truly dysfunctional Russian family it can’t be faulted. It’s definitely a title that should be added to the list of Russian classics that should still be read, and hopefully this handsome Alma edition will bring The Adolescent the attention it deserves.

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and fortunately has an aversion to gambling!

Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Adolescent (Alma Classics, 2016). 9781847494993, 654pp, paperback.

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