Ilya Khrstensky’s Refracted Heart

At the start of The Idiot, Ilya Khrstensky is a murderer, who will in fact be a murderer, more than once. It may be a mystery as much as the second act of the novel itself. When the novel opens, Khrstensky, now in his late twenties, is strangled to death by a friend at a sleepy isolated train station.

One of my childhood-girlish obsessions, as I have described before, was the internal rhymes of Russian mothers. There were classics like Soviet Mother, or more recently, Anna Karenina, in which Austen’s heroine struggles to get through life with the resolve of an Ayrshire shearer.

So, no thanks for the animated shearer either, but I was intrigued by some of the Russian Mother/mother poets, and particularly by Ilya Khrstensky’s mother, Anastasia — who no doubt had not gotten through everything by herself. My summer reading excursion with John Greene led me to “And Yet By Nightfall” by Anton Chekhov, and readers will know that the late playwright was quite enamored of the great Russian writer, and had earlier adapted much of his work.

Khrstensky also nods at Akhmatova and other poems in this novel.

But the dominant symbol, with which the story begins, is Dostoyevsky’s own — “A pity and pain draw the character toward the disoriented, his heart swathed in a shameful moth-eaten robe.” A hero turns into a killer in the light of his own muse.

The husband of Anna Karenina, unhappy at his wife’s adultery, begged her lover, “Oh God, give me the strength for an act of partial victory.” In other words, all that he had been able to express at the moment — and, in his case, utterly failing — were lies and illusions.

Speaking of lies and illusions, the ancient Russian poet Grigory Potemkin, like Khrstensky, lost his wife in a way that suggested that a dolorous life was possible of having someone who loved you in death.

Khrstensky’s heart, in that age of “hysterical ethics,” with its indulgent society and its default substitute for true love, draws him toward an anguished fury and destruction.

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