Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880

I'm not going to lie: the experience of reading The Brothers Karamazov is not fun for anyone who isn't a masochist. Getting through TBK is sort of like trying to kill an angry bull with a soup spoon. It's long, messy and tiring, but it's also a huge accomplishment. Although killing an angry bull with a soup spoon would probably be exciting, so my analogy is far from perfect.

Dostoevsky's two most prominent novels--Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov--have always been held up as the "best of the best" by hoity-toity literary types. If nothing else, Dostoevsky had the ability to be a masterful philosopher, and there's a great deal of intriguing philosophy and religion in his work.

What Dostoevsky is not is a great storyteller. The Brothers Karamazov is, in my edition, 700 pages long--in many editions it's over a thousand--and roughly half of that length would have easily told the actual story. The rest is purely extraneous.

What is the actual story? Sometime in the nineteenth century, in a small Russian town, there live three brothers (excited yet?). One of them is emotional and headstrong, another is cold and intellectual, the third is kind and good. The lives and beliefs of Mitya, Ivan and Alyosha Karamazov intertwine after their father is murdered and Mitya is accused of the crime. There's also a tangle of soap-opera subplots that would take pages to unravel, so I'm not even going to go there.

Anyway, the plot isn't the point. If it was, no one would remember what the The Brothers Karamazov is.

The point is the philosophic and religious commentary, which take the form of several essay-like sidebars. Dostoevsky's main questions are the existence of God and the essential goodness or badness of humankind, as well as the interrelationship between the two.

It is these passages in which Dostoevsky shines. His ideas and concepts are genuinely arresting and certainly thought-provoking. Even though Dostoevsky was a profoundly religious man, he presents several extremely strong arguments against religion.

These appear in "The Grand Inquisitor," a particularly celebrated chapter in which Ivan outlines his revolutionary beliefs to the pious Alyosha. The chapter, which is an essay to all intents and purposes, has real energy and some fairly brilliant observations to make. Dostoevsky is better-suited to this kind of writing than to the creation of believable characters or compelling stories:

"Well, I know nothing of it [mankind's ability to love] so far, and can't understand it, and the innumerable mass of mankind are with me there. The question is, whether that's due to men's bad qualities or whether it's inherent in their nature. To my thinking, Christ-like love for men is a miracle impossible on earth. He was God. But we are not gods. Suppose I, for instance, suffer intensely. Another can never know how much I suffer, because he is another and not I. And what's more, a man is rarely able to admit another's suffering (as though it were a distinction). Why won't he admit it, do you think? Because I smell unpleasant, because I have a stupid face, because I once trod on his foot. Besides there is suffering and suffering; degrading, humiliating suffering such as humbles me--hunger, for instance,--my benefactor will perhaps allow me; but when you come to higher suffering--for an idea, for instance--he will very rarely admit that, perhaps because my face strikes him as not at all what he fancies a man should have who suffers for an idea. And so he deprives me instantly of his favour, and not at all from badness of heart. Beggars, especially genteel beggars, ought never to show themselves, but to ask for charity through the newspapers. One can love one's neighbours in the abstract, or even at a distance, but at close quarters it's almost impossible. If it were as on the stage, in the ballet, where if beggars come in, they wear silken rags and tattered lace and beg for alms dancing gracefully, then one might like looking at them. But even then we should not love them. But enough of that. I simply wanted to show you my point of view. I meant to speak of the suffering of mankind generally, but we had better confine ourselves to the suffering of the children. That reduces the scope of my argument to a tenth of what it would be. Still we'd better keep to the children, though it does weaken my case. But, in the first place, children can be loved even at close quarters, even when they are dirty, even when they are ugly (I fancy, though, children never are ugly). The second reason why I won't speak of grown-up people is that, besides being disgusting and unworthy of love, they have a compensation--they've eaten the apple and know good and evil and they have become 'like gods.' They go on eating it still. But the children haven't eaten anything, and are so far innocent. Are you fond of children, Alyosha? I know you are, and you will understand why I prefer to speak of them. If they, too, suffer horribly on earth, they must suffer for their fathers' sins, they must be punished for their fathers, who have eaten the apple; but that reasoning is of the other world and is incomprehensible for the heart of man here on earth. The innocent must not suffer for another's sins, and especially such innocents! You may be surprised at me, Alyosha, but I am awfully fond of children, too. And observe, cruel people, the violent, the rapacious, the Karamazovs are sometimes very fond of children. Children while they are quite little--up to seven, for instance--are so remote from grown-up people; they are different creatures, as it were, of a different species. I knew a criminal in prison, who had, in the course of his career as a burglar, murdered whole families, including several children. But when he was in prison, he had a strange affection for them. He spent all his time at his window, watching the children playing in the prison yard. He trained one little boy to come up to his window and made great friends with him. . . . You don't know why I am telling you all this, Alyosha? My head aches and I am sad." --- (Constance Garnett translation, pages 220-221)

Yes, that is in fact one paragraph. And the two chapters in which Ivan lectures Alyosha are full of 'em. This novel is not for the faint of heart.

Dostoevsky's philosophy is truly interesting and surprisingly relevant. "Rebellion" and "The Grand Inquisitor" represent Ivan's main thesis against the existence of God and the companion chapter, "The Devil. Ivan's Nightmare" is a dreamlike encounter with an evil demon. These chapters have spirit and strength, even though they are all completely irrelevant to the story.

The story itself, however, doesn't have the artfulness of the philosophical chapters. Dostoevsky is a writer of ideas, not of people. His characters, despite their explosive emotions and melodramatic outbursts, are shadows, mere vehicles for theme and message.

The characters of The Brothers Karamazov are unsubtle and shallow and worst of all, they don't feel real. Even after hundreds and hundreds of pages, I feel only the most tenuous of connections with the book's main characters. Alyosha, Ivan and Mitya are not characters in their own right; they perform their roles in the story like mechanical automatons. There's no texture to them, no sense of reality.

And the supporting cast is probably worse. Dostoevsky has yet to write one female character that I find even marginally believable. Katyta and Grushenka, like their male counterparts, are very dull and completely unbelievable, especially in long dialogue scenes (loosely related sidenote: every character in this book speaks like a raving maniac at least once and it's incredibly annoying).

As for the novel's plot, suffice it to say that it lumbers along like a three-legged elephant. Dostoevsky could give Victor Hugo a run for his money as the author of some of the most excruciatingly tedious passages of prose I've read. It wouldn't be so bad if the book wasn't so long, but over and over again, I found myself running out of patience for Dostoevsky's achingly slow pacing.

The story's best moments are when Dostoevsky uses his grasp of psychology to make a philosophical point. Here's one atypically interesting exchange between Alyosha and Lise, a girl who is being consumed by mental illness:

"There are moments when people love crime," said Alyosha thoughtfully.

"Yes, yes. You have uttered my thought, they love crime, every one loves crime, they love it always, not at some 'moments.' You know, it's as though people have made an agreement to lie about it and have lied about it ever since. They all declare that they hate evil, but secretly they all love it."

"And are you still reading nasty books?"

"Yes, I am. Mamma reads them and hides them under her pillow and I steal them."

"Aren't you ashamed to destroy yourself?"

"I want to destroy myself. There's a boy here, who laid down between the railway lines when the train was passing. Lucky fellow! Listen, your brother is being tried now for murdering his father and every one loves his having killed his father."

"Loves his having killed his father?"

"Yes, loves it, every one loves it! Everybody says it's so awful, but secretly they simply love it. I for one love it."
--- (Constance Garnett translation, page 532)

Unfortunately, Dostoevsky's moments of clarity come rarely. For the most part, The Brothers Karamazov is a novel bogged down with melodrama, with characters who act to further the philosophy and the plot. It's a book that can stun you with a small moment of genius and then leave you bored silly for the next four chapters.

Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky's second-biggest achievement, had many of the same faults, but it also had a tighter, more compelling plot and more psychologically complex characters. The Brothers Karamazov is a strange mix of novel and elongated essay. If nothing else, it is rather fascinating in its strangeness and individuality. It's the sort of book no one actually wants to read, but it's quite the literary test of endurance, and it is rewarding in the end. Dostoevsky may not have been a brilliant writer--at least, not in my opinion--but he had some brilliance in him.

The experience of reading TBK reminds me of the quotation: "I hate writing. I love having written." Likewise, I sometimes hated reading The Brothers Karamazov, but I kind of love having read it.

But thank God it's over.

NEXT UP: A new entry in Lee Child's Jack Reacher series.

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