Ah, children, ah, dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something good and just!
I thought I’d like Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov a lot more than I actually did. I loved Crime and Punishment and at least enjoyed the prose of Notes from Underground, while several of you said you thought I’d like Karamazov given what other novels I’ve said I like.
The plot is quite straightforward for a novel of about 900 pages. The three brothers of the title all vary widely in temperament and philosophy: Dmitri (also called Mitya), the hedonistic, hotheaded eldest brother; the Ivan, the dour, academic, atheist middle brother; and Alyosha, the gentle, highly religious youngest brother. The three are tied together by their father, the cold, profligate Fyodor Karamazov, who had two wives and may have fathered a fourth son, Smerdyakov, out of wedlock. Fyodor has little to with raising his sons, and no emotional connection to them, but is tied to them by questions of inheritance and social standing.
Dmitri’s womanizing eventually brings him into conflict with his father when the two pursue the same woman, while Dmitri also finds himself forced to turn to his family for money, leading to a dispute between Dmitry and his father over the former’s inheritance. When Fyodor is found murdered, Dmitry, who has vowed to kill his father before, is arrested and charged with the crime; Ivan ends up descending into madness while trying to esablish his brother’s guilt or innocence; and Alyosha, after leaving the monastery where he was a novice, ends up a sort of friend and mentor to Kolya, the brash leader of a group of local kids.
The novel’s length allows Dostoevsky to include a few subplots, such as Alyosha and Kolya, but the bulk of the novel is taken up by long passages such as the multi-chapter arc of Dmitri’s trial (in which Dostoevsky took aim at several highly publicized trials of the era, including one where the attorney defending a man accused of nearly beating his daughter to death humiliated the six-year-old victim on the stand). Another chapter has Ivan relating a parable he wrote, “The Grand Inquisitor,” to his brother Alyosha, expounding on Ivan’s questioning of the possibility of a benevolent, personal God, and the associated questions of free will and individual liberty. The story itself, which depicts a Spanish Inquisitor interrogating Jesus Christ after the latter returns to earth, leaves its ultimate meaning open to interpretation, fitting with the philosophical ambuigities of the novel as a whole.
Dostoevsky’s prose is actually quite easy to read, even though, like many Russian novelists, his sentences are long and he often veers from the main point. But I think my main problem with the book was that I could not get into the central philosophical conflict at the heart of the novel. Dmitri’s trial has some drama, as it’s not clear whether he’s guilty, but it is so long and drawn-out that his guilt is beside the point, as Dostoevsky seems to be offering his views on the jury trial itself, which was relatively new to Russia at the time the novel was published. Dostoevsky waxed extensively on similar questions of faith and freedom in Crime and Punishment while also delving into the nature of evil, and doing so in a novel that’s just over half of the length of this one, making it a more fluid read and also attacking the philosophical questions more effectively.
One bit I did enjoy was the substantial amount of dry, often dark humor in the novel, such as the comment about a European nose specialist who “can only cure your right nostril” and sends the patient to Vienna for a specialist who deals with left noses, or the devil, visiting Ivan in a hallucination, pointing out that, in hell, “we’ve adopted the metric system, you know.” More of that would have made the book more compelling for me, although I imagine Dostoevsky was using humor primarily for satire purposes, not for laughs.
I feel like I should emphasize here this is a matter of personal preference – I’m not questioning the book’s legacy or place in the historical canon. It’s 5th on the Novel 100, 29th on the Guardian 100, and part of the Bloomsbury 100 I mentioned in Thursday’s chat, and has been cited as a heavy influence by numerous later authors from across the world. It’s a very ambitious novel, and I imagine a difficult one to conceive and write because of how much Dostoevsky was trying to express through dialogue without the benefit of action. Unfortunately, it left me wanting something more substantial; as easy as it was to move through the novel, I was never fully engaged by any of the stories or by the characters. Perhaps it’s my own tastes, and perhaps the novel just read as dated to me, but it wouldn’t make my personal top 100.
Of course, it’s just possible that the Bluths are the Karamazovs and everything suddenly makes sense.
Next up: I read Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, which is 7th on the Guardian 100, 32nd on the Novel 100, and on the Bloomsbury 100, after Karamazov. It’s bawdy and funny, full of explicit sexual humor and double entendres, but the language is so different from modern English that I found it hard to read and occasionally hard to follow. I’m now about a quarter of the way through H.G. Wells’ Kipps, which is also on the Bloomsbury 100.