The Brothers Karamazov – Fyodor Dosteovsky

Life is paradise; we all live in paradise, although we don’t want to see it.

One family, two love triangles, four brothers, and a murdered father. Dostoevsky’s masterpiece is a sprawling, yet shockingly contained, meditation on faith, science, religion, love and devotion.

The Brothers Karamazov is a type of book that defies succinct synopsis, at least without gross over-simplification. It is structured as an account of the events that led up to a notorious patricide trial in rural Russia, and this arc forms the backbone of the novel. The story focuses on the dysfunctional Karamazov family, including the miserly sensualist father Fyodor, the profligate sensualist eldest son Dmitry, bitter intellectual middle son Ivan, angelic youngest son Alyosha, and the frustrated and conniving bastard (literally) Smerdyakov, who works as Fyodor’s servant. One of these young men murders his father. However, the story also draws in a wide and memorable cast of characters from the surrounding town, including Elder Zosima, the young socialist Kolya Krasotkin, Dmitry’s fiancée (and woman Ivan pursues) Katerina, and the flame of many hearts Grushenka, pursuit of whom fuels the conflict between Dmitry and his father.

This is a book that has so many themes that it is easy to imagine that one could return to it with a focus on a different character and theme each time through. What stood out to me on my virgin read were the eternal tension between reason and religion, individuals and communities (in a catholic sense, in both cases), and “modernism.” These themes are related, naturally, and the prospect of describing them at any great depth is intimidating. That said, I want to give several examples.

First, one of the recurring issues that underpins the novel, though not featuring directly into the main arc is the conflict between reason and religion. Characters may be described as pro- or anti-religion, but, for the most part, the depiction is significantly more nuanced than that. For instance, Alyosha is an acolyte in the monastery, but not a true believer, and his conflict is mirrored by his brother Ivan, who is a devotee of “modern” reason, and yet is plagued by the presence of the divine. Further dividing the categories are how characters envision the world and the place of human beings within it. Ironically, the quote that opens this post is declared by a man seen by others to be entirely mad and on his way toward death. But is he insane or actually seeing things clearly? Is the world a vicious, cruel place or is it largely so because people mistreat each other? To make matters worse, pride and shows of pride (as well as greed, avarice, lust, etc) lead the inability to reconcile people in such a way that they may all be bettered. This is particularly true of a nasty pack of young men, but certainly extends beyond their youthfully energetic pettiness.

Second, the tension between tradition and modernism appears in a number of guises in the novel. In once instance:

“If you want my true opinion about Greek and Latin—-they’re just a way to police people. That’s the only reason they’re taught…They were introduced in school curriculae to dull the students’ intelligence. It was already pretty boring before, but they felt they had to make it even more boring; it was already senseless. And so they dragged in classical languages. That is my sincere opinion and I hope I never change it….deep down in my heart I have nothing but contempt for the whole swindle.”

“Why do you call it a ‘swindle’?”

“Just think: the classics have all been translated into modern languages and so we don’t have to study Latin to read them. We study them only because it dulls our senses and makes us more susceptible to police control.”

This exchange takes place between the thirteen (almost fourteen!) year old self-described Socialist Kolya and Alyosha, in a truncated debate about education and values beside the sickbed of another boy. This novel was published in 1880, but the debate is eerily familiar, whether one thinks that arcane languages are designed to hide information or, like Kolya, to indoctrinate people. The claim is that, since there are translations it is time to move on to things bigger and better. Ironies abound, not least of which is that the debate is itself in a translated version of The Brother’s Karamazov. Even deeper, though, is that translation is itself a form of interpretation into which a mimetic aesthetic has been created—a particular challenge when the languages themselves often push a different form.

The payoff to the extended build-up in The Brothers Karamazov is an intense courtroom drama in which one man is put on trial and concerns over what actually happened one the fateful night lose all meaning. In a room where the women believe one thing, the men another, the judges a third thing altogether, Truth has no place and everyone is in it for him- or herself.

I am going to end my reflection on The Brothers Karamazov here because, like the novel, I feel myself wandering hither and thither, without really pulling my thoughts together (which is one of my main goals with these reviews). This is a bear of a book to read and certainly a commitment that reflects the values of a changing, “modernizing,” society and the intellectual movements of its days, but the payoff is entirely worthwhile.

I finished Intizar Husain’s Basti on the trip I took this weekend, and am now halfway through Waguih Ghali’s 1964 novel Beer in the Snooker Club. I really liked Basti and plan to write a review in the coming days.

February 2016 Reading Recap

Nearly a week of March is already past, which is unfathomable. Time particularly flies when traveling, though, and I was at a conference in Omaha for several days. While there I did get to dig through Jackson Street Booksellers, a store with one of the more eclectic collections I know of and (too-high) walls of books that can be claustrophobic. In fact, there were a couple of books I considered looking at, but they were out of reach and I gave up. Other books remained out of my sight because I was tired and didn’t feel up to fighting through piles on the floor. I did, however, find several books by Naguib Mahfouz, the 1988 Nobel Laureate, including the first book of the Cairo Trilogy, and a collection of stories by Nina Berberova about the Russian emigre community in Paris in the 1920s. In other words, I found some treasures. My (nominally-)immediate to-read pile, as opposed to my list, had already swollen from seven books to thirteen, and now sits at eighteen and had to be split into two, which is cutting into the symbolic significance of the stack.

I started this stack back in November and had actually been doing well finishing and shelving books from it and then replenishing the pile, at least through the start of February. Then I decided to give Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov another try and, simultaneously, got very, very busy. I barely opened the book during this past week and thus remain stuck at the halfway point of the novel. I am enjoying this one, more than Demons, but I am still struggling with a fundamental problem of dense literature of this length: I have a hard time really enjoying books that take this long to read. Note that this is not an issue of page-count, but one of time. In the past I thought this was a problem remembering what happened in the story, but I am not having this problem so much as just feeling it to be a slog, while the other books come calling to me. It is around the two-week point on the same book that I start feeling the weight of the burden. I am not saying that I will give up on the book again, but since reading is a particular hobby that I carve out time to enjoy, I may need to reconsider when I try to pick up books like Infinite Jest, War and Peace, and The Bleak House, lengthy tomes that remain on my list.

I am not going to do a recap of everything I finished in March because, for the second month in a row, I reviewed all five!

On quitting

At one point in college I was simultaneously reading something on the order of twenty-three books. Then I stopped. Some of the books I finished, others, most of the others, I simply removed the bookmark from, closed, and put away. The problem was not that I couldn’t remember what was happening in the majority of those books, but that it dawned on me one day that I was often going weeks or months without picking up some or most of those books and so my gleeful romps though so many books was doing more to prevent me from finishing a book and getting the pleasure thereof than it was enabling me to read widely.

Since then, I have read at most two books at once and usually just one (class and research excepted, of course). Even when I do read two book at once, it is because I am reading one non-fiction book and one novel, and, as often as not, the non-fiction book is a new monograph on a topic related to my studies or peripherally to my dissertation and thus is me staying current–I have a stack, though I also dream of being able to read some other non-fiction books once I finish these. I justify the novels because they help keep me sane and because most of them help me become a better writer. Too, since I put this policy into place, I have given up on three novels: a thick review novel that bored me to tears, The Brothers Karamazov (during a particularly busy semester), and, most recently, Don Quixote, an unabridged version.

I am almost certainly going to give The Brothers Karamazov another shot when I have a brief respite, although perhaps with a better translation. Don Quixote I am not so sure about. The novel is funny, even beyond the relentless beating taken by the knight and his insistence on tilting windmills. For instance, there is a book-burning scene to rid the house of the novels that rotted his brain, and the hijinks of everyone around the wayward knight. But it is also allusive and repetitive, in a way that I found difficult to read quickly. There is a case to be made that I was simply busy, but I found the repetitive nature of the story and the antiquated language mind-numbing. So I skipped to the end and read the last few chapters, which seemed to lucidly tie the whole novel together. My main problem was that I didn’t know most of the Romances that Cervantes alluded to and without that, I felt that I got the bulk of his satire early on and thus that I was reading filler until the story came to a close some nine hundred pages later.

Nevertheless, putting down Don Quixote was an admission of defeat. What has made the decision easier to bear was to move on and read other, shorter books. Most importantly, reading these other books has reminded me why I read these novels, not to slog through something that just wears me down, but because there are fantastic books that help me escape from those things that stress me. Thus it was the right decision to quit.