Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Brothers Karamazov

               Mark Twain once said, “ a classic is a book people praise and don’t read”. Or at least that’s what someone’s Tumblr said that he said, and I found it striking enough to note. To some degree, I’ve sought to change that trend with this blog. Of course, I wouldn’t consider books like Gone Girl to belong in the classical cannon; but, at this point in the game, I hope that I’ve piqued someone’s interest towards a novel they wouldn’t normally be drawn to, or exposed someone to literature that they’d formerly never thought twice about. Personally, I knew that Fyodor Dostoevsky was praised, but I hadn’t read any of his works until my inaugural post. Feeling let down, I decided to give the author another shot. As if holding a 936 page book in my hand isn’t daunting enough, The Brothers Karamazov* is fraught with Russian names that often confuse and deter me. I mean, there is a road named Mikhailovskaya St. 

Likewise, I am sometimes put off by both era-related and cultural differences. The characters wield a very emotional affect—borderline hysterical. They make frenzied decisions, exhibit rash thinking, and communicate overexcitedly. The manner in which they speak and interact can come across needlessly exaggerated to a generally chill American of the 21st century. However, having already experienced these annoyances with Crime and Punishment, I am now able to sit back, relax, and enjoy his distinctive style. It’s almost as if I had to warm up to his writing until I was fully able to indulge in the drama of the narrative. This is all to say that if you don’t like some of Dostoevsky’s work, that does not inevitably rule out any chance of you enjoying this book so ~keep reading~.

               What I’ve quickly learned is that Dostoevsky loves a good moral dilemma. Frequently, he embeds these ethical conflicts within a crime and then studies the nature of the criminal and the people who relate to him. I can sympathize with criminal psychology. I had never stolen anything until I studied abroad in Australia. It was obviously not the ideal time to begin my petty criminal antics--when I was in another country and the consequences were much more complicated—but I was dirt poor. Of course, I budgeted for boxed wine and cabs home from the club (it was Australia, after all) and then I didn't really have anything leftover for things like…food. In Oz, I stole the following items: a kangaroo back scratcher (you weren’t expecting that, were you?), a bottle of conditioner, and a box of Nerds. Of note, I stupidly stole the Nerds at a grocery store even though it was by far the cheapest item in my cart. Also of note, nerds are delicious. At one point, I tried to steal this Costco-sized bag of shredded cheddar cheese but then got too flustered. Probably because I was so stoked at the prospect of owning that much cheese. Can I be arrested for admitting all of this?

               Anyway, Dostoevsky (unfortunately) did not write about the moral repercussions of stealing cheese. This particular crime has to do with a family of three brothers- Ivan, Dmitry, and Alyosha as well as their vulgar father, Fyodor. Yes, Dostoevsky named the most obnoxious character after himself. The wrongdoing (which I will not divulge) occurs as a result of a twisted, entangling love triangle (or rather, love pentagon). While romantic problems are sure to afflict many unsuspecting men, this family is not your typical one. They are inextricably plagued by “the Karamazov drive”—one that is “earthy, frantic, and primitive” (Dostoevsky, 264). Each member, in his own individual way, has such a rich appetite for life and experiences that he can be easily propelled into the most shameful circumstances. I understand—I really like unlimited mimosa brunches even though I know it leads to unproductive afternoons and general debauchery. I’m just *experiencing life*.

               While my brunch escapades (probably) do not lead to any larger, existential meaning, I do believe that the Karamazov family serves as a microcosm for Russia as a whole. At this stage in Dostoevsky’s writing—this is his final novel preceding his death in 1881—he is realllllly worried about the state of Russia and his concerns seep through the actions and words of his characters (see Crime and Punishment for more details about his life as a whole). He notes that Russia is losing its identity as a fruitful nation, namely as a consequence of its trend towards godlessness. Indeed, all of Dostoevsky’s books are laced with spiritual implications. Just as the Karamazovs relentlessly pursue the extreme poles that the world has to offer (good—evil, spiritual—heathen), the people of Russia are dangerously toying with atheism. For Dostoevsky, a full step in that direction would go so far as to undermine humanity; he believed, towards the end of his life, that mankind is at its best when it acknowledges and incorporates metaphysical—Godly—aspects. Truthfully, “God torments all of Dostoevsky’s heroes, all of them decide the question of God’s existence; their fate is wholly determined by the religious consciousness” (Dostoevsky, xiii).

               One of the most significant chapters of this novel centers on Ivan—the openly religiously antagonistic son. He claims that he doesn’t necessarily reject God outright, rather “what [he does] not accept and cannot accept is the God-created world” (Dostoevsky, 283). He is particularly troubled by the suffering of innocent children (one cannot help but draw a parallel between this monologue and how he perceives himself in relation to his sinful father). He goes on to state that it is actually his duty to reject his ticket to heaven in that it was paid with the blood money of blameless children. But Dostoevsky posits—if there is no God, then can’t anyone do anything they want at any time, unrestrained? This notion refers to the main character of Crime and Punishment—Raskolnikov (what a name)—who advocates for the idea of a superior man-class that can justifiably transgress societal laws for the greater good. As such, this novel engages in some serious philosophical inquiries—what does mankind look like if there’s no God to guide or impose morality? Crime for an atheist might not only be permissible but inevitable (Dostoevsky, 80)! This ethical grappling can have very serious physical manifestations-- as when Ivan catches “brain fever” (lol) and hallucinates. My favorite chapter is “Ivan’s Nightmare and the Devil” where he talks to a fictitiously concocted being of the underworld. Dostoevsky’s commentary might not be subtle here—perhaps all disbelieving men and women might actually succumb to a debilitating disease of the brain and be forced to talk to little red men with tails that aren’t actually there. 

               As you can see, Dostoevsky’s writings reflect his personal philosophical and theological growth. I mentioned this as a literary limitation in Crime and Punishment because I think that his own changing views result in an unrealistic development of Raskolnikov. Here, in his last book, at a time when his beliefs are more firmly consolidated, he is able to infuse the characters and plot with his own ideas in a lucid, cogent way. Of this book, he says “I’d die happy if I could finish this final novel, for I would have expressed myself completely” (Dostoevsky, back cover). He has an array of literary devices, which he employs in quite the idiosyncratic fashion, and he delves into important, life-altering themes like self-abnegation, punishment as a means of rejuvenation and cleansing, love as a form of slavery, freedom as a form of suffering, etc.  I cannot overstate the impressive intricacy of Dostoevsky’s thematic elements enough. Coinciding with the emancipation of the serfs, this novel portrays the lower classes as a people attempting to prove and assert themselves as intellectually capable. In fact, I think you could make a convincing argument that this novel is mostly about people striving to achieve what they have been denied their entire lives... but that is for another day.

               Still, while all of this is meaningful and interesting, I do think that a good portion of this novel is unnecessary. It depicts Dostoevsky’s syntactical skill, but there are several descriptions that don’t strike me as useful or even beautiful to read. I acknowledge the need to develop an elaborate plot with brooding, complicated characters…but I don’t need to know what a character’s second cousin likes to wear as she drinks tea on a Tuesday. He really wants to set the scene and saturate events with lengthy description. On an unrelated note, many of his chapters are very explicitly named to the point that I found it comical. For instance: “Mitya Reveals His Secret and Is Heckled”—I wonder what that one is about (Dostoevsky, 590)?

Of course, I must also comment on his unique narrative style. The narrator is privy to the character’s thoughts and actions but he is not omniscient in the conventional way. He actually lives amongst them. He relays the story almost as if it a piece of hot gossip and at times he admits to having a bias of personal affection for specific characters, Alyosha especially. As a fellow member of the community, he can even be disturbed by the drama. He confesses, “Utter confusion followed. I cannot remember in proper order what happened then, because I myself was terribly agitated and was in no state to observe developments properly” (Dostoevsky, 827). I can always appreciate an innovative narration.

Taking into account the novel’s philosophical provocations, its gratuitous longevity, and a style that takes some getting used to, I give it 3 out of 5 humps. If you’re trying to jump on the Dostoevsky train, I recommend this. If you’re trying to avoid the tracks altogether, perhaps try your hand at other classic Russian literature. Fear not, reviews on Anna Karenina and War and Peace are not too far way and in the mean time, there’s always Lolita.

*Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Andrew H MacAndrew. New York: Bantam Books Inc., 1970. Print.

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