Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Reading List: The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov,
Oh my God I can't believe I've finished this freaking book that I've been reading since, like, August, Holy Mother of God, I thought it would never end.

After much hullaballoo at the launching of The Reading List last summer, some readers noted that a strange silence then settled over the enterprise. Well, it took me a long time to get through the first book of the project, The Brothers Karamazov. I have a variety of excellent and highly vindicating excuses, but won't go into them here as we have a lot of ground to cover.

Unfortunately, I very much doubt that Brothers is the densest, most challenging, or even longest of the books that I've set myself up for here. Nor am I likely to undergo a radical lifestyle or personality shift that frees up vast new expanses of reading time, not unless Hasbro really does end up shutting down Scrabulous. Therefore, in order to keep The Reading List from being a merely bi-yearly feature of L&TM5K, in the future I'll check in from time to time during the longer books. OK? Good.

Procedural Note

So, what I'm going to do here is present my reaction to the book simply as I read it, with no particular attempt to check in with the interpretive or critical literature. This does disservice to 13 decades of scholarship and exegesis, of course, but keeps me from having to earn a new graduate degree for every book on the list. Fair or not, each book is going to have to stand or fall on its own merits. If I have other thoughts later, whether on the basis of research I do after finishing the book, or from the new perspective you get after a book has percolated in your mind for a while, or because y'all have ripped me a new one in the comments, I might come back and give a revised assessment.

Why Is the Brothers Karamazov on the Reading List?

Because you, the readers, voted for it, of course. But The Brothers Karamazov was a slam dunk. It probably appears on Top Ten lists of the best books of all time more than any other novel. It is a book with many rabid fans; L&TM5K reader Austin, for instance, overcame an apparently broken shift key on his computer to send in this lyrical recommendation, which I love:

the brothers karamazov is to literature what opening the window is to indoor life. a constant reminder of the incompleteness of the preconceived world, and a source for its renewal. recommended by einstein, freud, kafka, henry miller.... it should be read by all saints, outlaws, and magicians.
Since this seems to be more or less what ALL the cool kids think of Brothers, it seemed like a good place to start the journey.

A Note on the Translation

My impression is that my translation (by David McDuff, for Penguin Classics) stank. Mind you, I don't know Russian and have not read competing translations, but the prose style here is pretty darn wooden. The continual reuse of odd phrases and strangely-chosen words may reflect an attempt to craft a highly faithful, literal translation of Dostoevsky -- I don't know -- but it certainly doesn't do him any favors.


It is the 1870s. A man in a provincial Russian town is universally considered to be a real jerk. He has three adult sons, or is it four? There's the impulsive lout, the snide intellectual, and the gentle and passive monk, but then there's also the mysterious and slightly spooky manservant who may or may not be a fourth, illegitimate brother. Father and eldest son, the lout, are both in love with the same woman, this despite that the lout is engaged to someone else; the intellectual meanwhile is in love with the lout's fiancé. Got all that?

This set of seedy family dramas percolates through the first half of the book until someone finally kills the father; the second half traces the aftermath, investigation, and courtroom trial that follows. Sub-plots abound.

The whole thing is widely held to be a long parable about the nature of Christianity and the existence or non-existence of God, but I sure as hell didn't catch that.


Dostoevsky has an amazing grasp of human psychology, and the power to make you see through the actions of his characters things about yourself that you immediately recognize, but could never have articulated yourself. Since he is writing at the time when the very idea of psychology is just beginning to be popularized, the novel is an implicit and sometimes (as in the courtroom scenes) an explicit critique of the infant science.

Critical discussion of The Brothers Karamazov, which seems highly focused on discussing it as a big long religious parable (which, if it is one, it isn't a very good or clear one), seems to overlook that it a terrific "state-of-Russia" novel. I mean this in the sense that Dickens is said to have written "state-of-England" novels, works that weave together the experiences of a wide range of different professions and social classes in a great portrait of a nation. In Brothers, we meet children and the elderly, the rich, the middle, and the poor; we meet the women and the disabled people that are invisible in many 19th Century novels; and we can observe how people in groups often act differently than they do when they are alone or with their family. It is a shrewd sociological document.

There's an artful subtlety in the novel that makes it feel like a relatively accurate mirror of life. The action is not neatly resolved at the end -- we know what all of the major characters intend to do next, but we also know that they have not generally been able to pull of their plans in the past, so we leave them with the action somewhat suspended. For that matter, we never really know the answer to the central question of the plot: who killed Dad? Now, the Wikipedia article on Brothers, which you would expect to express something of a critical consensus, shows very little caution in identifying the murderer. I am much less certain about this point, and suspect Wiki may have fingered the wrong man. Assuming, that is, that Dostoevsky himself had a specific killer in mind, and from the text I am not convinced that he did. As in real life, it's never 100% clear what's going on.


In Brothers, it is famously difficult to keep track of the characters. This is usually attributed to the difficulties that English speakers have with multiform Russian names and patronymics, but that's the least of the problem. The bigger issue is that Dostoevsky is much better at probing human nature in general than he is at crafting single, memorable characters. For this reason, the older and middle brothers (the "lout" and the "intellectual") are nearly indistinguishable until the middle of the book. The two main women whom the Karamazovs are entangled with are similarly thin creations; one is supposed to be a fairly wanton, mean-spirited lower middle-class woman who is morally redeemed over the course of the action; the other is supposed to be a good, kind, upper-class woman whose morality is lowered to the level of everybody else by the end of the book. Unfortunately, they are not distinct enough characters for these reversals to be particularly engaging, and the changes they undergo feel as much like authorial inconsistency as the unfolding of a transformation.

And, finally, it must be said: this book is incredibly long-winded. Dostoevsky never says in one sentence what he could hammer to death in seven, and the first half of the book is largely comprised of long, overwrought, unlikely philosophical conversations among the principal characters, all hung together with a bare minimum of plotting. Now, of course a modern reader struggles with dense language of any book written before television and particularly before radio, when attentions were more focused and distractions were fewer. But consider: Dostoevsky was roughly contemporary with George Elliot, and The Brothers Karamazov was published ten years after the death of Dickens. Both Elliot and Dickens wrote incredibly purple prose by modern standards, but their text is rich, never tedious.

The comparison with Dickens is a meaningful one, in that Brothers is very much a Dickensian novel -- a sprawling, cast-of-thousands tome focused on a few main characters but with dozens of minor ones, everyone wrestling with melodramatic questions of love and money, with questions of morality foremost in the author's mind. Now, if Dostoevsky is guilty of too little characterization, Dickens is probably guilty of too much, erring always towards the cartoonish. But for all that Dickens writes in a sprawling, florid, clearly-paid-by-the-word sort of style, he hasn't bored me since I was in my teens. Dostoevsky bored me in every chapter. Dickens' promiscuous sub-plotting is all part of the fun, as the extra activity is all part of an organic whole that is always bustling onward with a lively momentum. The sub-plots in The Brothers Karamazov are not the problem, except that they are as massively overwritten as the core action and therefore add yet more sheer mass to the book.


Clearly, there is something great and significant within The Brothers Karamazov for it to have impressed so many people so much for so many decades. Austin, he of the broken shift key, suggested a series of podcast lectures on Dostoevsky’s vision of Christianity, and I am looking forward to listening to those and seeing if they will deepen my experience of the book. For the time being, though, The Brothers Karamazov has been largely lost on me, a long and difficult book that offered me relatively few rewards for the time and attention I gave it.


I'm going to take a few weeks of sheer pleasure reading before taking on the next book from The Reading List. I'll let you know.


Cartophiliac said...

I've never tried Dostoevsky, but I did give Tolstoy a go. Several years ago I had a job with a two hour commute (there and back). What saved my sanity was audio books. I listened to dozens of books. I even did "War and Peace", all 44 cassettes! I'm sure I never would have got around to reading it, but it was a great story. Listening to it made getting through all the Russian names much easier.

d said...

oh thank god. now i don't have to read it. or maybe i do, just to say i've actually read it. i can't stand it though. aaaargh.

Anonymous said...

"Dostoevsky bored me in every chapter."

That sentence only confirms what I already knew: I will never, ever read this book. If it bored you--which I know is hard to do--then there's no hope in hell for me. But now, at least, I know what it's about. So I'm off the hook.

Rebel said...

Ditto MDIC - if it bored you, I wouldn't get through the first chapter.

Might I recommend you start on the Harry Potter books to cleanse your mental pallet? Seriously, you could just about knock out the first book on your lunch break.

blythe said...

good job! i always liked that one and fancied naming a cat Illuyusha. but that will never happen because i don't like cats. per se.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

DAMN! That summary was pretty long too.

You're smart.

I'm going to go back to writing fart jokes.

McGuff said...

Agreed - you've done a service to any of us on the fence.

To read, or not to read: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler to claim completion and suffer
The inestimable tedium of outrageous wordiness,
Or to take alms from the sea of M5K's knowledge,
And strike the Brothers from our lists?

Me? I've stricken.

Michael5000 said...

@carto: I am a HUGE audiobook fan, listening while running, quilting, or walking to work. For the Reading List, though, I'm doing actually reading.... although I suppose I could read, and then listen to what I had read.... Hmm....

@d, mydog, rebel: If I were you, I'd give the first chapter a shot. If you thought it was an easy read and shot right through it, you could SO lord it over me.

@blythe: You liked BK more than me, I think? Probably. I think you've got better book-larnin'. I'm jealous.

But, I feel it's best not to give pets names that invoke a maudlin death scene at an early age.

@Dr. Ken: Don't think I didn't see the irony of writing about Dostoevsky's long-windedness in the world's longest post. Thanks for not rubbing my face in it.

I'd claim to be too smart for fart jokes, but Mrs.5000 reads this thing and would out me for sure.

Michael5000 said...

@phineas: see "@d, mydog, rebel," above.

Rebel said...

Sorry - too busy lording over you the fact that you never read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, one of the greatest works of American fiction EV-AR. Until you read it, you can scarcely consider yourself a literate American.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I don't know whether to be amused or mortified by the number of people eagerly crossing The Brothers Karamazov off their to-do lists. Naturally I have more reason than anyone to respect and cherish the opinions of michaelfivethou, but hopefully his finding that "Dostoevsky bored me in every chapter" won't have Russian Lit departments across the country lining up for the axe. I haven't read this yet, but it's still on my list, because a) I have fond if somewhat vague memories of reading Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, back in the day; b) I am aware that michael5000 is not in fact a man of infinite patience, and has actually rejected books I hold dear after a few chapters. (Durrell's Alexandria Quartet springs to mind.) He is, I think, rather more attached to forward motion in narrative than I am. Isn't that cute? c) I confess, knowing both Michael and Austin, to some curiosity about a book which has sparked such diametrically opposed opinions 'twixt the two; and d) don't we read in some degree to shed light on ourselves as readers? So why not leap in and find out for ourselves?

That said, I'm not sure I'm going to take it on anytime soon. And I'll probably scout out different translations before I settle in. Having been duly warned and all.

Karin said...

"Holy Mother of God, I thought it would never end." LMAO!

And, thank you for admitting that you didn't catch the whole Christian analogy. It helps to know that people smarter than I am don't always get everything.

Anonymous said...

For light reading, you could check out what Elizabeth just finished... I dare ya.


Michael5000 said...

@Rebel: It's on my list.

@Mrs.5000: I feel kind of funny about people crossing Brothers off their list too. I did lay down plenty of praise in the PROS section, for one thing, and I kind of played up the CONS section, hoping to be a little more provocative. Where are Fyodor's outraged defenders, anyway.

Are you sure that I rejected this Alexandria Quartet you speak of? I do not recall it, and it looks fabulous from a description I just scanned.

Also, what do you mean, I'm "not a man of infinite patience"? I'd dispute this further, but I'm getting bored.

@Karin: Since when am I smarter than you? If you think that's true, can I use it to win all future arguments?

@Kate: Physics after 1905 pretty much blows my mind. I find that, in my line of work, Newton can get you through most days.

Anonymous said...

I loaned you Justine once, back when we were dating (there, now you see why I asked about the HTML tags), which is the first volume in the Alexandria Quartet. You read a little ways in and asked something like, "Is it all like this? When is something going to happen?" I figured you weren't going to be too thrilled when you hit the slow parts in later volumes, so I took it back. Why risk a budding relationship over something as idiosyncratic as a taste for leisurely prose? It would have been like expecting you to like squash soup.