I’ve written quite a few gimmicky reviews,
some more successful than others all of them brilliant. I’m generally quite a restless and dismissive person; I fall easily into ruts and troughs and I sometimes get tired of writing straightforward reviews, tired of my own voice. And, yet, at other times I feel, likewise, irritated by my own game-playing. So, when I came to thinking about reviewing this book I made an effort to try and come up with something I hadn’t done before within this limited medium. I chewed on it for a couple of days and then realised that I had nothing, other than an inclination to keep it as simple as possible. My thought was that if I have anything to offer in terms of insights into the book [and I probably haven’t] that it will only come through discussing how it moved me.
How did it move me? I’m glad you asked. Well, there are very few novels that have touched me as personally as The Brothers Karamazov did, very few that have needled as many of my sensitive areas. Even on the most basic level, as a novel about family and the relationships between a parent and their children. I feel as though I have gabbled on endlessly, while I have been posting on here, about having been brought up by a single mother, about how I grew up around quite a lot of violence and unhappiness, but it had a profound effect upon me; there’s no doubt about that, although I feel quite ashamed about not having yet psychologically dealt with some of those issues. The patriarch in Dostoevsky’s novel, Fyodor, also a single parent, does something my mother didn’t do, he abandons his children, he neglects them, but, still, I understand how the way that you are raised can dominate your thoughts and feelings and your interactions with others later in life. These are mere preliminaries, of course, I’m not saying anything of interest, really, but I can’t overlook that I immediately felt sympathy for the brothers. The sins of the father are passed to the sons; that is quite evident here. Each of the brothers has in some way been damaged by his upbringing, by his father.
Having said that, I, rather unfortunately, saw something of myself in Fyodor too, although I guess, in a way, we are all meant to see something of ourselves in him. The father is a base sensualist, who refuses to take life very seriously. He pranks and gurns and makes a fool of himself, more than anything for his own entertainment. He is, like Caliban, the embodiment of man’s earthy character, his lascivious side. How much should one submit to this aspect of our nature? Dostoevsky seems to have wanted to explore that question. It’s a question I have asked myself many times. There’s something addictive about it, about letting yourself go, about submitting to the call of the body and luxuriating in the body of another. I’m sure, in this sense, I am not unique; like most young men I have indulged myself, perhaps, on occasion, too much [if you’re ever in Paddington station and want to have some passport pictures taken I would advise you to wipe down the seat in the photobooth there before sitting down, maybe wear some gloves or something. It’s some time ago now, but myself and a strange girl once did some pretty unsavory things in there]. I’ve checked myself these days, without becoming pious of course, but Fyodor doesn’t, and it leads to his downfall and death. When one considers that, Dostoevsky’s message seems pretty clear: complete submission to one’s base inclinations will ruin you.
The overarching theme of the novel appears to be that of conflict, both familial, literal or physical conflict, and, more importantly, the conflict inside man. Dimitri, one of Fyodor’s sons, is also a sensualist, but he wants to be a gentleman, at least some of the time. He, more than any other character, speaks about honour and virtue. Unlike his father, Dimitri is tormented by two opposing ways to approach life; he hasn’t given himself up entirely to hedonism or salacious pursuits, and does maintain a conscience. Yet, the pull of Grushenka, the lure of a good time, of satisfying oneself, is strong. He’s not the only one, either, who suffers from this kind of sensual yearning despite their better judgement, this kind of existential moral conflict, Lise does too, the cripple girl who agrees to marry Alyosha but then breaks with him and offers herself bodily to Ivan. She knows that Alyosha is a good man, a pure-hearted man, and yet she sees no passion in him, finds herself unable to give herself to him because he is too good, too pure. Once again i can identify, as I have actually been in this situation more than once myself. Desire, that hot grubby longing for someone, is too important, and too potent, to be forsaken completely. One may admire, almost revere, the angelic but that admiration can compromise physical intimacy.
Ivan’s conflict is between his philosophy and its practical application. He is the most outwardly philosophical, or intellectual, brother. He believes in the maxim: if God doesn’t exist then anything is permissible. This isn’t, despite being popularly labelled as such, nihilism. Nihilism is a belief in nothing. Ivan doesn’t believe in nothing, he believes, not in hedonism, but in moral freedom. Or, he would like to, in any case. The problem, however, is that Ivan cannot live with this freedom, he instinctively shies away from his own conclusions. Perhaps the most famous chapter in the novel is the one that features Ivan’s poem about the inquisitor and Jesus. In it, the inquisitor has Jesus arrested upon his return to earth and a dialogue takes place between them. I say dialogue, but, really, the inquisitor berates the son of God for his naivety, for condemning the human race to live with a freedom that they cannot endure, and that, really, they do not want. This part of the novel was exhilarating, because it chimes, absolutely, with my own feelings. I’ve long been of the opinion that although freedom is nice in theory, in practice we can’t cope with it. Indeed, I believe that western society began to collapse precisely at the point at which it started to reject religion and take more responsibility upon its own shoulders. I, myself, enjoy the benefits of this secular freedom and, yet, recognise that it is harmful to society as a whole. The inquisitor believes that mankind needs a focal point, a leader, a, well, dictator, to alleviate the pressure and suffering caused by absolute moral freedom.
“I love mankind, he said, “but I find to my amazement that the more I love mankind as a whole, the less I love man in particular.”
Finally, what of Alyosha? He is a monkish, Jesus-like figure. There are only glimmerings of the sensuality or the torment experienced by his bothers and father. I fully expect that many people will/do either actively dislike Alyosha or find it impossible to relate to him. Dostoevsky, apparently, wanted to write about a good man, and intended to return to Alyosha again in another novel. It is interesting, as an aside, that, seemingly within his own soul, there was that conflict we touched on earlier, for this is a writer who spent a lot of his career writing about murderers and immoral men and yet he, at the same time, also felt drawn to the virtuous. Cards on the table, I was slightly irritated by Alyosha at times or, at the very least, bored by him. That’s natural, I think. However, there is also something, well, quite lovely about his character. He isn’t pompous and judgemental, nor is he simple-minded, he is merely a nice person. And, make no mistake, he’s almost the only one in The Brothers Karamazov who isn’t utterly mental and wicked, and so he provides some shading, some contrast, he alleviates the tension somewhat. On that, one of the things I love about Russian literature is just how bat-shit crazy the characters are. Seriously, they are nearly all profoundly bi-polar. One second they are crying, the next they are laughing, then they are laughing while crying; half the time they want to kill someone, the other half they want to marry that same person; one moment they are biting someone’s finger, bashing them over the head, the next they are declaring them the finest soul on the planet! Indeed, I once dated a suicidal nympho and, I’m telling you, she was less high maintenance than the people who populate this book, was less highly strung. And, man, was she highly strung.
I’ve written, so far in this review, next to nothing about the plot. And, well, I don’t intend to. Everyone who picks up the book knows that it is a murder mystery of sorts, that the father is murdered and the son[s] are suspects. So, that is hardly worth mentioning or exploring in detail. What is worth mentioning is how the author presents his story. Dostoevsky was, by all accounts, a messy writer. Structurally his novels are often all over the place, but The Brothers Karamazov is, surprisingly, brilliantly paced and put together. It is certainly [and I’ve read all his major novels] his most carefully crafted work. The book is nearly 800 pages long and yet it never drags, it does, in fact, fairly zip along. Yes, the whole Zosima [the heiromonk] business is probably tedious for some, but he doesn’t stick around for very long. I’ve said previously that Dostoevsky’s novels read as though they were written by someone who is in the grip of a serious fever, and that manic energy is evident here too, but there is a greater than usual level of control on display.
Having said all that, the quality of Dostoevsky’s prose is still in question. He wasn’t a Flaubert or Proust, or even a Tolstoy. I have written so much about translations, and particularly about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, elsewhere on this blog, and so I do not want to go over all that again, except to say, in summation, that I do not like modern translations [in general] and I like P&V least of all. Unfortunately, their version was the only one I have available to me at this time; therefore I do not have anything with which to compare it. If you accept that their work is faithful, then, well, the prose is a bit crap, or certainly in some respects. For one thing, their Dostoevsky had no particular talent for imagery. A lot of the time he [thankfully] avoids it, but when he does try his hand at a simile, say, his comparisons are obvious and trite. Furthermore, he was seemingly obsessed with certain words and phrases. If you glance down a random page of this translation and count the number of times he uses suddenly, as it were, little, and so on, you’ll run out of fingers before halfway. One of his most baffling authorial ticks was adding the adverb somehow to absolutely everything, regardless of whether it made sense or not. For example, he’d write X somehow smiled or X somehow left the room. What, is X in a wheelchair? Is leaving the room difficult? Have they got a problem with their mouth? No. Thing is though, I didn’t let any of this stuff get to me, or spoil my enjoyment. P&V’s translations usually turn me off completely, but not this time, because something this vital, this incredible, is impossible to ruin with wonky English, because no flawed translation [or less-than-stellar prose style] can prevent this from hitting me hard in the gut. The Brothers Karamazov is as crazy, beautiful, intelligent, and profound as anything you’re likely to read.
Moved? I was in bits.