Canto I

One day, although not yet half way through life’s journey,
I found myself in a forest dark, having wandered
From the path intended. Poor me! This wood, so foreboding,
Promised me evil beyond telling. So, must I tell then
Of what I saw, though in telling my fear would return anew?
With three savage beasts, at my heels attending,
I trod with heavy heart deeper into the leafy labyrinth.
I spent the night without even fitful sleep, hour upon hour,
My eyes open and turned towards the pitch-dark abyss
Above my weary head. Is this what death holds, I wondered,
To wander, hopeless and hunted, without our natural rest?
With daybreak I took up my peregrinations, until upon
A mountain I there came. No way over or around; and so
The beasts closer came, encircling, with stern attention.
All lost, thought I, but, at that moment, I beheld a figure
Of human form. ‘Save me!’ I cried, ‘Be you man or shade.’
Man I am not, yet once I was. Augustus I served, in Rome
I dwelt, as a poet. I, it was, who once famously sang of
Mighty Aeneas, the Trojan prince.’ What good fortune!
‘I too am a poet!’ I said, at which the great man chuckled.
‘Your poetry, I am aware of, but please let us not speak of it.
You know my name and my work?’ ‘You are Virgilius, author
Of The Aeneid, which I recently read, although you look
Like Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo!’ The poet smiled,
And said, ‘I took the form of famous footballer, peerless Pirlo,
Because you know not what Virgil looks like. Now let’s
Take a stroll; no harm will befall you while you walk with me.’
And so we moved off, with Virgil leading; the way now clear,
And fear from my heart cast. ‘Where are we going,’ I asked
My guide. ‘Down we go, to a place terrible and frightening.
Many things you’ll see, and lessons learn, if that world
You can bear.’ ‘I’ll bear up, master, but please, do not
In darkness leave me. What’s the name of this awesome place?’
‘It is Book-Review Hell, son. Look!’ And before me I saw
A dark opening, a door, with these words above:
Abandon perspective, humility,
And conventions of grammar,
All who enter here.

Andrea Pirlo as Virgil, painting by Gustave Dore 1874

Canto II

Inside, in fear, I clung to the hard wall as we descended deeper,
Despite the poet’s promise that no harm would me befall.
‘Tell me, master, as a distraction, about your hero Aeneas;
Isn’t he but one-dimensional? No personality has he to speak of.’
The poet puffed with indignation, ‘What know you, boy,
Of personality?’ A low-blow, I thought. ‘Aeneas is a hero;
Don’t they almost always blandly embody traits like courage,
Honour and so forth? If one-dimensional bothers you,
I suggest from epic poetry, impertinent youth, you keep away!’
For the offence I begged his pardon. The poet softened slightly,
And went on to say, ‘He may not, on the surface, be compelling,
But of interest there is much. He is a man burdened by destiny,
With no control over his life. By divine will he’s pushed forward,
Away from his new wife Dido and into a great and bloody war;
And his brutal frustration is murderously poured out in the end.’
At that, reticent to enrage him further, I fell silent, despite
Being eager to speak about the structure of the poem;
How episodic The Aeneid is! How I often felt like I was
Playing Zelda: at every plot point, crucial, there is an obstacle to
Overcome, or a task to complete, to pass to the next stage!
O sage, do not think this is a criticism, if you are reading this.
‘Look!’ he said, to regain my attention, and before me now I saw
Many men, all alike, with dress identical, moving one to another.
As one spoke, the other listened, then stepped away towards
The next man, to repeat what he had just heard. ‘What is
This place?’ I asked great Virgil. ‘This is Plagiarism,’
He replied. ‘To avoid a stay here, one must never take
What isn’t yours and pass it off as original thought.’
I nodded, seriously. ‘Master, I agree, but some claim
Your poem is but Homer’s work, re-written.’ ‘Listen,
[P], I’d never deny the influence of the Greek genius,
But his work I used as a launch-pad for my own. I did not
From him steal; the aims, the style, etc, are different,
The similarities between our poems are superficial only. Tell me,
Have you heard Be My Baby?’ I told him I had, that I love
That song. ‘The drumbeat, how many times have you heard it,
In how many songs throughout the years? Homer is like that
Beat; he’s the foundation upon which many build their own work.
Now, come, let us proceed.’

Zelda, illustration by Gustave Dore 1880

Canto III

As we penetrated deeper, I pressed the poet further, ‘Master,
Would it displease you, if we speak more about The Aeneid?
At least allow me to say how much I enjoyed your poetry,
Your graceful lines, your use of extended metaphor and simile;
But by far my favourite aspect of your work was how dark
And gothic your presentation of events, your Cyclops,
For example, and how Dido meets her end. And what about
the work of Allecto? Pure horror’.’Now is not the time,
But, speaking of gothic, of dark and unsettling, turn your eyes
Towards what stands before them now.’ I raised my eyes as
I was bidden, and there I saw a room. From floor to ceiling,
From wall to wall, were crushed, or packed tightly together,
Men and women, with no space to move in, each groaning,
Some dead, some dying. ‘O master, what is this awful place?’
‘This is Personal Anecdotes, [P]; somewhere I thought you’d well
Know. Here one is forced to struggle for breath in a room
With all the people one has used in one’s reviews.’ I now saw
I thought, the error of my ways, and so asked my guide
To please take me away, for I could not bear any longer
To gaze upon the terrors of that room.

Canto IV

My guide obliged and swiftly showed me to the next,
A place where silence reigned. A relief for my ears,
After all the ungodly groaning. ‘Where are we now?’
I asked my companion. The room in which we stood
Was dust-filled, sported spider webs a-plenty, and on
Hard wooden benches sat large groups of men, all seemingly
Asleep. Without answering Virgil held a finger to his lips,
The universal request for quiet. But I could not hold my
Tongue, I was consumed by curiosity, and so I whispered,
‘Tell me, master, what goes on here?’ And at that the men
Awoke, and as they moved great clouds of dust ascended
Into the air. The men, in panic, screamed and shouted,
‘I can’t breathe, please save me!’ The dust, it seemed,
Was choking them; their eyes streamed, their skin
Itched, and loud sneezes erupted from all noses, bringing
Further dust down from the rafters.’These men cannot die,’
My guide proclaimed, ‘But suffer greatly, they must. The dust!
The dust! O until it again settles it will stop-up their throats,
Obstruct their breathing.’ I could not prevent a tear, for
So much woe had I this day witnessed. The poet continued,
‘This is the room of Over-long, Dry, and Academic Reviews.
There is no humour here, no lightness of touch; here you’ll find
the plot-summarizers; and tedious explorers of character,
Motivations, their words taken from University lecture notes.
Review, you must, The Aeneid, but beware do not devote most
Of your review to explaining how Aeneas is a Trojan, who
Fought for Troy in The Iliad, although he was only a small-time
Player; or how The Aeneid begins with survivors of that war
Looking for a new land on which to settle; don’t tell readers
All there is to know about their travels, their travails,
Or Aeneas’ ultimate victory over the Latins, or the short but
Exciting Arrans and Camilla episode.’ I felt as though I must
Interrupt, briefly, ‘Should I not mention how Camilla fights with
Her breast exposed?’ My guide laughed and smiled benignly.
‘I think that is fine; a quite titillating detail, excuse the pun.’
‘She is my favourite character, tits aside,’ I told the eminent poet;
For a female warrior one doesn’t expect to find,
In an ancient epic.

Canto V

‘How much more, master, must I endure, how many
Rooms are left on this tour?’ Virgil patted my shoulder,
Paternally, and said, ‘No more, [P]. The tour has come to
An end.’ I expressed surprise, although not disappointment,
For Dante had been accompanied through nine circles in all.
‘You are correct,’ said Virgil ‘but in order to visit the rest of
The rooms you must buy my tour-guide.’ I grimaced and mumbled
Something about forgetting my wallet; at this, the poet rolled
His eyes. ‘So, what now?’ I asked, for the subject I sought
To change. ‘Now, back you must go, to the world above,
To write a review for The Aeneid.’ I said I would most
Gladly return, but could I first run by him some more ideas.
The poet nodded, and I then commenced, ‘The translation,
Master, whose would you recommend? Latin, most no longer
Comprehend. I read Fitzgerald, and was satisfied. No
Lombardo-like modern phrases, no Fagles-mangling of
Famous lines.’ The poet chimed, ‘Fitzgerald is fine; I approve
Of his work. He did not impose his own style on my poem
Like Fagles did. No translation is perfect, of course, none
Can capture all aspects of my genius. But Fitzgerald, at least,
Makes no glaring errors or missteps. His poetry is fluid and
Most readable.’ I demonstrated my agreement and begged
To raise one last point, which I voiced thus, ‘The Aeneid
You wrote as propaganda, this almost everyone knows;
Your aim to tie the Roman people to the legendary Trojans.
Caesar Augustus is even by name mentioned, as the one
Who will bring an age of gold. And yet, I found it to be
Not as tub-thumping as I had expected. Of course, Aeneas,
It was clear, would be victorious in the end, but still he
Suffers painful losses.’ The poet replied, ‘Good points, [P],
You please me greatly, for I am a poet first and foremost,
political puppet I was unwillingly. But now I have my own
Burning question: how will you review The Aeneid?
My mind you must put at ease, and promise
No poem of your own.’

Yeah, right.


Vladimir Nabokov called Don Quixote a story of hideous cruelty. While I think that this statement is horribly reductive and does the great and beautiful and moving novel a huge disservice, one can still understand where he was coming from; on face value, the knight of the mournful countenance is a mentally disturbed old geezer who is beaten and tricked and taken advantage of. There is a strain of literature, perhaps beginning with Cervantes, that deals with the naive or foolish being put through the wringer. For our entertainment, no less. Indeed, this isn’t specific to novels, or even fiction. Look at TV programmes like I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here and its ilk; the most engrossing aspect of those shows is the opportunity to watch a bunch of idiots [who, we at least like to think, clearly underestimated the situation they have signed up for] being physically and mentally tortured.

Other notable examples of literature as hideous cruelty are Voltaire’s Candide, Honore de Balzac’s Lost Illusions, and the novel under review here. In fact, The Sot-Weed Factor is essentially what you would have if you had asked Voltaire or Cervantes to rewrite Lost Illusions, which, like Barth’s novel, deals with a budding poet being introduced to the savage ways of the world. I don’t think that is a coincidence; Barth was clearly paying homage to these great writers, not only by stealing their content but, perhaps most impressively of all, by aping their style:

Is man a savage at heart, skinned o’er with fragile Manners? Or is savagery but a faint taint in the natural man’s gentility, which erupts now and again like pimples on an angel’s arse?

So, yes, like Candide et al, the unfortunate Ebenezer Cooke encounters just about every form of misfortune within the pages of this book. The Sot-Weed Factor is near 800 pages long and so the misery and pain he suffers becomes as attritional and relentless as the sort served up in some kind of art house movie [Requiem for a Dream, maybe. Or Miike’s Audition]. And, yet, I must confess, that far from eliciting my sympathy I thought Cooke, in the beginning at least, a near insufferable, gratingly supercilious moron, and cynically licked my lips at the prospect of his downfall. This is maybe where Barth’s character differs from the characters we have been comparing him to; one roots for Quixote and Candide because we can relate to their aims, because we find them charming and romantic. Lucien is not quite so likeable, but, unlike Cooke, he doesn’t consider himself superior and is prepared to involve himself in the world [which ultimately leads to his ruin]. Ebenezer, on the other hand, is largely unsympathetic because he is so precious; and therefore one wants him to fail, one wants him to see the light, or recognise the truth of the world.

And then he does, and, miraculously, my opinion of the book and the character changed. It was somewhere around the halfway mark I realised that I was for the hapless poet, that I felt for him and his plight, that far from making him bitter, or even more pompous, the disasters that befall him make him more humane, more likeable, and ultimately heroic. What is most satisfying, most original, about The Sot-Weed Factor is this journey, is Ebenezer’s transformation, which is actually the inverse of Lucien’s; the more awful the world reveals itself as being, the more he wades into the slough of life, the more Ebenezer is normalised. In Lost Illusions, however, Lucien starts out full of optimism and humility, only to become corrupted. I liked Barth’s take on this more than Balzac’s; I like the idea that the reality of the world doesn’t have to leave you cynical and mean, but that experience, good and bad, can actually help to shape you in a positive way.

It would have been nice to have ended my review on that positive note, to be able to laud John Barth for bestowing upon America a novel that fills in, to some extent, a space on its bookshelf. Indeed, he has, to a large extent, given us the American novel that it had until this point lacked [with the notable exception of Huck Finn]. However, there is one aspect of the book that caused me some consternation, and it would be remiss of me not to mention it. There is, unfortunately, a lot of rape in The Sot-Weed Factor, and I have a hard time understanding its purpose. Certainly, the rape isn’t gratuitous, but that is almost worse; it is tossed off so frequently and matter-of-factly that I was made to squirm more than if he had laboured over it. At least when a rape scene is gratuitous the author is saying this is significant. Barth appears to use it as a kind of comic prop, and that bothered me immensely, because never, in my opinion, is rape funny. Rape has no comic potentiality. I really don’t give a fuck if that makes me seem humourless or overly-serious. I don’t buy, either, the argument that the author was merely showing us how life was in the 17th century. Was everyone running around madly raping each other in the 17th century? No. Barth was clearly having too much fun, creating scenes in which women are caught  – arse invitingly displayed – in the rigging of a ship, for that argument to convince.


Certain philosophers, including John Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger, have claimed that one has to accept, to confront, the fact that one has been abandoned, and, as such, one has to take responsibility for who you are and what you do. I’ve always liked that idea, have lived my life that way as much as possible, and yet I find religious belief, which certainly allows for individual responsibility but which is the anthesis of a philosophy of abandonment, incredibly attractive. For many of the existentialists religious belief is bad faith, in that it is to accept, and submit to, an authority outside of yourself which provides guidelines [and demands] for your behaviour. Well, I’m not a believer, and never have been, but I happen to find that unfortunate. Bad faith it might be, but it would be a relief, would ease a lot of my anguish, if I could look at the world around me and see a plan, could envisage a plan for myself. I can’t though, I just don’t feel it; and then I read Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Metamorphoses is an epic poem, comprising fifteen books and over 250 myths [thanks wiki]; it is an attempt to chart the creation and progress of the world, in much the same way as the Old Testament does. Now, I’m certainly not saying that I believe, in the strictest sense of that word, the stories that Ovid laid down, all those Gods and shape-shifting beings, but the book did have a profound effect on me. Genuinely so. I think sometimes, and I’m guilty of it too, that reviewers give the impression of being permanently enraptured. Not every book we read is life-changing, or perfect or a profound and beautiful experience; some are though, and this kind of feels like one. As a result of my reading I’ve started to look at the world a little differently. Ovid’s poem explained the world to me, presented the world to me, in a new and exciting way; and, suddenly, it is a richer place.

Behind each of the things and creatures Ovid touches upon there is a story, and as I came upon these things in my every day life I was reminded of the applicable tale and felt, yeah, happier, somewhat comforted. It may be naíve, but it struck me that this must be what it’s like to be a religious believer: everything makes sense, everything is as it ought to be. Take one of my favourites, the story of Arachne. Arachne was involved in a weaving contest with Pallas Athena. At the conclusion of the contest Arachne hangs herself; Pallas Athena transforms the girl into a spider, her nimble fingers now her legs, to hang forever more. As a result of this story I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eye one without thinking of Arachne, without seeing her in it; of course, I’ll still  murder the multi-eyed motherfuckers, but my experience has [like Arachne herself] been transformed, and so I’ll perhaps do it with a heavier heart; I even feel a little less frightened of them.

I’m not suggesting, of course, that the only way to relate to the book is as a pseudo-spiritual experience. Metamorphoses is, more than anything else, great fun. As the title suggests, the primary theme is one of change or transformation, and within the pages we encounter people becoming trees, birds, bears, and rivers, to name a few; then there are the nymphs, naiads, and dragons etc. A great number of the stories or episodes are parables, yes, but one could justifiably approach them as fairytales. Obviously, some are more interesting than others, but all are short and readable; if you were to open the book at random I’d wager that you’d find something to entertain you within a couple of pages. I was particularly taken with Phaeton and his dodgy driving of his father’s [the sun god Helios] chariot of light [he loses control and burns half the earth], Tereus’ kidnapping of his wife’s sister [don’t worry, his wife gets payback], and Echo’s unrequited pursuit of Narscissus [yeah, so that wasn’t doomed, was it? You’ve got great taste in men, love].

It is, it’s worth noting, a pretty lusty book too, with lots of gettin’ it on between Gods and Gods, and Gods and mortals, and just about everyone and everything else. On this point, this is apparently what happens to you if you trick your father into bumping uglies with you:

Frankincense Tree1

Oh Myrrha, you dirty so-and-so.

There is also, by the way, a lot of rape to navigate, which, as is always the case, I could have done without, but which is, thankfully, never graphic. The women aren’t all mindless airheads either; Juno, for example, is one of the strongest, certainly most wicked, characters; her stock response to her husband’s [Jupiter] indefatigable infidelity is to try and ruin the girl[s] and, usually, the resulting offspring. Her behaviour would make Glen Close blush and could provide inspiration for a whole series of Japanese revenge films.

If I have any criticisms of the work they would be structural ones. In the translation I read the individual stories are titled, yet it is clear that Ovid intended his Metamorphoses to be read as one long continuous poem, that it is essentially meant to work as a complete piece. However, some of the connections between the episodes are tenuous at best and this may irritate readers who want a more straightforward narrative. Ovid will often tie one story to another by saying something along the lines of well, that happened over there, but over here something equally interesting was going on or after presenting the story of, say, Perseus he will write Perseus’ nephew had a friend, whose uncle knew someone who had a goat. Well, that goat was owned by… as an introduction to the next, and so it’s sometimes a bit like he was playing six degrees of Kevin Bacon. I didn’t mind this though, the [sometimes amusingly unsuccessful] attempts to link the individual stories made the book more engaging, satisfied that part of me that usually doesn’t enjoy short stories. On a side note, one could also perhaps credit Ovid with inventing the idea of stories-within-stories, as sometimes he would begin by telling the tale of one character only for that character to then embark on another story entirely.

I don’t have any other negative comments to make, except to say that there is some repetition. My biggest regret was reading Stanley Lombardo’s translation, which is just awful. His word order is at times odd and confusing, although I guess he would claim that Ovid’s is too. What I do know is that Ovid was not responsible for the use of slangy contemporary phrases, such as it got on his nerves or hot under the collar [these are my examples; I can’t remember any of Lombardo’s off the top of my head, but they are exactly the kind of phrases he regularly employs]. I was genuinely concerned that Jupiter was going to tell someone to not have a cow, man. Or announce that the girl he has just spied is well fit, or that the lyre playing is dope. Of course, some people may prefer modernised language, but, quite frankly, fuck ’em. Other than that, Metamorphoses is very highly recommended. Get Allen Mandelbaum’s translation if you can though. 


Sing, O Muses, of an epic poem,
Homer-written, but Fagles-translated;
Sing of the illustrious Iliad. And, regarding
The content, content competent readers
With a brief but brilliant description,
Of how Achaeans and Trojans
Became embroiled in bloody battle;
Hot-Helen was the cause,
Whom preening-Paris had taken
From her red-haired husband Menelaus.
At first it seemed that war may be averted,
When Paris proposed a pact:
He will fight mighty Menelaus, one-on-one;
The victor’s prize will be hot-Helen,
And no more blood need be shed.
But puny-Paris was pulverized, so fled,
With God-help, and took hot-Helen to bed.
And yet war was still not assured,
Until Menelaus was arrow-injured,
As he stood apart from the Achaean army.
In Pandarus’ mortal ear a God had whispered,
Convincing him to launch a swift shot.
So, war it was to be; the wrenching work of war!
King of the Achaeans, Agamemnon,
Would no longer be placated.

Homer-written, Fagles-translated;
Of the illustrious Iliad, pray sing.
An ancient epic, but is it also ageless?
Many men fight over women to this day,
But most wars do not start this way.
Nor do we believe in a gaggle of garrulous Gods
Who intervene. So, what other theme,
O mellifluent Muses, can you sing of?
The perils of pride-pricked? Or how
Honour beats hard in the hearts of headstrong men?
Or the limitless lust for power, perhaps?
Or supreme bravery in extreme adversity?
All these and many more,
But most of all the horror of war!
[Which is sadly still so relevant].
To say The Iliad is very violent
Is a gross understatement,
For there is blood and gore galore,
And deaths described in grisly detail.
Spear-spiked Trojans and Achaeans
Fatally fall in great and gruesome number;
Sword-swings cleave many men in two;
Tongues are mouth-cut and arms are torn
From their sweat-soaked and swollen-sockets,
As the toiling tribes wage war for Troy.

Hard to remember, in name and number,
The people who populate the poem.
But there are some whose roles
Are bigger than others, and some
Whose names are more well-known.
Which renowned men will we meet with
In the ancient epic Iliad? Achilles
[He of famous fatal weakness] and
Odysseus, long absent from home,
Where suitors surround his spouse.
There’s the already-acknowledged Agamemnon,
Who’s life his wife’s lover takes upon his return,
And Helen of Troy, the celebrated beauty,
Who brings the bloody battle on.
Great Gods and Goddesses, The Iliad’s got plenty.
Apollo and Athena are in attendance, and
Powerful Poseidon, and cruel Zeus, kin of Cronus,
And angry Ares, even amorous Aphrodite.
All these immortals, and more,
Direct, and influence, the course of war,
Like masters of puppets, or players of chess
From Olympian heights or dark-sea depths.

Conclude, O Muses, with a verse dedicated
To eminent editions and treasured translations.
Sing of Fitzgerald’s and Fagles’ Iliads’:
The two most prominent and people-pleasing versions.
The former’s form is more precise,
And his style more elegantly poetic;
While the latte’s lines are looser,
With no set scheme or meter,
And his style more bold and brusque.
On this occasion famous-Fagles
Was the choice of choosy-P, who thought
His rough and rugged rendering well-suited
To serving the sometimes sordid subject matter.
Despite many trite modern phrases,
Picky-[P] was surprisingly impressed,
By famous Fagles’ fine translation
The readability, the almost-rhymes,
The random-rhymes,
And the abundant alliteration.


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.


I’ve picked up and put down this novel so many times over the last couple of years that I now have arms like Charles Atlas. Seriously, I could take you all in an arm wrestle; these biceps, baby, are bulging. Clearly, this see-sawing between reading and not-reading indicated an attitude of ambivalence…

I liked it

I liked it not

I liked it

I liked it not

Like picking petals from a flower.

However, I recently finally finished the book, and while certainly some of the things I struggled with previously, some of my concerns, some of my criticisms, I still agree with, are still valid, I found that in general I enjoyed it very much. So, this review is, in one sense, about my long and troubled, but ultimately happy, relationship with Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Obviously, if you keep going back to a book that you have previously abandoned then there is something about it, on a pretty basic level, that draws you in, that motivates you to keep picking it up. So, why has that been the case, why, like a forlorn lover, have I kept going back to Infinite Jest, even though it sometimes pissed me off? Well, first of all, I like big books. They arouse me to such an extent that I could probably turn the pages with my penis [paper cuts, be damned!]. Infinite Jest is over 1000 pages, hundreds of which are given over to endnotes. That’s, like, pretty fucking big, y’all, so obviously I was on board before even opening the thing.

Thematically, I also bought into the book. It is split into three main narrative strands, involving a Tenenbaum-like family who run [and, in Hal’s case, attend] a tennis academy, a drug rehabilitation centre and, lastly, a bunch of Canadian wheelchair terrorists in search of a videotape that once you have been exposed to it you cannot look away. On one level Infinite Jest is about addiction, about how regardless of one’s social standing, upbringing etc, modern life is so pressurised, or heartrending, that one often looks for escape or help in drugs or TV or sport or whatever, and that these things can ultimately become your crutch, your way of coping. As someone who is prone to addiction so extreme on occasions that they, my addictions [which are not drug related, but are still all encompassing when they are in full-swing], can leave me incapable of rational action, in a mental state of complete disorientation and debilitation, I was excited by that aspect of the novel, as I thought it might tell me something about myself.

Lastly, it is fair to say I was positively inclined towards David Foster Wallace as a man. In interviews he came across as likeable, and self-deprecating. As a rule, I don’t care about the artist, the writer, as a person, as a personality, outside of their work; indeed, i find most authors unbearably tedious, as people, but there was a magnetic affability, something admirably human and engagingly eccentric about David Foster Wallace, and that meant that his books appealed to me. Furthermore, that charisma did appear to filter through into his writing; the first chapter, which I have loved since first reading it, is warm-hearted, amusing and moving. In fact, even when I was less of a fan of the book I could still admit that David Foster Wallace was capable of being a fine comic writer. Make no mistake, Infinite Jest is, in places, genuinely funny. Ell-oh-ell funny. When novels are described as being funny what that usually means is that they may make you smile, or smirk, or, at best, titter.

Oh monsieur Proust, what a marvelous bon mot!

But Wallace’s writing is actually able to draw ugly sounds from your throat.

And, yet, with each attempt to complete the book I found that there were just too many things that turned me off, killed my unicorn, flopped my cock. One of my main gripes was with David Foster Wallace’s prose; I found his sentences clunky, syntactically ugly, maybe grammatically correct, but still not enjoyable a lot of the time. Yes, I did think he was capable of excellent writing, like that first chapter, but my enthusiasm would always wane when confronted by too many sentences like this:

Destiny has no beeper; destiny always leans trenchcoated out of an alley with some sort of ‘psst’ that you usually can’t even hear because you’re in such a rush to or from something important you’ve tried to engineer.

The big deal, the critical moment, for me this time was the point at which I had an epiphany, a eureka-type episode, and came to appreciate his sentences, came to realise just how much of an achievement his seemingly unrefined style was. I think to some extent my ideas about literature have evolved, or relaxed, since I last attempted to read Infinite Jest. I’m less obsessed [yes, this was one of my obsessions] with the idea of beauty, formal perfection, in prose. The kind of writing I had most enjoyed previously had been elegant, lithe. It was while overdosing on Faulkner, I think, when I came to understand that sentences could be just as effective, as pleasing, if they are more idiosyncratic and earthy, that flaws could add rather than detract. So, crucially, I came to the book this time actually wanting what David Foster Wallace had to offer, I wanted something more organic and less formal. Wallace’s sentences are conversational, muscular, almost Jivey; and I didn’t mind their occasional ugliness or clumsiness, in fact I came to value those things because it felt real to me, inviting and engaging.

My revised opinion of the style, allied with what I had always liked about the book – the humour, the warmth, the Salinger-like eccentric family at the tennis academy – means that I can legitimately recommend Infinite Jest. Yet, it would be remiss of me not to mention some of the problems I still have with it, the parts of the novel where no epiphany or enjoyment was forthcoming. I wrote in my review of The Grapes of Wrath about how writing a successful novel is like top-level sport, that it is about making the right choices at the right times. I call bad choices Boom Moments. A Boom Moment refers to when the boom mike becomes visible during a TV programme or film, thereby destroying the atmosphere, breaking the spell, bringing you back into the room, and reminding you of how much your ass hurts etc.


A Boom Moment in literature works in much the same way. It is when the author does something stupid, or cringy, or whatever, thereby taking you out of the book and back into your bedroom. Infinite Jest’s Boom Moments, missteps, etc, are numerous. First of all, the book is set in an unspecified future. Which is fine, but this future element of the book doesn’t ever go anywhere. It feels as though David Foster Wallace only set the book in the future in order to be able to make a series of not-funny jokes. For example, in the future world of Infinite Jest years are sponsored and therefore called things like The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment or The Year of the Trial Size Dove Bar. Ho hum. I mean, maybe you find that funny, but I certainly didn’t; in fact, I found it irritating. Likewise, the idea of the videotape that one cannot look away from. Not only is it, like the year names, tiresome and unsophisticated humour, but, again, the idea never gets off the ground, is not developed beyond what the author clearly felt was a funny or smart joke. Indeed, it’s strange that someone who was obviously blessed with a great sense of humour, who could write very very funny scenes [like the man with a blocked nose, who is gagged and tied to a chair], was also so often off the boil. For me, there is a big drop-off in the quality of humour when Wallace was trying to be satirical. It’s a shame, therefore, that he didn’t recognise his strengths and stay away from the biting/politicised side of things.

A much more serious problem with the book is that it is at times borderline offensive, or at least occasionally exploitative. There was a certain point in my reading when I came to realise that everyone in it is in some way ill or disabled or disfigured. And that’s ok; in fact, I liked that, because it does say something about contemporary society in that we often think that the disabled, or the ones with the worst mental or physical problems, are over in one corner, and the rest of us are in the opposite corner, and we’re fine. And that is not the case. Most people have problems. So, I didn’t dislike that aspect of the book per se, I just felt as though David Foster Wallace took it too far. For example, there is a scene where a girl talks about her severely disabled sister and how this sister was raped by their father and actually achieved orgasm via this rape. And, uh, that was unnecessary, for me. It struck me that it was there not to make a point about why people turn to drugs, because that is a point that had been made numerous times, in a far more sensitive fashion, but rather it was there because the author found it titillating, because he knew that other people, his readers, would find it titillating too, in the way that people enjoy reading about horrendous things. He was, let’s face it, rather cynically looking for an eww gross-type reaction from his audience.

Furthermore, the black characters in Infinite Jest are pretty rum. There are not many, but the ones that are in the book are all either unsympathetic or criminals, or both. And they all spoke in what one can only imagine was meant to be a kind of black American dialect. I’m not saying David Foster Wallace was racist, but certainly at times his writing lacked sensitivity, or even subtlety. And what’s annoying is that he really didn’t need to go there, he didn’t need to have black characters at all, and he certainly did not need to have them speak the way they do. Of course, he’s dead now, but If he were still alive I’d be advising David to steer the fuck clear of that kind of thing in future.

So, that’s it, that’s my Infinite Jest review; which, now that I look back over it, is almost as long as the book itself. But at least I didn’t make you read endnotes.