Book Seven Extra: Grushenka and Alyosha

aloysha and grushenkaSo stuck between the putrification and mysticism of Book Seven we have an equally incredible scene.  Ratikin–the squirrelly little seminarian–talks Aloysha into going over to visit Grushenka.  From a plot standpoint, I think this is perfect because it puts some space between the scenes taking place next to the Starets body.

Even with that, we get a pretty show-stopping surprise when Grushenka sits on Alyosha’s lap.  If there’s a scene you didn’t expect to see, this would be it.  The irony of the scene is painfully obvious on a couple levels.  First of all, the woman who has slept with both Alyosha’s Father and his brother and who is the object of a battle between them–one that has left her fearing that Dmitri is hiding in the bushes waiting for her.

Alyosha, meanwhile, is the only Karamazov who is a virgin or in any way virginal.  Any way.

So, we can’t be surprised at Aloysha’s reaction to having Grushenka on his lap.

…the woman who was now sitting on his knees and was cuddling up to him evoked in him a completely different, unexpected, and peculiar sensation, a sensation of some huge, unprecedented, and open-hearted curiosity…

A sensation?  Oh, indeed.

She even confesses that she had meant to seduce Aloysha (for a Karamazov Hat Trick) but has decided not to.  (Trust me, he’s the winner in that arrangement).

Beyond broad humor and pure entertainment value, this scene does serve a purpose.  Remember, the Starets told Aloysha to go out into the world.  He did not want him retreating to the monastery.  With Grushenka on his lap, Aloysha reports that the experience leaves him “without any of his former terror,” which I assume means he is ready to marry and join the real world for the first time.

Book Seven: Putrification to mystical transcendence

CanaBook Seven is the one where Dostoevsky dragged out the big guns.  There are some big happenings in this section, and each of them laced with the dark humor that is at the core of this book.

As noted previously, the Starets died in the last section.  In this section, his body is on display in the hermitage–all while a rotating team of monks reads the Gospel, filibuster-style.  Then, something shocking happens.  His body begins to smell.  Honestly, this is as earthy as Chaucer.  But the best part is the reaction of the acolytes.  Apparently, the body of a true holy man isn’t supposed to putrify.  Who knew?

This part of the story just fits so snugly on the intersection of the human and the religious, which is where this book finds itself so often.  All these people, who a day ago revered the Starets, now begin to doubt him.  Actually, it was more than doubt–they literally decide he must not have been the holy man he thought.  In fact, they react with a kind of satisfaction that would indicate they were possibly a tad jealous of the old man.

We’re then treated to the arrival of Father Therapon, the crazy (even by Russian monk standards) extreme ascetic who lives in a part of the Hermitage.  He lays the smack down on the deceased Starets.

‘He did not observe the days of fasting as befits a monk of his monastic title, hence this sign from on high. It is there for all to see, and to deny it is a sin!’ The zealot could restrain himself no longer and, in his fervour, overstepped all bounds of reason. ‘He was tempted by sweets brought to him by ladies in their pockets, he sipped tea for pleasure, he indulged his stomach with sweet things, and his mind with arrogant notions… Therefore hath this ignominy befallen him…’

When I read the putrification section, I see it as Doestovsky continuing to show us the difficulties when extreme expressions of faith collide with actual human life. Taken in concert with the previous faith healing pilgrimages, I think we can see how extreme faith is difficult to sustain in the real world and Alyosha shows us how difficult it is to live with piety in a sin-filled world.

Then, at the end of this section, we see Alyosha back at the Staret’s wake.  In an absolutely incredible scene, Alyosha has a mystical experience in which the Starets takes his hand and escorts him to the Marriage at Cana and Alyosha experiences a mystical love and understands that Jesus’ love is for everyone, even the poor and destitute.

Something burned in Alyosha’s heart, something swelled in it till it hurt, tears of ecstasy welled up within him… He put out his arms, cried out, and woke up…

And here is what I think that Doestevsky thinks is real Christian love–direct communion with God.  From the Grand Inquisitor to the biography of the Starets to the putrification controversy, we see what happens when humans involve themselves in religious matters.  But, here, Alyosha has a direct, mystical vision of the love at the root of the faith.

He leaves the Hermitage.

He did not even stop in the porch, but descended the steps quickly. His soul, brimming with ecstasy, was yearning for freedom, for wide-open spaces. Overhead, stretching into infinity, was the heavenly dome, full of silent, shimmering stars. From the zenith to the horizon stretched the forked outlines of the faintly visible Milky Way. A cool, silent, motionless night had enveloped the earth. The white towers and gilded cupolas of the monastery church gleamed in the sapphire night. The splendid autumn flowers in the beds around the house were dormant for the night. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth appeared to reach out to the stars

So, if you can’t appreciate the brilliance of that paragraph, you aren’t a reader.  Who hasn’t walked outdoors on a clear night and felt the infinite beauty of the “silent, shimmering stars” above us.  You can see the cupolas in the sky, the flowers, and when you know what “the mystery of the earth” means.

This is our own transcendent moment through the power of literature in the hands of a genius.

Book Six: Freedom

staretsIf you read the blogs and the criticism, the Grand Inquisitor section we reviewed last time is considered the book’s signature moment.  For my money (and of course, I haven’t finished the book), the next book is far more entertaining, intellectually stimulating and enlightening.

The story is a biography (of sorts) of the Starets we have come to know and love in the early sections of the book.  The framing tale is that the biography was written by Alyosha, based on (sort of) a long talk the Starets gave shortly before his long-anticipated death.

The story is a fascinating account of how the Starets came to be a monk, with all the expected elements, from living a materialistic life to the visit of a mysterious and mystical stranger.

There were a couple of things that I found interesting about this section.

The first thing goes back to the reason for picking the book in the first place, which is Kurt Vonnegut’s observation that everything you need to know in life you could learn reading The Brothers Karamazov.

I’m not sure I have been able to completely see that in my reading of the book yet, but I did feel that this section spoke to our present times.

By interpreting freedom as the propagation and immediate gratification of needs, people distort their own nature, for they engender in themselves a multitude of pointless and foolish desires, habits, and incongruous stratagems. Their lives are motivated only by mutual envy, sensuality, and ostentation.

Is it me or does that feel like we’re looking in the mirror at ourselves.  More so than prescience, Doestovesky is latching onto a long-held theory of societal collapse:  see Rome.

Of course, it is an essential question.  Even David Foster Wallace more or less made this point in This is Water when he let the graduates of Kenyon College know that if they decided to worship something in the material world it would “eat them alive.”

Tying it back to the Inquisitor…who told Christ that he erred by giving people freedom.  In this section, we see the same question with a different answer.  The Inquisitor says Jesus should have sent them false miracles to essentially enslave them and to get them to ignore their baser desires.

In this section, we find the opposite answer, provided by the mysterious visitor.  The path to real “freedom” is to renounce materialism…the Starets asks who is freer, “the rich man in his isolation or the man liberated from the tyranny of material things and habits?”

I’m not very religious, but this is a compelling idea.  You don’t have to look around you very long to see the seeds of self-destruction in the way our defaults are set (h/t DFW).

The difference is that I don’t think you need to believe in a religion to get that freedom.

Of course, as time goes on we seem to make little progress toward this goal–or possibly we merely tread water.  The mysterious visitor makes this point to the Starets–brotherhood “grows ever weaker in the world.”

Now, the book of Revelation has its answer to how this will end up.  The Starets has this idea:

And how many ideas have there been on this earth, in the history of mankind, which, seemingly unthinkable even ten years previously, nevertheless when their mysterious time was ripe suddenly emerged and swept over the whole earth?

How many?  Not many.  But work with me here.  As unlikely as it might seem…and I’m with you…open yourself up to think the unthinkable.  What if we slide ever deeper in the direction where we appear to be sliding…could there not be a shift in consciousness that would take the energy of the descent and use it to funnel in the other direction?  And, given with how deeply-seated our flaws are, could it happen any other way?  Species only advance through extinction, not comfort.

Do you believe in religion?  Or do you believe in evolution?  Either way, it’s interesting.

One other little paradox.  It goes to Pascal’s Wager, which is the thing you hear all the time…if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist you are better off than if you don’t believe in God and he does.  Which, in my mind doesn’t count as true mystical fate and I think the Starets would agree.

Yet, he describes the idea of being good to your brother and as a stated reason says that when you come before God:

God too will look upon you all with more kindness, for if you have shown such mercy to them, how much more mercy will He show to you

Isn’t that just another Pascal’s Wager? It doesn’t seem worthy of the Starets.  Anyway, I thought that was an interesting paradox.

On we go.

Review: Powerhouse/Guilty Pleasure

CAA bookOne of my favorite guilty pleasures is stories of Hollywood people having badly.  Love The Player.  Love Entourage.  Always a good time.

I was therefore naturally attracted to Powerhouse by James Andrew Miller.  This is the story of the founding of Creative Artists, the ground-breaking literary agency.  (I also read Miller’s book on ESPN).  Miller’s trademark is writing oral histories, and he is extremely good at it.  There is commentary when needed, but it is used sparingly.  He doesn’t re-invent dialogue (I’m looking at you Bob Woodward), but takes the actual quotes and puts them under the name of the actual person who said it.  (It’s a little Studs Terkelish).

There’s a huge amount of skill in how these things are assembled.  He lets the reader play along.  For example, he will juxtapose two recollections which are 100% divergent, and let you, first, gawk, and then second decide for yourself who is right.  ProTip:  When you are faced with an employee saying that the work environment is shit and a CEO saying it was collegial and supportive, believe the employee

Anyway, the book has more than its share of bat-shit crazy people, starting with Michael Ovitz.  There are certainly others–this is Hollywood–but Ovitz is the king of the bat house.  Someone calls him a “maniac” and that might be the most perfect word for it.

Not only are the agents included, but many of the clients as well.

The only thing I didn’t expect to find was good guys.  Ron Meyer, a co-founder, is just a 100% good guy.  In fact, there are numerous testimonials of performers who credit CAA for their very career–people like David Letterman, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Hanks, Eva Longoria–and do so in such an emotional and effusive way that it blows away the caricature of the agent we usually see.

CAA’s innovation was to work across the functional lines of the company, allowing Eva Longoria (for example) to develop a film career along with extending her into other businesses.  Letterman had a similar story and there are others.  And they made a difference in the lives of a wide variety of artists and performers in a wide variety of fields.

One other thing.  I don’t know what I thought, but the agents in this book work incredibly hard.  It’s a 24/7 story, at least for the ones who excel.  There’s no downtime and little sleep.  I am not sure I have ever met any single person who works as hard as ALL these people do.  It’s a lifestyle decision.  Yes, you will get rich but you have to live like this to get it.  Nothing comes without trade-offs.

My recommendation is that if you like stories of Hollywood, this book is for you.  And if you like business dramas, this book is for you.

Review: Red Sparrow

Should have been her, not Jennifer Lawrence

So while I was up North, my mother and step-father recommended that I read Red Sparrow.  They had both read it and they know I like the Americans, so it was kind of like a human Amazon-type thing….

People who like The Americans also liked Red Sparrow….

Anyway, I borrowed their copy and they were right.  It was really good.  It is written by Jason Matthews, a guy who lived that life, and I found it a little unfair for a guy to have been an accomplished spy and write this well at the same time.  It’s just very entertaining and a great read with great characters and a huge amount of tension.

Similar to Leaving Berlin, it is an incredible feeling to be transformed into a world where you are always being watched…where any slight deviation can expose you.  Where being seen somewhere you didn’t belong could unmask you. Where you have to execute a two-hour series of maneuvers to ensure you are not being followed.  It creates non-stop tension that makes for good reading.

The book has some tried and true elements, such as a drop-dead gorgeous Natasha type (Dommenika) who has some very special training from the Russians.  There’s some sex and there’s the classic storyline of two spies trying to spy on each other at the same time.

Even better, whereas The Americans was set in the Soviet era, this book is set in the more or less present.  Putin is trying to rebuild Russia’s intelligence and counter-intelligence to KGB-standards.  Even better than that is that Putin himself appears in the story a few times, including a meeting held in his basement while he lifts weights with his shirt off.

One last item which is either an additional enticement or a warning.  Like all the great books of this genre, Red Sparrow does not flinch from any of the gory details, from the training Domenika experienced to torture to murder to the experience of a self-inflicted pre-capture suicide.  You’re getting a full look at all of that in this book, which I believe is some readers of this type of book secretly relish.

Gave this four-stars for sure and I will be working my way through the next book in the trilogy.  For fellow Americans fans, this is a great read.

Less: A Review

lessBarb bought me Less by Andrew Sean Greer for my birthday last month, and it has been waiting patiently until I had a chance to pick it up about a week ago.  Less comes with obvious recommendations, having won the Pulitzer Prize, and I was looking forward to reading it.

It is a great book, certainly deserving of all the praise.  The essential story is that Arthur Less is an author about to turn 50 who goes on an around the world tour after having his heart broken.  It’s funny and charming and sad and funny and ultimately the kind of book that stays with you.

Reading Less was a very interesting experience.  I enjoyed the entire book.  As I was cruising through the first 90%, I was entertained and very satisfied.  The story moves along well and was constantly compelling.  Note that the trip-around-the-world frame is almost unbeatable because it provides access to a wide selection of exotic locales and people, because it by nature gives the story momentum, and because it is the perfect backdrop for a character whose deeper voyage is to explore himself.

So the first 90% was really good.  I was, however, reading it and thinking in the back of my mind that as good as the book is, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that wins Pulitzer Prizes.

And then in the last 10%, Greer gives us magic.  I’ve read books like this before, though I can’t remember an example.  The last ten pages of Less are a literary explosion.  They open your head up and you see vistas of open water and you hear cool breezes.  The previous pages, where the reader was on a pleasure cruise down a canal, now come back to life and are experienced again in a single burst.  The book is transcendent.

When you are finished, you understand the awards.  The writing is brilliant.  The ability–the control–to carry a reader along with a deft touch, entertaining and even delighting them while resisting the urge to unleash the crescendo, that’s an incredible piece of storytelling.  It’s a huge gamble.  If the end isn’t a crescendo, the book is merely good or even worse.  The mastery to set that trap for yourself and then escape is brilliant.  It’s a gift to the reader.

A couple other notes.  One thing that literary fiction often loses is the idea of a story.  Greer succeeds here.  Less is, above all, a story.  Even better, it is a simple story.  One main character and the moons around him.  There are flashbacks, but natural, like you would use if you were telling a story verbally.

Lastly, Greer has a world-class grasp of language.  He has a writer’s grasp of detail and the ability to create a sense of place.  His visual metaphors are just perfect–novel and accessible at the same time.

This book deserves to be read.

Bonus Post: The Grand Inquisitor

There does not seem to be any doubt that The Grand Inquisitor is the most famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov.  It is in the part of the book we just finished, and both of us thought it deserved its own post.

It is a section of the book which consists of a story that Ivan wrote and is telling to Alyosha.  Remember, Ivan is the intellectual among the brothers, the kind of insufferable guy you end up talking to a party as he describes the big controversy he got into at his department chair’s meeting last week.  Even in this case, he fatuously states that he doesn’t think he’s a very good writer before starting the story.

The basic idea is that Jesus comes back to earth and meets the Inquisitor, who tells Jesus that he failed because he gave people freedom and that people are incapable of being free and happy.  He further goes on to say that Jesus erred in resisting the three temptations Satan offered because he threw away the things that could have been used to manipulate the people into being happy–more or less, bread and circuses.  There’s also a rich helping of the Book of Revelations, which is an eye-opener if you are not familiar with it.

At the end, after the Inquisitor has spent pages berating Christ (CHRIST!) while Jesus says nothing, Jesus does what I think you would expect.  He kisses the inquisitor and walks away.

It’s quite a read.  I think you might be able to spend your life unpacking all of the meaning embedded.  In fact, some people probably have.  It covers ideas and debates that Dostoevsky had been thinking–hard–about for his entire life and about which he cared deeply.  When it came time to write this passage in his last book, he had a lot to say.

This debate is something that had been ringing through Christianity for centuries.  It is, in fact, a dark ages concept.  After the fall of Rome, the judgment was that a free society was self-destructive, and you went through the middle ages and then really ramped it up during the Reformation, when people literally had the ability to choose their church.

What Dostoevsky does so effectively in this book is present you with the inherent conflicts of any lifestyle.  You can be pious and then you’re standing in front of the starets looking for spiritual healing.  You can be licentious and tormented—see Dmitry.

In this section, we see the gothic inquisitor, full of grandeur and arrogance and we can contrast it to Zosima.  We see two methods of persuasion–providing shock and awe mysticism directed at the unwashed and then the presentation or truly divine miracles.

To me, the ultimate question is one of faith.  We’ve all heard the old logical puzzle that if you believe in God and he doesn’t exist you are better off than if you don’t believe in him and he doesn’t exist.  To me, that doesn’t seem like faith.  Similarly, if you are forced to believe in God, that doesn’t seem to reach the transcendence of a true faith.  Rather, to have your freedom and choose to worship…that seems to me to be the kind of thing you’d be looking for.

Finally, we can’t leave this section without seeing how Alyosha reacts to this.  Aloysha is the pious brother–if a little naive now and again.

Aloysha is sad that his brother’s heart is with the Inquisitor.  Ivan tells him the whole thing is “muddle-headed,” and that of course, he isn’t becoming a Jesuit.  He just wants to live for 30 years and be done with it.

Alyosha asks him how he can have “such a hell in your heart and your head.”  (He’s right…there’s no other word for what’s between that man’s ears.  He’s as messed up as his brother and his Father, just in his own way).

Ivan tells him he has a special strength, what the kids today would call a superpower:

“The Karamazov Depravity”

No one can argue with that.