Brothers Karamazov: Thoughts

big_1409082380_1382454022_imageThe most surprising thing about this book is that I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. It is extremely readable and understandable. And, even more surprising, it’s funny. Ok, I mean parts are funny – it’s not like it’s a comedic book.

I think that one of the masterful things about art when done well is that there is depth to it. On the surface it might seem simple, but it has layers of complexity to it – if you choose to look at it that way. That’s what Dostoevsky does masterfully with this novel. On the surface it’s a story about a family and the relationship with the brothers and their father. You can read it that way and actually enjoy it. The thing that great artists do, and what Dostoyevsky is masterful at is people and how they work. He gets at the heart of how and why people operate as they do. You don’t feel like you are reading about people from 1890’s Russia – you could be reading about a family from any time or any place. The things he unearths are universal. It’s what makes Shakespeare classic, unveiling these universal truths about human beings.

Here is the thing that I appreciated, and I think what makes this readable and enjoyable: he doesn’t ram this stuff down your throat by spending hundreds of pages going on and on and on about a point (I’m looking at you Tolstoy). He weaves these lessons and ideas throughout the story like a thread. You don’t even notice that you are being taught.

I was watching some videos on Dostoyevsky and the Karamazov brothers and one thing that came up, was that Tolstoy is a sociologist and Dostoyveky is a psychologist. Hashtag mind blown.

Here is what surprised me most about this book, I would totally read it again. I think it’s one of the rare books, at least for me, that would get better with every reading. There are so many layers and nooks and crannies to figure out that I think you would definitely get more out of it each time you read it. I now have the answer to the question what book would you take with you if you were stranded on a desert island.

 

Brothers Karamazov: Epilogue – tying up loose ends

8202807482_d28fd5ec54_bAs much as I enjoyed the book, I was not looking for a verbose epilogue. And, I should have trusted Dostoyevsky in this regard, since he has been pretty good at pacing up until now.

In the final 25-ish pages we get (most of) the threads of the story tied up.

There is an elaborate plan in place to get Dmitry out of his prison sentence. He is going to escape from the march to Siberia. There is a whole thing where he is going to escape to America, not to live there but to become “American” then return to Russia as an immigrant. This will allow him, and Grushenka to live without the pall of his sentence and his past hanging over him. Good luck with that.

The book also ends on an interesting note. The sick child from earlier in the book has died. And they are going to bury him. Aloysha makes a speech to the young boys about how to live life and not to forget the friends that they have made, and to go and live life to the fullest.

Ah, my children, my dear friends, don’t be afraid of life! How good life is when one does something noble and true!

This is obviously a message to the reader. Go! Embrace life and (basically) try not to be a jerk. I think that was about the right note to end the book on.

I think it’s going to take me a bit to absorb the book and reflect. Stay tuned for my thoughts.

It was good for me.

russian-drinking-bogatyrs_0So, book challenge #3 has been completed.  The Brothers Karamazov has joined War and Peace and Infinite Jest on the list of conquered unreadable books.  There will be another post answering the seminal question of whether everything you need to know is contained within its pages, as asserted by Kurt Vonnegut.

For now, a few thoughts.

This is the best of the books we have read in this series.  I say this for a couple of reasons.  The most important is that the book is funny.  At times, it is laugh-out-loud funny.  Mostly you hear how dark and depressing Doestovsky is, but his humor is underrated.  That includes broad humor, physical humor, ironic humor, the whole gamut.  He has an eye for the ridiculous.

It is also a book that is relevant to our times.  You can feel perfectly comfortable in its pages with very little transliteration.  Much of the action comes out of Jerry Springer or Maury Povich, the trial at the end is right out of the Seinfeld finale.  The addiction to sensual pleasures and the prevalence of false piety and pseudo-intellectualism come right out of our newspapers.

Lastly, the book can be read on many different levels.  At one level, it is a crime procedural.  It can be also read as farce, tragedy, as a spiritual primer, as a psychological textbook or social commentary.  You can slice this book however you like.

But, one thing can’t be lost.  War and Peace was about history–the role that people played in creating history…and then it was about free will.  The Brothers Karamazov is about psychology.   Why do people do what they do?  How do they become so fucked up?  What is the relationship between everyday human life and true, pure spirituality?

The story is also strong and easier to follow than War and Peace.  The characters are easier to follow, once you break the code of all the Russian nicknames.  The serialized format actually helps a reader by providing shorter sections and occasional summaries, which provide the same conveniences to a modern reader that I suspect they did to a Russian reader in the 1880s.

It’s way better than Infinite Jest.  We’re not even going there.  The books do not belong in the same paragraph.

I honestly would recommend this book to someone looking for a challenging read.  Barb and I have discussed that we might read it again because we suspect it is the kind of book that would reveal many clues and nuance on a second reading when you have a better idea what to expect.

This is a work of true brilliance.  Its understanding of the human condition is unfailing.  Dostoevsky saw the world as it was and, it turns out, still is…and probably always will be.  Because of that–and because it is a pleasure to read–this is a book for any book lover.

 

Chapter 12: The Verdict

trialThe guts of the book are done.  The long saga of the Karamazov brothers has reached its conclusion.

This is a very difficult section to summarize because it is chock-full of stuff.  No matter how you want to read this book–as a procedural, as a tragedy. as social criticism or as a psychological study–the trial section of this book has plenty to keep you talking.

For me, here’s what it made me think about.

First, we know Dmitry didn’t do it.  Much of this book has been about the failures of society, of the structures that humans build to manage their lives.  It’s about the trap of worldly, sensual pleasures and the need for goodness and spirituality.

This can be seen in the Grand Inquisitor’s speech about the Church no longer needing Christ, as well as the reaction to the Starets rotting corpse, the lunatic ascetic that lives in the monastery, etc.  There is pure truth, but society’s institutions perpetuate themselves and not anything true.

The trial is a very good example.  The entire trial goes on, with long eloquent speeches by the lawyers, before a gawking audience, and a procession of loony witnesses.  It takes all of a day into the middle of the night, with evidence and a jury of peasants and drama…all of it to decide whether Dmitry killed his father.  Which we know he did not.  The day is about whether it can be proven that he did it or not….not whether he did it or not, which is unknowable except in Dmitry’s heart.

But who believes the accused?

For a pop culture reference, it is very reminiscent of the Seinfeld trial.  Every rogue element of the story finds his or her way to the stand and 950 pages of drama plays out.

So I know a lot of prosecutors, and they often say that the people they convict are usually guilty of many other crimes that they were never charged with.  The current charges notwithstanding, they are sort of in a criminal class.

Dmitry is much the same way.  He’s not convicted by the actual commission of the crime, but he is convicted by the way he lived his life–the anger and the threats and the drinking and stealing.  When all that is added up, he lived a life where he very well could have killed his father, regardless of whether he did or not.

Imagine, for example, the reaction if Aloysha was accused of the same crime.

In other words, when you get hammered and write a letter describing how you’re going to kill your Father and then he’s found dead, you’re going to be in trouble.  Fortunately, few of us will ever write that, much speak it out loud or even think it.

Furthermore, we know that Dmitry had an awakening, realized the toxic presence of the fallout from his actions.  The problem is that it came too late for him to be saved from being convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, but could have, which is enough for this flawed system, which had to answer for the corpse.

So, if someone asks you what the verdict is of the trial, you’d be within your rights to say “it’s more complicated than that.”  He wasn’t innocent, but was he guilty?

Brothers Karamazov: The End….not quite

upcomingSo we have come to the end of the regularly schedule part of the Brothers Karamazov. There is an epilogue…but I am counting the book technically finished.

So this last part was the murder trial of Dmitry. It is the OJ Simpson trial of 1870’s Russia. Because the Karamazov’s are a high profile family and it’s a murder trial of a father, this is getting high attention from literally everyone. Also, the added drama of the spurned lover (Katarina) who will be in the same room as the woman Dmitry left her for (Grushenka) and the fact that Grushenka was an alleged paramour of Dmitry’s father. VERY high drama.

I am not going to go through the whole thing, you can read the book if you want that kind of detail.

One thing that Dostoyevsky does well is showing what a spectacle this trial is. He has scenes where those attending the trial are chatting – and it’s obvious they are there for the gossip and for the drama. As an invested reader and observer, you are like…HEY! This is a murder trial. Be a bit more sympathetic. But I think that’s the point D. is trying to make. This is entertainment for people. What makes this impressive is that it’s as true today as it was back then. People are people.

The other thing that I found interesting is that as the reader, we know what happened. We know who killed the father and all of the other things around it. We have been inside Dmitry’s mind and know what he was thinking. But as we progress in the trial, we see how the facts, “facts” are turned around and each side uses them to their advantage. What the prosecution says isn’t untrue, it’s just not the entire truth. So this is an inside look at how facts are distorted.

There is a very interesting part near the end of the chapter where the defence attorney is talking about fathers and what makes a father – that’s it’s not just sharing a DNA that makes someone a father. And he goes on to explain how the lack of that influence on a child, especially a son, can have a negative effect. I think this is the crux of the book – or one of them (can you have multiple cruxes?) – which is, how much does a father’s love and attention, or lack thereof, influence his children?

Well, it’s on to the epilogue….then we are done.

 

Brothers Karamazov, Book Eleven: Non-Stop Action

downloadWe are getting pretty close to the end of the book, I think this was the second-to-last section (excluding the epilogue). Holy cow! Dostoyevsky basically threw all the action in this section, and the kitchen sink.

Everyone is getting ready for the trial of Dimitry – and most people are in high states of agitation about it. Ivan is back and apparently has been back for a while. He was plotting with Katherine to break Dimitry out of prison and hide him away. Dimitry and Grushekna are still together, however they are having a bit of a love/hate relationship (no one here finds this surprising).

The very interesting thing that Dostoyevsky does in this section is basically ties up a lot of loose ends by having all the characters visit each other. You find out what’s been happening during the two-ish months that have passed since Dimitry was arrested. There is no exposition, it’s all conversations and action.

We find out that Ivan is really sick and is basically going (or gone) insane. He ends up visiting Smerdakov a bunch of times – who is the “faithful” servant of the Karamazov family. Smerdakov is cagey and toys with Ivan, sensing his illness. He basically bats him around like a cat with a mouse. Over the visits S. tries to convince Ivan that IF he were to have murdered his father, then it was basically Ivan’s doing – because Ivan wanted it done. In the last meeting of the two, S. completely confesses to the murder. Up to that point Ivan wasn’t sure if Dimitry did it or not.

So we are merrily reading along to Ivan having a crazy chat with a hallucination of his inner-self……when….<insert dramatic music here>

We find out that Smerdakov killed himself.

What? No one was expecting that.

Truthfully I have no idea what is going to happen in the last section.

Book XI: The Devil Speaks

christ-tempted-by-satanThe drama is racing forward now.  We had all sort of assumed that Dmitri had killed his Father–as he had often promised to do and might well have done…or might have done had someone else not gotten to it first.  The trial awaits.

Ivan is back in town, and some sort of fever has robbed him of his vaunted reason.  He talks to Smerdyakov who confesses that he did it, but implicates Ivan with moral guilt by telling him that he (Ivan) knowingly let the murder go ahead.  There’s a lot of discussion of fake seizures, real seizures and then a chance to wonder who’s the fool in the conversation.

Then, after a big scene we’ll talk about in a minute, Aloysha shows up to inform us that Smerdyakov has hung himself.  Ivan’s fever rages; he had been counting on Smerdyakov confessing to save his brother and now he’s left with a story that only he heard and he doesn’t think anyone will believe.  He has some kind of non-Karamzov urge to help his brother that he must have inherited from his mother…he also offered to help Dmitry escape to the United States…but now that’s presumably all gone.

Or, not.  The trial awaits in the final book of the novel.

The interesting part from a philosophical standpoint is Ivan’s conversation with the devil, which occurs inside a feverish nightmare.  For my money, this is as good as the Grand Inquisitor scene–which also came out of Ivan’s head.

First, the portrayal of the devil is fascinating.  The devil does not show up with horns and a red suit or in a flash of fire.  He’s a guy.  He feels underappreciated, he’s a bit snarky and a bit whiny.  He’s just a guy.

Which, of course, is the whole point.  In fact, he says “…suffering is the very stuff of life. Without suffering, what pleasure would there be in life?”  You cannot have good without evil or virtue without sin.  The battle between good and evil drives life forward and both reside within us.  It can manifest itself as it does with Aloysha or with Dmitry, but good is there and evil is there.  And, you don’t have to think of evil as something extraordinary or monstrous.  It’s pedestrian and every day.

You can decide if that’s dark or not.

Then, the devil makes a point that I think shows the incredible prescience of Doestevsky.

People will unite in order to derive from life all that it has to give, but they will seek purely earthly happiness and joy. Man will extol himself spiritually in godlike, titanic pride, and the man-god will be born.

Who among us can argue–despite the apparent rise in religiosity in the West–that the man-god is here, that most people view themselves as the center of the universe and arrange the rest of the pieces to rationalize that view?  We have a local church that has a billboard that says “You matter.”  (In contrast, my son works at a camp that teaches the kids that “I am third.”)

Then, this.  See David Foster Wallace.

Triumphing repeatedly and totally over nature by his will and his science, man will in consequence experience a pleasure so exalted that it will replace for him all his former expectation of heavenly bliss

Remember then, this is the devil speaking as he outlines his vision of his world

Every man will discover that he is mortal and that there is no resurrection, and he will accept death proudly and calmly like a god. Out of pride he will desist from protest, accept the transience of life and love his fellow man, expecting nothing in return. Love will satisfy only a moment of life, but the mere consciousness of its brevity will fuel its flames as strongly as it was once dissipated in the hope of an eternal love beyond the grave…”, and so on and so forth, and more of the same stuff. Charming!’

Which is charming except, of course, we’ve seen enough of the Karamazov brothers to understand that it isn’t very likely it will turn out like that, and if you doubt it, somebody out there killed his father.

On we go.  One more section and an epilogue.

The Brothers Karamazov, Book Ten: A boy and his dog

MV5BMmMwNGY0OGItYzg5MS00OGY5LWJkMTYtZmVhMjczMmJkMmVjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzU1NzE3NTg@._V1_CR0,45,480,270_AL_UX477_CR0,0,477,268_AL_So we are moving along in the story. Dimitry was being questioned about the MURDER of his father and then we get to the next book where….wait what? We seem to be taking a step back in the action.

A while back in the book, some kid bit Alyosha’s finger – well he (Ilyusha) and Alyosha are back, along with the kid who got stabbed in the leg with a knife (Kolya). With all the other stuff going on in the book this seems somewhat random. However, it can’t be, right?

I think this section is about a bunch of things, one is forgiveness. Alyosha worked at getting Kolya to visit the sick boy because the two boys had a falling out. It was kind of a Mean Girls situation, but with 1800’s Russian schoolboys. Kolya brings his dog with him that does a bunch of tricks – that delight all of the people assembled, especially Ilyusha (the sick boy). Kolya realizes that he might have been a bit harsh in freezing out the sick boy from his circle of friends. Also, Aloysha basically rallys the kids around the bedside, after they all were pretty mean to him.

The other interesting thing about this section is that the young rascal Kolya has some pretty strong views on politics and the world. He proclaims himself as a “socialist” and has a conversation with his friend, Smurov:

‘There’s nothing funny about it, it’s just you don’t understand it. Nothing in nature’s funny, however it may seem to man, with his prejudices. If dogs could reason and criticize, I’m sure they’d find plenty that would seem funny to them, to say the least, in the social relationships between people, their masters—even more than funny, I should say, because I’m firmly convinced that we’re by far the more foolish. That’s an idea of Rakitin’s, a remarkable idea. I’m a socialist, Smurov.’ ‘What’s a socialist?’ asked Smurov. ‘It’s when everyone’s equal, all goods are owned in common, there’s no marriage, and religion and all the laws are whatever anyone fancies, and so on and so forth. You’re still too young for that, you’re not old enough.

It seems to me that Dostoyevsky is sorta mocking this line of thinking. There is a push-pull in the book between forward progress and ideas and old-school thinking. I think by having a 14 year old boy the the poster child for the progressive view, Dostoyevsky shows that he doesn’t think very highly of it.

As an aside, there was a little line that cracked me up:

Whenever he met another dog, they would indulge in unusually enthusiastic mutual sniffing, in accordance with all the rules of canine social etiquette.

This is totally true, right? It made me chuckle.

On to the next part!

 

Book 10: The Power of Contrast

circleSo, Book 9 was all about Dmitri.  We see him being questioned by the investigators in the death of his father.  His battle with the investigators is over the circumstantial evidence of his guilt–but it really is a reckoning with how he has lived his life.  Every part of the story has burst from the chaos that is the wanton and immoral life that Dmitri has chosen to live.  Unlike Dmitry, we cannot help but see:  you will reap the fruit of the seeds you sow.

Book Ten is very interesting, in that it seems to have no place in the book.  Plot-wise, we were driving forward.  Now, 680 pages in, we finally get to the meat of the story–the death of the Karamazov father.  What happens in the next Chapter?  We pick up a subplot line where no one mentions anything about the murder.  Instead, we are at the sick bed of a child, and we learn about the internal politics of teenage bullies in Russia.

There does seem to be a point, though.  It’s the power of contrast.  We see how Dmitri was living his life.  In this section, we see the type of man Aloysha is.  He’s all the whiter for the darkness of Book 9.

Aloysha has been organizing the children to visit the sick child every day.  He has accompanied them as well.  He has also successfully encouraged one particular young man to make his first visit.  There is a heartwarming scene with a canine reunion.  Aloysha is a veritable Father Flanagan to these young men.  They note that he doesn’t talk down to them or insult them.

Not to put too fine a point on it but Dmitri spends his time stealing 3,000 roubles to chase Grushenka and plying the peasants with food and wine, while Aloysha was taking teenage miscreants to the sickbed of an ailing/dying child.

I assume that we have the big trial coming up next, which promises more of the dark side of the story and the family.  I think Doestevsky wanted to take a second before that starts to show that alternate paths do exist, even people who are cursed with the same genes and the same family.

Karamazov Brothers, Book 9: You’re out of order

no-youre-out-of-order-this-whole-damn-courtrooms-out-of-orderAs we knew from the end of the last book, Dimitry is being accused of…..MURDER-ing his father. This part reminded me of the courtroom scene in And Justice for All. It’s kinda chaotic. Dimitry vacillates between being lucid and cooperating with the investigators and then becomes either withdrawn or belligerent and won’t answer certain questions. Mostly he doesn’t want to disclose where he got the alleged 3,000 roubles he has been talking to literally everyone about. If he was on social media back then he would have 100 posts on Instagram posing with all the cash.

Dostevysky continues to show his mastery of storytelling in this section. Just when you are sick of hearing Dimitry get grilled, he switches to an interrogation with another person with less detail and acknowledges that he will have less detail to spare the reader (the man knows his audience).

What I am finding more and more fascinating, is the depth of the novel. One of the reasons we chose this was because Kurt Vonnegut said that all you need to know about life is in this book. And you know what, I don’t think he was wrong.

Dostoyvesky has these…I’ll call them throwaway lines – lines of dialogue or of thought that are jammed into the middle of other things. And they are brilliant, but innocuous (or at least to me they are). I’ve noticed a few before and didn’t think too much about it. This is the one that caught my eye in this section, Dimitry is speaking:

‘Yes, I see it as a fateful distinction! Anyone can be a scoundrel—and, come to think of it, everyone is—but not anyone can be a thief, it takes an arch-scoundrel to be a thief. All right, let’s not split hairs… It’s just that a thief is more scurrilous than a scoundrel.

I mean, it’s brilliant. The sentiment is  simple but true – anyone can be an ass, but not everyone can stoop to be a thief. But it’s also not forcing a lesson down your throat. I feel like if Tolstoy had wanted to make the same point, he would have spent 100 pages rhapsodizing about it and there would have been a vista and a battle taking place.

The other thing is, and what I find fascinating, is that we knew all this stuff was going to happen. Dimitry mentioned many times about killing his father, had a reputation for being hot-headed, talked about stealing his father’s money. But when he is accused, it does come as a surprise. That’s what is brilliant. It’s almost like, yeah, he talked about it but I didn’t think he would actually do it. (Also, as an aside, he has yet to be convicted of the actual murder.)

Anyway, this continues to be an entertaining and wild ride. On to the next part!