Brothers Karamazov, Book Four: Oh Dimitry!

fingerFirst, an observation….there has been more action and activity in the first 250 pages of this book than most of War and Peace. Ok, maybe that’s an overstatement. However, Dostoyevsky definitely keeps the action moving, where Tolstoy would take pages and pages (and pages and pages) to expound on the meaning of life.

When I was back in University in the Shakespeare class that I took, the professor was big on the number of lines attributed to a character: the number they spoke, the number they were spoken to, etc. The most interesting was the number of lines spoken about a character that wasn’t in the scene. This applies to book four – Dimitry is no where to be found, yet most of the action (and inaction) is based on something that he did or didn’t do.

We find poor Alyosha turned out from the church (as the staret is basically hours away from dying) to attend to matters concerning the Karamazov family. He is basically going around cleaning up Dimitry’s messes.

So Alyosha is walking along, going to attend to the Katerina situation, where he comes across some school boys who are throwing rocks at each other. Trying to do the right thing, Alyosha steps in and is rewarded by the kid almost biting his finger off – which seems like a random occurrence – until we find out that our boy Dimitry had publicly humiliated the finger-biter’s father.

I was feeling sorry for Alyosha because he seems to be traipsing around cleaning up people’s messes and delivering money. But then I realized that the reason for that is he is the only character that is reliable. He has no skin in the game and through his eyes we see what is actually happening. Even the narrator is a bit sassy and isn’t completely reliable.

The other interesting thing is something that BJ mentioned in his post today – that reading the story back when it was written would be a totally different experience since there are a lot of ‘at the time’ references that only someone reading it then would get. For example, characters are described by their clothing – what cloth the coat is made of – and I am like, is that expensive, cheap, is the dude trying to be a show off. Who knows! It is like referring to someone’s shoes as either strappy Manolo Blahnik sandals or flip flops from Old Navy. At another place and time, people won’t get that reference.

So far, I am really enjoying the book. It’s funny and action packed and keeps you entertained. On to book five!

Brothers Karamazov: The end of part one

springerLet me say this is one crazy family. It’s like the equivalent of a Real Housewives franchise or a Jerry Springer episode.

One of the sons clocks the father (it’s looks like he is going to die there for a minute….did someone say MURDER). There is a romantic….square? Like a triangle plus one, involving the Karamazov patriarch, the eldest son (Dmitry), Grushenka (the possible prostitute)…and wait for it, Katarina, the woman that Dmitry is engaged to. What? You read that right…we see Katarina kissing Grushenka’s hand in a very awkward scene where Alyosha (the youngest brother) goes to break off the engagement for Dmitry.

See, it’s a Jerry Springer episode!

We end book one with much unresolved and a lot of tension with the family. We are only 200 or so pages into this thing and we have already seen more action than in the first 800 pages of War and Peace (I might be exaggerating a bit).

So far I really like this book. There is quite a bit of action and suspense and surprise. There is a bit of exposition on religion and politics and the human condition, but it’s been minimal. The story is moving along at a brisk pace.

There is about 800 pages or so to go. I feel like the murder that was alluded to earlier in the book is going to happen soon. Grushenka is going to cause a whole lot of trouble.
And I think the Karamazov boys are all going to get married. Those are my predictions. We will see how I do as we go along.

On to book two!




The End of Book One

contemplator-1876.jpg!LargeHad some quality hammock reading time and was able to move to the end of Book One with our favorite brothers.  The action since we last talked as still centered around the debaucherous brothers and Grushenka.  Dmitry has gotten himself into a “pickle” in Barb’s words, and has found himself owing someone money and then engaged to marry the woman he gave the money too, despite being still in love with Grushenka, to the point where he tells Alyosha that he would be willing to wait quietly in the other room while she has sex with other men.  He says:

I loved debauchery, I loved the stench of debauchery too. I loved cruelty: am I not a louse, an evil insect? I’m a Karamazov, don’t forget that!

Hilariously, Dmitry is sending Alyosha to break up with the first woman…a maneuver many others have tried over the years, without success.

‘Tell her that I shall never see her again and tell her that I send her my regards.’

‘You can’t do that!’

‘No, I can’t. That’s why I’m sending you in my stead. I couldn’t possibly do it myself.

Almost reads like Groucho Marx.

A significant part of this section consists of one of those Russian novel discussions on the nature of faith, which sound like dorm room bull sessions.  Woody Allen famously sent this up in “Love and Death.”  For example, in Matthew Jesus is supposed to have said that if you had faith as large as a mustard seed you could move a mountain.”  Why then, it is asked, is no one, anywhere on earth, moving mountains.  And how can there by martyrs when all you needed to do was move a mountain on them and crush them like “cockroaches.”

Enlightening stuff.

Like any author of a book written for a contemporary audience, Dostoevsky uses a lot of references that are current and familiar, and the footnotes in a book like this are often quite fun.

For example, the painting posted above is part of a discussion about one of the servants, who had a habit of just stopping and staring off into space.  Like the character in the painting, it is suggested, he is not thinking but “merely contemplating” and that he will file away these unconscious musings in a kind of primitive part of his brain until after many years “he might unexpectedly throw up everything and go off to Jerusalem as a wandering pilgrim, or perhaps he might suddenly set fire to his native village, or perhaps both.”

Which is kind of what they looks like he’s doing, even if that’s a fair amount of extrapolation.

There’s another reference to a poem by Nikolai Nekrasov.  It is titled “When from thine error” or “When from the darkness.”  Either way, it was probably important to Dostoevsky, because he referred to it in this book, inserted it into Notes from the Underground and doing a public reading of it.

It is worth a read.  It is also not surprising to see how it might have been appealing to our author.  It is about a person who has fallen and confessed and forgive, and yet carries around doubt because of how the world sees him/her.

Heed not the world, its lies dissembling,
Henceforth from all thy doubts be free;
Nor let thy soul, unduly trembling,
Still harbor thoughts that torture thee.
By grieving fruitlessly and vainly
Warm not the serpents in thy breast,

….advice that Dmitry has adopted under trademark false piety, something that would have been apparent to contemporary readers.

Brothers Karamazov: Part One, Book Two

brosThis book is definitely written in a specific way. What I mean is that Dostoevsky employs some interesting literary devices. I mean, he basically tells you the plot of the book. Who does that?

When I mentioned this to BJ, he told me that this was written as a serial. The chapters (according to Wikipedia) which was published as a serial in The Russian Messenger from January 1879 to November 1880.

So that makes sense! Dostoevsky needed to keep people’s interest so he needed to write it in a way that extremely foreshadowed the action to come. Take this scene for example, where Aloysha (who is one of the brothers) is heading over to meet his family for lunch, just after a debacle of a meeting with the local staret. He meets up with a ‘friend’ on the path who offers this as exposition:

Someone’s going to get hurt in your family. It will be something between your brothers and your wealthy father.

Then he mentions MURDER! Ok, thanks for the heads up, dude. I was like, that’s odd to basically let a huge plot point out of the bag so early. But then BJ mentioned the serial thing, and I was like, got it!!

Also, as predicted in my first post, the brother represent different aspects of society. And, lucky for me, the same ‘friend’ from above let’s us know what those exactly are:

The whole of the Karamazov family problem boils down to this: you’re sensualists, money-grubbers, and holy fools!

That makes it easy.

The thing that is unexpected is this is a very funny book. Besides the sassy narrator, there are actually LOL parts. At one point, in the debacle meeting they are discussing a woman of ill repute:

Maybe her fall goes back to her youth, to her repressive background, but she “loved much”, and Christ forgave her that loved much…’ ‘It wasn’t for that kind of love that Christ forgave…’, the meek Father Yosif objected querulously.

I can literally see the meek Father Yosif giving a wave of his finger saying, um yeah….not so much.

Because Dostoevsky wrote this in smaller pieces, there is little (at least up until now) rambling on for pages about philosophy. This approach makes it very readable.

There is now the introduction of a woman, who may or may not be a prostitute (you can read more about that in BJ’s post here). And an upcoming murder. How is that for keeping your attention?

Through Book Two

The great reading project has advanced to the end of Book 2.  We have just finished the rather raucous visit of the Karamazov Brothers to the monastery, in which we find out, in my Mother’s words, “we can’t take [these people] anywhere.”  With the exception of the odd section where the starets is talking to some random supplicants outside the monastery, what we really have going on in this section is more exposition.  The narrator gave us the basic facts in the first section and in this part we get to see the whole family in action.

And it is pretty remarkable.  These are some very screwed up people–reality-show-screwed-up.  Jerry Springer screwed up.  If you don’t me…and the fracas at the Monastery wasn’t enough on its own…allow me to present you with the legendary Battle Grushenka.

Dmiti, played here by Yul Brynner, uses guitar playing trick on Grushenka.

Grushenka is a woman who, we learn, shares her love.  Just to show how easy she is, she actually has Pyotr and Dmitri fighting over her, and doing it in front of the starets and any number of priests, monks, or acolytes, not to mention the other two kids and their cousin.


I checked on Goodreads and there was a poll and 53% of the people who voted said she wasn’t a prostitute, which is said to be the right answer.  Once it gets to be a question, you’re not in real good shape.

I did a little research and couldn’t find any examples of fathers and sons having sex with the same woman, except for Oedipus and some clips on PornHub where there’s reason to doubt that the people involved are even related.

So these guys are more depraved than that.

The end of the book is really well put together.  Alyosha is outside the room where the rest of the family is inside of lunch.  He is talking to the town gossip for the purposes of exposition, because Dostoevsky has made it clear that Alyosha is way too dense to figure out anything for himself.

Anyway, as they are talking, the door bursts open and the rest of the family comes storming out.  Then, Dostoevsky takes us back inside to find out what happened.

One last note.  Everything you read about the book talks about how dark it is.  Right now, it seems too farcical to be truly dark.  Perhaps my own dark view of humanity has made it impossible for anything else to be darker, but this just doesn’t seem like something you’d still be finding dark more than a century later.

Of course, there’s 900 more pages and (spoiler alert) (not really) no one is dead yet.


Brothers Karamazov, Post 1

Our Narrator?

And away we go, breaking here at the end of chapter 4, which is around page 75 of the more than 1,000 pages in the book.

Here’s the thing.  As noted previously, we have read War and Peace and Infinite Jest as part of this impossible reading series.  This book is by far the most readable of the three.

The first thing is that it follows a relatively straightforward plot structure, and is carried by a seen-it-all narrator who is a character in his own right.  You know the type–even if he is often missing in today’s literature.  In my life, when I talked like this narrator does, I was accused (accurately) of being a smart ass.

For example:

There, after harsh and prolonged ordeals, he was deemed worthy of enduring torture and of meeting a martyr’s death.


…testifying to the unhappy lot of our village women, an illness caused by debilitating work undertaken too soon after difficult, complicated, and medically unsupervised labour, and further aggravated by hopeless misery, beatings, and so on, which apparently some female constitutions lacked the strength to endure.

You picture the guy, with a long beard and a hunch, cracking wise on his way around the village.  It’s hard to describe, but you’re glad to be along for the ride with him.  (Note: I guess it could be a her).

In the words of Donald Rumsfeld, the Karamazov family is a “target-rich environment” for a smart ass.  Take any dysfunctional family you want, starting with the Windsors and the Spencers, cross over to the Trumps or the Kardashians or the Jenners or any other reality show clan, and add a multiplier effect of 10 or 20 and you might be halfway there.

From its patriarch down, this family is a collection of loons.

So, obviously, we know what the story is about.  But, the little peeks it gives into Russian society and its inherent contradictions are equally interesting.  This particular section ends with a very long and probably cuttable story of supplicants meeting a starets, which is essentially a religious leader with cult-like followers who is considered to have healing powers, though our narrator wryly notes this:

The question of whether such healing was really a cure or merely a natural remission in the course of the illness did not arise for Alyosha, for he already believed firmly in the spiritual powers of his teacher, whose glory he felt as his own.

Honestly, on its own, that’s a pretty funny line.  And even though any MFA-dork worth his salt would have cut the starets scene, it is important to remember that the story was written as a serial.  Just like any popular entertainment, it was necessary to, you know, entertain people so they’d keep coming back.  (David Foster Wallace was under no similar mandate, so far as we could tell).  The starets scene and its gentle ridicule let those original readers laugh at the very world they lived in.

So, that’s the first report.  See you in a hundred pages or so.


Karamazov Bros: 100 pages down!

karamSo it’s probably not 100 pages, it’s actually 10% (since we are Kindle-ing it).

For me, here is the shocking thing about this book: it is totally read-able. This is not at all like War & Peace where I had to carry the family trees of the characters around with me at all times to understand what was happening.

The other thing is that the book is pretty sassy. It has this first-person omniscient (sorta) narrator that almost winks at the reader sometimes. I was going to say that it makes it light-hearted – but that’s not exactly true. It makes it less dark and serious, I guess.

So far here is what we know about the story: there are actually 3 brothers Karamazov. The father Karamazov is a bit of a mess. He is a drunk and a womanizer. We learn that the oldest brother has come back to town after being estranged from his father, in an effort to sort out the family finances…meaning he wants the money that is ‘rightfully’ his. The other two are brothers from a different mother, literally. All have taken different paths through life.

From my experience, classic literature taps into universal truths and the human condition. Why do we still read Shakespeare? He took basic truths and wrote plays (and sonnets) around them. Same with the Brontes, Austin, and the list goes on. Dostoyevsky has done the same here. This line could not be more true today (in the current political climate):

But oddity and eccentricity, far from commanding attention, are calculated to undermine reputations, especially at a time when everybody is striving to unify what is disparate and to find some kind of common meaning in our universal chaos.

I read that and was like – are you kidding me? This could be written today. And it is still true more than 200 years later. Goes to show, people don’t change.

I literally have no idea what is going to happen with the story. My guess is, and I reserve the right to take this back, that the brothers represent different aspects of society and Dostoyevsky explores how do they exist together. But hey, I am only 10% through this thing.

So far, I like it. It’s understandable and readable. And it’s a good story.

I will be back at 20% and let you know if I still like it.