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?

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.

It’s Time People. Not a Drill.

KaramazovSo, the great 2018 Big Impossible Book Challenge is kicking off today.

I know, right?  Playin’ with live ammo.

So, to recap.  This is how the whole blogging thing started for the Married Book Nerds.

In 2016 it was War and Peace. (Long but not impossible.)

In 2017 it was Infinite Jest.  (Long and nearly impossible.)

And in 2018 it will be…The Brothers Karamazov.

We will, as always, blog at various intervals throughout this book.

So, why this book.  First, it checks off the boxes, which are the following:

  • Long
  • Thought to be impossible
  • A “classic” we haven’t read

This one has a fourth criterion, which is why I have always wanted to read it.  Kurt Vonnegut, my first adult literary hero, said this about it:

“There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that isn’t enough anymore.

And, you know, when you see that kind of thing from a guy you admire and used to worship, you sort of think, hey that might be something to check out.

Some academics have jumped in.  Here’s an article about Dostoyevsky and Vonnegut that appeared in an actual academic journal and not a blog.

So I’m interested in what Vonnegut means by “everything you need to know” and also why it isn’t enough anymore.  Part of that quote could be just Vonnegut’s usual bantery style of writing, but there could also be something to it.  We’re going to find out.

We had some consideration as to whether it was too early to go Russian again, but once you go Russian you never go back, a statement which is both somewhat funny and actually completely untrue.

We reviewed various translators.  For War and Peace, we went with the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, inadvertently uncovering a literary controversy.  (Apparently, only one of them speaks Russian…I suspect you can guess which one…and she translates the work into English in a direct manner and than Pevear makes it literary and people don’t understand how he keeps the flavor of the original writing if he doesn’t read it in the original).

If you want a flavor of how this roles, read here.

Anyway, this time we opted for another translator for variety if nothing else:  Ignat Avsey, who The Guardian says “breathed new life” into this book.  (for one, he titled the book The Karamazov Brothers).

So, anyway.  Away we go.  Stay tuned.

Reading Project 2018: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

karamFor the past two years, BJ and I have picked a book to read together. It started out when BJ said he was planning to read War and Peace and I was like – HEY! That’s been on my list too – how about we read it together? At the time we had just gotten married, and we were still living apart, so it seemed like a way for us to do something together…while being apart. It was fun…or as fun as War and Peace can be, and we decided to make it an annual thing. The next book we picked was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. We had both wanted to read it so that was the pick. We both agreed that neither of us would have got past the first 50 pages if we didn’t do it together.

We started talking about what the next book would be, possibly when still reading Infinite Jest (yeah, it was that good…she said sarcastically). I couldn’t face another stream of consciousness or fluid narrative structure again. That right there knocked off a bunch from the list. We were hesitant to go back to the Russians again, but hey….they wrote a lot of classic books, so what are we to do?

I remember reading a quote from Kurt Vonnegut (apparently it comes from Slaughterhouse Five, which I have read by the way) that said:

“There is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life… it’s The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, but that’s not enough anymore.”

I was intrigued. I mean, if it’s good enough for Kurt Vonnegut, I think it’s worth checking out.

First, I don’t know anything about this book. Wait, that’s not completely true. I know it’s 924 pages. It was Dostoyevsky’s last novel. But that’s it. I don’t know how many Karamazov brothers there are, and why it takes 924 pages to tell their story. But I am going to find out.

The next challenge was to find a translation. I did a bunch of research when we read War and Peace – who knew there were different translations and that people had VERY strong opinions about them. We chose the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation. Why? I have no idea. I liked the colour of the cover on that one. 

I suggested that we pick a different translator for this project. Why? Why not. So we are reading the Oxford Classic Version translated by Ignat Avsey.

We are planning to start the project on Memorial Day and see how long it takes us. We will blog at points along the way and let you know how it’s going.