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.

Karamazov Brothers Book Seven: What’s that smell?

smelly catFather Zosima has died. And this part starts with the monks performing their rituals and such for the dead starets. And all of a sudden, the monks start to notice something. They side-eye each other, the nudge each other with their elbows trying to say…do you notice that too? Of course they do. Apparently the starets body starts to smell. No one knows what to do about this situation. I am not sure if Dostoyevsky meant it to be funny…but it kind of is. It is literally the last thing you would think that was going to happen. Murder – yes. Intrigue – yes. But a smelly starets – no.

The prevailing thought is that because he is such a high ranking monk, some miracle should have happened upon his death, and everyone is basically waiting for that to happen. But no….we get smelly cat.

Not surprisingly, Aloysha takes this whole situation badly. And who wouldn’t. The starets is basically someone Aloysha looked up to, was more or less a father figure to him. And Aloysha is pretty young, and he is in the company of monks. So he is expected to basically man up and go with it. He is fighting between these two situations: mourning the loss of a father and trying to respect the traditions of the monastery. I really felt for this poor guy. I don’t think that Dostevsky wants us to pity Aloysha. But he really does show his struggle with the death of the man who he loved and respected.

The other big thing that happens is that Aloysha goes with the scoundrel Ratikin to visit Grushenka. Up until now, we have seen Lady G, we have heard rumours about her – she is a bit of a loose canon, and may or may not be a prostitute. In this part we get to hear her side of the story. Here is the thing, and not surprisingly, we are wrong (ish). She is not a prostitute. She had a benefactor that took her in when she was young and homeless, and gave her some money. And good on her, she basically used that money to become a self made woman.

This got me thinking about the themes that seem to be surfacing in the novel – freedom and what that means and how do people deal with that. I think that Grushenka’s story is kind of illustrating both the Grand Inquisitor story and the Father Z story. The reason that she is struggling so much is that she is caught between these two things: having too much freedom and not having enough.

As an aside, the really irritating thing – and this was true in War and Peace too – that people are known by multiple names. It’s super confusing. Mitry and Dimitry is easy to figure out. But Grushenka and Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlov – not similar.

Anyway….on we go to the next adventure.

Karamazov Brothers Book Six: This guy knows what he is doing

butterflyBook Six is actually fairly short. And at first seems completely random. (I feel like I am back reading Infinite Jest!) But, Dostoyevsky did not get to be a big time classic writer for nothing.

Basically this section is Alyosha’s recounting of Father Zosima’s life. As with the Grand Inquisitor, Dostoyevsky basically uses Alyosha as a conduit:

Here I ought to point out that this final conversation of the starets with his visitors on the last day of his life has been only partially recorded. Aleksei Fyodorovich Karamazov wrote it down from memory some time after the starets’s death.

The life of Father Zosima seems to be the “answer” to the Grand Inquisitor. The staret (Father Zosima) started out in life like any kid at the time. His brother became ill and was like a hero to the tiny staret. Father Z. did most (or what I assume are) of the usual things one does while growing up – went to school, got into trouble, joined the army. Here is where things go bad for Z.

Drunkenness, rowdiness, and bravado were almost something to be proud of. I can’t say that we were wicked; all those young people were good, but they behaved badly, and I was the worst of all.

He gets himself into some Alexander Hamilton-like troubles (have I mentioned how much I love Lin-Manuel Miranda….I digress). Through some mishaps, a duel gets set up. And Z. realizes that he can’t go on with his life on the path it’s going. He (somewhat) cleverly gets himself out of the duel and saves face and preserves the integrity of his opponent. At this point, he has basically found religion.

What I found interesting was that he speaks of having a story-book of religious stories as a child and being fascinated with them. (He still had a copy of it on his shelf.) What’s interesting is that he is pulled to the parables and stories, and not so much from a lightning strike from the divine. This also gives Dostoyevsky a chance to show off his religious and bible chops by talking about and quoting the Bible.

Two quotes that intrigued me. One was:

And so it is not surprising that instead of being free, people have become enslaved, and instead of serving the cause of brotherly love and human harmony, they have, as my mysterious visitor and teacher once told me in my youth, fallen into disharmony and isolation.

The Grand Inquisitor spoke about freedom and how man can be free by just trusting the powers that be. And Father Z. is basically saying the opposite. What I find really fascinating though is that this can completely apply to today. Use this quote in context of social media and BOOM. One could make the argument that people are more isolated and lonely and in disharmony with the advent of Facebook (and the like) when it was thought of as something to bring people together. These are basic human problems – they existed in 1890, and exist in 2018. It’s fascinating to me to see that authors can get to the crux of humanity and be so insightful and prescient, and it’s what makes them good at their job.

The second quote is this:

My brother, young though he was, asked the little birds for pardon: that might seem senseless, but he was right, because everything is like an ocean, everything flows and intermingles, you have only to touch it in one place and it will reverberate in another part of the world.

I am interested in spirituality, meditation and buddhism as a concept. This reverberation seems to be something that rings true in the teachings of Buddha. And this idea that what you do here will have an effect somewhere else is both mindfulness and (kinda sorta) social contract. You need to be responsible for your actions here and now and understand how they affect others – somewhere else. Obviously I am not familiar with how things were thought of in 1890, but this seems to me to be a fairly forward thinking concept for the time.

And then, this is where Dostoyevsky does his thing…we hear all about Father Z and his life, we forget about the story then at the end:

But we shall speak of this later, in the next book; for the present, we shall merely add that even before the day was out something had happened which was so unexpected and, judging by the effect both within the monastic community and in the town, so strange, alarming, and perplexing that even now, all these years later, our town still preserves the most vivid memories of that day, which left so many of its inhabitants filled with alarm.

What? Talk about generating interest for people to read on….it’s like the Bachelor <to be read in Chris Harrison’s voice>: Coming up….the most exciting episode of the Brother’s Karamaozv ever!

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.