Posts

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.