The Brothers Karamazov

I should begin by stating that I absolutely love Dostoevsky, and Russian Literature.  This is the fourth major novel of his that I have read.  The other three are Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Demons (also alternately titled The Possessed ).  This novel I would rank after Crime and Punishment and probably just in front of The Idiot.  Although The Demons is a good book is lags well behind the others.  Reading Dostoevsky is daunting.  Every time I start on page 1, and realize that I have 700+ pages left, I feel that I will never finish.  His books are long, methodical, and incredibly verbose.  For many people this is unacceptable, and they can’t stand reading books that long.  I, however, really enjoy long, well written books.  In this day and age of instant gratification, even in modern novels, it is nice to read a book that takes its time.  Like his other books, this one starts out slowly plodding along like an old horse.   It is his prose and his ability to write consistent, believable characters that makes his books so enjoyable.  He is a true master, and I learn something new about writing every time I read his work.

The Brothers Karamazov, in my opinion, is a much more lofty and mature work.  It is rightly considered his greatest work, because it is his most ambitious.  It seems as if he took everything he learned from his previous novels–including the grand themes from each–and combined them into one glorious masterpiece.  Dostoevsky’s greatest strength is how he writes his characters.  He is able to take the reader into the mind of these fabulous–and many times dark–characters.  In Crime and Punishment the whole novel is about the inner workings of the mind of a murderer before, during, and after his murder, and subsequently into his path to redemption.  Dostoevsky was able to expand on that, and other themes that he had explored in previous books.  He brings in his ideas of God, science, nihilism, corruption, good and evil, and many others from The Idiot and The Demons.  Like in The Idiot, an epileptic character plays a major role in this novel.  The Brothers Karamazov is about so much more than parricide.  The book was published during 1879-80, and during this time science really started to conflict with religion.  Dostoevsky uses this book, in part, as a treatise on the fundamental questions of the relationship between religion and science.  Can they co-exist?  Does God exist or is he just a construct of man?

These are some of the questions that are raised in the book, and these questions help to drive the story.  One question posed is if God doesn’t exist, and is just the creation of man, then there is no sin.  Sin only exists if God exists, and therefore, if God doesn’t exist, then everything is legal, and nothing is prohibited.  Dostoevsky writes convincingly in favor of each stance, and shows a real knowledge about both topics.  (Dostoevsky, in fact, knows deeply about both topics.  He was sentenced to death for his radical socialistic views–a sentence which was rescinded.  He ended up spending four years in exile, in prison, in Siberia.  It was here where Dostoevsky renounced his radical and subversive views, and became deeply religious.  It was also here in Siberia that Dostoevsky’s was in the company of the worst sort of people: murderers, rapists, robbers, and other corrupted men.  It is through his close proximity to these people that allows him to write about these characters so convincingly.) These ideas of religion, science, and reason are characterized by the three sons of Fyodor Karamazov: Dmitri, Ivan, and Alexey (who is the hero of the novel).

First off, however, there is Fyodor Karamazov, the father.  He is a contemptible man, and a terrible father.  Everything about him is disgusting, and vile.  The passions that are exhibited by his sons were amateurish when compared to their father.  He has spawned at least three sons, and has given none of them the care or love that they deserve.  He is a man that has no discernible good qualities.

Dmitri, the eldest brother, represents a rejection of both science and religion.  He loves women and drinking.  He is a slave to his emotions and his desires.  He is passionate and generous to a fault, but his temper is violent and volatile.  He drinks to excess, and he is only comfortable when is in the middle of disorder and chaos.  He is the most worldly of the brothers, and perhaps, stands for the Russian people, and their apparent loss of morals–which is a reoccurring theme in Dostoevsky’s novels.  Dmitri is a terribly misguided man that can barely control himself, but he is still a good man with a kind heart.

Ivan, the middle brother, represents the complete rejection of religion.  He whole-heartedly disavows the existence of God, and believes only in science and reason.  It is Ivan who believes, and comes up with, the idea that if God doesn’t exist then everything is legal.  Like all the Karamazov brothers he is passionate, but his passions are money, reason, science, and love (lust).  He is incredibly intelligent, but that intelligence is what keeps his from belief, faith, and consequently hope.  Ivan is rational to a fault, and like Thomas, needs to see before he believes (if even then).

Alexey, the youngest, is the ideal Russian.  He is honest, forthright, and pious.  He is both religious and intelligent.    He is the perfect mix of both religion and reason.  Alexey isn’t swayed by the allure of socialism and nihilism, instead, he uses his faith and his intellect in perfect tandem to help everyone he comes in contact with.  What is important about Alexey is that he doesn’t allow his intellect to allow him to become cold to the suffering of those around him, and he doesn’t allow his great faith to allow him to become haughty.

Now I have probably made this book sound like the Bible, but it really isn’t.  Dostoevsky challenges his readers with these questions of faith and science, but he leaves these questions for the readers to contemplate, and decide for themselves.  The story, however, is about love, jealousy, and murder.  While these are the overarching themes of the book, the reader is not constantly beat about the head by them.  Instead they are subtly inserted by Dostoevsky, and really it isn’t until towards the end that many of these themes, and the action, start coming together, and making sense.  Like I said before the book plods along at a leisurely pace for about 350 pages, and doesn’t really start going until about the 400 page mark.  The last 300 pages, however, fly along.  By this time all the back-stories have been explained, all the drama has been built up, and then the story simply takes off.  It is at that part that the book becomes incredibly hard to put down.  Dostoevsky forces the reader to wonder who is the murderer, what are the motives, etc.  Unlike Crime and Punishment we don’t really get an inside look into the investigation of the murder, but instead we get a front row seat for the trial.  He does a masterful job of ratcheting up the tension before and during the trial, and concludes with two humongous closing statements by the prosecutor and the defense attorneys.  Both closing arguments are well thought out, and convincingly written.  If it wasn’t for the fact that you, the reader, know who the murder is, you would probably be vacillating between the possibilities as you read.

The book is masterful, and filled with emotion.  There are scenes that will absolutely touch your heart, and there are scenes that will fill you with dread.  Dostoevsky is able to take the reader through the full gamut of emotions.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone, even if it seems a little long in the tooth, it is actually a pretty quick read.  Even if you only have a half an hour to an hour a day to read it is well worth it.  It will enrich your life much more than if you spend the thirty minutes watching TV.  Since I have been unable to put it down the last few days, I have been reading it while watching Mets games on mute.

The next book I will be reading will be The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, yes another Russian novel.  I have been hearing a lot about this book the last few months from ESPN’s Keith Law.  In fact, he recently released a list of his top 100 novels on his website, The Dish, and  The Master and Margarita was his #1 novel.  So a big thanks to Keith for going above and beyond baseball analysis, and talking literature with us fans.  Anyways as I have done with every other book I will end this (not a review, but more of an impression) with an excerpt.  This is a small snippet from the scene where Ivan encounters the Devil.  I start with the Devil:

“God preserve me from it, but one can’t help complaining sometimes.  I am a slandered man.  You upbraid me every moment with being stupid.  One can see you are young.  My dear fellow, intelligence isn’t the only thing!  I have naturally a kind and merry heart.  ‘I also write vaudevilles of all sorts.’  You seem to take me for Hlestakov grown old, but my fate is a far more serious one.  Before time was, by some decree which I could never make out, I was predestined ‘to deny’ and yet I am genuinely good-hearted and not all inclined to negation.  ‘No, you must go and deny, without denial there’s no criticism and what would a journal be without a column of criticism?’  Without criticism it would be nothing but one ‘hosannah.’  But nothing but hosannah is not enough for life, the hosannah must be tried in the crucible of doubt and so on, in the same style.  But I don’t meddle in that, I didn’t create it, I am not answerable for it.  Well, they’ve chosen their scapegoat, they’ve made me write the column of criticism and so life was made possible.  We understand that comedy; I for instance, simply ask for annihilation.  No, live I am told, for there’d be nothing without you.  If everything in the universe were sensible, nothing would happen.  There would be no events without you, there must be events.  So against the grain I serve to produce events and do what’s irrational because I am commanded to.  For all their indisputable intelligence, men take this farce as something serious, and that is their tragedy.  They suffer, of course…but then they live, they live a real life, not a fantastic one, for suffering is life.  Without suffering what would be the pleasure of it?  It would be transformed into an endless church service; it would be holy, but tedious.  Bit what about me?  I suffer, but still, I don’t live.  I am x in an indeterminate equation.  I am a sort of phantom in life who has lost all beginning and end, and who has even forgotten his own name.  You are laughing–no, you are not laughing, you are angry again.  You are for ever angry, all you care about is intelligence, but I repeat again that I would give all away all this superstellar life, all the ranks and honours, simply to be transformed into the soul of a merchant’s wife weighing eighteen stone and set candles at God’s shrine.”

“Then even you don’t believe in God?” said Ivan, with a smile of hatred.

“What can I say–that is, if you are in earnest…”

“Is there a God or not?” Ivan cried with the same savage intensity.

“Ah, then you are in earnest! My dear Fellow, upon my word I dont know.  There!  I’ve said it now!”

“You don’t know, but you see God?  No, you are not some one apart, you are myself, you are I and nothing more!  You are rubbish, you are my fancy!”

“Well, if you like, I have the same philosophy as you, that would be true.  I think, therefore I am, I know for a fact, all the rest, all these worlds, God and even Satan–all that is not proved, to my mind.  Does all that exist of itself, or is it only an emanation of myself, a logical development of my ego which alone has existed for ever: but I make haste to stop, for I believe you will be jumping up to beat me directly.”

“You’d better tell me some anecdote!” said Ivan miserably.

“There is an anecdote precisely on our subject, or rather a legend, not an anecdote.  You reproach me with unbelief, you see, you say, yet you don’t believe.  But, my dear fellow, I am not the only one like that.  We are all in a muddle over there now and all through your science.  Once there used to be atoms, five senses, four elements, and then everything hung together somehow.  There were atoms in the ancient world even but since we’ve learned that you’ve discovered the chemical molecule and protoplasm and the devil knows what, we had to lower our crest.  There’s a regular muddle, and, above all, superstition, scandal; there’s as much scandal among us as among you, you know; a little more in fact, and spying, indeed, for we have our secret police department where private information is received.  Well, this wild legend belongs to our middle ages–not yours, but ours–and no one believes it even among us, except the old ladies of eighteen stone, not your old ladies I mean, but ours.  We’ve everything you have, I am revealing one of our secrets out of friendship to you; though it’s forbidden.  This is the legend about Paradise.  There was, they say, here on earth a thinker and philosopher.  He rejected everything, ‘laws, conscience, faith,’ and, above all, the future life.  He died; he expected to go straight to darkness and death and found a future life before him.  He was astounded and indignant, ‘This is against my principles!’ he said.  And he was punished for that…that is, you must excuse me, I am just repeating what I heard myself, it’s only a legend…he was sentenced to walk a quadrillion kilometres in the dark (we’ve adopted the metric system you know) and when he had finished that quadrillion, the gates of heaven would be opened to him and he would be forgiven…”

I will quit there, but I want to keep writing.  This chapter between the Devil and Ivan was one of the best chapters in the entire book.  The Devil is outstanding and superbly written.  He comes off as an almost sympathetic character.

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~ by Perpetual Memory Loss on July 8, 2008.

2 Responses to “The Brothers Karamazov”

  1. Another book that does a similar look at God and Religion is Mark Twain’s Letters from Earth. It is by far one of my favorite books and deals with Lucifer writing letters from Earth when he is banned from heaven for a day. It is funny as hell and it is from THE BEST AMERICAN AUTHOR of our time. Fuck the commies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Haha Twain is the man and one of my favorite authors. Need to read Prince and the Pauper some day.

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