tek's rating:

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky (pub. 1880, Russia; 1990, Pevear/Volokhonsky translation)
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Caution: potential spoilers.

You can, if you like, jump over my meandering introductory comments, and go straight to the actual review, though I wouldn't recommend it. You might missing something important, buried in all the trivial, self-referential irrelevance of my first few paragraphs. The choice is yours.

I'll start by saying some things that aren't quite directly related to the book. First of all, perhaps my earliest (vague) memory of being aware of the book was when the name "Karamazov" was used in an episode of Mathnet. It was kind of a running joke that no one was sure of how to pronounce the name. Of course, even then, I don't think it was the first time I'd heard of the book. This must've been in the late 80s, so I must've been barely into my teens, I guess. I'd probably seen the book on a bookshelf at school, or something. Well, it's a classic, obviously, and a long book. And it was originally written in Russian (which I don't speak, in case you're wondering). Anyway, I suppose I never really had any idea what it was about.

But skip forward many years, to about 1997, 98... (well, maybe it's not many years, but it sure felt like it). Um, anyway, I was starting to write a book called "The Chaos," which I planned as the first in a trilogy (and later had ideas for other books and stories in the series, beyond the original trilogy). It's a fantasy story, set on another world, called The Land; but the protagonist, Darius Lonewander, is based on me, or at least his basic psychological state is based on mine. I needed the character to have an extended family, and so I used my own family as a basis for his. This included four cousins of mine, brothers, whose names IRL are Lukas, Karsten, Torrin, and Mattias. To create Darius's cousins, I changed their names to Luni, Kar, Tor, and Matz. Originally, I meant for these to be the characters' full first names, not nicknames. However, many years later (say 2010 probably?) I thought I should make them nicknames, which meant I had to come up with full names for them. And for Kar, I thought I'd make his full name "Karamazov." You should know, people on The Land have some knowledge of Earth, which they've heard about from spirits (that is, angels or demons), who have not only told them stories of our world, but sometimes also provided samples of some of our literature and such. So it was easy for me to say that Kar's parents would have read The Brothers Karamazov, and named one of their sons after the book. But I still didn't know what the book was about, so I looked it up on Wikipedia, and what I read made it seem likely to me that Kar's parents (who were lawyers) would have liked the book. But I still wanted to read it for myself.

It was in January of 2011 that I bought the book, though I don't remember for sure when exactly I started reading it. All I can say is, it was winter. And I finished reading it in January of 2012. So... even by summer of 2011, I felt safe in saying "I started it when there was snow on the ground, and I'll finish it when there's snow on the ground." Of course, this isn't just because it's such a long book; it's because I'm a slow reader, and most of the time get distracted by other things in life, such as work (though I quit my job in summer of 2011, so that was only an excuse for half the book), internet and TV (always), and occasionally actually working on my own book. Which, yes, is a long time in the making... I started it over 14 years ago, I guess, which blows my mind. But as with reading, there have been long patches where I haven't worked on the book at all. Much longer patches than with reading. I don't want you to think the reason I could go for weeks, sometimes, without doing any reading, is that the book isn't fun to read. That's something it would be easy for you to think, even if I didn't have these lapses. It's not the kind of thing the average person is likely to see as a fun read, based on its length, the time it was written, etc. A lot of people these days either never read, or else just read current popular series like "Harry Potter" or "Twilight." (The closest they might come to serious literature is something like The Millennium Trilogy; which is not to suggest the other series aren't "serious literature," just that they're more understandably popular than, oh, say, Dostoevsky.) I think relatively few people are going to be anxious to read a 19th century Russian novel. And that's their loss. Of course, while I'm sure many people would be surprised to find they love it, if they give it a chance, I'm equally sure that many people would find that they dislike it just as much as they expected to. Many might find it tedious and boring. I, however, found it very much the opposite. (By the way, when friends have seen me reading the book, and asked what I was reading, I haven't been surprised that none of them had read it, but I was surprised that none of them had even heard of it.)

I should perhaps mention that there have been a number of English translations of the novel, over the years. According to the Wikipedia article, the best translation was by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. So, that's the one I got. (Bought it at Borders, btw; quite possibly the last thing I bought there before the chain closed, later that year.) I can't compare it to any earlier translations (nor, obviously, to the original Russian), but I do think it's quite good. I'll also say that it was in summer of 2011 that I learned this happens to be my cousin Josh's favorite book. (His name in my book, btw, is Joss.) Though he hasn't read this translation, I'm sure he will someday. I look forward to learning his thoughts on the comparative translations.

I also wanted to say that in November of 2010 (a couple months before I bought the book), I started working on a wiki for the series of books I'm planning, including The Chaos. And at some point after I started reading The Brothers Karamazov, I began thinking that if Dostoevsky was around today, I really think he'd dig making wikis for his books. (In fact, if no one else has made a wiki about his works, they should. If I ever feel like I have the time, I might tackle it, myself.) There's just something about his writing that is so... intricate. It definitely would benefit from the cross-referential nature of a wiki. And there were some aspects of his writing that reminded me a bit of my own style, though of course he's far better. Anyway, I definitely want to read some of his other work, someday. (Though I think I could do with some more modern fare, now that I've finished reading this book.)

Which is not to say that Dostoevsky's voice isn't surprisingly modern. (How much this has to do with the translation I read having been written at the end of the 20th century, I cannot say, though it is supposedly more faithful to the original than earlier translations have been.) Anyway, I'll also say that I enjoyed reading Pevear's introduction at the start of the novel, and perhaps enjoyed rereading it even more, immediately after finishing the novel. Certainly he has (as I suspected from the first, that he would) a much deeper and clearer understanding of the work than I could ever have. Certainly I agree with almost everything he says about the novel, and much of it is stuff I would've gleaned on my own. But much of it (on top of the things he tells us about Dostoevsky's own life and letters, which of course I couldn't have known anything of) is stuff that even after reading the novel, I can't necessarily see. Because I do have a tendency toward obliviousness, often a lack of discernment. My appreciation of works such as this often barely scratches the surface, I'm afraid. At the very least, I'll share the first line of his introduction: "The Brothers Karamazov is a joyful book." This is definitely true, and the rest of the introduction does a better job than I could of explaining what is meant by that. I'll just say that Dostoevsky does an amazing job of portraying a multitude of very different characters, each with their own unique voice (including the book's unnamed Narrator). The writing style is often very... ordinary. It's not quite how we would speak today, in America or Russia or anywhere, but neither is it quite the way we'd likely expect people in "classic" novels to speak. Certainly the paragraphs tend to be ridiculously long, and the Narrator himself is particularly verbose, somewhat rambling (which is a style I love, though I could understand if some people find it overwhelming). In any event, there is a great deal of humor in the book, though much of it might be seen as somewhat subtle. And the characters themselves are all well-drawn, believable, fully realized people. A great deal of time is also spent by the author (or more accurately, the Narrator, who Pevear says is not the author) in describing... I don't know, countless circumstances surrounding the characters, and all they say or do, or things that have been said or done in the past. Great effort seems to be taken to make the reader understand who the characters are and why they are who they are. There's just a tremendous amount of detail. Much of it seems superfluous, but that's what's perhaps best about the novel, as it gives the story a sense of realism that it might lack, if it were told in a more straightforward fashion.

Anyway. After Pevear's introduction, there is a list of characters in the novel, including for many of them a number of nicknames. This is very helpful, particularly for non-Russian readers, for whom some of the nicknames may not be obvious derivatives of the characters' actual names. The Brothers Karamazov themselves are the three sons of Fyodor Karamazov. They are Dmitri (Mitya, Mitenka, etc.), Ivan (Vanya, etc.), and Alexei (Alyosha, etc.). I won't confuse you by listing all the characters in the book, either now, or later in my review. Anyway, after that, there's a note from the author himself, in which he talks about Alexei being the "hero" of the story; that is, the protagonist. Dostoevsky is charmingly self-deprecating (as I hope my own tendency toward self-deprecation can sometimes be charming, though I'm sure more often it's just annoying) in defending Alexei as his choice of hero, who he feels many readers or critics may disagree with, considering Alyosha is not a great man, and perhaps a bit odd. (Personally, I disagree with this assessment of the character, though perhaps that's because I'm not a 19th century Russian. Or perhaps it's simply because I'd like to think I'm not that different from Alyosha; and while I think I'm odd and lacking in greatness, I can often appreciate qualities in others that I despise in myself. Which is not to say the qualities I appreciate about Alyosha are among those I despise in myself, but probably among those I like. So... I don't know where I was going with that. Sorry.)

Now, as to the novel itself: it is nearly 800 pages long. It is divided into four parts and an epilog. (Dostoevsky says it might be considered two novels, though I'm not at all clear on where the dividing line would be between the two.) The four parts are divided into twelve books, altogether (three books each), and each book is divided into a number of chapters. Early on, we learn about Fyodor Karamazov and his two marriages (both wives are now deceased), and the three sons he had, and how each of them was raised. I won't get into that, but basically, Dmitri is a passionate man, much like his father; Ivan is an intellectual and a skeptic; Alyosha is a novice monk, who is loved by just about everyone who meets him. We also meet a servant of Fyodor's named Smerdyakov, who is rumored to be the illegitimate son of Fyodor. (He, like the other three sons, was raised to some extent by Fyodor's loyal servant Grigory, and his wife, Marfa.)

The main conflict which will ultimately drive the plot of the novel is that Fyodor and his son Dmitri are both in love with a woman named Agrafena (or Grushenka, etc.), while she herself seems to string both of them along, but also has a pre-existing relationship with a man who was once her benefactor, but who has been out of the picture for some time now. (However, he will eventually reenter the picture, at least briefly.) It must also be noted that Dmitri believed his father owed him 3000 rubles, as inheritance from his mother. Things are further complicated by the fact that Dmitri was engaged to another woman, named Katerina (Katya, etc.), who has been scandalized by Dmitri basically leaving her to pursue Grushka. But it also must be noted that Ivan and Katya may be in love with each other, though it seems as if neither wants to admit it. Honestly, I didn't always follow all the various relationships between all the characters, especially since they all tend to have very conflicted feelings about certain people, who they may both love and hate.

There are a number of subplots, such as that involving a revered monk at Alyosha's monastery, named Elder Zosima. We learn some of his history, and things he's said to Alyosha and others. And a significant segment of the book revolves around his illness and eventual death. Another subplot involves Alyosha making the acquaintance of a group of schoolboys, most notably one named Ilyusha, who had been tormented by the other boys, most notably one named Nikolai (or Kolya). However, through Alyosha's involvement, peace is made between Ilyusha and the others. To some extent this is through the respect that Kolya and the others come to have for Alyosha, but also to a great extent it is over a sense of guilt, when Ilyusha himself becomes terminally ill. Another important part of the book involves Ivan reciting to Alyosha a rather epic poem he'd written called "The Grand Inquisitor." (This, according to my cousin Josh, is a very famous exceprt from The Brothers Karamazov.) Later in the novel, Ivan himself becomes sick, and has some feverish delusions (such as a conversation with the Devil, which is apparently another famous excerpt).

It isn't until Book 8 that Fyodor is murdered, and later in that book Dmitri is arrested for the crime. However, it is unclear to the reader whether he is guilty or not. But he does maintain his innocence. It isn't until Book 12 (the final book) that Dmitri's trial finally begins (though in Book 11, the reader learns the truth about the murder). Anyway, I find it a bit odd that the novel is generally considered to be about the murder and the trial, since all that takes up less than half the novel, and seemed to me at most a quarter of it (though this could have something to do with my own lapses in time spent reading). I suppose much of what came before was just to set up the whole situation for the readers to understand what happened and why. I'm guessing the "second novel" Dostoevsky spoke of was in fact Part IV, which would make the first novel much longer indeed, which is especially amusing considering the author's note at the beginning calls the second novel the main one. However, he also said that the first novel happened 13 years earlier, while the second is set in the "present." This is something I don't understand at all. Perhaps it would be clearer to me if I reread the entire novel, but I'm in no rush to do that, as much as I loved it. Someday, I probably will, but not just now. So maybe I'm forgetting something, considering it's taken me a year to read the novel... but to me, it seemed as if the vast majority was set in the present, throughout all four parts, with occasional flashbacks scattered throughout the novel (even if most of them were in Book 1, which by itself would be far too short to call a novel).

However. All this, the whole of the main plot and all the subplots, seems to exist basically as a sort of framework, on which to hang the real purpose of the novel. Which, as I see it, is to convey various religious and philosophical thoughts, and thoughts on the nature of mankind as a whole and the Russian people at that time, in particular. The actual plot is basically an excuse... a way to make the novel a novel, rather than just a philosophic text, and thereby make it more engaging, more readable. More relatable, by making it applied philosophy, so the reader can see how actual people (such as the fictional characters) might be affected in real ways by philosophy and theology and such, which can be virtually impossible to do when reading a purely philosophical (and therefore academic) work. Or perhaps I shouldn't say the plot is less important than the philosophy. In fact, perhaps it would be most accurate to say that these two dichotomous aspects are the real "two novels," which together form a whole. I found both aspects quite intriguing and entertaining, each in its own right, but I doubt I would have found either nearly as much so without the other. Truly, The Brothers Karamazov is one of those things that can aptly be considered greater than the sum of its parts.

In any event, even though I gave a spoiler warning at the start of the review, I don't think I've really spoiled anything at all. I haven't told you anything about the plot that isn't absolutely essential in order to simply give you a general idea of what it's about. I've left out a great many details, and failed entirely to mention any number of important characters. Certainly I'm not saying how the story ends, with regard to the verdict of Dmitri's trial, whether that verdict was correct, or anything about how the subplots turn out. (There's also something very important that's mentioned in the novel as being planned, but which we never see happen, so we'll never know whether it actually worked out or not.) But none of that is really important. Ultimately... you know, I guess another sort of cliche that might be aptly applied to this novel is that "it's not the destination, but the journey that matters." (In spite of being sort of philosophical, that's not something that's said in the novel; it actually came to me just now as I was writing this.) And as Alyosha might say... perhaps we can later remember all this (the book as a whole), and be better people for it.

...Oh and by the way. Throughout the book, there are countless footnotes, which you can read at the back of the book. So I kept two bookmarks, one for the novel itself, and one in back for the notes. Some of those notes were helpful, while others were basically just references to things that Dostoevsky himself was alluding to in his writing, which most modern American readers wouldn't know about. And indeed, I have neither the time nor the particular inclination to study all those things, even if some of them would probably be of interest to me if I did. A lot of the notes didn't really help my understanding of the book at all, I'm afraid. (Especially the ones that just tell you to refer to some earlier note, which I didn't even bother looking back at. Because I'm lazy.) Still, it all can't help but give you an appreciation for the fact that Dostoevsky was a product of his time and place, and was influenced by any number of other writers and such. It also appeals to me because, in spite of giving the author the appearance of being far more literate and educated than I might be, I can't help but think of Dostoevsky's allusions as being equivalent to contemporary pop culture references, which I enjoy both in modern works of fiction (books, TV, movies, whatever), and in my own writing.

Edit: I have read that The Brothers Karamazov was meant to be part of a larger work, maybe a trilogy or something, but he died a few months after the novel was published, so couldn't complete his intended series. So it's possible that's what he meant when he was talking about "two novels" in his introductory note. It didn't sound that way to me, it sounded like he was calling this first book... two novels. But that's probably because I wasn't aware of the fact that the story was supposed to be continued later, when I read the note. So, I dunno. Either way... even if I just totally misunderstood, I like that I did, because it inspired some of my thoughts on the novel, which I find interesting....

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(Image taken from Macmillan.com.)