Tell 'em what I took, man!

Reflections of a repatriated ex-patriot

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Just finished reading this gigantic ode to suffering last week and have been letting my thoughts percolate. My first impression is that it was morally and emotionally exhausting to the extreme. The plot consists mainly of the tumult between three (possibly four) brothers and their father, each representing within themselves and amongst each other the great moral quandaries of the day. There’s Dmitri, the oldest brother who is ruled by his passions to the brink of fatal violence; then Ivan who espouses the nihilism and atheism typical of the intellectual trend of the day, juxtaposed by Alyosha,

who for the majority of the novel, appears as a monk, filled with the virtues of religious humanism—the yin to brother Ivan’s yang. Then there’s Smerdyakov who may or may not be the fourth son, born of a crazy street lady, prone to epileptic fits, (incidentally referred to as “the falling sickness”) who becomes employed by the father, Fyodor Karamazov, as a servant.

The beginning of the novel doesn’t jump right in, but painstakingly sets the scene, guiding us into the life of Fyodor, the father, who establishes himself as a selfish, noisy, licentious old booze hound. He takes no part in his children's upbringing, instead throwing them all in the yard for the servants to sort out. The distinct character of each of the boys is described, and already the seeds of a terrible impending tragedy take root.

Anger and enmity arise within all of the children, except Alyosha, who attempts to act as the family's moral anchor. Not altogether in vain, he's charged with quieting the familial strife and lack of faith. The tension emerges most prevalently in Dmitri, (and for brevity's sake we'll just follow his plot thread). Angered by his father’s refusal to pay the rest of his rightful inheritance Dmitri lashes out at him, beating the crap out of old Fyodor on one occasion and also publicly humiliating poor Snigeryov by grabbing him by the beard and throwing him into the street. He attempts to hire this Captain Snigeryov to strong-arm the money out of his father, but ultimately Snigeryov’s failure just raises Dmitri’s ire and desperation.

A key witness to this public display of humiliation is none other than Snigeryov’s son, Ilyusha, who upon seeing his father brought so low, starts having the epileptic fits that later cause his death at the end of the novel. A very sad, drawn out, and heart-rending death it is—one which I found later on was undoubtedly inspired by the death of Dostoyevsky’s own son via the same “falling sickness.” Apparently, little Alyosha (that’s right, the same name as the priestly son in the book) inherited these seizures from his father, and for that Dostoyevsky felt perhaps a tremendous misplaced amount of guilt. The father-son relationships and dilemmas throughout the novel are no doubt manifestations of the real life torment the author went through in his relations with both father and son. It’s been reported that Dostoyevsky started having his epileptic seizures when he witnessed the death of his own father. Are we cheery enough yet? Good. Now back to the plot.

If the anger within Dmitri was not quite stimulated enough by his father’s refusal to pay him his rightful dues, we find out that both father and son have the hots for the same woman, Agrefena Alexandrovena, affectionately known to them both as Grushenka. This playgirl tart of a woman toys with the Karamazovs' emotions for her own amusement, planning the whole time to get back with her old flame, a Polish dignitary from whom she’s been removed for five years. Dmitri, ballooning with concern about the possibility of his father absconding with his money to marry Grushenka, feverishly tries to raise enough cash to whisk her away himself. We discover as well, that he not only needs the money for Grushenka and his fantasies of removal with her to some far away place, but that he has a debt to a former betrothed, the vindictive Katerina Ivanovna. Katya places 3000 roubles in his charge to send to a relative, but out of his lust to impress Grushenka, he takes her to a nearby town, and instead squanders half the money cavorting with the gypsies, minstrels, and drunks.

In a mad dash for cash he hits up Grushenka’s benefactor with a an ill-proposed business deal, and failing that attempts to negotiate with a contractor charged with one of his father’s properties in another nearby village. Both attempts wash out, and he makes one last gambit to get money out of the talkative Mrs. Khokhlakova (minor character- not important). At a fever pitch of rage and jealousy, he unconsciously grabs a pestle and heads over to his father’s house where he learns from Smyerdakov about a secret knock employed to let father know she’s arrived. He uses the knock in hopes to find out whether his beloved is with father, but convinced she’s not there and making his escape, is nonetheless assailed by one of the servants, Grigory, whom he pulverizes in the skull with the pestle. Not knowing whether he’s killed Grigory or not he goes back to the servants of Grushenka’s benefactor where he initially grabbed the pestle and finds out, through forced interrogation of the servernts, about Grushenka’s deception and current whereabouts. There’s kind of a hazy disconnect just before his return to the servants, as though Dmitri hasn’t been conscious of what he’s been doing the last hours. He’s even unaware of the blood all over his face and the matted, bloody handkerchief in his pocket that he had used on Grigory, trying to determine if he was still alive.

Totally defeated, and convinced that he has in fact killed the servant, Grigory, Dmitri Karamazov plots his own suicide, but intent on making one last hoorah before the end, uses the other half of the 3000 he got from Katerina to once again shoot the moon with the locals of the town where he and Grushenka had such a good time previously; the same place, not coincidentally, where Grushenka and her old flame are now rekindling their old sparks. A bizarre scene unfolds with Dmitri befriending rather than confronting his rival and his entourage, and hearing the most glorious tidings from Grushenka that she in fact does love him and wants to be whisked away—her Polish past love had lost his charm—Dmitri indulges in the excesses of a debauched party…

… Only to discover the following morning a detective in his midst charging him with the murder of his own father. What follows is the trial and epilogue, and I won’t go into any more details at this point should you be enticed to brave this 1000 page monster of gut-wrenching moral horror. I will, however, give you my own personal insights:

I found Brothers Karamzov a bit like nicotine or even crack for that matter. You start it, and it tastes like shit. It’s tedious, loquacious, probably missing much in translation, steeped in all the class division and stuffy etiquette of a Jane Austin novel. You know it’s bad for you and you shouldn’t do it, yet as you continue you just can’t seem to turn away. I found myself inspired to drink vodka as I read this book. I’m not normally a big vodka drinker, but I acquainted myself with the likes of Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Ketel One (even though it’s Dutch, not Russian), and Sobieski (once the Poles were introduced) as I scanned through page after page detailing the universal pathos of the human condition. The narrative tone felt kind of like being cornored by a drunken, mutton-chopped old Victorian pontificating on the nature of mankind, pocket watch in hand. Once I finished I was exhausted. I was spent. I wanted to become catatonic.

I mean, I had read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina a while back, thinking that was pretty damn tragic, but that looks like a comic book compared to this! I may sometime in the distant future, out of a since of sheer masochism have another go at it, or even pick up House of the Dead or worse yet Crime and Punishment. Why in the hell would I want to do that you may ask? Well, it’s because there are some writers who have the ability to cast a hook in your heart and drag you into the zenith of their hopse and then suddenly down to the very nadir of their despair, and Dostoyevsky is definitely one of them.

Nas Drovye, kids. That’s Russian for “Cheers!”

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