1880 (trans. 1990), Alfred A. Knopf, 976 pages
Dostoevsky’s towering reputation as one of the handful of thinkers who forged the modern sensibility has sometimes obscured the purely novelistic virtues–brilliant characterizations, flair for suspense and melodrama, instinctive theatricality–that made his work so immensely popular in nineteenth-century Russia. The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest novel, published just before his death in 1881, chronicles the bitter love-hate struggle between the outsized Fyodor Karamazov and his three very different sons. It is above all the story of a murder, told with hair-raising intellectual clarity and a feeling for the human condition unsurpassed in world literature.
This award-winning translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky–the definitive version in English–magnificently captures the rich and subtle energies of Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece.
The Brothers Karamazov
High school friend HT invited me to join her book club five months ago and Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece came up for discussion at our session last Sunday. I’ve read this book years ago and was happy to revisit it. Dostoyevsky, because of his pioneering work drawing attention to our subconscious motivations, is one of my favourite authors. Nietzsche was also a Dostoyevsky fan. You could draw a line tracing Dostoyevsky to Nietzsche and from Nietzsche to Freud. In other words, no Nietzsche and Freud without Dostoyevsky.
This is a big book. Instead of our usual month-and-a-half between book clubs, we allotted two months for The Brothers Karamazov, or ‘BK’ as fans call it. And then it got extended another week, since I was in Denver to collect a book award for my recently published book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. But even this extra week wasn’t enough. Over half our book club didn’t make it through. Despite everyone’s valiant efforts, the states of completion ranged from halfway to the tens of pages from the ending. That’s telling of how tastes change.
Here’s a little bit about our book club. More women then men. Career wise we are all successful, having reached probably the top decile of our respective professions which are: interior designer, RMT, engineer, psychiatrist, and project manager. I’m not sure what one fellow does, but he recently did the Camino in Spain, and he was able to follow work with a laptop and an internet connection, so perhaps he’s a consultant of sorts?
The general complaint was that the book starts off slowly. I could see that. The religious issues that dominate the first half–the erosion of religion, the rise of free-thinking principles, the role of ‘elders’ in the church, the role of monasteries in society–have passed us by. They are no longer the burning issues they were in the mid-nineteenth century. Ivan’s tale of ‘the Grand Inquisitor’ caught people’s attention, but the problem was you had to read through so much to get to it. BK is not unlike a Wagner opera: you get ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’ once in awhile, but you have to listen to a lot of other things in between. The mid- to late nineteenth century, in music and literature, was a time of epic constructions. Today we are more into Twitter, 140 characters or less, please.
While dramatic tension was slow in the building, the general consensus was the trial scene in the last third of the book is riveting. If only there were not the first two-thirds of the book to get in the way! The other observation echoed by book clubbers was that the female characters, notably Katerina and Grushenka, were cardboard cutouts more closely resembling drama queens than real individuals. I would have to agree, but I would add that everyone in the novel is a drama queen and that they are all drama queens (e.g. every conversation is “Please forgive me,” or “You’ve insulted my dignity,” or “My pride is wounded,” or “I’m all out of cash”) because no one has a job. If only Dmitri had to work our 40 hour week he would have less time to spend cavorting around with gypsies!
My burning question that I wanted to ask the book club was whether Ivan’s conjecture that “everything will be permitted” once Christianity gives way to free-thinking has come to pass. It seems in the century-and-a-half since BK came out freethinking has had a coming of age, especially out here on the westcoast, where the masses have raged into atheism. The book club consensus was that, today, in Russia, yes, Dostoyevsky was prescient. The anarchy and crime prevalent on the streets of Russia is a sign that “everything is permitted.”
I’m not so sure though. It seems to me that while Orthodoxism and religion were strong in Russia, lawlessness could also prevail. Look at how Dmitri drags around the retired captain Snegiryov by the beard. Or how Smerdyakov murders his father. I think human nature is the constant. We project human nature onto culture and society. To me, culture and society can change, but only so much as the elasticity of human nature allows. There is a bit of a moral decay theme in BK that change is always going for the worse (e.g. “Oh, if we were just in the good old days things would be better.”) I don’t find that necessarily true. From a technological point, things seem to be getting better (e.g. antibiotics, vaccinations, indoor heating, fridge, stove, and other appliances, cars, planes, etc.,). But from a moral perspective I can’t see how things can be that much different. Others will disagree. Vehemently.
The next book club read happens to be Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It will be most interesting to see if science can encroach on morality and ethics, religion’s final strongholds. Maybe science will have the final word against Ivan’s prediction that, when religion falls, “everything is permitted.” Maybe Science will be our new god?
Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.