Novel: The Brothers Karamazov

The_Brothers_KaramazovAuthor: Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880
Genre: Mystery, Philosophical
Format: Ebook, 1183 pages

I cannot believe I have finished The Brothers Karamazov. While far from being defined as a short, light read, I cannot say it is overly humongous either. My ebook might be just over a thousand pages long, but it is no War & Peace or Clarissa. My disbelief can rather be attributed to The Brothers being a great part of my reading routine for the last three months, which is now no more. It is strange to be finished. That is why when I had only about a hundred pages left, I noticed myself subconsciously slowing down. It is as if I had walked for months in a desert and was finally at the gates of an oasis. But instead of running to it and drowning myself in its blessed freedom, I look back and try to capture the last glimpses of the sand dunes in my mind’s eye. I’ve spent so many hours in its familiar embrace, saw rare flowers bloom from out of sight of strangers, and saw the unrivaled stars on the tranquil nights. Though the journey was tough, where would I be now without it?

The Brothers Karamazov is a simple story with extremely complex characters. The plot does not take off until at least about half way through the book, instead giving the reader the opportunity to get to know each and every character one by one. We are introduced to the Karamazov family, whose patriarch Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is far from ideal husband and father. He goes through two wives, wasting them to death, and leaves three sons to be raised by servants or distant relatives. He spends his days indulging in alcohol and women, and has no regard for the consequences. His eldest, and the only, son from first marriage Dmitri is a man of passions like his father. Like many young men of his rank he is an officer, and is guilty of many faults typical for characters of his profession in Russian literature– gambling and partying. Dmitri resents his father and feels that he was cheated out of proper inheritance after coming of age. Often he visits Fyodor Pavlovich trying to coerce money out of him, but with little success.

Ivan is the second son of Fyodor Pavlovich, but could not be more different from his half-brother. He wants nothing to do with his father’s money, instead working hard in publishing industry to learn his living. He is a rationalist and an atheist, representing the new wave of youth in Russia eager for change from the old ways. His younger brother Alexei (called Alyosha throughout the book) is again the polar opposite of the rest of the family. Having fragmental memories of his mother crying to the religious image on the wall, he decides to become a monk and returns to his birthplace to enter a monastery under the mentorship of Elder Zosima. The narrator describes Alexei as a hero of the novel from the very beginning, which proves to be true, as we see Alexei being the connecting bridge between many characters and the catalyst of many theological discussions. Religious monologues are very common throughout the first half of the book and serve as kind of a window to the characters’ inner world. I found such passages very telling in terms of figuring out the true nature of the brothers, as well as that of their father. They took some patience to get through, as I am not a particularly familiar with the topic; but I can see someone with theological and philosophical background having a heyday with such parts as The Great Inquisitor.

Things finally start moving as we learn about the love quadrangle between Dmitri, his former fiancé Katerina, a local bimbo Grushenka, and the ever-womanizing Fyodor Pavlovich. I will try to go over the complexities without giving away any spoilers. Both Dmitri and Katerina believe that they love each other, when their relationship is essentially tied to duty and honour. When Dmitri gets infatuated with Grushenka he feels torn between his responsibilities to Katerina and his true feelings. These torments become the greatest driving force behind the story. Dmitri knows that a large sum of money will settle his debt to his fiancé and free him for good, but gambling and his father’s greed leaves him penniless and desperate. Things turn to worse as he finds out that Fyodor Pavlovich is planning to rob him not only of his inheritance, but also of his woman too. Fueled by his rage, Dmitri runs to his father’s house without a particular plan, but taking a heavy copper pestle with him. The next day Fyodor Pavlovich is found smashed in skull and missing money, which leads to Dmitri being arrested and tried for murder.

The book is intricate and wordy, generous in mysteries and philosophical ideas. I’ve been incredibly intimidated before to read it, but thanks to the wonderful people at Goodreads, I finally stocked up on courage and took a leap of faith. I read this one in Russian, because I try not to do translations if I can help it. It’s been a while since I’ve read a Russian classic in my mother tongue. It was fun to get back to it. It was also interesting to see the cultural differences between then and now, East and West. I noticed that many people reading the English translation were left in the dark about some of these differences, which again facilitated great discussions on Goodreads. I am surprised to find Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky edition faulty of this, as Volokhonsky is herself Russian and should realize the need for footnotes. I have mentioned a few already in my character diagram posted earlier (check it out if you’re confused about the relations and love connections), but maybe I should mention another one.

Some readers found Father Zosima to be confusing as a character. The reader has to keep in mind that Russia is extremely old as a country and it began its existence as a pagan society. These ancient people used to believe in multiple Slavic gods, having celebrations and rituals for them very much like Norse or Mediterranean countries did. Even with Christianity taking over in around 10th century, many faint traces of paganism still remained in Russian culture, such as widespread of alternative medicine, Maslenitsa and Ivan Kupala festivals, various folk tales masked as children stories, or every day practices that originally honored pagan spirits like Domovoi. Now, how does this tie in with Father Zosima? I am no expert, but I find Elder culture to be a great example of such mixture of Christianity and paganism in Russia. Elders were different from the regular clergy. They were said to have been touched by the Holy Spirit that gave them powers of foresight and healing. Now, if that wasn’t neatly explained by Christian beliefs, one can associate such power with witchcraft. Father Zosima might as well be called a mystic, but that would anger the Orthodox church. Elders did not choose to be spiritual leaders, but were rather chosen by people who recognized their connection with divinity. After the 1917 revolution religion was pretty much banned, churches closed and Elders quietly disappeared. For nearly eighty years spirituality was not part of Russian society. That is why you will see a steady religious regression starting with my great-grandmother (who was very religious), my grandma (she knows some prayers and that’s pretty much it), my mother (indifferent to such things), and me (totally ignorant of anything remotely spiritual). Today some Christianity and paganism are still present in lives of Russians, but play a significantly smaller role. It’s all weird and fascinating, and that is why I like learning about it from books like The Brothers Karamazov.

Also, I do not know how well it translated in English, but the narrator of the book speaks in a very slangy tongue, typical for little-educated peasants of the time. Some words and expressions first made me doubt Dostoyevsky’s literary abilities, but then I realized that he was actually not the narrator at all. The real narrator is never identified, but from his or her manner of speech we can conclude it is a resident of the Karamazov’s town. The intimacy of some scenes might indicate the narrator’s ability to get behind closed doors. Can they be employed as a servant of one of the major characters? Some scenes, however, leave the reader puzzled, as it would seem that no outsider was present during particular conversation, yet we get a detailed first-hand account of the events. Perhaps the narrator is just the local gossip, the result of multiple voices uniting together to tell the story of their town. It could be a fair guess. The best way to find out would probably be reading the book for yourself.

5 comments

  1. I love your description of the book becoming part of your routine and finding yourself slowing down at the end. I think I tend to accelerate toward the end of a book, feeling impatient and wanting to find out how everything concludes.

  2. That is my usual strategy as well, but for some reason I found doing the opposite with The Brothers. I guess I was sad to see it end. Well, I was ecstatic to be finally done with such a long novel, but at the same time terribly sad. Dostoevsky emotionally confuses me!

  3. I just want to say well done! I have this on my shelf but can never imagine when I will ever get to it! so big pat at the back Andrea.

  4. Thank you, I feel pretty proud to finally finish it. Philosophical ramblings apart, this turned out to be a pretty intriguing murder mystery. I hope you get a chance to finally read it. It is a bit of a challenge, but it’s a rewarding one.

  5. Murder mystery? That’s so interesting! A classic and a murder mystery, I think this will be good. I was just about to say, for us bookish lot once we finished a book like that, we ought to celebrate it in a big way! A get together with friends, a good dinner, stuff like that etc.. 🙂

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