The Brothers Karamazov

Book online The Brothers Karamazov by Richard Pevear,Larissa Volokhonsky

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Братья Карамазовы



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Note: This review was written on Nov 18th 2007, a week after my twenty-first birthday. Excuse the youthful clumsiness of my style.Matters of Life and DeathOften I used stop people in the streets, shake them frantically on the shoulders and slap them on the face, shouting again and again: “Is there a God? Is there a God? For God’s sake, just tell me if there’s a God!”You would be surprised at the results I gathered from this. One or two of them confirmed that there is indeed a God, and that his name is Jack Daniels, whereas the others fought me off and beat me to a pulp (which I interpreted as an emphatic no). This marked the beginning of my long period of agnosticism. I was fed up of the bruises, quite frankly.In The Brothers Karamazov, one of thee Great Russian novels, I found characters who shared my plight. For within this Herculean tome, I found discourses in which the author wrestles with notions of the hereafter, the supposed everlastingness of God, and the point of it all. It tackles the most impossible philosophical arguments that will visit each and every mortal on this earth at some stage, and offers the most incredible arguments for them all, proving universal to all types of being on this earth. All in a succinct and accessible 974 pages of literary delight.Historical FactsFyodor Dostoevsky wrote this book at a time when he had been lionised in Russia as one of the most important writers in the motherland. Not necessarily from a critical standpoint—his books were still unpopular among the status quo—but within the academic and greater reading public, he was tantamount to an emperor. He should have been a megastar within his lifetime, in this reviewer’s opinion, but no one was ever going to warm to an author as uncompromising and academically volatile as he was. Except perhaps his stenographer.In 1880, after this (his final book) was released, he made a speech to mark the erection of a monument to Aleksander Pushkin, celebrating a milestone in the progression of Russian literature. One year later, he passed on at the solid age of 60, leaving a canon of work more sensational than one-hundred free trips to Glasgow’s Water World. His swansong novel was quite a note to bow out on. An often quoted but scarcely read masterwork, it made the biggest impact of all his novels on the world at large, and pushed him into the echelons of literary immortality with 19th century contemporaries Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy.On top of this, Sigmund Freud was his biggest fan. Not bad, eh? That nefarious little wench Susan Sontag also likes him. Which is less impressive in comparison.Themes & PlotFor those unfamiliar with this work, it is an accessible and none too unmanageable text to read. The conceit is that the Karamazov brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha are all to some extent dependent on their grudging old scrote of a father in the small village of Skotoprigonyevsk. These three brothers are used to symbolise the tripartite nature of man: body, mind and spirit. Each also harbour opposing teleological views which puts them at odds with one another throughout the entire duration of the text. When Dmitri, a hedonistic wastrel (representing sensual pleasures of the body) asks his father for three-thousand roubles with which to support himself, he is refused and is unable to find another benefactor. Here we have the setup.What transpires is a murder mystery yarn, the crux of the plot to the novel, where Dmitri is incorrectly arrested for the murder of his father following a dark night of carousing. The action in The Brothers Karamazov takes place over four days, and is centred (for the most part) around the interactions of these brothers and additional characters, most of whom sink to various levels of despair, confusion, helplessness and sorrow over the course of this short time. The continual themes of deceit, abandonment, torture and suffering are never far from the narrative, and the dialogue is very much in the melodramatic tradition of the era.Central to this basic narrative are the discourses around God and the Devil, whose presences cast a continual shadow over the narrative. In this desolate and rather awful village in North Russia, the characters wander through their miserable lives with uncertainty, seeking examples of God’s existence and to prove their individual theories of life just so they can understand the absurdity of the world around them. It is a place of petty tortures and brutal co-dependence, where the follies of man are shown for what the stupidities they are, and the sad desperation of life is rendered almost transcendent.CharactersOne suspects, given Dostoevsky’s own faith, that he intended Alyosha (the spiritual and naive brother) to be the real centre of this piece. It was easier for me to empathise more with this character, one of the few gracious, forgiving and angelic presences in the novel, and without his voice the book would lack a hopeful presence. He is taken on a journey that tests his faith in a proper John Bunyan idiom, forced to contemplate the idea that the monk Starets Zosima was not as pure and divine as he trusted him to be. We are also shown the extent of his knowledge and wisdom with an exceptional sub-narrative revolving around a precocious child and a group of troublemaking schoolchildren.The brothers Dmitri and Ivan are destructive and irascible characters, seldom likeable and halted in their lives through their mutual dislike of both their father and one another. We are forced to watch these brothers scold one another and fester in hatred, and for their views and desires to drive them apart. The Father Fyodor (while he is still alive) is also intolerable, and it is only through religious voices such as Starets Zosima whom we can take some kind of solace.The object of the feuding brothers’ affections is the more well-to-do “lady” of the village Katerina Ivanovna whom is torn between her hateful relationship with Dmitri and her uncertain affections for Ivan. Grushenka is the “local Jezebel” of the village with whom the brothers are also besotted. It is clear that part of their mutual downfall has to do with the indecision, torment and deceit these women place upon the brothers, but this is more in relation to the untrustworthiness they have placed upon them. Alyosha expresses affection for Lise, a secondary character who also occupies the one home in which these women reside. He is unsure of his affections in the novel, however, and his love goes unresolved within the narrative.The purpose of these characters is to torment one another. It is rare that a character within this text is not breaking down into a hysterical outburst at one moment or another. Barely five pages have past before a Karamazov is tearing someone apart in a moment of feverish excitement. The shame of asking for money (for grovelling and sacrificing dignity) seems to hang over the brothers at all times (especially Dmitri), and there are procession of niggling villagers such as Miusov, the bothersome theology student Rakitin and the dangerous epileptic Smerdyakov (who is roundly abused throughout the novel) to fester their lives.Style & LengthThe Brothers Karamazov does require a few weeks of consistent reading and demands those who undertake it to be prepared for all manner of devious arguments pertaining to the existence of God. The author was a devout believer in He Above (meaning there are Bible quotes aplenty to be found) but presents the opposing arguments in a lucid and accessible manner through Ivan’s own atheism and Dmitri’s agnosticism. Given how the two non-believers are forced to confront their own demons to an extreme degree, and to follow through on their godless decisions in times of great strife, it would seem the sensible people are those on the side of God in Dostoevsky’s opinion. Ivan is forced to confront the Devil towards the end of the book, and in contemplation of a life without love, he is driven to delirium.Critics often liken the long-windedness in the text to the structural principals Dostoevsky derived from music. It is thought that the development of the novel thrives on the extended use of subordinate themes and variations of these themes. Victor E. Amend argued that, similar to the dialogue between piano and orchestra in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, the development is accomplished by the alternate presentation of the themes until the dominant one prevails. While his style is an oral, often freewheeling and “unedited” it is a very readable and thoroughly accessible style.Some might quibble about the extended time spent dwelling on inappropriate scenes, such as when the schoolchildren gather around Alyosha or the 70-odd pages spent on legal speeches towards the end, but these all contribute to this musical “theme and variation” style that makes Dostoevsky such a fulfilling author. To trim material as psychologically prodigious and insightful as this would be akin to chopping out the last ten minutes of a Beethoven Concerto or losing that extended guitar solo in Stairway To Heaven. It must remain as it stands. However, I should confess for the sake of honesty that I did find myself restless towards the end. This does not diminish the flow and brilliance of his style, in fact—it seemed appropriate to bring such a mighty work to its conclusion.Translation & Other WorksThe finest version of this book is the translation from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who also did a stellar job on Crime & Punishment. It is available in Penguin Paperback. This version, alas, was an Oxford World Classics print, translated by Ignat Avsey. This Latvian louse converted a great deal of the text into Present Day English, incorporating phrases that seem inappropriate to the time period of the novel. He also had the audacity to change the title to The Karamazov Brothers instead of the original title on the proviso we don’t say “The Brothers Marx” when referring to a brethren. Pah! His introduction is also littered with erroneous observations (such as that the town name of the text is said once – it is in fact said twice in the text). His translation is to be avoided at all costs.The oeuvre of this great Russian author is to me vitally important. What I take from his novels is this profound sense of redemptive catharsis; that there is nothing so awful from which a person can never return. His novels, in all their unrelenting gloom and Russian thickness, present a vision often of a world in squalor-filled chaos, but from this chaos he shows us that the solution for all our problems lies in our own collective freedom as individuals. This makes him timeless and cherished in the eyes of this reviewer, and I have yet to find a novel to match the incredible Crime & Punishment or a novella to equal Notes From Underground. Both are also recommended to those unversed in his canon.ConclusionThe Brothers Karmazov achieves that rare feat in 19th century literature in that it remains infinitely readable, gripping and vital to readers to this very day. Even those intimidated by its considerable size will be surprised just how immersed in this magnificent masterwork they will become. As a rule, I avoid these mammoth doorstoppers when making book choices, but this one had me entranced from beginning to end—despite those indulgent moments of excessive erudition. I recommend this to all readers prepared to tackle its complex subject matter and who wish to put themselves at the hands of a master.The rewards are abounding.

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