Friday, April 11, 2014

The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Recommended Ages: 14+

Mountaineers have their seven summits. Mariners have their seven seas. Of course there is disagreement about what geographic spots these challenges comprise. In the same way, bookworms like you and I may disagree as to which books pose the most difficult peak to climb, the most daunting deep to explore. There may actually be more than seven of them. Few will conquer them all. Even some brave adventurers, in the best of training, may balk at some of these monsters, which promise more hardship and danger than pleasure. For example, I am enjoying not reading Gravity's Rainbow so much that I would hate to spoil the fun by ever attempting to read it. But there are still some books without reading which my life in A Fort Made of Books would seem incomplete. Enemies that I must face if I want to believe myself to be a man. Deserts I must cross in order to bring back the wisdom concealed therein. Thrill rides, perhaps, that I will only recognize as fun after I have made the toilsome, nerve-wracking ascent of that first awful hill.

But I'm not crazy. I'm not ascending K2 without bottled oxygen. How did I get over Moby-Dick, War and Peace, and more of their kind? I did it by dint of a supplemental air supply! Or rather, of a talented reader's voice, performing each book out loud while I racked up hundreds of business miles. It turns out that, with a little help from audio-book technology, these summits aren't so terribly cold and treacherous after all. In the case of The Brothers Karamazov, my sherpa was the late David Case, a.k.a. Frederick Davidson, a gifted voice actor who lent his breath to some 700 books before tragically losing his larynx, then his life, to cancer. Luckily for me, he lived to record Dostoevsky's last and longest novel. This 800-page masterpiece was intended to be only the first installment in a much larger epic. Instead, the author died only months after it was published in 1880. It didn't kill him, though; and it won't kill you. Just look at me. I'm alive and writing after listening to the whole thing. And I actually found it enjoyable. Imagine what sights you too might see, with the aid of a bit of canned air!

The brothers of the title are the sons of a rascally moneylender named Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who drove both of his wives into an early grave and neglected their children. Now, each for his own reason, the three young men have returned to the town of their birth. Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan, and Alexei (Alyosha) have had vastly different experiences in life until now, and developed contrasting characters and beliefs. Mitya is a reckless ex-soldier, cashiered out of the service due to discipline problems, whose troubles with money, women, and his own temper will be his downfall. Ivan is the intellectual one, educated, self-made, with a promising future as a writer, suited to the rapidly modernizing Russia in its era of religious doubt and political upheaval. And young Alyosha is the religious mystic, devoted to the saintly elder at a local monastery, and troubled about what will become of his family. There is also an epileptic, illegitimate brother named Smerdyakov, kept by their father as his valet and cook. This sly creature, though not strictly one of the Brothers Karamazov, has somehow obtained more of their father's trust and attention than the three legitimate sons.

We know from the very beginning that Fyodor Pavlovich is going to die, most likely at the hands of one of these young men. Dostoevsky skillfully toys with our expectation, stringing us along and keeping us in dread of the murder long before it happens. Then, just as skillfully, he keeps us uncertain of exactly who done it and what consequences will befall the victim's sons. Even at the end, the answers to these questions are more suggestive than certain. The story, as such, involves one man torn between two women, and more than one woman torn between two men; a dispute over money, and a man struggling with a debt of honor; the uplifting death of a pious old man, and the shattering death of a tough little boy; a police investigation, a murder trial, a surprise confession that nobody believes when it matters, and a miscarriage of justice. Mixed in with all these juicy plot-lines are portraits of the folly, selfishness, and nervous disorders of people of all classes; an in-depth comparison between religious belief and unbelief in late 19th-century Russia, and their effects on the people's morals; and, comfortably embedded within the novel's vast framework, several lengthy speeches or essays representing the points of view that struggle there.

After reading a few of Dostoevsky's masterpieces, I have started to notice some recurring themes. There always seems to be a fallen woman, and a man who tries to raise her up (though with varying degrees of success). There is often an epileptic in the story. Brain fever, a distinctively 1880s-ish thing somewhere between meningitis and a nervous breakdown, often figures in the plot—a device Arthur Conan Doyle also relied on more than perhaps necessary. And in the end, someone always seems to be sent away, or put away, either for his own good or for society's. Characters with chronic money problems always seem to be debating ethics, religion, and social philosophy, sometimes to the point of shedding blood. And the struggle between faith and reason always seems to lead someone to commit a murder. These tendencies aren't very surprising, once you acquaint yourself with Dostoevsky's biography. He was, after all, a sickly epileptic, whose health problems rode astride the line between mind and body. He got in trouble as a member of a radical group, was sentenced to face a firing squad, and after being mercifully sent instead to a Siberian labor-camp, experienced a religious conversion. He had gambling and debt problems, sometimes lived as a beggar, had dalliances with loose women, and finally died at age 59 from a series of strokes.

On the other hand, there are always plenty of surprises and original touches to enliven these familiar themes. Dostoevsky was brilliant at sketching original and distinct characters, ranging from the gentle and simple-hearted Alyosha to his two complex, ambivalent, but totally different brothers. Sometimes with a touch of irony and satire, but more often with genuine sympathy, he portrays a large cast of characters, including peasants, servants, lawyers, priests, a crazy ascetic, a flighty girl and her flibbertigibbet mother, a cheating innkeeper, a mentally unfit mother, a trouble-making kid, a cynical nihilist, and a dashing young official. He shows insight into legal procedures, monastic life, and the complexities of Polish forms of address. He also shows an amazing knack for developing believable female characters, each with her own individual blend of attractions and flaws. I'm not saying Fyodor Mikhailovich was a feminist or what not, but the girls in the "opening credits" roles exercise enormous power over the fates of the men in their lives, especially one particular member of the Karamazov family whose tragedy forms the backbone of this book. And above all, Dostoevsky keeps proving his flair for dramatics, pulling you along with cues and clues that keep the tension thrumming, straight through the agonizing and cleansing crisis of the tale.

And then he leaves you guessing, not only what happened, but what happens next. Must he spell everything out? I mean, the book was already 800 pages long! And yet, when it closes with Alyosha's speech to a group of schoolboys mourning the death of one of their mates, the end seems surprising and premature. You're still interested in what comes of the brothers' plans, hopes, and anxieties. You're uncertain whether to be hopeful or suspicious. And you're conscious that, although the narrator (who seems to be an invisible, all-knowing person living in the brothers' small town) spares very few details, down to the minutest account of some very long discourses, he is most clever in the information he withholds. It's a fascinating work of art. And besides that, it is truly entertaining. The most interesting moments are the ones where you catch yourself laughing aloud, and then feel guilty about not showing proper concern—like Ivan's hallucinatory conversation with a very impish devil. Or maybe the times when a character makes you want to reach out and strangle him or her. Or the bits that make you throb with emotion. Or the shock that you feel even though you saw it coming, because the narrator warned you ahead of time. Dostoevsky was a writer at the top of his powers when he wrote this—his powers, and practically anyone else's.

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