The Brothers Karamazov [Repost May 2003]


(Written for amazon.com)

I finally completed Brothers Karamazov, and I needed to share my thoughts.  I will try not to insult anybody’s intelligence by outlining this book–Cliff Notes and the like abound, so if somebody wants a full explanation of Dostoevsky’s plot, they can simply pick up one of these.  What I want to say is much more difficult to define–whether or not I would recommend it to others, and why.

More than many other works, Brothers Karamazov was an experience for me–not the plot, nor the themes, nor even the characters: any number of writers can create believable characters and scenarios and, with them, play out lofty themes.  But I speak here only of the simple process of reading this tome.  It weighs in at 700 pages and it took me a year to read.  In fact, I began the first 100 pages at least four different times before I finally plodded forward to the end.  I used two different translations and an audio book version.  Why did I do this to myself?  Why did I start the thing three times?  For any lesser book, I probably would have given up and tossed aside.

There.  That said, I also refuse to extinguish the fire with the spittoon (you did want to read this book, right?), so I should tell my readers that the book is excellent.  In fact, let’s call the book superior.

I realized that my problems with Dostoevsky’s writing were stylistic concerns, and these I should be able to conquer, because the author was saying something important.  The importance of his work could be felt in each page.  And despite many long and admittedly tedious passages, he was unassumingly polite to the reader.  He was not confusing his verbosity with his intelligence, although the author was undoubtedly brilliant and possessed a very large vocabulary.  Somewhere in the novel, you realize, without really knowing when it happened, that you care deeply about his characters and their struggles.  It became obvious to me that, for Dostoevsky, the object of his work was far more important than his ability to tell the tale.  So I attacked the work many times, hoping to capture the articulation of the author’s vision.

So a bit about my difficulties–In the style of many writers of his era, Dostoevsky tends to explain the back story, rather than to depict it.  One wonders that, if the author’s popularity was not at its height at the time of this work’s publication, his editor would not have removed perhaps half the novel’s current bulk.  The largesse of the novel comes across as rather unpalatable for readers in this era of television, where it is expected that we be told a story, rather than shown a story.  One only need think of the extremely common use of flashback as a storytelling device in television and film to understand this point.

Dostoevsky weaves his narrative with expertise and intelligence yet there are moments when the book moves toward a heavy-handed didactic style.  His work frequently reads like an essay, in my opinion; especially during the first half of the novel.  Despite this, one leaves with the feeling that Dostoevsky was a man of many strongly-held opinions, and that he processed his thoughts rigorously before he reached them.  These tendencies may frame this work as too reflective for twenty-first century readers, but it is not without purpose that the author does this–his themes are far too expansive to be treated lightly, wants the reader to realize that the questions posed by his work are not solved by simple, grunting yeas and nays.

So, you may wonder if I even liked the book.  My answer to this is an adamant yes, but it was a challenge.  Once, in my early readings of the first few hundred pages, I described this book to a friend:  it seemed like a very long list for a shopper at a religious bookstore.  This was only partially in jest–it seems like this at times.  Yet Dostoevsky is not without its merits.  He develops his characters with acuity of a person who has spent years watching others, and not judging their actions, but discovering why they acted in certain ways. Dostoevsky is a forerunner of the Multiple Intelligences movement in vogue today.  One comes away from the novel sympathizing deeply for each of the characters and their struggles.  His narrative segments are, if nothing else, thought-provoking, and all the more meaningful to those who struggle with religious faith.

I recommend the book with the following proviso:  the reader should be ready to be challenged.  The narrative style is not for the faint-hearted, and Dostoevsky develops the plot at a snail’s pace.  If you are looking for excitement, or a quick thrill, or romance, this will not be the book for you.  Something more contemporary would probably be more to your appeal. But if you are looking for a beautiful and meticulously-constructed work that has maintained its appeal for 120 years, you should give The Brothers Karamazov a try.

Finally, I should mention something about translations.  Constance Garnett’s classic translation is widely available.  However, this translation is steeped in language that is, well, a century old, and may seem too stodgy for readers of today.  A far more readable translation is the more recent Pevear and Volokhonsky, which transforms many of the more archaic terms and metaphors.  I enjoyed the Audio Book version, by the way.  One can fade in and out, still catching the gist of the novel and its main characters.  It also allows you the luxury of reflecting on the work as it is being listened to, rather than become irritated by all the Russian names and their variations.  If you enjoy the kind of loftiness I described, and are not afraid to think about what you are reading, then read this book, by any means.  You may even find yourself, as I did, falling in love with a new author.

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One thought on “The Brothers Karamazov [Repost May 2003]”

  1. I finished it a couple years ago. I found it irritating, intriguing, fascinating and amazing, sometimes within the same pages. I think the picture of the Russian people as unpredictable and yet bound by the Orthodox church and its dogma particularly challenging.

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