Contrary to widespread rumor, this is a far from bleak book. While every character has his or her own misery, and it all takes place in a place calledContrary to widespread rumor, this is a far from bleak book. While every character has his or her own misery, and it all takes place in a place called something like "cattle-roundup-ville", the moments of religious ecstasy and moral clarity are heartbreaking in their frequency - it's hard not to wish that one had such bizarre events going on around one in order to prompt such lofty oratory.
The story involves Ivan, Dmitri, Alyosha, and Smerdyakov, four brothers with a rich but notoriously lecherous father, Fyodor. All four brothers were raised by others, Fyodor having essentially ignored them until others removed them from his care. In the beginning of the book, Alyosha is in the monastery, studying under a famous elder name Father Zosima; Dmitri has just left the army and stolen a large sum of money from a government official's daughter, who he has also apparently seduced, all while pursuing a lawsuit against Fyodor for his inheritance and canoodling with his own father's intended, the local seductress Grushenka; Ivan, the intellectual in the family, has just returned from (I think) Petersburg. Dmitri is violent and impulsive, referring to himself as an "insect," and gets into fistfights with Fyodor several times. Smerdyakov works for Fyodor as a lackey, having gone to France to learn to cook at some point in the past. It's unimaginably more complicated and digressive than all this, and just trying to follow this crucial sum of three thousand rubles through the story is almost impossible. But anyway, Fyodor is killed and much of the book hinges on which brother killed him and why.
When I first read this book in high school, my teacher (who was a devout Catholic, a red-faced drunk who wore sunglasses to class, and the most enthusiastic reader of Russian literature imaginable) asked everyone who their favorite brother was. Was it Ivan, the tortured skeptic? Dmitri, the "scoundrel" who tortures himself for every wrong he commits but can't help committing more? Or Alyosha, the saintly one who always knows the right thing to say? (Certainly Smerdyakov is no one's favorite.) At the time I went with Ivan - I was in high school, after all, and his atheism and pessimism were revolutionary to me.
But now Ivan seems rather selfish and callow, and I can't help siding with Dmitri, the one Dostoevsky uses almost as a case history of conscience. Like Shakespeare, Dostoevsky gives his characters all the space to talk like gods, clearing pages upon pages for their reasoning and dialog. Dmitri fumbles with Voltaire and is clearly not overly literate, but in some ways that's apropos, because his main problem is the constant internal conflict between his desires and his ethics which is only partly resolved when he chooses to become responsible for not only what he does, but also what he wants.
The most famous passage in the book, Ivan's tale of the Grand Inquisitor, is, to me, far less interesting than Zosima's meditations on the conflict between justice and the collective good. The elder Zosima is a kind of Christian socialist who grapples with the typical mid-19th century Russian issues of how to build a equitable society without the extremes of coercion that the Tsar used to turn to, while also ensuring public morality and avoiding the kind of massacres that characterized the French Revolution (an event that seems to have been even more traumatizing for Russians than it was to the French due to the enormous cultural influence France had there at the time.) Zosima's answer is unworkable and in some ways naiive, but the discussion is well worth it, moreso than Ivan's somewhat simplistic dualism of Christ vs. the Inquisitor. Dostoevsky was a cultural conservative in the sense that he was constantly renewing his commitment to the obligations imposed on Russians by the Orthodox Church. At the same time, he was committed to the pursuit of joy through kindness and community and a kind of interpersonal fair dealing in a way that transcends his political concerns and is inspiring to see articulated in the lives of people who are as confused as the rest of us.
It's a huge, messy book, but so worth the effort. It took me about three months to read carefully, though my reading has been flagging lately, as well. I read this while listening to Hubert Dreyfus's accompanying lectures at Stanford on existentialism and this book which are available on iTunes U, and even when I felt his readings overreached, it was a good way to reread a tough and subtle work like this. ...more
What I find most objectionable about this book is its apparent lack of editing. Half the novel consists of people panicking over the phone about otherWhat I find most objectionable about this book is its apparent lack of editing. Half the novel consists of people panicking over the phone about other phone conversations other people have had about people getting on and off trains who are the children of WHO CARES. Willis has no sense of perspective, no skill for inventing the suggestive detail; consequently, this novel is a monument to the gods of boredom. This on top of the implausible premise that if time travel were available as a technology, historians would have a monopoly on its use. I have found in my travels that most historians are much better at infighting than they are at obtaining control of proprietary technologies. More red herring than a Norwegian fishing boat, it's like a Clan McGuffin family reunion. Totally useless....more
This might be my favorite novel. I read it over the course of around three months, on my fourth attempt, when I was living in Tallinn, Estonia. SomethThis might be my favorite novel. I read it over the course of around three months, on my fourth attempt, when I was living in Tallinn, Estonia. Something about residence in a very small European country heightens one's sense of the absurd. I would bring it to lunch at the bars where I dined and start crying into my club sandwich when the book was sad and laughing into my kebabs when it was funny (which is nearly always) and there are a lot of bartenders who probably thought I was crazy.
The first rule of Gravity's Rainbow is you do not talk about Gravity's Rainbow. Just read it and don't worry about all the things you don't get. You could spend the rest of your life in graduate school of various sorts and not be as smart as Thomas Ruggles Pynchon, so don't sweat it.
There are swaths of this book that I definitely don't get. Pointsman, the psychologist? Didn't get it. Tchitcherine? Didn't get him, as a character, didn't understand why he did what he did, almost ever. But hidden inside all the dross is literature of unparalleled terror and beauty: the chapter in the very middle of the book about Pokler and his daughter, which left me literally bawling in public, the only time I can think of I've ever done that. Oddly, the description of U-boat latrines. The dejected Slothrop wandering Germany in a pig suit. Pirate Prentice's romance. The overgrown adenoid that invades London. The dogs grown intelligent. The sad allusions to Webern's death. The notorious scat sequence that people get all worked up over. The Proverbs for Paranoids interspersed throughout ("You will not touch the Master, but you may tickle his creatures..."). Blicero's carnival of torture, better than anything Gonzalez could devise, and more honest, too.
Gravity's Rainbow is a quick guide to all the ways you could have lived your life but did not; all the injustices you have not had to face; all the ridiculous theories of the afterlife you can't bear to accept. It teaches you how to read itself. It's been copied relentlessly, by Trainspotting and Kurt Cobain and reading it means there's a certain voice that will inhabit your brain forever. It's like going on Samhain vacation from reality with nothing but a crate of bananas and a load of S&M. Caveat emptor....more
Need to reread this to find out whether Vronsky is less smugly obnoxious than Levin or more obnoxious. I liked Levin better when I read it in high schNeed to reread this to find out whether Vronsky is less smugly obnoxious than Levin or more obnoxious. I liked Levin better when I read it in high school....more
I liked this a lot when I read it, but Byatt's obsession with epistemology and academic bickering seems petty and uninteresting in retrospect. I'm notI liked this a lot when I read it, but Byatt's obsession with epistemology and academic bickering seems petty and uninteresting in retrospect. I'm not sure I'd want to reread it....more
My friend Stuart's reading this and I stupidly started spoiling one of the best lines in the book (it pops up as Shaftoe's motto) and he was mildly irMy friend Stuart's reading this and I stupidly started spoiling one of the best lines in the book (it pops up as Shaftoe's motto) and he was mildly irritated with me. Fortunately for him, he is vastly smarter than me so while he was quite generously acting annoyed he was probably thinking to himself, "Maybe one day I will spoil math and engineering and the details of Riemann zeta functions for Conrad." Now I'm rereading it out of sympathy and it's even better than I remembered.
Anyway, while I haven't yet approached the implosion that I know is coming toward the end, I am really even more impressed at the catholicity of Stephenson's concerns than I was the first time I read the book. He has insightful things to say about information theory, natch, but also Tolkein, postmodern literary criticism (OK, he's a little reactionary about this, but he's also right), the wisdom of joining the Marines, childrearing, Filipino architecture and urban planning, facial hair (can you tell I love Randy's diatribes about Charlene?), Ronald Reagan, the assassination of Yamamoto and associated dilemmas of cryptanalysis, Papuan eating habits, the 90s networking bubble...
If you don't like writers who have something interesting to say about everything, I don't know why you read. If it bothers you that Neal Stephenson uses his characters as mouthpieces to voice his well-considered opinions on everything from the prospects of economic growth measured against the likelihood of revolution in the Philippines, for example, to the details of Japanese tunneldigging, then you might as well settle in with your Danielle Steele and be done with it. Stephenson knows a lot about everything, and that's unusual and should be treasured. As a stylist, he's no Hemingway. His stories have beginnings and middles but the ends are usually catastrophically bad. So what? He reveals enough about his subjects that you usually leave his books behind with the feeling that your brain is now fused in a slightly different way. And good for Neal Stephenson, and good for us....more
Neither a good book nor anywhere near as bad as its detractors suggest, this was a self-involved stopgap, a roman a clef by a man whose own life is alNeither a good book nor anywhere near as bad as its detractors suggest, this was a self-involved stopgap, a roman a clef by a man whose own life is almost as interesting as he thinks....more