Rick's Reviews > The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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's review
Dec 18, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: fiction

This is the first novel of Dostoevsky that I have read since the 1970s. The first novel I read back then was The Idiot, which I loved. I might have read one more before I took a summer course in the Russian author. As a history major it seemed a great way to use an elective to indulge my love of reading and have some required reading be much more of a joy than the required reading in history. In the few short weeks allotted to the summer term we were required to read Poor Folk, Notes from the Underground, The Double, The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov. It was a kind of lit-scholar boot camp and I hated it. By the time I got to Crime and Punishment I was woefully behind and the lectures were coming fast and furious, revealing plot, character, the symbolic significance of the color yellow, the meaning of cockroaches in a scene, and much, much more. I gave up the reading without finishing any of the major novels other than The Idiot, which still belonged to me. I am not even sure I ever began The Brothers Karamazov. All the others of Dostoevsky’s great works belonged to the professor, who may have been a great scholar but was not much of a teacher. After the experience I had an avoidance reflex that endured for three plus decades. In the meantime I read Tolstoy, Chekov, Pushkin, Solzhenitsyn, Akhmatova, Gogol, Bulgakov, Grossman and other Russian and Soviet writers, but not Dostoevsky.

After all that time I finally returned to Dostoevsky and with the superior translators Pevear and Volokhonsky at work, I found myself admiring The Brothers Karamazov but liking it less than I remember liking The Idiot or most of Tolstoy or Chekov. The book’s main characters are a disreputable father and three, maybe four, sons. The maybe is a nihilistic, manipulative servant, who does very much seem son to the father in his selfish and diabolical conniving. The three official sons, Ivan, Dimitri, and Alexie, represent extreme forms of types, the cynical rationalist, the emotional romantic, and the spiritual innocent. The Brothers Karamazov could be an extended allegory with Fyodor representing Old Russia and each of the Karamazov sons representing potential futures, with Alexie being the correct but unlikely answer to the question of Russia’s future, with the bastard son representing the false but likely answer.

Or the novel could just be a compelling drama of a train wreck of a family that tragically lived before the time of Jerry Springer and reality TV. The plot elements include: father and son engaged in a fierce but petty rivalry for a Russian Kardashian; the scorned fiancée of one brother pursued by another brother; religious rivalries between monks and elders in the Russian church; gambling debts and street violence, corrupt land deals, broken nobles, and suspect doctors and advisors to the wealthy.

Despite the distinct types among the sons, however, it seems that all major and many minor characters in Dostoevsky share a tendency to feverish outbursts of passionate excess. Dostoevsky does do madness better than any writer and generally there may not be a more psychologically insightful writer in prose or poetry. Because he pre-dates Freud and since so much of subsequent fiction has been influenced by him and this novel it is hard not be impressed and how he makes madness credible, irrational behavior rational in the minds of his characters. But it’s so universal a tendency that I grew weary of the characters, where pathos often dipped to bathos with people weeping with joy or sorrow, leaping to impulsive actions, reversing a conviction or a determination that may have been hours or a lifetime old. Reading The Brothers Karamazov didn’t make me want to take valium or Prozac or lithium but it sure made me want to prescribe it. Is everyone in 19th century Russia manic depressive or schizophrenic? As real as any individual moment, character, event might be, I still felt at novel’s end like the Woody Allen’s character in “Annie Hall” leaving Christopher Walken’s room, “I have to go now, Duane, because I’m due back on the planet earth.”
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Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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Tung Like your review, but disagree with the rating. I think Brothers Karamazov is his best work, despite my affection for Crime and Punishment and Idiot. Brothers is much deeper than any of his other stuff.

Rick Point taken. I have to catch up on him. I remember liking The Idiot a lot. I was impressed with The Brothers Karamazov but overall I didn't enjoy it all that much. Reading Tolstoy, I want to read more Tolstoy. After BK I'm ready to wait a bit before I take on another Dostoevsky. Not fond of the rating system generally but can't see giving a book a five because it's a masterpiece if I didn't enjoy the book. (See Ulysses and a few others.)

Tung Fair enough. Our enjoyment of the book should color our ratings. But (at least in my own ratings) I will give begrudging stars to books whose craftsmanship is clear no matter my level of enjoyment. I had to give Midnight's Children five stars despite my having enjoyed other books far more.

Rick Think you're probably right--though I think Midnight's Children over-rated myself so I wouldn't fret a parsity of stars for it; there were many reasons why I was mad at the fatwa against Rushdie after Satanic Verses came out, most were noble but one was petty: I had to buy Satanic Verses and read it as a protest against the fatwa. However, I was impressed with Karamazov in many places and really just struggled with a commonality of emotionalism, generally with some or occasionally with other, in its characters. so I'll fix my rating, Dr. Le.

Tung I'm not sure what you'd do without me. Keep improperly evaluating books, I guess.

Rick Well, Tung, that's not just my question to ponder, but the world's.

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