Szplug's Reviews > The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
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Feb 07, 2010

it was amazing

Dostoevsky's crowning achievement, although not my personal favourite amongst his impressive body of work. TBK has pretty much everything required of a five-star paper city: superb characterization, psychological depth and insight; intrigue, murder, and suspense; great daubs of humor, both madcap broadsides and satirical with a capital slice; that never-ending, cyclonical struggle between faith and reason; a sublimely Slavic melange of love, lust, deception, betrayal, violence, flight, revenge, apostasy, and redemption—capped off by a court trial scene that overrules Perry Mason and, in the renowned chapter The Grand Inquisitor, a full-court press by an impassioned Hierarch against Jesus' abandonment of mankind to a terrifying freedom and overwhelming spiritual responsibility it neither wanted nor could manage that alone is worth the price of the book.

I read TBK a long time ago—I remember at the time that, of the brothers, I really liked Dmitry and Ivan (though the latter desperately needed to get his shit seriously together) but thought that Alyosha was an ineffectual, puling wimp. Indeed, for a long time I held that Alyosha was an exemplar of all that really irked me about Christianity: the contemptible weakness; the refusal to take action against evil and injustice beyond caviling admonitions and finger-wagging; the abandonment of the material world to the strong and virile in the hopes of a milquetoast happiness in a Hallmark Card afterlife. Now that I've aged and become less smug and certain in virtually the entirety of my beliefs, I feel I've managed to come around and see Alyosha in a different light: his Christianity is one that is a life of self-example, not external action or interference. Alyosha's patient, encouraging cheer and smiling innocence, a refusal to take sides against his brothers stems from his certainty that when faith seeks to overpower evil, malice, and injustice through material struggle, the outcomes inevitably become tainted, producing results that are turned away from Christ's message. Whether the Crusades, the Inquisition, pogroms, the burning of heretics, the enforced recantations of perceived truth: when the spiritual avails itself of secular tools to right a wrong, the ends will wind up resembling the means—and bloodshed beget bloodshed, justice be bent into vengeance, law twist into tyranny, belief swell into righteousness. There is an earthy, practical wisdom to Alyosha's inaction and calm steadfastness, his sorely tried faith, a path that leads, by incremental steps, to a spiritual betterment that will perhaps endure, and prove more effective, than bold efforts to right the many wrongs he has witnessed and held silent upon. This is the banal reward, the patient strength of the Christian faith lived as a model for the community—not something to work toward, but to accept—that I never could understand, grasp, or respect back when I misunderstood what Dostoevsky must have intended for Alyosha to represent: a way for Russian Orthodoxy to exist as a moral and spiritual tether for the populace within a rapidly encroaching modernity that would neither become a weak tea of ritualized, token affirmation nor an oppressive weight borne down by autocratic or democratic power that would debase and decay religion into something ugly and twisted. With modernity unfolding the way it did, this was an immensely unrealistic hope—and perhaps undesireable for Russia in any event; but as far as utopian wishes go, you could do worse than dream as Dostoevsky did. Of course, I am well aware that this reinterpretation could be completely off the mark, revealing me as one cluelessly skipping through fields of happy horseshit, regularly wafting aloft shimmery bubbles of shallow adjectival arglebargle as is my wont— but whatever the actuality behind my revised estimation, Alyosha now no longer ranks well below Mitya and Vanya.

There are many translations now available—I read the one by Andrew MacAndrew, and while I have no idea how faithful to the acerbic Russian he remained, the resulting English was more-or-less flawless. I always keep an eye open for a second-hand copy of the newer—and much lauded—translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, but until then I remain more than happy to occasionally return to favorite passages scattered throughout in the warm and vibrant English rendered by the good Mr. MacAndrew.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by MJ (new) - rated it 5 stars

MJ Nicholls Brilliant. The translation by Ignat Avsey (OUP) is pretty gruesome... always good to go with Pevear & Mrs. Pevear.


message 2: by Szplug (last edited Jul 13, 2011 12:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug MJ: Thanks! I've read both good and bad about Avsey, in roughly equal measure—but virtually only good about P/V, so that's the one I'll go with, if and when it makes a second-hand appearance. Truth be told, though, I've no problem at all with MacAndrew—I'm just curious to see if the P/V version lives up to the hype.

Bennet : Thanks, Bennet. It was actually your review, which I read yesterday, that sparked me to dig up my old effort and give it a dusting. I've not encountered many who've come to TBK via the MacAndrew translation, so it's doubly nice to find another who not only read it, but thought it was grand. :)


David Great review, Chris. When I read The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha was immediately my favorite (and Dmitry was my least favorite). It's been so long now that I couldn't tell you why, and it's probably odd since I am an agnostic.

You said this wasn't your favorite Dostoevsky. I'm curious: Which one is? Mine is Crime and Punishment, but this one's a close second... and I don't think any Dostoevsky novel deserves fewer than four stars.


message 4: by Szplug (last edited Jul 15, 2011 03:22PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Szplug Thanks, David. I'm an agnostic too, and I immediately liked Dmitry the most and Alyosha the least; so what we have here, clearly, is a case of great minds thinking reversely alike.

My favorite novel by the Big D is The Idiot—with TBK right behind—which I read in the Magarshack translation; curiously enough, I didn't care much for the latter's interpretation of Crime and Punishment. I think that my favorite thing Dostoyevsky wrote, however, might be A Nasty Story, which made me squirm for poor old, well-meaning Ivan, even while I was laughing out loud.


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