Call me a philistine, but I have never “got” Dostoevsky or understood his exalted place in the canon. I did almost certainly read Crime and Punishment when I was too young (i.e. 17) and I did lack a patient teacher to guide me through, but the elephantine tome mostly irritated me. Excluding the very fine first part leading up to the titular crime and the inspector's interviews with Raskolnikov which were attempts to produce a punishment, Crime was, for me, nothing more than some annoying guy changing his mind about whether to confess or not. He does it a lot. Sometimes several times within a single page, and that gets old when the book pushes 700 pages. Still, when Demetra brought along Dostoevsky's final work, The Brothers Karamazov, to Nakuru, I figured I ought to give him another shot. It was either that or read David Foster Wallace again. A month later, I can pretty safely say that I won't be reading The Idiot until the memories of Brothers fade.
That I didn't like Brothers is not to say that I didn't respect it. I do. It's an incredibly ambitious work. Its themes of good and evil and love and family and God and all the rest are more than relevant, and Dostoevsky's intelligent, sensitive treatment of them is original and has lost no urgency in the century since the book's publication. His portrayal of the devil as a “poor relative” is brilliant. Some of the stories contained within, like that of Zossima's conversion, are wonderful. It's just that these parts are not the whole. In between them are a lot of extended, boring monologues. Brothers would have been so much better without those. In fact, if Dostoevsky just dropped the narrative entirely and turned those best parts into short stories and essays, he would rise so much in my estimation. Ivan and Zossima's chapters of speeches are basically those already. Instead, he just has to keep writing and writing. And writing. And then throwing a few more words on the paper for good measure, just in case.
In the back of this Barnes & Noble Classics edition are a selection of quotes regarding Brothers, and one is from Nietzsche. It goes something like “Dostoevsky [is] the only psychologist, incidentally, from whom I had something to learn; he ranks among the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life.” I have a friend who agrees with this. I do not understand that at all. The allure of psychology, to me at least, has always been about has always been its mysteries and those parts which are beyond explanation. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, cannot help himself but to explain everything he mentions. Characters explain their motivations in depth and with complete honesty. Every character, no matter how minor, has a full background that does far more than drop hints as to the reasons for their present actions and feelings. Good grief, the writer can't even keep a secret for more than a chapter. I understand that he needs something to keep the readers engaged and eager for the next issue when the book is being published serially, but when the accused Dmitri reveals that one thing he promises to never reveal after just a chapter, it gets stupid immediately. In turn, the characters are boring. How could they be otherwise when everything about them is laid out, all neat and tidy, on the table? The whole psychology angle would also make a lot more sense to me if the characters actually acted like people and did things. Instead, they spend most of their time talking about themselves and their ideas. I guess this was before the concept of “Show, don't tell” was developed.
I want to like Brothers. I want to be cultured enough to honestly enjoy one of the medium's masters, but it is not happening on my ownsome. If you violently disagree and believe that I've lost the forest for the trees, please let me know. It's one of the less fun parts of being away from university. There aren't a terrible lot of people within walking distance to have this discussion with. Thank goodness then for the Internet.
2 years ago