Thursday, October 22

Considering The Brothers Karamazov

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.


Emmett said...

Wow. This is a little bit of a throw-down, isn't it? As a point of fact, I don't think Dostoevski's place in the canon is at all exalted. It has certainly gone down from its high point immediately after Nietzsche's opinion of it became wide-spread. A lot of reputable critics (Harold Bloom comes to mind) think of him almost exactly as you do, both the points you respect and the points you attack.

At the same time, you pointed out many of the things that I like most about Dostoevski's work: his intricate and subtle portrayal of grand themes, his stories. As I read it, you and I disagree on three points: the acceptance of the wordiness of D's writing; the psychology of his writing; and the separate but related issue of his boring characters.

For the first I must beg some historical charitableness. You mention the serial character of this novel but only in relation to its dramatic effect. Serialization, though, had far more wide-ranging effects than shaping dramatic tension. It basically gave the author a soap-box to stand on: the result can be self-indulgent wordiness. This wasn't just Dostoevski; it was Tolstoi, writing a philosophy of history alongside a novel in War and Peace; it was Hugo, veering off the narrative to write 100 pages on the battle of Waterloo, the last half-page of which has something to do with the story. In Dostoevski, as with Dickens, it becomes psychological analysis which veers off the narrative. If you find fault with the wordiness, it is not Dostoevski but the nineteenth century serial-novel that you attack, a horse of an entirely different color and something which I will join you in pointing out its faults.

Second, his psychology. You say the allure of psychology is in its mystery and ineffable quality. If this is truly the case, then there can't be a character in a novel who is portrayed psychologically well for you - you might search instead for character in poetry and its extra-linguistic senses, but not a prose novel. Moreover, the idea of psychology being a mystery leads back to Freud (and some others before him, like Schopenhauer) and the unconscious that only speaks to us through analogy and symbol. Dostoevski was pre-Freudian and couldn't have had such an account of psychology. When I say that Raskalnikov, who I think is the greatest of D's characters, is psychologically profound it is because every decision - yes, every one of the hundreds of times he changes his mind - has a reason for it. When Dmitri says he's never going to reveal his secret, he meant it; when he revealed it he also had his reasons.

Now, what sets D apart from so many others is the complexity of those reasons. They may be entirely rational. They may be emotional. They may, at times, be mystical. They are affected by alcohol, or by a meeting with a loved one, or by a myriad of other things. It is true that there is one emotion that he keeps coming back to, and that is shame; but that is because his characters are generally bad people, or at least very sensitive people who do bad things.

Emmett said...


This leads into their 'boringness': many of D's characters are very, very self-aware, even those who may not appear to be so on the surface. On the other hand you may be attributing a sense of realism to D that is a matter of taste rather than of actual import. It is true that realistic books today have a lot of action - I mean, the plot progresses through events. But that doesn't have to be the case. Look at Jane Austen: basically nothing happens. In P&P Elizabeth visits Pemberly; otherwise the whole rest of the time is taken up by sitting around and talking. In Persuasion, the sister injures herself at Bath: before and after, talking. Of course these events are crucial to the plot, but so too are the murders of Lizavetta and her sister and the elder Karamazov in C&P and Brothers, respectively; and then everyone goes around talking about them, and all the things implied by them, the retreat from God, etc.

You say the psychology angle would mean more if his characters 'actually acted like people and did things'. But that isn't quite right. People do spend most of their time thinking about and talking about what they're going to do rather than doing it; and they analyze it over and over again in a frankly boring way, if (and this is an important if) someone was looking at it from the outside and that someone was not invested in the outcome of that character. You will probably say here that D gives us no reason to be invested in the character, but I would argue instead that these characters are complex enough and real enough that you can easily identify with them. They are tragic figures, and they play off each other so well: Ivan and Alyosha, or Raskalnikov and Sofia, not to mention Rask. and the inspector. You can get into the relationships even if you can't identify with the character per se.

As I read it, you have the hardest time with the with the fact that D's writing is not shaped the same as most good modern writing, and is in fact shaped rather like some bad modern writing: long winded, winding away from the plot, convoluted characters. But I would suggest some charity in regards both to what D was trying to do with his writing, and the medium in which he produced it.

I'd suggest going to his short stories, which are far more digestible: Notes from the Underground is the classic, but An Honest Thief is also good, as are White Nights, The Peasant Marey, and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man. I might also suggest going back to C&P since it is more accessible than Brothers and you do have 5 years maturity away from that bad first reading.

And if this doesn't persuade you, don't worry about being a philistine: you are not. There's not actually a transcendent canon of great authors. Disagreement is a good thing.

Emmi said...

Chris, do you ever make it into Nairobi? I have a friend of a friend who travels there occasionally for business, and if nothing else, you'd probably enjoy chatting with him, as he's originally from Munich. As I don't see him often, I don't know when he'll be back next, but let me know if it's possible, and I can contact him.

I hope you're doing well!

PS-Dostoevsky is not one of my favorites either.

Chris said...

I will grant Emmett's request for historical charity though it smacks of that accursed postmodernism. It is very true that our mediums have both liberating and constricting powers. It always good to be aware of them.

However, I still dispute your point on psychology. Perhaps "mystery" and "ineffable" are the wrong words. "Inscrutable" might be more appropriate. I do not question that there are always reasons for what we do, but I do question if we can ever really know our motives. I admit that we do spend a ridiculous amount of our lives talking about things that are happening, have happened or will happen, but we very rarely find any certain answers. To make an example of a character I'm personally not that impressed by but is very not modern, consider Iago. He gives a multitude of reasons for his hatred of Othello. Whether any of them are really right is still up for question though. In contrast, Dostoevsky's characters present their motivations so clearly and definitively that I find it impossible to doubt them. They are always honest, even Fyodor Pavlovitch, an admitted buffoon and ruffian. The characters become a lecture rather than a journey of discovery. This is boring.

A riposte?

Emmett said...

It is true that there is very little in the way of development in D's characters; none really change over the course of his stories. In that sense I can see how they might become tiresome, as they are already aware and able to recognize what drives them.

On the other hand, you could go too far the other direction. I remember reading Sartre's Nausea and thinking that everything the main character did was arbitrary and unreasonable, in the sense that there was no reason for him to do one thing or another. Camus' Stranger, too, now that I think about it. As existentialists they have a philosophical reason for it, but then, one might argue, so does Dostoevski.

Whether or not he goes too far in that direction is of course a judgment call and up to one's individual taste.

Mark said...

Heh, I have nothing real to add to this discussion...

except for KREMMETT!!!