Friday, March 30, 2012

Door Stop: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

You know I have to say it: this book is long. Like Les Miserables long. But it is so so worth it. I think this is the first extremely long door stop I ever read and I loved it. I had already read Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, and have since read Crime and Punishment as well as Notes from the Underground. Dostoyevsky is probably my favorite Russian writer, but what is interesting is how American readers seem to like him so much more than readers in his own country. I have heard that Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita) wasn't that big a fan and felt that Dostoyevsky has benefited from good translators. Either way, I have thoroughly enjoyed his work and think others should at least read Crime and Punishment.

The Situation: There is a lot going on in this book, so I'll try to keep it as short as possible. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons from two different marriages: The oldest is Dmitri from his first marriage; second is Ivan, the oldest from his second marriage; and finally there is Alexei, the youngest. There are rumors of another brother, Pavel, who grows up in the Karamazov house as a servant. The three main sons generally have grown apart from each other due to their father's disinterest in each of them, but aren't necessarily hostile towards each other. Alexei is the hero of the novel, and his faith is contrasted with Ivan's atheism. Dmitri and his father have the most volatile relationship, but Ivan isn't exactly winning father of the year from Ivan either. Alexei is by far the most likable of the four Karamazovs and pretty much everyone seems to like him. Things eventually come to a head between Dmitri and his father when it is discovered that they are both after the same woman. At one point, Dmitri enters his father's house, assaults him, and then threatens to come back later and finish him off. And this leads to....

The Problem: Fyodor is murdered, and Dmitri is the prime suspect and is arrested. A lengthy investigation and trial ensues in which Dmitri maintains his innocence and does what he can to keep from being sent to Siberia. But the circumstances surrounding the murder, including where Dmitri is seen that night and what he does admit to doing, do not help his case. Also, Ivan appears to be sliding deeper and deeper into madness. At one point he even hallucinates a conversation with the devil in which he is cruelly mocked. Alexei is the one son holding it together after losing his father and having to face the murder trial of his brother.

Genre, Theme, History: This Russian novel is full of drama and grief. Dostoyevsky was heavily influenced by the recent death of his three year-old son who dies of epilepsy. Also, while serving a sentence in prison, Dostoyevsky met three brothers who were somewhat similar to the three brothers in the novel. The three brothers committed a crime, and Dostoyevsky was quite taken with the sweetness and innocence of one of them, and I would assume he is the one Alexei is based on.

Although the three brother and their father are the focus of the story, Dostoyevsky makes many digressions and tells many side stories to express and explore the thoughts and lives of some of the more minor characters. Also, as Alexei is a part of the Russian Orthodox monastery, and Ivan is an atheist, there is of course much discussion about philosophy and religion. And despite all that happens, Alexei's faith seems to strengthen while Ivan's faith deteriorates and breaks down just as his mental state does the same.

My Verdict: This book is incredibly long, but it is incredibly worth it. Whether it is Dostoyevsky's writing or the skill of his translators, there is something about the way his stories are told that I find almost enchanting, especially despite the harsh setting they usually take place in and the lack of likability in most of his characters. Yes there are parts that drag, and yes there are parts that will make you want to reach for the abridged version (or just put the entire book down completely), but I suggest struggling through it. It is, however, one of those books you kind of have to be ready for...if that makes any sense.

Favorite Moment: This is a weird favorite moment, but for some reason I enjoyed the shock and doubt of the surrounding community after the beloved Elder Zosima has died and his body starts to deteriorate. Of course for us, we understand that is just what happens to a dead body. But the people of this town believe that a truly holy man's body would not start to decay...especially not as quickly as Elder Zosima's seemed to. Within the first day, the monk's body starts to smell and everyone, including Alexei, begin to doubt the man's holiness. For some reason I found that so entertaining...

Favorite Character: This one is hard for me because I want to say Alexei for obvious reasons, but at the same time I want to go with Ivan because I really felt bad for him when he started to go mad, and especially when he decides to do the right thing, but isn't sane enough to carry it out. Plus, I seem to have a thing for depressives...not sure what that is about.

Recommended Reading: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.  Honestly, this is the better book to start off with if you've never read any Dostoyevsky before. I still like The Brother's Karamazov the most, but Crime and Punishment is pretty thrilling. And bonus: it is also much much shorter.

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