Friday, October 27, 2006

Review: The Brothers Karamazov

The Brothers Karamazov - considered by many to be Dostoevsky's greatest work, the novel is epic in proportion and demanding in its message. The book is a massive text, covering some 776 pages in my edition, putting it well over 400,000 words - perhaps closer to a half million. The text is demanding, requiring a level of literary sophistication and a willingness to persevere that are perhaps less common today than they were when the book was written in the latter years of the 1870's (it appeared first in serial form in Russia; Dostoevsky began work on it in 1878 and it's publication was completed in 1880). This is not to say that the reading is difficult - though long, and occasionally a bit laborious (one particular section of narrative midway through the novel comes to mind) - it continually holds the reader's attention. Given that this is a massive novel in which the central event occurs only after 400 pages of exposition and gradually rising action, this is no small feat. Such is the inventiveness of the prose and the quality of Dostoevsky's narrative, though. The pacing is phenomenal: while at times one hungers for the central moment of the book to come sooner, it is all the more delicious for having waited for it, having savored the growing tension in the setting, in the characters, and in the situations. There is a reason that The Brothers Karamazov has taken a place as one of the greatest works of literature in history.

The Brothers Karamazov is in some ways similar to one of Dostoevsky's earlier works, his only slightly less renowned Crime and Punishment. Both novels follow the course of men who plot, commit, and then suffer the grave consequences of murder. The similarity between the novels extends to Dostoevsky's prose, which is equally compelling in both texts, particularly with his emphasis on the psychological elements inherent in each case. There the similarities end, though. For in Crime and Punishment, the protagonist and really the only figure of the novel is the tragic Raskolnikov, whose rejection of traditional (Biblical) morality leads to his murder, and thence to a downward spiral culminating in an ultimate moment of choice, where at last he confesses his sin and sets out on the path to redemption via temporal punishment in Russia and eternal salvation in Christ. In The Brothers Karamazov, the accused did not even commit the murder; nor is he the protagonist (though he is certainly the central figure of the novel). In his final work, Dostoevsky follows Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov through the events as they occur; it is his father who is murdered, one of his brothers who is accused of murder, and the other of his brothers who ultimately helps sharpen the situation to a point where murder could occur. Crime and Punishment was a spartan affair, with little love to darken the recesses of Raskolnikov's mind. The Brothers Karamazov, on the other hand, is full of fiery passions and love triangles which drive the brothers and their father to ruin. Not one nor even two love triangles exist, but three, causing tension between all three of the eldest Karamazovs - Alexei's elder brothers and his father being the three men involved in the triangles - and causing havoc for Alexei as well. Crime and Punishment was about the murder of an old defenseless woman, at least on the surface. The Brothers Karamazov is about a parricide, at least on the surface. Underlying the texts, however, are deep and compelling themes of faith, love, and spirituality. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky tackled the fundamental questions of the meaningfulness of faith in a modern world. His answer is a resounding affirmation that faith not only retains a place in modernity, but is essential to understanding and coping with the struggles caused by modernism's influence. In what proved to be a spectacularly visionary moment, he foresaw - and argued against - the postmodern ideologies that would be birthed and come to prominence only half a century after his death.

The narrative is broken into four sections. The first essentially functions as exposition of setting, characters, and the underlying mechanisms of the plot, as well as laying the foundations for the thematic development of each of the actors in the dramatic script. The second part includes most of the rising action, detailing the stormy affairs of the family Karamazov and setting each of the characters out along their respective arcs. The third part comprises the climax and the beginning of the falling action. Unsurprisingly, part four follows the falling action into a denouement, which is concluded in a brief epilogue. That Dostoevsky intended the work to be merely the first part in an epic saga is clear from this ending: while all the major plot and character lines are sufficiently resolved as to allow satisfaction, there is clearly more to be told, in both plot and character development. Stylistically, this is Dostoevsky's most bombastic work - for all that the subject matter is extremely heavy, and that the prose is thick, the novel is nevertheless full of its own grandeur, and simultaneously aware of its inherent inability to capture all of Dostoevsky's intended nuance. His narrator is just that - a third-person omniscient narrator who observed all the events, and chooses to record some in some ways, and other in other ways. The narrator himself has any number of idiosyncrasies, as do each of the characters, in their mode of speech, from which entire theses could be constructed with little difficulty. This narrator consistently comments on his own inability to tell the story properly, or indicates that he would bore his audience by committing to paper the particular details at hand, or even claims to have forgotten the particulars of the events in question. While this takes some adjustment initially, the voicing ultimately results in a certain personality and brilliance to the text that would be otherwise missing.

The book clearly advocates a Christian understanding of the world. Dostoevsky's experiences in wrestling with his own Christianity come through loud and clear in the various characters of Alexei Karamazov's father and brothers, who each embody a particular rejection of Christian truth (while Alexei himself remains ever true, despite his own struggles with doubts). This alone recommends the book, but far more compelling than Dostoevsky's affirmation of Christianity is that his art is so high that it commends the reader to Christianity while rarely straying into the realm of the didactic. Indeed, more often do the anti-Christian characters preach about the follies of believing than do the Christians about the virtues of faith. Yet through the course of the narrative, Dostoevsky makes clear which side has the ultimate hold on truth. In one particularly enlightening conversation between one of Alexei's brothers and the devil, Dostoevsky wittily (and apparently somewhat presciently) skewers the follies of moral relativism and postmodern thought, though they would not appear at all for a few decades and would not come into vogue until the advent of dada and deconstructionism in the 1920's - much less take hold as they would in the 1960's, nearly a century after Dostoevsky's writing. Such merits easily outweigh the few demerits of the text. Dostoevsky does occasionally veer off into thoroughly unnecessary details (though he certainly never gets so caught up in them as others [cf. Victor Hugo] have done), and at times his narrative loses its underlying coherency, but within 20 or 25 pages he quickly gets back on track. Even these sections have something to contribute, but they lack the finesse and thematic motion that the rest of the text so effortlessly conveys. It speaks highly of the book that the only demerits are such only in contrast with the brilliance of the rest of the text.

In short, The Brothers Karamazov was well-worth reading, and I give it my highest recommendation. Get the translation I just finished - by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky - as it does the best job of any I've found of capturing the nuance of Dostoevsky's original text in the transition to English. Take one Christmas or summer break and dedicate yourself to it; it will be more than worth the effort. As a work of literature, it is unparalleled in my reading. As a work of art, it is matched only by the grandeurs of the greatest of paintings, symphonies, etc. As a testament to Christianity's resolute answer to the challenges of secularism, it is surpassed only by Scripture and a few instances of brilliance in non-fiction. This book ought to be required reading in every high school in the nation.

- Chris

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