Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

So I found a copy and bought it. This review isn't going to do it justice, but what the hell. Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha are the brothers Karamazov in question. Their father, Fyodor, is a selfish ass who has been largely absent for their entire lives, and is really only concerned with hoarding wealth for his own pleasure. At the time the book starts, Dmitri insists his father is withholding some of his inheritance, although most likely Dmitri has pissed it all away, and will do so with any other funds he can cajole out of his dad. And the two of them are both pursuing the same woman, Grushenka, who is amusing herself leading them both around by the nose. Ivan has his own interests in the situation, related to Dmitri's fiance (who is not Grushenka), and Alyosha is trying to build bridges as fast as the others burn them. Then Fyodor is killed, and things go from there. There's a lot more going on, conflicts between tradition and encroaching Western European liberalism, good vs. evil, kids struggling to understand the world they're entering, but those are some of the major stuff that runs through the whole book.

One critical factor I'd forgotten in my desire to read The Brothers Karamazov was how damn long-winded 19th Century writers are. Never say in 10 words what they can say in 150. Much of the time, Dostoyevsky is a good enough, engaging enough writer I didn't notice. But there were times when it was a slog. Most of them involved either Dmitri or Madame Hohlakov, the characters with more disorderly minds. They say they need to tell Alyosha something, and 5, 10 pages later, they still haven't gotten to it, because they've wandered off on every single tangent they can conceive of. Maybe this is a normal thing for people to do, if they're trying to tap dance around something unpleasant, but it's not been my experience, if only because most people won't sit there and listen to someone blather after they said they had important things to discuss. Maybe it was different in 19th Century Russia.

Because I was generally very impressed with the characters Dostoyevsky writes. The range of actions both good and ill characters were capable of felt true. Ivan's ability to put a plan in motion to save his worthless brother, adhering to a sense of morality he claimed not to believe in, and thus loathing himself for doing it, or the awful glee the other members of the monastery took in Father Zossima's corpse beginning to smell shortly after his passing, or Fyodor Karamazov being deliberately offensive as some way of perversely maintaining his pride. Ivan's actions in particular struck home, since there are times I feel like that when I'm doing something good I'd rather not be. Rakitin with his sneering cynicism that makes him want to show everyone else is like him, and Lise struggling to figure out things about the world and its rules, were both intriguing in their own ways. I'd have liked to see more of them. There's a lot that felt genuine, and that helped drive me forward through some of the more exhausting parts.

In the foreword, Manuel Komroff talks about how the story is about which is stronger, the God or the Devil, based on what's in humanity's souls. I feel Dostoyevsky favors God, but that it requires effort by people. They can easily be evil, and its afterward they see what they've done and feel regret, and then takes steps to make amends. I'd agree with that, but I think I'm less optimistic about people making that effort. In the case of this story, I'd need to see Dmitri actually change, or for Kolya to not try to hide his true feelings behind his affected air of indifference. What we get is a lot of promises to be different, be better and more loving, but there's no telling if those will be carried out, or thrown aside like your typical New Year's Resolution. I might believe it in Kolya; the loss of Ilusha seemed deeply affecting. I don't buy it in Dmitri. I expect him to revert to old patterns just as soon as he manages to settle somewhere. He could end up like Father Zossima, who changed his outlook on things entirely after foolishly challenging someone to a duel over a woman who didn't love him, and didn't even know he loved her, but again, I don't think it's likely.

I had a very different reaction to Katerina's character than I think I was supposed to. The story, often through Alyosha, but not always, reproaches Katerina for some of her actions towards Dmitri. Certainly about her producing that letter Dmitri wrote about how he'd kill his father to get her the money he owed at Dmitri's trial where he stood accused of murdering his father. But also, that it was wrong of her to give him the three thousand as a test, to see if he truly cared for her or was just using her as a sugar mama. The argument seems to be Katerina was only engaged to Dmitri as a way of punishing herself/fulfilling a martyr complex, and giving him this money to send to her relative for her was just one more act in that whole thing. That she knew he'd spend it on Grushenka, and then she could feel superior for sticking with him. Which yes, is not a great thing to do, but Dmitri still had the option to surprise her. Actually send the money off, rather than spending it. He chose not to, whatever his protestations that's he a scoundrel but not a thief because he only blew half of it. But I've said before I don't side with people who are unfaithful, and that's Dmitri. I have little to no sympathy for him on that score, and a fair amount for Katerina. Dmitri's a bum, who's had opportunities, and consistently pisses them away by emulating his father and only being concerned with his own pleasures. Which is why it's difficult for me to believe he'll actually change as he claims.

Dostoyevsky has Ivan assert there is no God, and thus all things are lawful. It's later revealed that Ivan doesn't want to believe this, but has seen too much of the world to buy into the idea of God. Which might be why I identify with Ivan so much, but I guess I reject the notion morality is derived from God. As though a person can't decide to help people, or not hurt others, without buying into God. Maybe the argument is meant to be that, if you perform good acts, you are doing God's will, whether you recognize it or not. But in that case, Ivan could surely justify his actions to himself on some other grounds, and avert the conflict that is raging inside him.

There's a lot I'm not getting into sufficiently here. I haven't spoken much of Grushenka. I understand why she acts as she does - in a certain way, she's like Dmitri's father, behaving in certain ways to shock and offend people who look down on her anyway, so at least she can feel she's in control of the situation - and I can respect her intelligence, but I don't know if I'm on her side, as the writer of the afterword asserts. I don't know if the book lived up to my expectations, because I'm not sure what I expected of it. I mostly enjoyed it, though I could have done with certain sections being trimmed or removed entirely. I'd still recommend it, assuming it sounded at all interesting to you based on this.

'"Ivan will either rise up in the light of truth, or. . . he'll perish in hate, revenging on himself and on everyone his having served a cause he does not believe in," Alyosha added bitterly.'

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