Friday, 20 June 2008

Review - The Brothers Karamazov

A character in ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ claims that Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ contains everything there is to know about life. While it may not reach that lofty goal, it’s still amazingly insightful.

Sometimes it seems that there’s a prejudice-without-a-name that people participate in: the irrational belief that people in the past were stupider or generally less knowledgeable than we are now. Looking down on people from the past as ‘simple people’ from ‘simpler times’. It could be called timeism or pastism. Anyway, it’s a tendency to see people up to a hundred years ago as being less intellectually sophisticated than humans are now. This is of course absurd because people were, are, and always will be, idiots.

One only has to read a novel like ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ to see that timeism can be wrong in certain exceptional cases. Dotted throughout history like rare blueberries in a muffin there are astounding individuals with such keen sight and brutal honesty that they are able to change other people’s perception. Dostoevsky’s masterpiece really is one of the most insightful books the world has ever seen. Dostoevsky succeeds in articulating philosophical, religious, psychological, moral, sociological, and literary ideas in the space of only 800 pages. Some of the insights to be discovered may not be new but they are all real, in the sense that they are written in a realistic way. The morals of the story don’t force themselves on the reader but come across naturally. It’s a subtle work, often taking a long time to establish characters, define motives, and describe the backdrop before events even occur. A little like ‘Catch-22’ and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, ‘The Brothers Karamozov’ lingers for long periods on ancillary characters and events. This could serve as a distraction to the main story but the stories-within-a-story of the side characters are interesting by themselves and as such ultimately make the novel richer and more realistic. The clever pieces of thought within in the text are buried like blueberries in a muffin. But, like blueberries, they’re worth it once they’re found. Dostoevsky even takes pains to express both sides of arguments such as the case for the Christian church with Father Zosima’s chapter and the case against the church with The Grand Inquisitor chapter.

At the novel’s heart there is an underlying theme of choice - the central pillar of existentialism. All of the characters struggle in some way against their past which they feel constrains their present and future choices; Dimitri is constrained by his father’s mistreatment of him and his financial concerns, Ivan is constrained because his time at university has made him “one of those modern young men of brilliant education and vigorous intellect who has, however, lost all faith in everything...”, Smerdyakov is constrained by the facts of his birth. Dozens of other side characters mention being constrained whether by their social status, their character, or their money. They’re forever blaming circumstances or background for the state of their lives. The only character who doesn’t blame external factors for his position in life is the ‘hero’, Alexey Karamazov. Alexey just keeps plodding on, making his own choices, defining his own existence, and feeling how he wants to feel: he’s an existentialist, although to call him that does seem rather crass and against the point. The Karamazov family is said, during the court scene, to be a family of “two extremes” and this is manifested in the brothers. Ivan the intellectual represents the Freudian superego, Dimitri the impulsive represents the id, and Alexey the in-between represents the ego. A family containing the extremes of reason on one hand and intuition on the other with Alexey perfectly at ease in between, free to choose, and not blaming his past for shaping his future.

Dostoevsky expresses doubts at the beginning as to whether the reader will find Alexey “remarkable” as a hero. To be sure, Alexey isn’t one of our modern ‘larger-than-life’ heroes like Solid Snake or Iron Man. He is rather an everyday hero – a calm acceptance of the absurdities of life, a defining of his own path despite what other people say, and a casual persistence in the face of abrupt and unconsidered existence.


Max Cairnduff said...

Hopefully you'll see this. Did you read it in translation? If so (if not I'm stuffed, as I can't read a word of Russian), how did the translation feel? Did it seem they did a good job (insofar as you can tell)?

Interesting to see this book written up, I've not read it but it sounds like it may be worth adding to my (depressingly long) list of books to take a look at sometime.

Loved the comments on pastism by the way.

Simon XIX said...

Thanks Max.
I read it in English, the standard Garnett translation. It felt OK: it got the story across and the emotion. The English was very 'of its time', quite Dickensian and early 20th Century.
It's a fantastic book though and well worth taking the time to read.