Friday, May 17, 2013

The Brothers Karamazov

I have stumbled across a number of listings of the greatest novels of all time. On nearly all of these lists, somewhere near the top you will find The Brothers Karamazov by Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I have found reading and reviewing books flagged as historical classics can be a bit daunting in that it places a certain amount of literary pressure on you to get in line with the mass opinion. Anyway, my mother gave me a copy of this book and it was certainly not a quick read. In fact, it took me nearly a month to work my way through this very dense saga. This is not a statement on my taste for this work, for you see a rich chocolate torte can be every bit as mouthwatering as a slice of spongecake.

The story is about the Karamazov family, led by the selfish and hedonistic Fyodor. A true buffoon whose mark is all the more pitiable in that he fully recognizes what he is and revels in his behavior. He has three sons from his two marriages, each cut from a very different cloth. Dmitri is unruly, hot-headed, and impatient. Ivan is sullen, brooding, and learned. Alexey is gentle, honest, and true. Fyodor essentially disowned his brood as infants and left them to find their own way in the world. The relationship between Fyodor and his three sons, and their relationships with each other drives much of the narrative of the novel. It is also rumored that Fyodor's servant Smerdyakov is his illegitamate son, fathered by the rape of a mute street wanderer. The central story arc involves a number of competing love triangles. Fyodor and Dmitri both ruthlessly compete for the affections of the local Jezebel, Grushenka. Dmitri is still connected with his fiance Katerina, who is being pursued by Ivan. Ultimately Fyodor is brutally murdered and all of the evidence points to Dmitri who has long made known his hatred of his father and his intent to do him in. Yet, sometimes the obvious suspect is not the true culprit.

My strongest impressions from reading this book were as follows:
  • Dostoyevsky could have made a much crisper novel by cutting out a number of lengthy asides that amount to opinions on government, ideology, and religion that do nothing but get in the way of the story.
  • The true strength of this work is the intricate development of the fully layered characters.
  • The story has a number of minor story arcs and a number of primary characters that are curious in that they really do not seem germain to the main plot. In my opinion the character of Ilusha, his family, and his death seem completely distracting and unnecessary.
  • The courtroom scene and arguments of the two lawyers was simply spectacular. Even though written in 1880, this scene has all of the rhetoric of any high publicity trial. The dialog in the scene seems cut straight out of any modern high stakes court case.
  • This story was originally supposed to be part of a much grander epic that Dostoyevsky had planned. Yet he died just months after its publication. It would have been quite interesting to see what he had in mind for his characters.
  • This work was a worthwhile read and I am happy that I tackled it, but I certainly would not rate it as one of the greatest novels ever written. Good, entertaining, rich in texture, but I have experienced better.