The Brothers Karamazov – 4 & 5: Strains; Pro and Contra

Previously: Book I, Book II, Book III

The carriage started and raced off.  All was vague in the traveler’s soul, but he greedily looked around him at the fields, the hills, the trees, a flock of geese flying high above him in the clear sky.  Suddenly he felt so well.

What I got out of these two parts was not so much plot development but character development.  Through the eyes of Alyosha, we finally get to meet the enigmatic Karamazov brother, Ivan.  This in turn shows us their family’s dysfunctional situation through his perspective, which by instinct is less disinterested than he might wish it to be.

It’s odd, but by far Ivan is my favorite character.  He is somewhat coldhearted, frequently profane, and not without some of the violent emotional tendencies of the oldest brother, Dmitri.  Still it is his anti-heroic traits and heroic potential that make him the most interesting character.  His bitterness is paradoxically deep-rooted and superficial.  He can’t conceal either his loneliness or his confusion.  He expresses self-destructive thoughts, only to confess:

I want to live, and I do live, even if it be against logic…some human deeds are dear to me, which one has perhaps long ceased believing in, but still honors with one’s heart, out of old habit.

And later, as if in response to everything that has happened with his father:

I don’t understand anything…and I no longer want to understand anything.  I want to stick to the fact.  I made up my mind long ago not to understand.

The existentialist themes make me think of Notes from Underground, as well as Kafka, in places.

Ivan’s outlook is, to some degree, summarized in the chapters “Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor.”  “The Grand Inquisitor” is a remarkable chapter (containing a paragraph eight pages long), a rather bizarre story told by Ivan about a persecutor from the Spanish Inquisition who meets Jesus and rejects Him.  It is spoken in first-person by the Inquisitor.  While I have not read Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, this chapter seems to have been written in the same style – that is, making a point from the opposite side.

Of course, maybe it depends on your perspective.  Maybe it can be read from an anti-Christian viewpoint, and quite probably a lot of people take it that way.  What made me question that interpretation were lines like the following (spoken by the Inquisitor):

You did not come down from the cross when they shouted to you, mocking and reviling you: “Come down from the cross and we will believe that it is you.”  You did not come down because, again, you did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous.

This hearkens back to something the narrator asserts way back in chapter 5: “In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.”  He claims a realist must wish to believe in miracles, and if the realist does not, then “if a miracle stands before him as an irrefutable fact, he will sooner doubt his own senses than admit the fact.”  I don’t know about stating things in such generalized terms, but certainly this reminds me of the Pharisees’ refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, even after witnessing numerous miracles.

But back to the Inquisitor’s words, “faith that is free.” This notion of free will is a recurrent theme in DostoyevskyNot only free will, but the contrast of choosing to be enslaved to something, in a psychological or moral sense.  The Karamazovs’ cruelty and dissipation is something they (except Alyosha) view as a family trait, even as an excuse.   Ivan, at least, even in his cynicism, has given it some thought and questioning, if on a more global scale.

The concept of “national identity” is somewhat controversial.  Throughout The Brothers Karamazov, the characters have been making certain statements, usually derogatory, about the Russian identity.  I find it quite fascinating, the way you can interpret subject matter in this book as referring to specific characters, Russia, or the world at large.  It is one thing to read it from a detached, Western perspective and find some thread of connection throughout Russian historical events, up to the present day.  At the same time, it is extremely important to read it autobiographically.  The subject matter hits much closer to home than we might be comfortable to admit.

I did not mean for this post to be so long!  For sure, this was the most thought-provoking section so far.  This is why I can’t enjoy reading Dostoyevsky.  He inevitably reminds me of people I have met and real topics discussed, and then I start to feel claustrophobic.  Appropriately enough, philosophy is less enjoyable when it is least abstract. 

The Brothers Karamazov – 3: Sensualists

*Page cuts will be added, should any posts in this series involve major spoilers.
Previously: Book I, Book II

In the previous installment, we saw the Karamazov family and friends bickering at Alyosha’s home, the monastery.  Now we see the Karamazov family feuding in its natural habitat, and as what the father Fyodor and the son Dmitri call themselves, half-proudly: “sensualists.”

Book III really gets inside these two Karamazovs’ heads, where depravity reigns over whatever better side they may (or may not) have.  Dmitri is engaged to Katerina Ivanovna, but he is also part of a lust-triangle involving his father and a young woman named Grushenka.  We are also introduced to Smerdyakov, a young man who, according to rumor, is Fyodor’s fourth son.  Alyosha, as usual, is caught in the middle and ends up being the one to suffer most.  He is grateful to return to the monastery as soon as he can.

Why had the elder sent him “into the world”?  Here was quiet, here was holiness, and there—confusion, and a darkness in which one immediately got lost and went astray . . .

I’ll admit to being somewhat sensitive, and it was difficult to get through these pages.  At times it seemed almost unreal, the sick behavior of Fyodor Karamazov, and while the way women were treated is not news to me, it’s still not easy to read.  I keep wondering if Dostoyevsky based these characters on real people, and at the same time, I’m not sure I want to know.

I get frustrated with Alyosha, because he still cares about his family.  Pretty much most of us would find it easiest to relate to Ivan, the brother who is detached and critical of everyone.  Alyosha, on the other hand, has a forgiving heart, and nobody deserves it…which is kind of the point of Alyosha.  I still wish he wouldn’t put up with so much.

Katerina is a fascinating character.  Not particularly likeable.  But she wants so much to be treated as more than an object, and even though there is something pathetic about her actions, you feel for her, because there’s nothing else she can do.  (Save, perhaps, stay away from the older Karamazovs, which would be the best option.)  Definitely interested to see how her story goes.

The Brothers Karamazov – 2: An Inappropriate Gathering

*Page cuts will be added, should any posts in this series involve major spoilers.
Previously: Book I

Oh, yes, I am still reading this book.  It’s a quick read; I simply haven’t been reading very frequently.

Case in point: book II is almost entirely the dialogue that takes place when the Karamazov family comes together at (of all places) the monastery.  Dialogue is to Dostoyevsky what narrative is to Kafka.  Characters talk on for paragraphs, and it starts out sensibly enough, only to end in a vastly different topic.  That’s the beauty of it, though: it sets the cogwheels of your mind turning so you’re never quite bored.

By the way, I am loving this translation (Pevear/Volokhonsky).  Translation is such a wildly disputed topic, too much so, perhaps.  I enjoyed the Alan Myers translation of The Idiot, and Constance Garnett’s Notes from Underground was quite good.  What really shines in Pevear/Volokhonsky is the emotional subtext.  That is, the narrator’s voice – often tinged with sarcasm – comes through strongly, and all the characters are brought up to a new level, as a result.  In tone, it’s a great mix of modern and Victorian, nothing too jarring.  Having previously read some sad translations of Jules Verne, I am greatly impressed with this so far.

Back to topic, I’m not sorry The Idiot was my first Dostoyevsky, but The Brothers Karamazov has a much stronger introduction.  Book II is so weird, it’s got me pretty intrigued.  Via the strange conflict between the father (Fyodor) and his son, Dmitri, we have it where the plot seems obvious, yet there is enough uncertainty to propel it forward.  (There was also a scene that is possibly premonitory, though again, just vague enough to keep you wondering.)

What is the purpose of this book II?  The father made an utter embarrassment of himself – no surprise.  Actually, I was surprised he went so far.  I love how the reader can sort of “soak in” the awkwardness through the character of Pyotr Miusov, whom we must also thank for the few laughs in this part.  Secondly, I appreciate the down-to-earth portrayal of the monks.  It’s a rare circumstance to read about well-written religious characters, let alone clerics.  Father Zosima and even Rakitin come across as pretty realistic.  The Father Superior’s reaction to Fyodor’s scene was also a great bit of writing.

One more thing – I found it interesting that Rakitin teased Alyosha, half-questioning and half-telling him he must be the same as his brothers and father, a “sensualist.”  I have misgivings about the future of Alyosha, more maybe than I had about Myshkin.  Bracing myself…I just hate watching good characters get into trouble.

The Brothers Karamazov – 1: A Nice Little Family

(A number of bloggers I follow write their thoughts on lengthy books as they go along.  In fact, I believe one of them did this for The Brothers Karamazov in the last year or so.  Credit to them for the good idea!)

Vilhelm Hammershøi - The Collector of Coins - Google Art Project

For years, I’ve wanted to read this novel.  I enjoyed The Idiot and Notes from Underground, and people only say good things about this one.  Coinciding with o’s Russian Literature 2014 challenge, it seemed high time to put it off no longer!

The Brothers Karamazov is divided into 4 parts or, if you like, 12 books.  I do like this format.  If I’m to read a long book, short chapters are preferable.  (Moby-Dick is similar, except that there are no parts or subdivisions.)  Anyways – I plan to write a post for each book.  Because “book journalling” inherently requires talking about plot twists, many of these posts will be spoilery. I’ll add page cuts when I get to those parts.

In book 1 we jump right away to meeting the main characters.  Always a good sign!  The Karamazov patriarch, if he could possibly earn that title, is Fyodor Pavlovich.  He’s a vile wife-abuser who spends most of his time sleeping around.  Moving on to his sons, the brothers of the title.  I was expecting them to be mutual enemies for some reason – so far that is not the case.  The oldest, Dmitri, is described as rather uneducated and quick-tempered.  Ivan and Alyosha are his younger half-brothers.  Ivan is a reclusive, bookish atheist, while Alyosha is a little less withdrawn and also very religious, hoping to become a monk.

Book 1 simply ends with the family about to come together (for the first time, perhaps?) to discuss Dmitri’s dispute with the father over money and inheritance.  In a quirky turn of events that is very Dostoyevsky, the meeting will take place in the home of Zosima, an elder at the monastery and Alyosha’s mentor.  Alyosha is already embarrassed, afraid his family’s irreverent behavior will offend Zosima, who has become to him, in essence, the father Fyodor should have been.  As in the The Idiot, I predict some very long conversations coming up in book 2.

In Dostoyevsky’s introduction, Alyosha is said to be the hero of this book.  I can see that – he reminds me a lot of Prince Myshkin.  I guess I’ll inevitably be making this comparison throughout…hopefully not to Alyosha’s discredit. I honestly can’t imagine a more endearing suffering hero than Myshkin (except Gregor Samsa, but that’s from a different author  🙂 ).  Some of you perhaps have read both already – which character did you prefer?

Weekend Quote: Prison

At such times I felt something was drawing me away, and I kept thinking that if I walked straight on, far, far away and reached that line where sky and earth meet, there I should find the key to the mystery, there I should see a new life a thousand times richer and more turbulent than ours … But afterwards I thought one might find a wealth of life even in prison.

Dostoyevsky has been on the brain lately, which means his unhappy character Prince Myshkin is always in the background, too, somewhere.  I can understand his wish for “walking straight on” without stopping, trying to escape reality, his illness and eccentricity which separate him from the world.  It’s the last line that makes it, though – finding life and liberty “even in prison.”  And I think there is something even stronger than Stoicisim in those words, because he doesn’t just say life, but a wealth of life.

Does Myshkin find this wealth in the prison of his life?  I don’t know, but his dream is beautiful.