White Nights in October

Оз. Соколиное

For my next read after Brothers K, I returned to White Nights and Other Stories, which includes several Dostoyevsky short stories translated by Garnett.  This collection was a mixed bag; in spite of that, I give it a cumulative 4 out of 5 stars based on enjoyment level.

  1. The first and feature story is White Nights, a very romantic, fanciful sketch about unrequited love.  Previously, I had read some quotes from it online, and reading the entirety, I was not disappointed.  The ending was so depressing, but the story itself was bittersweet and thought-provoking.  Recommended if you want to read Dostoyevsky in a nutshell.
  2. I skipped Notes from Underground, having already read it.
  3. A Faint Heart was a psychological mystery, reminiscent of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” which I read in September.  (Not to sound like a broken record, but it is worth mentioning that Dostoyevsky’s so-called “existentialist” themes are sometimes compared to Kafka, as was “Bartleby,” and I think I must have a knack for finding this genre everywhere!)  It was very intriguing and also depressing.
  4. A Christmas Tree and a Wedding centers on a minor character from “A Faint Heart” – at least, I think it does.  Either that, or two characters share the exact same name.  This Yulian Mastakovitch reminded me of Totsky from The Idiot.  I really have nothing else to say, except the story made me sick, and also, that Dostoyevsky is very good at portraying evil characters going about their “everyday” disgusting pursuits. 
  5. I got a bit lost reading Polzunkov – not quite sure what it was about. 
  6. A Little Hero was another strange plot, about a boy who has a crush on an unhappily married woman.  Kind of a coming-of-age story, borderline inappropriate, vaguely Dickensian.    
  7. The last story Mr. Prohartchin is about an eccentric old man and his irrational fears.  Definitely Dickensian.  Not gripping, but one of those interesting, obscure sketches that gives you a good idea of “life back then.”
It was fascinating to read Dostoyevsky on a small scale.  I felt his social commentary came through pretty strongly, and he is good at short stories, in the sense he can get you to care very quickly about the characters.  The plots were hit-and-miss, yet overall I’d recommend this book.  In fact, with Notes from Underground, it’s an excellent introductory volume to this author.

The Brothers Karamazov – 11 & 12 (Conclusion)

Kuindzhi Evening 1885 1890

I finished The Brothers Karamazov this past weekend.  From the last two parts, “Brother Ivan Fyodorovich” and “A Judicial Error,” I was left with no particularly strong feelings or impressions.  It was a struggle to finish – ultimately, I rate the book 3.5 out of 5 stars, leaning towards 4 on Goodreads (which still doesn’t allow you to have “half” a star.)

Thinking back over this book journal – which I am glad I kept and am sorry to see end – I feel the first half of the book was very strong.  The religious chapters and scenes at the monastery were honestly my favorites.  Parts III & IV, which is to say books 712, were not so interesting, despite being highly sensational, as you come to expect from Dostoyevsky.

Incidentally, this mirrors my reaction to The Idiot.  I gave that one a better rating of 4.5, and I have to say I liked that book better…I’m not sure it is a better book, but its treatment of similar themes was more compelling.  Anyways, I also thought the first half of The Idiot was excellent, while the second half seemed over the top.

If that weren’t enough, as I recollect now, Notes from Underground went south – pardon the pun – in the second half, too.  Now I will have to try Crime and Punishment again, which surely gets only better in the second half (I hope?).

What happened in The Brothers Karamazov?  What is this enigmatic Russian classic about?  And why was it disappointing?

I think I was expecting more of the human element.  You might wonder how a book about every dirty detail of a family could be lacking in that area, but really, it isn’t a character-driven novel.  When you read The Idiot, you get inside Myshkin’s head.  You empathize with Nastasya, and you fear Rogozhin like a personal enemy (well, nearly!).  That didn’t happen in BK, because Dostoyevsky intentionally wrote a social commentary.  The endnotes say it, of course, but it’s quite obvious throughout.  He wanted us to get acquainted with mentalities, philosophies, and contradictions – not people.  The characters are, for the most part, means to that end.

This wasn’t what I was expecting, hence the disappointment.  The ending was incredibly abrupt, and so any interest invested in Alyosha or Ivan or Katrina was not given a satisfactory conclusion.  In retrospect, it makes sense.  I’m not saying BK isn’t a great novel.  I do think that, for the modern reader, Dostoyevsky said more, and with more subtlety, in his earlier work The Idiot.  Sometimes the best commentary is implied and not outlined.  The main thing The Idiot didn’t have were the subplots about the monastery and the schoolboys, which, again, were my favorite parts in The Brothers Karamazov.

The Brothers Karamazov – 10: Boys

Previously: Book IBook IIBook IIIBooks IV & VBook VI, Books VII–IX

Antonio Mancini - Il Malatino

What does it say about Dostoyevsky that, after the roller coaster of the last three parts, he switches gears and writes a whole section about – schoolboys?

Let me just say: any remaining reservations I had about his writing skills disappeared in this part.  I mean that seriously.  As with “The Russian Monk” (VI), this part left me very impressed.

Most of us who have ever thought of being writers know about the Character Arc.  We tend to think the Character Arc is a long journey (it is).  But the most difficult part is actually writing it.  It can become a laborious process, and in the middle of that process we writers tend to lose the subtlety of good writing that the rest of our novel may possess.  We usually sacrifice the subtlety because the Character Arc appears to us like the milestones of life – big, earth-shattering, and loudly delineated.  Plot twist: it doesn’t have to be.

Dostoyevsky uses the conflict and dynamics between Ilyusha and the other schoolboys for two purposes.  One is to include social commentary, such as thirteen-year-old Kolya’s rant against medicine (reminiscent of Bazarov from Fathers and Sons).  Kolya is very outspoken and claims to be a socialist, later admitting some of his ideas are copied verbatim from books he has read.  He argues with Alyosha only to realize he doesn’t have any foundation to stand on.  The endnotes to the P&V edition suggest Dostoyevsky wrote Kolya this way as a critique of such perspectives, with the implication that those ideas are “schoolboyish.”  Whether an effective argument or not, it’s plausible enough in the insecure, confused, yet good-intentioned Kolya.

The second purpose of going “off-topic” in part 10 is the aforementioned Character Arc.  We see Alyosha again, but now he is not wearing his monastic attire.  He is acting as a mediator between the proud Kolya and Kolya’s former friend Ilyusha, who has now fallen ill and fears that Kolya holds a grudge against him.  The fact that Alyosha has, for the time, left the Karamazov scandal behind him to come and help Ilyusha and his family is quite extraordinary.  This is the same Alyosha who was so intent on being the communicator in his own family; the same Aloysha who, in his own moral struggle, went to talk to Grushenka for Dmitri’s sake.  And he is the one who felt confusion and grief over his personal loss that nobody else really understood.

He followed God’s Will while living in the monastery.  Now he’s found his calling, which is to have the heart of a monk while living within society, with all its flaws and suffering.  In answer to my question from book two, I think Alyosha will be all right.  If there’s any justice by the end of this book – I think he’ll be all right.

The Brothers Karamazov – 7–9: Part III

Previously: Book IBook IIBook IIIBooks IV & VBook VI

And now we (unavoidably) head into spoiler territory…

In these three parts – “Alyosha,” “Mitya,” and “The Preliminary Investigation” – we learn that Grushenka, while attempting to escape with her former seducer, becomes convinced that it is Dmitri “Mitya” Karamazov she really loves.  He pursues her and interrupts her elopement by throwing a raucous party, squandering hundreds (or is it thousands?) of rubles which he claims he stole from Katerina, his ex-fiancee.  Meanwhile, when his father Fyodor is found dead and 3000 rubles missing from his bedroom, all evidence is against Mitya.  He is found and interrogated; he himself claims no alibi.  In fact, he confesses he was at his father’s house, but ran away before committing the murder that was in his mind.  Nothing else Dmitri or the witnesses say can corroborate his alleged innocence, and he is arrested as the criminal.

This was a grim and difficult part to get through.  Only one passage – spoken by Dmitri to the authorities –  particularly stood out to me, but it seems to sum it up Part III pretty well.  Here it is from Garnett’s translation, and while my translation is the P&V one, the essence is the same:

“You see, gentlemen,” he said at last, with difficulty controlling himself, “you see. I listen to you and am haunted by a dream…. It’s a dream I have sometimes, you know…. I often dream it—it’s always the same … that some one is hunting me, some one I’m awfully afraid of … that he’s hunting me in the dark, in the night … tracking me, and I hide somewhere from him, behind a door or cupboard, hide in a degrading way, and the worst of it is, he always knows where I am, but he pretends not to know where I am on purpose, to prolong my agony, to enjoy my terror…. That’s just what you’re doing now. It’s just like that!”

I want to make it clear that I don’t care for psychoanalytic interpretation of literature (read: Hamlet).  It’s a type of thinking which seems to often look for perversion where there is no real evidence for it.  That said, in The Brothers Karamazov, I would say there is a possibility of a history of abuse, based on Fyodor’s actual character and what is repeatedly stated by Dmitri about him.

We know Fyodor was capable of the most vile deeds towards women, including his two young wives and the mentally challenged, homeless woman, Lizaveta.  There is no indication of where his immorality would stop; he was frequently proud of it.  It is not far-fetched to wonder if he, whether consciously or drunkenly, had ever treated his oldest son in the same way.  Dmitri lived in vehement disgust of his father’s behavior and presence:

“Perhaps I shan’t kill, and perhaps I shall. I’m afraid that he will suddenly become so loathsome to me with his face at that moment. I hate his ugly throat, his nose, his eyes, his shameless snigger. I feel a physical repulsion. That’s what I’m afraid of. That’s what may be too much for me.” (p. 131)

The old man’s profile that he loathed so, his pendent Adam’s apple, his hooked nose, his lips that smiled in greedy expectation, were all brightly lighted up by the slanting lamplight falling on the left from the room. A horrible fury of hatred suddenly surged up in Mitya’s heart: “There he was, his rival, the man who had tormented him, had ruined his life!” … “Perhaps I shall not kill him, perhaps I shall. I’m afraid he’ll suddenly be so loathsome to me at that moment. I hate his double chin, his nose, his eyes, his shameless grin. I feel a personal repulsion. That’s what I’m afraid of, that’s what may be too much for me.” (p. 439)

“I couldn’t bear the look of him, there was something in him ignoble, impudent, trampling on everything sacred, something sneering and irreverent, loathsome, loathsome. But now that he’s dead, I feel differently.”
“How do you mean?”
“I don’t feel differently, but I wish I hadn’t hated him so.”
“You feel penitent?”
“No, not penitent, don’t write that. I’m not much good myself, I’m not very beautiful, so I had no right to consider him repulsive. That’s what I mean. Write that down, if you like.” (p. 520)

Fyodor’s pursuit of Grushenka and money quarrel with Dmitri are certainly enough grounds for hatred, and maybe there are no others.  It seems evident, however, that Dmitri’s hatred is a lifelong emotion, going beyond even that of Ivan.  No matter how much the sons take after the father, they at least are conscious of the Karamazovs’ sins, and they are the ones who suffer the consequences.

The Brothers Karamazov – 6: The Russian Monk

Previously: Book I, Book II, Book III, Books IV & V

Today I spent some time cleaning out my closet, one of my favorite things to do on academic break.  Afterwards, I settled down to read another part of BK.  In all honesty, the chapter “From the Life of the Elder Zosima” did not look too promising.  Typically my expectations are low for stories in a story, and I was anxious to get back to Alyosha’s story.  This was going to be a struggle to get through, I thought.

As Thorin might say . . . I have never been so wrong.

About halfway through, this “story in a story” actually moved me to tears.  And it struck me how timely it was, reading this part during this time of my life.  I always thought I should have read BK long ago, but it turns out this was the best timing.  “The Russian Monk” is a story about love, Godly love, and what a powerful force it is, and how profound, deep, painful, and beautiful it must be, to love your neighbor, and your enemies.

One may stand perplexed before some thought, especially seeing men’s sin, asking oneself: “Shall I take it by force, or by humble love?”  Always resolve to take it by humble love . . . A loving humility is a terrible power, the most powerful of all, nothing compares with it. 

I think I should mention another theme in “The Russian Monk,” which is Zosima’s directive to “take on” others’ guilt, or at least to feel as if it is yours.  This kind of confused me.  Does he mean for his listeners to interpret it literally?  (That is not, to my knowledge, a biblical idea.) As a description of humility and sin being universal, it would make a striking point.  I think that was the intent, but I’d have to re-read it several times to come to a more definite evaluation of what he saying.  As a way of disclaimer, there were one or two other points like this that call for reading this part with a grain of salt, in terms of Christian beliefs.

That said, it is still worth reading, and there is much that is relevant.  I was not looking for Christian doctrinal instruction in a secular novel.  I did find many Christian truths poignantly illustrated in the character of Zosima.  He is certainly one of best representations of a cleric in any literature I’ve read.  There were so many beautiful quotes, like the one above.  I will just add one more (also about love):

. . . love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.

This has been my favorite part of the book so far.