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Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

May 11, 2013

What am I to make of this beast of a book? This cluttered, passionate, awkward, ironic, heartfelt, clumsy, questioning, fever-dream of a novel?

Well, for a start it clearly deserves its reputation as one of the great works of European fiction. And this is true despite the fact that, viewed as a stand-alone work, it is dramatically unsatisfying and patchy.  Of the three brothers, Alyosha is introduced as the novel’s “hero”, yet after the first third he fades to an occasional onlooker.  Ivan is given two tremendous set-pieces (“The Grand Inquisitor” and his discussion with the Devil) but not much else.  And even Dimitri’s story, which takes up the bulk of the book, is left frustratingly unresolved.

The reason, of course, is that Dostoyevsky intended the book to be merely the first part of an epic series. He died before he could write the rest of the story (The Karamazov Brothers was completed just a few months before his death) and so, of course, what we have is necessarily fragmentary. The interesting thing is that in the final analysis this doesn’t really matter too much. In fact it is curiously appropriate. The inconclusive ending complements the disturbing instability which lies at the heart of The Karamazov Brothers; just when you think you have oriented yourself the ground shifts beneath your feet. Over and over again characters suddenly change, and it’s difficult to tell whether they are revealing their true selves, getting carried away by a momentary enthusiasm, being self-deluded, or just outright lying.

True, the narrator often steers us in a particular direction but he’s usually careful to leave the options tantalisingly open. And, in any case, the book’s instability encompasses the narrator himself. After all, who the hell is he? He is “within” the novel insofar as he identifies himself as a resident of the (fictional) town where Fyodor Karamazov lives. Sometimes he’s at pains to point out the documentary, incomplete or first-hand origins of what he’s presenting (eg, Father Zosima’s final speech and the account of Dimitri’s trial) but elsewhere he recounts with god-like authority events he couldn’t have possibly observed or even heard about (in other words, he writes like a traditional “omniscient” author). At one point (sorry, I forget where) he explicitly refers to his book as a “novel” even though it’s mostly written as if it was a factual account of real events. Is this inconsistency mere clumsiness on Dostoyevsky’s part or is he quietly undermining our faith in the ability of the novelist to reveal the truth about the human condition?

I can’t be sure but I tend towards the latter interpretation because one of the book’s most striking themes (it seems to me) is the elusiveness of humanity. We are enigmatic, strangers not only to others but also to ourselves. Sure, most of the time our behaviour runs along relatively predictable lines but we have something within us (what?) which might at any moment confound our expectations. Is this a nothingness, an abyss where the soul should be, or is it a well-spring of unifying transcendence – something which, for better or for worse, unites us and rises us above the humdrum circumstances of everyday life?

I think the novel leans towards this latter, mystical viewpoint. In fact it’s directly connected to the book’s central contention that we are all guilty of each other’s sins. But even if that’s right Dostoyevsky never gives himself (or us) an easy ride. The elusiveness of humanity can just as easily result in unexpected baseness as sudden piety. A minor but significant example. The book ends with Ilyusha’s funeral. Afterwards the dead boy’s school friends try to help his grief-stricken father who is close to madness. The boys themselves are in tears, overwhelmed by the occasion. One lad, Smurov, is trying to return the father’s hat which he’s discarded despite the freezing weather. And in the middle of it all we get this:

            “Smurov, although weeping uncontrollably and still holding the hat, managed nevertheless, practically without pausing, to pick up a piece of brick that appeared as a red object on the snowy path and threw it at a flock of sparrows that was flying past quickly. He missed, of course, and ran on crying.”

If you ever want to give an example of Dostoyevsky’s disturbing brilliance you could do a lot worse than that.

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