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Amber Paulen

The Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Brothers Karamazov

6 January 2008


What book can possibly be more satisfying than The Brothers Karamazov? This is a book—a mere book?—I cannot live without. Now mind you, this book, this mammoth, this The Brothers Karamazov has no place on a book-shelf of earthly components; for it is of such earthy elements that those who are naturally of a Karamazovian nature would not believe. And so I place it higher…and so I reach up higher, still, to lodge it off of where it has been placed.

There is real life-blood flowing through this book, giving an almost paroxysm of satisfaction. What Dostoevsky has rendered in his capolavoro, with characters like sticky-putty and situations of opaque clarity and depth, is a structure of timelessness. Dostoevsky writes “the novel”; he writes drama; he writes suffering. He is the master of the darkly comic, the joyfully depressing—just like that painting of him with those square jaws and that furrowed brow. How to not awe over such a man who has created such a work?

Primero, this is my third reading and after this reading I’ll willingly stop counting. This translation is by that Russian translating duo: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. My first two readings were of the Constance Garnett editions. I would highly recommend the former over the latter any day, for I heard Dostoevsky’s poetic voice and there is completeness in a maximum of academic accumulation: references, footnotes, etc., why not?

This is a story of a parricide—perhaps the most well known parricide in Russian history. We know it’s a parricide from the get-go, as we also are allowed a firm fist around the father who is (or will be) killed. He is a debaucherous and base man, that Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov; he is the characteristic buffoon; he is self-centered, egotistical, uncaring; an inadequate father: allowing his three sons to patter around the garden clothed in tatters, forgetting his children’s existence. He drinks and takes women and riots. Does such a man deserve to be called father? He reaps suffering unto his children; his children reap suffering back around to him. Can those poor kids really be to blame?

And that’s just the thing. I believe no one did it. There was no money. There was no robbery. And there was no murder either. As the defense claimed. (It is, incidentally, in the defense’s speech, that I most “hear” Dostoevsky.) Though Dimitri undoubtedly remains, “guilty for all,” he’s the one charged, but he’s not the only one to suffer. All for that ugly old man. . . or wasn’t it? Wait. . . take back what I’ve just said about there being no murder, it was the lackey, Smerdyakov, the illegitimate son of Fyodor, who killed him. He was the only son who the old man trusted, besides Alyosha the angel of course. But why would that epileptic do it? Is there even one organic reason for Fyodor’s death? And there you have the hundreds of pages sandwiched between.

It’s best to get right down to the brothers: Dimitri, Ivan, Alyosha and more-or-less Smerdyakov. If I were to go about it oldest to youngest Dimitri would be first, though his story is best told the long way around, and anyway, it is Alyosha, who is the hero of the story. Alyosha is humble and meek, pure and innocent, a novice in the local hermitage when the book starts out. He is the youngest. He is the mirror through which the rest of the characters are visualized. Going from one to another, one house to the next, bearing messages, bringing news for better or worse; he is the prodigious listener. I dare say, it is Alyosha who is their accumulated redemption; for if it were not for the epilogue and finale, his Speech at the Stone, the book would conclude quite dire indeed.

“Let us never forget him,” Alyosha says to the small gathering of boys. “And may his memory be eternal and good in our hearts now and unto ages and ages.” He could be anyone: his convicted brother Dimitri, his brain sick brother Ivan, his murdered father Fyodor. But he is the young boy Ilyusha, dead far before his time. Alyosha brings hope and the promises of youth; the great ability to make mistakes.

But, as has been questioned, can Alyosha be the hero of this story? I believe it is exactly his quiet virtues that top him over all the hasty rest. If he blunders when speaking to a beautiful woman, doesn’t that make him all the better? And anyway, who else could the hero possibly be? Ivan? ending in brain fever, speaking to the devil, conceiving long fables of Jesus lassoed by the Inquisition. Hardly a likely choice.

Ivan’s ideas, his mind, drags him like a dog on a chain. Though it is exactly these ideas that have founded the most startling images of the book: The Grand Inquisitor and who could possibly forget? Ivan speaks with the devil! What a literary genius to employ such a literate conversation! The devil reclines on Ivan’s couch; the devil is dressed in the threadbare, albeit fine, get-up of a late Russian sponger (aka a landowner bereft of serfs.) The devil is sly. The devil is sarcastic. The devil’s only dream is to become a “two-hundred-and-fifty-pound merchants’ wife.” The devil is all I could ever wish a devil to be. He turns Ivan’s well-thought, well-conceived ideas, into mash and tosses them into his face. The devil is the first symptom of brain fever. (Let the doctor know if he’s paid you a visit!)

Ivan’s great words ring out, the silence preceding the fall: “Everything is permitted.” Strike up the band! I’m going on a spree! Ivan has a dark side, he doubts Alyosha’s God. Without this God there is no judgement and Smerdyakov rightly says, “It’s always interesting to talk to an intelligent man.” Did Ivan grant Smerdyakov permission to strike down their father with a paperweight? This is a torturous thought, an unbearable idea. Is Ivan as guilty as all the rest? Alyosha says, “No, Ivan is not guilty.” I am inclined to believe what the soft-spoken young man says, but… there is that devil leaning back on Ivan’s couch with his legs stretched out and his arms bent behind his head. Everyone has blood on their hands.

Then there is Smerdyakov. O! Smerdyakov! Faking a falling fit on the eve of such a frightful night… and getting away with it. I also believe Dimitri: Whether it was someone’s tears, or God heard my mother’s prayers, or a bright spirit kissed me at that moment, I don’t know—but the devil was overcome. Dimitri Fydorovich is a man of passion. Dimitri Fydorovich would not tell a lie. He follows his heart to his heart’s end. The only obstacle for such men is themselves.

Smerdyakov is a greasy and slithering serpent slipping through the tall grass. There is one scene, when Fyodor is still alive, where the lackey stands off to the side after completing his duties, watching the father and sons with spiteful beady eyes. He seems to seethe, but with what I cannot place. Resentment? Was he, like Dimitri, sick of looking at the repugnant physiognomy of their father? Or maybe smugness? Was he, like Ivan, reveling in his intelligence and raising it above all the others? What Smerdyakov is all about I cannot pretend to understand; he is neither from this place or the other, born of a demented midget in Fyodor’s backyard. The only reason I can conceive of for him killing, is that it had to be done.

And lastly: Dimitri. His are the passions around which the bulk of the novel revolve. Jealousy and a misplaced inheritance; such fuel for raging fires. He is the most Karamazovian of all the brothers Karamazov. In the taverns he yells the disgrace of his father, swearing he will soon be done with him, even if he has to put a knife in his back. His devout love for Grushenka causes him to run himself wild; his fuse sparked at the mere drip of a thought that she is with him. Dimitri is “the earthy force of the Karamazov nature.” I can’t help but to like him.

True, he could have killed his father. What, with all the shouting he did around town—but that’s not his role. He must suffer for the wrongs committed by being punished for the wrong he did not. Suffering slinks through the novel like a main “theme,” sprinkled and sparkling by effect of Dostoevsky’s joyful prose. If Dimitri is to be the one to face Siberia, dawning exactly at the attaining moment of his great love—then he suffers with a Karamazovian force.

A Karamazov can contemplate two abysses and both at the same time.

He could never even be completely in Siberia, even if he doesn’t escape. There is an element in Dimitri that will save him, that will lift him up; as it with Alyosha; as with Ivan before the devil gets to him. Dimitri’s suffering is not in vain; he will emerge a man all the stronger. It is through suffering that we fall and pick ourselves back up. Suffering should not be sufferable, it is only our gutter-ish minds that drags us down, down down… there eventually comes joy… there eventually comes redemption.

As Henry Miller writes in Nexus, “Hurray for the Karamazovs!” Reminding me: what about that troika? The troika that is Russia galloping at breakneck speed ahead. What fulfillment is wrought by stopping it? I don’t agree with the prosecutor, neither on the halting of the troika nor with his characterizations nor with his psychology. Let that troika race on! It will stop when its time comes—as all things do. All hail to Dostoevsky! Hurray for the Karamazovs!



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