Well, here is the Mt. Everest of my bogus enterprise, the most daunting of all the doorstopper books I’ve planned to read in 2012. I know that I’ve also endeavored to read Tale of Genji and Don Quixote but there’s somehow a unique weight that comes with undertaking a Russian tome.
I read the first volume of The Brothers Karamazov back in college but I can’t actually remember much about it. I’m quite certain that i have read up to the infamous Grand Inquisitor chapter but I can’t recall much beyond that. Dostoevsky has always been daunting to me; I’ve tried multiple times to get into Crime and Punishment but I always back away from the intensity of it. I’ve built up a certain apprehension towards The Brothers K as well and was quite surprised that this particular iteration, as translated by Ignat Avsey, starts of in a pretty inviting–even jaunty tone.
Four characters are at the heart of The Brothers K. The patriarch is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his sons are, respectively, Dmitry, Ivan, and Aleksei (fondly called Alyosha by almost everyone). For the sake of brevity, I’ll simply list the pertinent events of Book 1.
1. Fyodor is a landed gentleman who is famous in his hometown for his degenerate lifestyle.
2. He fathered Dmitry with his first wife and had both Ivan and Alyosha with his second. Both wives were profoundly unhappy throughout their marriages to him. Fyodor neglected all his sons and they ended up living with distant relatives.
3. Dmitry became a soldier, Ivan an intellectual, and Alyosha a monastic initiate. All three never had any relationship with their father prior to adulthood.
4. The novel begins with the conflict between the eldest son Dmitry and his father regarding inheritance. To put it bluntly, Fyodor is trying to screw his son over by saying that he doesn’t have any inheritance to expect from him.
5. Money is ostensibly the root of this dispute but father and son are actually fighting over a woman, the famously predatory Grushenka.
6. Someone gets the idea to ask the starets (a famous ascetic who is expected to be declared a saint after his death) to mediate between the two.
7. Alyosha is particularly fond of the starets and was deeply humiliated when his family arrives at the monastery and proceeds to act like a group of quarrelsome buffoons.
8. Alyosha also runs into various characters–Katerina Ivanovna (Dmitry’s fiancee), Grushenka, and a young girl named Lise who professes her love to Alyosha through a letter.
9. At the end of the eventuful day, Dmitry storms into the Karamazov household, hits his drunken father in the head and vows that he is going to come back and kill the old man.
Yes, the events of items 4 to 9 happen within the course of a single day. That’s two hundred pages for setting up the Karamazovs’ screwed up family dynamics–Fyodor also fathered an illegitimate son, by the way. There are also pages and pages of arguments regarding theology, ethics, law, and the Russian spirit.
I am exhausted once again as I recall all of this. There is just so much of the novel to grapple with. I end up realizing how little I know about Russia. I encounter mentions of the emancipation of the serfs, for example, or references to Pushkin. The entire history of the Russian Orthodox Church is also totally alien to me, so the elements of it that Dostoevsky mocks in the story are completely lost to me.
It is not, however, an excruciating read. There is a lilt in the narration that I find quite charming. I also think I have to retrain myself when it comes to reading classics, particularly in digesting narrative digressions without becoming overwhelmed by the impatience I often feel as a reader. I should also learn to let go of worrying about understanding every philosophical detail if I ever have any remote hope of finishing this in a timely manner.