"The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Reading this grand and long work for the first time achieved a long term ambition of mine - and I am glad I have read it at last. I read
a Penguin edition published in 2003 , translated by David McDuff in 1993.

The themes and story line
The book explores a number of strong themes including - ethics and patricide , jealousy , religious commitment and doubt, guilt and redemption, childhood and children, psychological insights into an individual's behaviour , exploitation of lower classes and women and a time of political change and social change. It is often deeply philosophical and then by contrast becomes , in the second half especially , a very dramatic story. This story revolves around a family of reasonable but not great wealth consisting of a father and his three sons . The story is set in a small town community in Russia . The central drama is the murder of the father and the consequent suspicion of patricide by one of his sons.

Leading up to this drama , which includes the collection of evidence and a long court room scene, there are whole chapters and passages setting out the background of each of the main characters and the social and religious world surrounding them . For instance , we dont just hear about the monastery and monks who are important in the early part of the story , we receive extensive insights into their dogmas and practices . There are whole arguments put before us of the way to salvation and otherwise. In fact the extent and intent of the religious discussion in the book surprised me . I think a reader of Victorian English classic fiction is not really familiar with this depth of discussion about conscience, for instance. I became enmeshed in the very "Russian" atmosphere depicted here which was a large part of the enjoyment.

Humour and farce are also strong characteristics of the novel. The rollicking nature of the work at times amuses considerably and gives balance to the starker aspects of the social scenes and the story itself. A series of Chapters in Book IV called "Crack-ups" presents some humorous and even ridiculous scenes in drawing rooms and other settings involving affairs of the heart and various mix-ups. It is pertinent to note here that one of the sub-plots revolves around the rivalry of the father of the family and one at least of his sons for the love and affection of Grushenka a worldly , yet put-upon young woman . I found reading about her and watching her reactions , as described by the narrator, particularly insightful into the restrictive yet changing society we are presented with. Here I would like to mention that I also found the work distinctly full of the sounds of society - the talking , calling out and singing of the people and other sounds of the countryside and the town. It resonated very strongly for me.

Some of the Characters
The father of the family, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov exploits his own sons , is self indulgent , and , has been indifferent to and at times cruel when bringing up his sons. We meet this ageing patriarch at a slightly more sympathetic if pathetic , vulnerable time of his life . He delights in almost childlike , outrageous behaviour at the expense of others . His personality casts a strong and ambiguous shadow over the drama.
His three sons are Mitya, Ivan and Alyosha . Mitya , the eldest , was the child of Fyodors first wife and Ivan and Alyosha are the sons of the second wife. Both of the mothers died before their sons were grown up and the boys were looked after by foster parents . Mitya has a full-on personality a little like his father but he has a kinder nature . He is accused of the murder but who is really guilty and of what does guilt consist? Ivan is very thoughtful and working painstakingly through the philosophical considerations of an atheist. Alyosha is saintly by comparison to his brothers and considers becoming a monk but decides against it. He forms a vital link with all the players in the story . Smerdyakov, thought to be an illegitimate son of Fyodor who keeps him as a servant, is more than likely the actual murderer. Of the female characters , Grushenka ,is perhaps the most fascinating whilst several other of the women have relatively minor but socially poignant roles. One of the sub-plots revolves around a group of school boys and the lingering death of one of them - with the boys characters and roles dealt with in some depth.

A note on the structure and influences
The story is told to us by a narrator who is in turn a character. He has opinions and observations about what is going on which are entertaining in themselves. He has been described in the introduction to my edition as a sort of "grotesque… Hoffmanesque" character. He is conservative and sometimes crabby, particularly about women . The author's voice comes through as well at times and the result is a mixed, far from simple rich sound and a scenic tapestry - requiring one to concentrate and listen well. It is worth the effort may I add. It was originally published in serial sections over about 18 months . It was then published in book form in 1880 only a few months before the author died. Dostoyevsky experienced deep tragedy in his life including penal servitude in Siberia and the loss of a dear young son from epilepsy just before he started on this work. He went on a pilgrimage to a hill top Orthodox monastery before he started the novel when grieving for the loss of his son. These experiences are said to have informed some of the action and concerns of the work.

My overall impressions
"The Brothers Karamazov" introduced me to a new and unexpected reading experience - even "War and Peace" did not prepare me for the richness of style and range of emotions set out for us in this tragic family saga. There are many sub-plays going on and it deals a lot with personal psychology. There are also wonderful descriptions of Russian small town life, the countryside and the ways of going about day to day life to fill many a novel. The inter- reactions of groups of characters including inter-generational ones are engrossing , sometimes dangerous, and also often tender.
One is of course reading a great classic in translation . The David McDuff translation read lyrically and well - further evidence for me that the work is lyrical in the original also. It is a kaleidoscopic work and I know I cannot do it justice in these few words - I hope to give you the impression however - this is a major reading adventure.
As someone reasonably familiar with the English Victorian classics , "The Brothers Karamazov" (1880) was different from the English greats of the near period , Dickens and Elliot for instance , - engaging yet a little difficult too. It required concentration and imagination to picture the amazing social and action scenes and follow the philosophical arguments and thought processes of the characters. I would be delighted to hear from any other reader who is familiar with the work and to hear of your reactions.


John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. A lucid, helpful, and sympathetic account, if I may say so. I'll admit to having found the novel heavy going. Dostoyevsky, to a fair greater degree even than English Victorian authors, seems to write as if there is all the time in the world to develop characters, explore ideas, and let the plot develop. (And apparently he originally intended the thousand pages we have to be only part of a much longer work.) Remarkably little happens in the novel - family conflict is followed by a murder, and the trial of the murder suspect. We are 'left hanging' at the end: did Mitya escape?

The novel is a rich picture of Russian small town life in its time. I suspect that some aspect do create problems for modern English-speaking readers, notably the length and leisurely pace, the long passages of theology and philosphy, and the rather emotionally extravagant responses of the characters, who struck me very often as being 'totally over the top'.

I am glad to have read 'The Brothers Karamavzov' but I am not sure I am eagerly seeking out my next nineteenth century Russian 'blockbuster'!

John Kennedy said...

An article in one of the weekend newspaper magazine sections provided the curious detail that Marilyn Monroe actively sought the role of Grushenka in a 1950s film version of 'The Brothers Karamazov'. Apparently opinion is divided as to whether this was an indication that the actor was more widely read and intellectual than her normal image suggested, or whether it is better regarded as an indication of her wish to try something a bit different and modify her image.

She did not get the role.