Not quite 30 years ago I was backpacking around southeastern Europe when something unfortunate happened: I ran out of books. Well, technically, I did not run out of books; my backpack still held what a reasonable person would probably consider more than enough books. But since I had last replenished from the freebies at a youth hostel on Rhodes, I had read all of the ones I had with me, and some of the freebies were too dreadful to consider re-reading. A couple of weeks — how long they seemed! — later when I found an international bookstore in Heraklion, I did the obvious thing and stocked up. Not in number of books, mind, but in pages and heft. I bought two books. The first was Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain) by Thomas Mann, which I actually started to read. I made it to page 516, and there’s still a 100-drachma note that marks the extent of my progress. The second was a Penguin Classics edition of The Brothers Karamazov. I may have read the introduction, I certainly didn’t get to the main text. Yet these two served their purpose. I never felt unbooked again on that trip, which ended with me finding a job in Budapest.
The year 2021 marked the bicentennial of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s birth, and for the occasion Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky revisited their translation of The Brothers Karamazov, “go[ing] over every word of our original version, catching occasional errors or misreadings, rethinking word choices, altering certain rhythms and phrasings.” (p. xi) Back in September, I attended a no-particular-book book club, and it was great! One of the participants mentioned that she was reading Karamazov. I had a copy of the bicentennial edition waiting on my shelves. And so, two months and 823 pages later, give or take some Notes and a not overly long Introduction, here I am.
I took two main ideas away from the Introduction. The second is that the “author” of The Brothers Karamazov is a character within the story, and he is not Dostoevsky. That is, he is something of a throwback to the Enlightenment narrators who addressed the reader directly, and he situates himself within the town where Karamazov takes place. He mentions gathering reports to tell the story, and he says he was present at the trial that closes the main part of the story. He does not detail how he knows of conversations or mental states; the reader is meant to take the “author’s” near-omniscience on faith. Dostoevsky is nothing if not inconsistent, though. As Pevear writes, “There are stretches when the person of the ‘author’ seems to recede and be replaced by a more conventional omniscient narrator, but his voice will suddenly re-emerge in a phrase or half-phrase, giving an unexpected double tone or double point of view to the passage.” (p. xviii)
The first thing I took from the Introduction comes from its opening sentence: “The Brothers Karamazov is a joyful book.” (p. xiii) Pevear continues:
Readers who know what it is “about” may find this an intolerably whimsical statement. It does have moments of joy, but they are only moments; the rest is greed, lust, squalor, unredeemed suffering, and a sometimes terrifying darkness. But the book is joyful in another sense: in its energy and curiosity, in its formal inventiveness, in the mastery of its writing. And therefore, finally, in its vision. (p. xiii)
I found this pointer a good guide to navigating Karamazov. The “author” is clearly having a ball, putting his garrulousness on full display while telling the juiciest story to happen in his provincial town in quite a long time. In that spirit, and as I have no intention of trying to add to the vast critical literature on Karamazov — nor did I read it with that purpose in mind — here are a few things that struck me along the way.
The opening is terrific. I had the feeling of being in the hands of an experienced storyteller who was setting out to tell his tale fully and completely, giving the reader plenty of background to understand why the people in the tale did what they did, but not wandering far from the story’s main plot. However, Karamazov sometimes wanders very far, and I wish I had known this or realized it sooner. I think I would have been less impatient with some sections if I had kept in mind that Karamazov is not a sleek thoroughbred but a great shaggy beast of a book.
Book One (of twelve) is titled “A Nice Little Family,” and the Karamazovs are anything but. Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the father of the titular brothers, is “precisely the type of man who is not only worthless and depraved but muddleheaded as well—one of those muddleheaded people who still handle their own little business deals quite skillfully, if nothing else.” (p. 7) He has three sons by two wives. Dmitri Fyodorovich is the oldest. Fyodor Pavlovich’s first marriage ended when his wife ran off with a seminarian, leaving a three-year-old son in the hands an utterly incapable father who immediately takes to carousing with numerous women and drinking entirely too much. The second marriage produced two more sons: Ivan Fyodorovich and Alexei Fyodorovich, who is almost universally known by the diminutive of Alyosha. The three have grown into young men, and their relations are tempestuous. Dmitri is as volatile as his old man, minus the conniving skill in business. His father has also deliberately held him back in money matters. Ivan is intellectual, an atheist, usually away from where he grew up but back for a brief period at the start of the book. Alyosha is good and pious, and starts the book as a sort of pre-novice at the local monastery. There are two love triangles that involve the family as well. Dmitri has a fiancée but has fallen for another woman; his father has fallen for the same women. She is leading both of them on, though she has a benefactor, an older merchant, who provides for her upkeep. Ivan, meanwhile, has fallen for Dmitri’s fiancée, and there are indications that she prefers him, too. So there are money conflicts, there is jealousy, and two — Fyodor and Dmitri — are drunk a lot of the time, too. Events threaten to spiral out of hand, which in due course they do.
Even, or perhaps especially, in the first chapters I could tell that Dostoevsky had originally written Karamazov for serialization. He is going along, relating whatever events are pertinent to the topic, and there’s a turn in the last page or the last few paragraphs where he creates a hook for the next chapter. I was annoyed to see the gears of the novel’s machinery turning so obviously. The other tic that stood out for me was the number of times characters “suddenly” did or said something. It’s a word that allows characters to do something in opposition to how they have been previously portrayed, or to bring in an action that the writer desires but can’t find a reason for. Goodness knows that real people are plenty random sometimes, but the extent of its use in Karamazov distanced me from accepting motivations in other parts of the story.
The visibility of the authorial strings applies to the main event of the book: the murder of Fyodor Pavlovich about halfway through. (I had expected it to happen earlier; see above about Karamazov not being sleekly built.) Dostoevsky shows readers so much throughout the book and chooses to omit the crucial moment. Of course, he wants there to be doubt; he wants readers to be able to consider the events from many different angles. He wants all of the stories to be plausibly true. The flip side of making that possible, though, is that none of them are fully convincing. Karamazov is not a mystery with a solution, it is a consideration of what might have happened, even though all of the possibilities are at once plausible and ridiculous.
The looseness of the book’s construction allows Dostoevsky to create some terrific set pieces. The justly famous Grand Inquisitor is probably the best of these. It’s a dream of Ivan’s that riffs on a second coming of Christ to Spain in the time of the Inquisition, how power would react to undisputed miracles, and the relation between belief and what is good for society. I gather that the chapter is often read as a stand alone piece, and given its tenuous connection to the main narrative, I can understand the practice.
Thirty years later, here I am, far from Heraklion, having lived in Russia in the interim, still a fan of big books. I don’t know what 24-year-old me would have made of Karamazov; might well not have had the patience to get through it, or the empathy to stick with characters who are pretty crazy sometimes. Maybe it’s time to see what happens in the second half of The Magic Mountain.