If I may begin with a mildly extended throat clearing, here is the tale of how I am acquiring a copy of The Brothers Karamazov
, followed by some suggestions on how to approach the book.
One of my cars is rather old, and its radiator burst, partly my fault and also partly the carelessness of my son Alex who is nineteen. Driving a car whose radiator hisses like a dragon and has to be placated with water every ten miles or so to prevent nuclear meltdown is not fun. My mechanic told me I should buy a second hand radiator. After several phone calls I located one in Queanbeyan at a wrecker’s yard, about a thirty mile drive from my house, and conveniently close to some bookshops where I hoped to acquire a bargain copy of The Brothers Karamazov
On the morning of the radiator adventure, I went off to pick up a copy of the Brothers K from said secondhand bookshop in Fyshwick. I also wanted a copy of The Trial
by Franz Kafka for my sixteen year old daughter Diana, who told me she wanted to read it (just for fun I assume). I had Der Prozess
, but that wasn’t good enough for us monoglots. I went to three bookshops all in the same group of shops. None of them had The Trial
, and only one had Brothers K, but in a four point edition. After struggling with a fine print edition of Paradise Lost
, I had no wish to repeat the experience. My efforts had failed. I picked up a copy of Budge’s Egyptian Religion
, some short stories by Kipling, Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols
, a book by Jonathan Franzen who my wife Caroline quite likes, Israel Finkelstein on Biblical Archaeology, and a couple of other remainder bargains.
So then to the wrecker’s yard. Australia is a very white country, with big Asian and Arab communities but not many Africans, so I was surprised that the yard owner was a recent black immigrant from Africa. He unbolted and unsawed a radiator from an old wrecked car, and then asked me if I would pay extra for the fans or if he should take them off. He said fifty dollars for the fans. I offered twenty, which he agreed. I said leave the fans on. So to payment. I asked him if he took credit card. No. Sadly, I was a few dollars short of cash. I went to an ATM, but my card was not working, even after a phone call to the bank. It was a Sunday so nothing was open. Strike one Bros K, Strike two Kafka, Strike three, radiator. A bad day. So I drove home without the radiator. I got some cash and went back for it, and for some bonnet struts. I told the wrecker I should have bargained him down on price for the struts, to which he just gave a booming laugh. With petrol and time cost, I probably should have just got a new radiator, but at least I got Budge and Finkelstein, if not Dostoevski. My son half-offered to install the radiator, but I will get the mechanic to do it, for fear of getting a half installation.
On Monday I went to the library. They did not have Bros K on the shelf, but I managed to order it by inter library loan, for collection next Monday. The librarian assured me it was not available, but I pointed out to him that he did not know how to spell Dostoyevsky, which has multiple translations, so that hurdle was overcome when he searched on Karamazov.
I also picked up an excellent book at the library which I have just read while sitting on the plane to San Francisco. It is called Dostoevsky in Ninety Minutes
, by Paul Strathern. I also borrowed Fyodor Dostoevsky his Life and Work
by Stanley Baldwin, which contains a seventy page précis of The Brothers Karamazov
Baldwin gives some quotes which show why Bros K is among the very greatest novels. Dostoevsky himself is quoted as follows: “The whole idea of the work is to affirm the idea of universal disorder, to show that this disorder is all over the place, in society, in its affairs, in its governing principles… and in the decay of the idea of family. If passionate convictions still exist, then they are destructive ones (socialism). Moral ideas no longer exist, suddenly not a single one remains.” This rather bleak assessment of modern life may be specific to the Russia of his time, or perhaps it has wider implications. Another quote, from Joseph Frank, compares the book to King Lear.
Here is a nice comment from Strathern: “Dostoevsky’s great novels burst upon the European literary scene like a succession of thunderbolts. Over the next decades their raw psychology and passionate involvement had a galvanizing effect upon writers as disparate as Nietzsche and Kafka. The study of human psychology was entering a new phase, and Dostoevsky’s understanding of the darker and more extreme recesses of the human mind cast a light into areas that had seldom been illuminated with such force since the ancient Greek tragedies and Shakespeare.” (p99)
The four * main characters are the dissolute father Fyodor and his three sons, who each represent a main current in Russian life – Fyodor is Russia itself, Ivan is reason, Alyosha is faith, and Dmitri is emotion. The balance between these themes provides much of the creative drama of the book.
Reading the Strathern book makes me think we will be better off using thematic threads for Bros K rather than chapter threads. I see Chris has made chapter threads, which is great, and if people have thoughts that pertain to a particular chapter they should use those threads, but it may be possible that thematic threads can pick up ideas from the book that cross across multiple chapters.
I will soon set up threads as follows unless anyone complains.
• Brothers Karamazov as family portrait
• Who killed Fyodor Karamazov?
• Emotion, faith and reason in The Brothers Karamazov
• Existentialism in The Brothers Karamazov
– condemned to freedom?
• The Grand Inquisitor - Atheism and morality in The Brothers Karamazov
Here is the full text of The Grand Inquisitor
. It is the most famous passage in the book. If people read just this it will be worthwhile.
Strathern comments that Dostoevsky is most suitable for people aged around 18 to 21 who are experiencing existential doubt, and who can readily relate to the deep arguments and insights into human experience, before they are frozen into cynicism by adulthood. He says “Such literature is best appreciated in that state of bewildering emotional and philosophical intensity most frequently encountered in late teenage years… Readers may find themselves transported into a realm where passionate moral forces combine to enact a drama of desolate grandeur.’ The flight attendant saw me reading this and said ‘serious’.
Dostoevsky is really the greatest Russian novelist. He was amazingly prescient about the political currents that would lead to the Bolshevik Revolution. His early experience of being sent for years to Siberia as a political prisoner after a mock execution, and his youth in Petersburg where his father’s surgery catered to a poor neighbourhood, contributed to his depth of insight into the human condition. The debates in The Brothers Karamazov
get to the heart of what it means to be human. These questions should have universal appeal. There is also a whodunit mystery, and a general portrait of Russian life in the small village of Skotoprigonyevsk (pen of beasts).
* ETA - sorry forgot the smelly bastard brother Smerdyakov