Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A murder mystery twists its way through a philosophical discourse on divine love

Such characters! Such passion! This wasn’t what you’d call a light read – each page was bursting with things to think about, to ponder and savor. The nature of evil, the nature of love, the enslavement of the soul by ego and lust.   Reading this book felt like a pilgrimage and I was deeply grateful to participate. (But I won't be picking it up again any time soon. It required too much devotion.)

The Brothers Karamazov is about a completely despicable, completely entertaining father and his four sons. Each son represents a different aspect of human nature; Dmitri, the hot tempered soldier, Ivan, the intellectual man of reason, Alyosha, the sexually innocent mystic, and Smerdyakov the cynical bastard; however, they are all Karamazovs, that is, tainted by the father's sensual vices, prey to corruption. These are the men – but the women! All that fainting and crying. The brain fevers! Men and women derange each other. Except for shrewd Grushenka. And of course saintly childlike virginal Alyosha.

Why does this book feel so immediate to me when it was written over a hundred years ago, in a completely different society, with oppressed serfs and oppressed women? Duelling and horseriding? Why is the dialogue here so fascinating when it walks away from the murder mystery plot to consider the concepts of good and evil, and the nature of divine love? In modern novels, that type of extraneous dialogue would derail the forward momentum of the story for good. Perhaps because in the modern novel the topics are so slight and the stakes are so low and here good and evil mean life and death.

The comic scenes are legitimately comic. And the murder plot makes complete sense. The child conceived of rape murders the rapist. And were the architects of the Russian Revolution like Ivan? Everything is allowed.

The ending I found strange and poetically fit. Just after describing an upcoming jail break escape, instead of telling us how it turns out, Dostoevsky instead leaves us at the sweetly melancholy funeral of a child. Hurrah for Karamazov!

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