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Book Review: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

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The Brother’s Karamazov is generally considered among the best books ever written by mere mortals, and in my opinion it is well deserved of the distinction. Being unacquainted with Russian (and perhaps Russia generally), and with an author as idiomatic as Dostoevsky I can’t overstress the importance of a decent translation. Mine is the recent translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, which in fact won the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club translation prize in 1991. Having read a couple books by him before, I can note that Dostoevsky can be idiomatic, colloquial, and perhaps even redundant in places. Take for example this line from the author’s introduction:

“Being at a loss to resolve these questions, I am resolved to leave them without any resolution.”

Certain translators will cringe at that sort of thing, feeling it their duty to make Dostoevsky more palatable to our modern sense of grammar by busting out the thesaurus and shaving off seemingly redundant clauses. The problem with this, however, is that there is a sort of gait of thought that Dostoevsky had well developed by this, the last book of his career. The spacing of the active elements of the thought are given almost a rhythm, I find. As a poet uses syllables, so does Dostoevsky use thought. And all that elegance can be cut to ribbons by translators who feel it their duty to protect the reader from how the book was actually written. This is a problem that Pevear and Volokhonsky are thankfully not afflicted with. These two also provide a highly informative introduction and footnotes that provide fluid descriptions, not only of the contents of the book but the context of Dostoevsky’s life.

At any rate, The Brothers Karamazov is a book that is almost too big to describe, but the story is largely about (unsurprisingly) the brothers Karamazov. I shirk from describing any of them with mere adjectives because of the sheer depth of the characters, it would be about as insulting as if one starting running around applying epithets to one’s friends and neighbors.

Dmitri Fyodorovich Karamazov, the eldest and half-brother to the other two, is accused of killing his father. He is sensitive and impulsive, very much in love for most of the book, a downright scoundrel at times but has the noblest sentiments of any character in the book.

Ivan Fyodorovich Karamazov, the middle child, is an atheist who struggles with his disbelief. He is the most intelligent and educated of the brothers, and he is the cause of two of the more interesting digressions, which are worth reading even if you don’t read the rest of the book.

Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, the youngest in his early twenties, is a novice at the local monastery, and perhaps the most ambiguous of the brothers. He is faithful, but is not immune to crises of faith. He is the point of view character in most the scenes he appears in.

Alexei (Alyosha, Yoshka, or similar diminutives) is more often than not a conduit for the thoughts of other people, rather than a source of thought himself. Through most of the book he channels the wisdom of his Elder at the monastery, who dies fairly early on (relatively speaking), but this is also true symbolically, because he spends most of the book delivering messages to people. That being said, at the end of the book he recognizes the need for himself personally, and really shows his power of thought, of understanding, of empathy on the second last page. I really don’t want to spoil the ending because it is worth reading the 800 tome just to get to the last page.

Alexei is also a point of stability in the lives of most of the important characters regardless of allegiance. He represents an ideal to most of the characters, of faith, hope and love, though he is far from perfect in these areas. It is the needs of others that pull him more into this role as things go on. On the elder’s deathbed he tells Alyosha to go out and live among the people, rather than sequestering himself in the monastery, because of the real psychological need for him, almost as an extension of religion generally.

In the introduction to Notes From the Underground (introduction by and translated by Pevear & Volokhonsky) Dostoevsky says that the Russian censors allowed him to abuse the entirety of Russian society, but when he tried to explain the need of religion in the human soul they cut it out. To me it seems that Alyosha is the embodiment of this principal he was not allowed to explicitly state. Perhaps that people need something to look up to. They need a carved snake on a pole to look for when live ones bite. Speculation.

It’s also the sort of novel that doesn’t dissect well. In order to convey the correct sense or feeling or reason for an action or statement, I would pretty much have to drag you back to chapter one and work my way up. I will revise that to say that it doesn’t vivisect well, because The Brothers Karamazov is as close to a living inanimate object as I have ever seen.

Today’s art is an onion. If this piques your curiosity, please look up “Dostoevky’s parable of the onion.” 

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About Ezrasteelman

  • Thanks to everyone for their positive comments! (an uncommon pleasure on the internet!)

    Dostoevsky was at his peak popularity when he wrote the Brother’s K, so it’s interesting to see what a person will write when they don’t have to worry about putting bread on the table.

    Very interesting person, very interesting books. Over the years he’s unwittingly become a standard to which I hold pretty much any modern author.

  • Igor

    This excellent review is worth reading again, an uncommon pleasure at BlogCritics.

  • Matt Valentine

    Nice review. I just finished reading The Brothers Karamazov for the first time about five minutes ago and was very impressed with it. I didn’t expect the novel to be so epic, and had been feeling a little insecure about my inability to summarize the story to my wife until I read your review and really related to it. It is quite difficult to ‘vivisect’, as it were, and much better to let it flow over you as a whole. What confidence Dostoevsky has as a writer to tell the story while having an unknown narrator abbreviate and skip over portions of the events, as well as give away huge portions of the plot hundreds of pages in advance. Amazing.

  • Well thank you for a positive reveiw of my first review on blogcritics. I actually found the chapter where Vanka talks to the devil to be more interesting than the grand inquisitor. I mean, bashing catholicism isn’t anything new (protestants have been doing it for centuries), but the idea of an atheist being tempted to believe in God by the devil is rather fascinating (even if it was a hallucination).

    Also, I’m a firm believer of taking a book as a whole, without trying to vivisect or demythologize it. To quote Dostoevsky, “since it is already written, let it stand.”

  • Thomas

    “Bravo” for an excellent critique of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.

    You are right to focus on Alyosha. Although Dmitri may symbolize Russian passion, and Ivan may represent the scientific and analytical mind, Alyosha is truly the heart and soul of the novel–and the primary message that Dostoevsky attempts to convey. While Ivan declares that he will “respectfully return my ticket,” Alyosha sprinkles hope for the future of the young boys who enthusiastically respond “Hurrah for Karamazov!”

    Also, you did not fall into the trap that typically ensnares myopic critics: to be fooled into thinking that the bulk of the novel is nothing more than padding, and that only “The Grand Inquisitor” is worth reading. Dostoevsky does vilify the Church with the same ferocity as Christ throwing the money changers out of the temple. Nevertheless, he clearly argues that the primary responsibility, and the main spiritual battleground, can be found in each and every individual soul.

    At the risk of being as redundant as Dostoevsky, “Hurrah for Karamazov!”