This certainly counts as my classic for the year, for a couple of years. The Brothers Karamazov is an opera of a book. In fact I wondered whether anyone had written one such, googled, and found that one Alexander Smelkov staged one in St. Petersburg in 2008. I didn’t delve deeply enough to find out how it was received, and I don’t believe it’s come to an American stage yet, but I’ll be there if it does.
I struggled through the first four hundred pages of this nearly eight hundred pager. That first half is full of philosophy and religion and back story and not much action-moving conflict. It was hard for me to get worked up over the long lectures on sin, salvation, and afterlife (the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter was an exception) from the dying monk Zosima, or the internal meanderings of Aloysha, et al over right and wrong conduct in seemingly trivial matters of finance and dinner manners. True, one son kicked the shit out of his father, but no one seemed to think that was particularly important or unusual at the time.
Even the romantic complications of father and son pursuing the same woman, one who played the two off against the other for her own benefit, didn’t seem particularly exciting. I wondered if I’d get through the whole work. I’m glad I didn’t give up.
The second half of the book was another matter entirely. Today, the idea of putting off the inciting incident until around page four hundred is a recipe for publishing death. For Dostoevsky it’s a recipe for a monumental piece of literature. That inciting incident, of course, is the murder of the Karamozov patriarch and the accusation that his middle son did him in. The subsequent chase, arrest, and parricide trial consume four hundred fast moving pages every bit as rich in philosophy and religion as the first four hundred, but those same pages would constitute not much more than a simple thriller without the backdrop of the first half. Tedious though I found it, the fault is in me, not in Mr. D.
Embedded in the action are those rich and extravagant Russian passions, particularly evident in works of the romantic era (BK was published in 1880), that make that country’s literature and music so enthralling.
“Love is gone, Mitya!” Katya began again, “but what is gone is painfully dear to me. . . “You now love another, I love another [By the way, it’s his brother that she now loves.] but still I shall love you eternally, and you me. . . Love me, do you hear, love me all your life!”
Another fascinating aspect of this (and much Russian lit as well as 19th C. lit of many varieties) is the physical toll these emotional confrontations take on folks. They’re forever being laid out by “brain fever” and “nervous exhaustion,” and not just for a day or two. The attacks can go on for weeks. And Dovtoesvky takes great liberties reading his characters thoughts from the slightest raised eyebrow in ways we wouldn’t permit on the modern page.
Aloysha found him sitting on a cot. . . a little feverish, his head wrapped in a towel moistened with water and vinegar [the best they could do pre-miracle drugs, I suppose, though he’s really suffering with some emotional affliction, and his physical torment is I think meant to be symbolic, an outward manifestation of his inner turmoil] . . . some sort of fear seemed to flash in his look . . . Sometimes he would be silent for half an hour, apparently thinking ponderously and painfully about something, forgetting whoever was there. And if he . . . began to speak he would always begin suddenly, and . . .. not with what he really ought to be saying [whatever that means.]
After all this high drama, Dovtoevsky ends the book with a chapter on the funeral of a young boy, unrelated to the Karamozov’s and not in any way central to the story’s action. I haven’t read any Karamozov criticism, but I suspect this choice of an ending has excited thousands of pages of scholarly discussion, as it should. The youngster has appeared peripherally as a victim in various ways, and his unfortunate death (from consumption?) is cause for penance for many others in the little village who were cruel to him during his short life. A Christ figure for sure, but a lot more than that.
Indeed, you could spend your life studying this monumental work. Just the flower imagery would keep you busy for a couple of years, not to mention the historical and literary and philosophical references which abound. I know I didn’t scratch the surface. For all my reluctance in the beginning, I’m now sorry I waited so long to reap the multitudinous rewards that have been waiting for me all these years.