Sunday, November 07, 2010

Book #12: The Karmazov Brothers

As countless mountaineering documentaries and books, as well as my trip to the Boston Marathon, have taught me, part of life is struggling for weeks and months towards a goal and then coming up just short. I bought The Karmazov Brothers by Dostoyevsky in March and struggled for eight months to finish it with valour, meekness and at times bewildering indifference. I took this book to about nine different countries and even an overnight hiking trip, but unlike Crime and Punishment, which I read in a matter of a few days, I just couldn't get interested in this book, much less finish it.

Still, having read 800 of its 974 pages, many of them a few times, I'm going to count this as a book I read, or at least a book about which I can write a few uninformed paragraphs. The first thing I learned about the book is that the name really should be The Karmazov Brothers. Russian renders it as The Brothers Karmazov(Братья Карамазовы, Brat'ya Karamazov), and the phrasing (e.g. The Brothers Crane) survives to this day, but as translator Ignat Avsey writes, we should "no more have dreamt of saying The Brothers Karmazov than they would The Brothers Warner or The Brothers Marx".

Much of Dostoyevsky's work is about what he's thinking than the story itself. The Karmazov Brothers is not so much a story about a family as it is Dostoyevsky's answer to atheism and nihilism. Religion, specifically the redemption of sinners, is also a prevalent theme in Crime and Punishment, as it is here. People who have done awful things by any measure, particularly Dostoyevsky's, are presented calmly and coolly. They exist, they do what they do, and their placid existence, albeit in the face of coming trials, points to the possibility of redemption for everyone.

I thought a lot about why I didn't like the book. Much of it was how I read it, in 30 and 40-minute chunks here and there, at home or on the bus. A simpler book would have read itself in that time, but Dostoyevsky takes a lot more attention and a lot more time. Secondly, as much as Dostoyevsky wrote about heavy topics in a powerful, open-minded and self-examining way, I was more interested in contemporary Russia, the people and their mindset than I was in the cosmic struggle that Dostoyevsky wrote about.

Characters more often than not were mouthpieces for viewpoints than they were people, which elevated the cerebral discourse within the book but, to my addled brain, it took away from the force of the story and the novel. Countless other writers have done this, admittedly, and I have enjoyed it, and I suspect you too might enjoy it. I, too, might have enjoyed The Karmazov Brothers if not for the stodgy anti-intellectualism in my head whenever I opened it.


Tuttle said...

Crime and Punishment is a compelling read, the figure of Raskolnikov being, I think, familiar to most teachers of teenage boys (smirk). Srsly, the book is a great read because of this multifaceted central role.

Karamazov OTOH is a longer read, and was intended, IIRC to be one of a trilogy or something, but Dostoevsky died before going on. The problem is he split up the interesting characteristics that made Raskolnikov so engrossing and spread them across the whole Karamazov family.

The lesson for us all: if you read only one Dostoevsky, make it Crime & Punishment.

Adeel said...

Thanks for the reassurance that there are other factors at work aside from my small cranial capacity. Raskolnikov was certainly a more compelling character than anyone in The Karmazov Brothers.

Jennifer said...

I still give you a lot of credit for finishing as much as you did and sticking to your book reading project for the year. I can't believe the year is almost over and I have yet to finish a single book. I'm pathetic.