The OF Blog: Leatherbound Classics: Fyodor Dostoevesky, The Brothers Karamazov

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Leatherbound Classics: Fyodor Dostoevesky, The Brothers Karamazov

"Remember, young man, constantly," Father Païssy began, without preface, "that the science of this world, which has become a great power, has, especially in the last century, analysed everything divine handed down to us in the holy books.  After this cruel analysis, the learned of this world have nothing left of all that was sacred of old.  But they have only analysed the parts and overlooked the whole, and indeed their blindness is astounding.  Yet the whole still stands steadfast before their eyes, and the s of hell shall not prevail against it.  Has it not lasted nineteen centuries, is it not still a living, a moving power in the individual soul and among the masses of the people?  It dwells as unshakably as before in the souls of the very atheists, who have destroyed everything!  For even those who have renounced Christianity and rebel against it, in their inmost being still follow the Christian ideal, for hitherto neither their subtlety nor the ardour of their hearts has been able to create a higher image of man and of virtue than the image manifested by Christ of old.  When it has been attempted, the result has been only grotesque. (p. 129)

I have stared at this screen for a long time, trying to think just how I should order my thoughts on Fyodor Dostoevsky's last and perhaps greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov.  Some novels have great characters; others, moving scenes or poignant themes.  But then there are those rare novels that are much more than even the sum of the most excellent parts.  The Brothers Karamazov (read in the Garnett/Yarmolinksy translation) is one of those novels where the reading experience is enhanced by the reader's consideration of Dostoevsky's thematic presentation of crime and the damage wrought. 

In his story of three legitimate brothers of the Karamazov family and their reactions to their father's death by parricide, Dostoevsky creates more than just a brilliantly-told crime novel.  The keen psychological depths that Dostoevsky plumbs here adds resonance to the core crime/mystery plot:  not only are the whys of the murder revealed, but also the whys of the thoughts and beliefs that lead up to this.  Layered on top of this (this is especially seen with religious characters such as Father Païssey, quoted above) is a philosophical exploration of redemption and human efforts to remove the taint of sin from their souls.  Dostoevsky was not orthodox in his beliefs; his Christianity is much less dependent upon the forms and rituals, instead emphasizing human yearnings for freedom regardless of strong or weak adherence to Orthodox beliefs.

Each of the three legitimate Karamazov brothers portray different approaches to reconciling their father's murder with their own understanding of the world and their role in it.  In sharp contrast stands their father and their bastard half-brother, Smerdyakov.  Each character can be viewed simultaneously as being well-realized, dynamic characters and as being symbols for the struggles inherent between body, mind, and soul for primacy.  It is almost impossible to discuss this without providing copious quotes, but it should suffice to say that this novel is rife with each character's relationship with social attitudes on religion and its conflict with contemporary social theories, as well as how one should live his/her life in an increasingly materialistic world.

There are very few weaknesses.  Although I usually complain about the quality of the Easton Press translations, the Garnett/Yarmolinsky does not impede the reader's enjoyment of the story Dostoevsky tells.  This is not to say, however, that this translation is great; it gives the gist of Dostoevsky's prose and mannerisms, but with the sense in a few places that a few subtleties are being missed in the translation into English.  The execution of Dostoevsky's thematic treatment of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha's characters manages to avoid the extremes of languid self-indulgence and rushed sketchiness.  Each character arc is well-plotted and the union of theme and action is nearly flawless.  The only real complaint one might make is that Dostoevsky never lived to complete his ambitious plan for Alyosha in a sequel.  Truly a classic novel.


Spencer said...

I consider this to be the greatest book ever written (although I'm not nearly so well read as you), so I was pleased to read your review. Next time you read it you should read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation; in my opinion it's the best of the bunch.

Chad Hull said...

Ditto everything Spencer said.

Except I think Notes from Underground is more everything (I can't think of the right word) than Brothers Karamazov. I also don't think Notes is a 'novel.' Brothers is much more ambitious in multitude of themes, progression, and development but... oh well. I think I'm having an internal argument between my 'favorite' and what I think is the 'best' book written.

Larry said...

I'll try to keep that translation in mind, as I read this old one only because I'm reading/reviewing books from the Easton Press (and occasionally Franklin Library) 100 Greatest Books Ever Written limited-edition collection.

Daniel Ausema said...

I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation last year, and I agree that it served the novel well--I'd read another translation a dozen years ago (by Princess Alexandra Kropotkin?) and...I'd appreciated the book but hadn't really enjoyed it, and found the reread (whether due to translation or simply it being a reread with me older) to be far more powerful.

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