Oh my, do I have a book hangover! It’s taken me a long time to take the plunge and dive into this book, because I think I knew it would become all-consuming – and I was right! The read of it – nearly 900 pages of smallish type – has taken longer than it would have usually done owing to Life getting in the way on a regular basis. But in some ways it has kept me sane recently, and I reached the end last weekend in a flurry of emotion. BK is definitely one of those life-changing books and I fear I won’t be able to do justice to it. I have had to take a few days to give myself some emotional distance from the book to be able to consider it, so strongly did I become involved in it; however, for what it’s worth here are my thoughts!

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“The Brothers Karamazov” was Dostoevsky’s last book, and many consider it his masterpiece, a distillation of all his thoughts and beliefs and the books that have gone before. It’s hard to approach it afresh, but I had little knowledge of it apart from a few fragments – it’s about a parricide, family rivalry and religion, according to many write-ups, and was enormously influential on other writers such as Bulgakov.

The eponymous brothers are Dmitry, Ivan and Aleksey, sons of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a drunken, licentious landowner. The eldest, Dmitry (Mitya) has a different mother from the other two, and all three are abandoned and neglected by their father, who more often than not forgets they even exist. As well as this, he is reputed to have cheated Mitya out of an inheritance from his mother. Ivan and Aleksey (Alyosha) share the same mother but are ostensibly very different in character. Ivan is a modern man, progressive and intellectual in his outlook, and sceptical about religion and the old ways. Alyosha, whom FDD describes as his hero, is a pure-natured young man, a disciple of the Elder Zosima in the local monastery and halfway to monkhood himself.

And then there is Smerdyakov….. It’s not giving too much away to say that he is an illegitimate Karamazov, as this is made quite clear early on in the book. The result of a drunken encounter between old man Karamazov and a local simpleton known as “the Stinker”, he is a strange, bitter, twisted individual who acts as cook and servant for his father. All of the boys have been cared for during their life by the manservant Grigory, who is also notionally in charge of Smerdyakov.

This would be a difficult enough family set up at the best of times, but it becomes complicated by love as both Fyodor and his son Mitya become total bewitched and obsessed by a local kept woman, Grushenka. The intense rivalry between them will eventually bring matters to a head, resulting in the murder (which doesn’t actually take place until halfway through the book). The murder will result in a chase, a trial, a verdict and a number of further complications….

But this is not all, and in some ways a description like this does not really say what the book is about. There are a number of sub-plots and side-plots and digressions and tales that could stand on their own (FMD is nothing if not a discursive writer!) One particular chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor” is often pulled out and allowed to stand on its own, being a tale told by Ivan about Christ visiting the earth and being denied by the Inquisitor for upsetting the status quo and taking away man’s dependence on God, giving him a freedom he cannot deal with.

“Oh we shall permit them sin, too, they are weak and powerless, and they will love us like children for letting them sin. We shall tell them that every sin can be redeemed as long as it is committed with our leave; we are allowing them to sin because we love them, and as of the punishment for those sins, very well, we shall take it upon ourselves. And we shall take it upon ourselves, and they will worship us as benefactors who have assumed responsibility for their sins before God… The most agonizing secrets of their conscience – all, all will they bring to us, and we shall resolve it all, and they will attend our decision with joy, because it will deliver them from the great anxiety and fearsome torments of free and individual decision.”

Then there is the plot of Ilyusha and the boys, Liza and Alyosha, the considerable amount of time given to the monastery and the Elder Zosima in the early parts of the book. All of this perhaps seems a little random until you realise that the book is about generational conflict in all its forms.

“Never, prompted by science or self interest alone, will human beings be able to share their property and their privileges in harmless fashion. None will consider that he has enough, and all will grumble, envying and destroying one another.”

It is important to realise that FMD initially planned a book about children and childhood, but shortly after announcing this his two-year old son Alyosha died of epilepsy. Wracked by grief, the author travelled to the Optima Hermitage and the book as we know it began to take form. BK is still very much about children and childhood, but also about the conflicts between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. When the reader realises this, all the elements make much more sense.

“The world has proclaimed freedom , particularly of late, and yet what do we see in this freedom of theirs: nothing but servitude and suicide! For the world says: ‘You have needs, so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the wealthiest and mostly highly placed of men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even multiply them’ – that is the present-day teaching of the world. In that too they see freedom. And what is the result of this right to the multiplication of needs? Among the rich, solitariness and spiritual suicide, and among the poor – envy and murder, for while they have been given rights, they have not yet been afforded the means with which to satisfy their needs.”

There is an underlying theme of the sufferings of children: whether it is the titular Brothers, mistreated and neglected when young; the schoolboys, particularly the long-suffering Ilyusha; the tortured infants who fate is so gruesomely related in Ivan’s anguished narrative; or the “Bairn” who haunts Mitya’s thoughts and dreams, tormenting him. The brothers are all looking for a father figure and failing to find it – not from their own relative, nor from the church. The local children persecute each other and suffer for each other – llyusha’s story is tragic and harrowing, as in defending his father from Mitya, he initially makes enemies of his fellows, and then falls ill. The boy Kostya has no father and a complex relationship with his mother, so is drawn to Alyosha who has become a role model for the boys.

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In a twist on the familial plot, there are Liza and her mother. Initially, Liza is an invalid in a chair, capricious and temperamental, in love with Alyosha but unwilling to admit it and instead constantly teasing him. She makes her mother’s life a misery until in a sudden change of places, her mother develops a bad foot after Liza’s lameness is cured. It is quite clear that FMD thinks that children are the only pure creatures, unstained by sin – exemplified by the fact that the so-called holy Zosima’s body putrefies with indecent haste after his death, causing a terrible furore; whereas a departed child still smells sweet as he comes to be buried.

The woman in BK are a varied and intriguing bunch, from Grushenka, imperious, independent, astute and happy to play with men’s affections, until she discovers a real love; Katerina Ivanova, in love with both Ivan and Mitya, engaged to Mitya yet hankering after his brother, a mixture of passion and malevolence and who has a pivotal role in the trial; ‘little Mother’, Ilyusha’s demented parent who has lost all anchoring in reality; and the widow Mrs. Khokhlakova, Liza’s mother, who seems to spend most of her time in a state of hysteria.

BK is full of wonderful characters – the Elder Zosima, the dying monk who is Alyosha’s spiritual guide and father figure; the many other monks in the monastery; Grigory the servant and his wife; and so on! It’s a testimony to Dostoevsky’s skill as a writer that all of these characters are real, live people (and are probably going to haunt my imagination for a long time!) In some ways, the richness, depth and complexity of this book suggested to me a Russian Dickens (and the two men met and corresponded – see the article here) , but with less of the saccharine sentimental moralising that can creep into Dickens – perhaps owing to their different countries of birth and national character. There’s also plenty of dry and robust humour:

“This upper storey was composed of a number of large state-rooms furnished according to the taste of antique merchantdom, with long, dreary rows of ungainly mahogany chairs and armchairs along the walls, crystal chandeliers in dustcovers, and gloomy mirrors in the piers between the windows. All these rooms were completely empty and uninhabited, because the sick old man skulked away in only one small room….”

But what of the three main brothers? Mitya is initially perceived to be the most like his father: wild, drunk, impetuous and unable to control his passion for Grushenka. He is consumed by his emotions and despite his high spirits and tempestuous behaviour, he does have standards and is adamant that though he may a scoundrel and a possible murderer, he is not a thief. Ivan, the middle child, is outwardly very different – rational, a non-believer and an intellectual, seemingly detached from his father and the over-the-top Karamazov behaviour. But as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that he is not what he seems, harbouring deep passions himself and deep secrets. One of the other characters comments that he is the most like his father and it must take some self-control to hide this; self-control which gives out towards the end of the book.

Then there is the hero Alyosha, the youngest of the family, a proto-monk who looks for good in everyone. He is not perfect (no human will be) but his goodness does shine out throughout the story. He is a calming, balancing factor in the lives of those around him, a hero for the boys of the town and support for his father and brothers who all love him. I can’t help imagining him as my favourite Russian actor, Aleksandr Abdulov!

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“(Alyosha) did not even stop in the porchway, but swiftly went down the steps. His soul, filled with ecstasy, thirsted for freedom, space, latitude. Above him wide and boundless keeled the cupola of the heavens, full of quiet, brilliant stars. Doubled from zenith to horizon ran the Milky Way. as yet unclear. The cool night, quiet to the point of fixity, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the cathedral sparkled in the sapphire sky. In the flowerbeds luxuriant autumn flowers had fallen asleep until morning. The earth’s silence seemed to fuse with that of the heavens, the earth’s mystery came into contact with that of the stars…. Alyosha stood, looked and suddenly cast himself down upon the earth like one who has had the legs cut from under him.”

The brothers go through many trials together, falling out, making up and experiencing suffering and joy. Ivan and Alyosha are there when Mitya comes to trial – when push comes to shove, blood *is* thicker than water and despite all that has gone on between them, they will try to rescue their brother. The book ends in an unresolved but somehow satisfactory matter – the brothers’ final fates are left open-ended, but this does not really matter as there is still hope and life goes on.

There are some remarkably striking and vivid set pieces in the book. The chapter where Ivan meets the Devil is justifiably famous, as Ivan wrestles with his illness and argues with the darker side (whose improbable appearance was purloined by Bulgakov for his character Koroviev in “The Master and Margarita” – BK really is an influential book). There is much about morals, religion, the meaning of things, life and death, yes – all of which is readable and fascinating. But there is also the thumping good tale of the Karamazovs, a lively, varied and unforgettable bunch. I loved this book to pieces and I can see why it’s called D’s masterpiece.

(As an aside, I read the Penguin Classics version, the David McDuff translation which was amazingly readable and contained excellent notes – an exemplary edition which has set me off on another translation binge – more to follow on this…..)

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