My Belated Book Report on The Brothers Karamazov

 

The Brothers Karamazov is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final masterpiece. It offers superb characterization, psychological depth and insight; intrigue, murder, and suspense; great daubs of humor, both madcap broadsides and satirical with a capital slice; that never-ending, cyclonical struggle between faith and reason; a sublimely Slavic melange of love, lust, deception, betrayal, violence, flight, revenge, apostasy, and redemption—capped off by a court trial scene that overrules Perry Mason and, in the renowned chapter The Grand Inquisitor, a full-court press by an impassioned Hierarch against Jesus’ abandonment of mankind to a terrifying freedom and overwhelming spiritual responsibility it neither wanted nor could manage that alone is worth the price of the book.

All right, I didn’t write the paragraph above (stole it from here), but it’s similar to what I would have cribbed from my CliffsNotes had I spent high school reading classics instead of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the D&D Monster Manual. A few years back I decided to make up for my literature deficit by reading at least one classic a year. Liked Moby Dick, loved The Kalevala, and 2016 was the year I’d finally read the book that smart people have told me to read for decades, The Brothers Karamazov. So what did I think of this, the greatest Russian novel ever written?

Eh. It was a bit of slog.

Fifty-three pages on a philosophical discussion in a monastery. Seventy-five pages on a trial’s closing arguments. Entire chapters written as a single paragraph. Referring to main characters with a blizzard of interchangeable and often unpronounceable names (Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, aka, Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alxeichick, Lyosha, Lyoshenka). Hey, I get the Russkie tendency toward verbosity and depression, but throw me a bone here, Fyodor. Couldn’t you reward your long-suffering reader with a fun ending instead of a sick child’s funeral? At least have Alyosha/Alyoshka/Alyoshenka making out with a buxom Gypsy girl during the wake.

Look, I’m glad I read it. “The Grand Inquisitor” section was impressive. I liked the interplay of faith and reason at the dawn of the scientific age. But the main reason I’m glad I finished The Brothers Karamazov is that I get to brag to people that I read The Brothers Karamazov. I’m dropping this new fact into unrelated conversations. I preface statements about football and pizza with “As Dostoevsky said.” When others admit they never read the book, I give them a sympathetic look and say, “you really must.” And then I soak in their shame at not being a Learned Man of Letters like myself.

But, let’s face it — the book is still a slog. By page 876, Ayn Rand was mumbling, “yo, Fyodor, wrap it up already.” So I have a few suggestions for a Karamazov reboot that will make it a lot more exciting to the modern reader:

  • Explosions.
  • When the drunken Dmitri walks into the sunlight, he turns into a Sparkly Vampire.
  • Drag race through downtown Skotoprigonyevsk.
  • At least eight chapters with a “50 Shades of Grushenka” vibe.
  • Have a dragon tear through the town market halfway through. Or a spaceship.
  • A Quidditch match.

Let me know what you think of the most recent Great Book that you’ve read, or The Brothers Karamazov itself. And if you haven’t read it yet … you really must.

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There are 77 comments.

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  1. Member

    Thanks for the review. I have been meaning to read it but I always kept picking it up and putting it down. So after the third time, I stopped. Because that isn’t a sign of a good book. Ex: I should’ve known with my struggles with Pynchon. When do Against the Day and Gravity’s Rainbow get good? (They don’t.)

    Is it really a good book? Your review was clear and it doesn’t seem like it was a good book. Describing it as a slog seems like a count against it. Maybe I should just read “The Grand Inquisitor” section?

    Must admit, I haven’t read any Great Books recently. Over the summer I had time. But I used it for class and catching up on the video-game backlog and going through some old Thor.

    One night I couldn’t get to sleep and I read @andrewklavan Werewolf Cop (I have difficulty resisting werewolf and vampire stuff) and that was not a slog. It was briskly paced, cleanly plotted, and had good, clear, scene setting and relatable characters. He got in and got out. I was very pleased to have read it!

    I doubt I’ll pick up anything that isn’t related to my class work but I’ll probably cross Brothers off my list. For fiction, I guess I’d read something by Tom Wolfe. He’s been on my list for a while.

    • #1
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:11 PM PDT
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  2. Member

    Having heard it mentioned on one of the many Ricochet Podcasts I listen to (don’t remember which), I reread Stoner by John Williams. It is even better than I had remembered from my first reading. William Stoner is himself a wonderful, three dimensional character, but the book is full of many such characters, all of whom are totally recognizable. It is a simple story, an American story, yet it captures so much of the glories and tragedies of every life. No one lives a perfect life. No one’s life is without hardship and loss, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but within each life there are also the wins, the glories, and the simple joys. Stoner recounts such a life, and it is a life not without significance. Beautifully written in simple language, a book that is very hard to put down even though there are no great conflicts or daredevil feats or hair raising moments. Perhaps, one of the best books I have ever read.

    Having finished it, I was in the mood for another such book, also on my list of favorite reads, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. I have just begun to read it again. As to Dostoevsky, I got into Russian novels in my senior year in high school. I read a slew of them, walked around in a state of depression of nearly a year. The image of the endless snow covered steppes, no appeal. No longer my cup of tea.

    • #2
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:12 PM PDT
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  3. Thatcher

    Jon,

    I thought the post was going to be about the greatest Yul Brenner movies ever.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #3
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:26 PM PDT
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  4. Member

    I’ve told this tale here before. In college, I read the full text of Crime and Punishment over a single weekend in preparation for a test. My roommate read the CliffsNotes version. He got an A on the test; I got a C. Lesson learned.

    • #4
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:32 PM PDT
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  5. Member

    I’m a big fan of The Brothers Karamazov, though I’ve never read it. I’ve listened to it via Audible. It didn’t seem so much of a slog in the audio version. It’s a complicated book, and I agree that the Russian names make it more difficult.

    It’s near the top of my list of favorite books, maybe #2 after the Bible. It is an extraordinary presentation of Christianity (represented by the saintly brother, Alexei/Alyosha), and a great indictment of the bankruptcy of the materialist/socialist world view (represented by the rationalist brother, Ivan).

    SPOILER ALERT

    I love the plot twist about the “fourth” brother Karamazov. If you don’t know the book, there are three brothers Karamazov. The eldest is Dmitri, the irresponsible man of passion. The second son is Ivan, the intellectual, who is rationalist, materialist, and socialist. The third son is the saintly Alexei, the man of faith.

    The central plot point is the murder of their father, Fyodor, a horrible sensualist, irresponsible father, and fairly wealthy man. The prime suspect is Dmitri.

    The great twist is that the real murderer is the fourth brother, Fyodor’s servant and probable illegitimate son, Smerdyakov. He confesses to Ivan that he murdered Fyodor, at Ivan’s indirect instruction. Ivan, who is descending into madness, seems uncertain about whether he intended this result.

    And yes, I was also reading the Monster Manual back in high school, instead of improving myself.

    • #5
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:34 PM PDT
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  6. Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: The Brothers Karamazov is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final masterpiece. It offers…..

    zzzZZZZZZzzzz

    • #6
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:41 PM PDT
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  7. Member

    Boy, you must have LOVED Moby Dick. These turgid volumes are best read secluded somewhere far from the allure of computer and smartphone notifications. Someplace, like the mid 90s, which is when I first read Karamazov while in High School. Besides being a detailed look into how Russian culture values and disseminates power–there isn’t much of a straightforward plot to follow and is more an entanglement of deep sub-text (which seems excessive for a book with plenty of text-text). So, if you were looking for Ayn Rand’s more *ahem* objective analogies, you were left wanting. (im still lol-ling over Ayn pointing to the Wrap it up box)

    That said, I loved Karamazov, it is perhaps my favorite of all the Russian novels. Fyodor has been analysed to represent many things: The self-deluded Western Civilization, drunk on individualism; Nicolas I and his steadily crumbling regime, drunk on power (who also sent the author into Siberian Exile for reading a book); Being they have the same names, Fyodor Dostoevsky himself, drunk on vodka. This is just the tip of the iceberg, not going into any details about the heroism and folly of the sons. I think of Dostoevsky as Russia’s Author. The best representation of the fundamental psyche of that country. I would say the same about Dickens and England, Twain and America.

    Currently, I’ve been trying to work through ‘The Idiot’ by Dostoevsky but WOW, its a bit thick with antisemitism. Yikes.

    • #7
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:42 PM PDT
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  8. Podcaster

    The title is just too pretentious for me.

    What are you listening to? The Sisters Andrews.

    We don’t do that in the USofA. Epic story of five brothers? The Fighting Sullivans.

    • #8
    • August 21, 2016, at 3:59 PM PDT
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  9. Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: A few years back I decided to make up for my literature deficit by reading at least one classic a year.

    As Mark Twain said:

    “′Classic′ – a book which people praise and don’t read.”

    Although I did read it and I will be forever in debt to @arizonapatriot for explaining it to me in 4 paragraphs.

    • #9
    • August 21, 2016, at 4:05 PM PDT
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  10. Member

    EJHill:The title is just too pretentious for me.

    What are you listening to? The Sisters Andrews.

    The Brothers Blues?

    • #10
    • August 21, 2016, at 4:05 PM PDT
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  11. Member

    There is a SF story with interesting parallels to the Grand Inquisitor sequence in Karamazov. It was written by George RR Martin, best known for Game of Thrones, and features Father Damien Har Veris, a Knight Inquisitor of the One True Interstellar Catholic Church of Earth and the Thousand Worlds. The whole thing is online here:

    The Way of Cross and Dragon

    • #11
    • August 21, 2016, at 4:06 PM PDT
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  12. Thatcher

    Culture is wasted on some people.

    That said, a drag race would be cool.

    • #12
    • August 21, 2016, at 4:16 PM PDT
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  13. Member

    Percival:Culture is wasted on some people.

    That said, a drag race would be cool.

    Crime and Punishment: Fast and Furious

    • #13
    • August 21, 2016, at 4:20 PM PDT
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  14. Member

    Read Bros. K last year pretty much for the same reason you did: because like Mount Everest, it’s there. I too found it a slog, though only in certain sections. The trial scene towards the end is interminable. Otherwise I found it quite interesting, especially as a portrait of mid-nineteenth century Russia. I will re-read it several years hence when I’m a lot smarter.

    For those who want to delve a bit further, here’s a take on Fyodor from a gent who knows his business:

    • #14
    • August 21, 2016, at 4:29 PM PDT
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  15. Member

    I enjoyed the Brothers Karamtzov but then again I’m a sucker for digressions–I thought Victor Hugo’s account of Waterloo was the best part of Le Mis, historical inaccuracies and all. Personally though I got more out of The Idiot which seemed to have more of a unitary theme. Also, it’s more interesting to see Dostoyevsky put his own beliefs on trial than engage in Slavophile scolding of the west, however brilliantly couched. My favorite though have been Dostoyevsky’s shorter works particularly The Double and Notes from the underground.

    I had a friend in college who majored in Russian literature who told me that you either appreciate Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky but not both. Having tried to pick up War and Peace more than once, I’ve been inclined to take her word for it.

    • #15
    • August 21, 2016, at 4:33 PM PDT
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  16. Member

    Gaius:

    I had a friend in college who majored in Russian literature who told me that you either appreciate Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky but not both. Having tried to pick up War and Peace more than once, I’ve been inclined to take her word for it.

    Eh. I loved “Crime and Punishment” and “Anna Karenina”. Never got through “War and Peace” though.

    • #16
    • August 21, 2016, at 5:05 PM PDT
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  17. Inactive

    Do I have to be the pretentious one here? Okay, I can do that.

    I first read it years ago and I enjoyed parts but I bogged down for stretches too. I didn’t pick it up again until less than a year ago and the second time I enjoyed it immensely. In fact I’m half way through it again.

    The central point around which the whole book revolves I now know really is the key question in life: What is the basis of ethics? The realization that without God, all is allowed is the backbone of the thing and the story and characters shine light on it from all angles.

    A key to enjoying the story is to really nail the identity of the characters down as you meet them; it’s easy to get confused because of the long Russian names and particularly the Diminutives (shortened, and not so short, variations). It takes some effort to sort them out at first, but take your time. It’s worth it. You won’t meet a more interesting bunch of characters anywhere, from sordid to pitiful to lovable.

    I thought that Nietzsche was the first popularizer of the concept of without God all is allowed, but Dostoevsky preceded him, and in fact, Nietzsche read Dostoevsky. This concept is the real divide between the Right and the Left and this book focuses on it like no other.

    • #17
    • August 21, 2016, at 5:27 PM PDT
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  18. Inactive

    @exjon

    Like you I resolved to read at least one great European novel a year. In my case the habit began 12 years ago and always around Thanksgiving. First up, of course, was “War and Peace,” (Original title – “War, What Is It Good For?”)

    I read the “Brothers Karamazov” a few years ago. My reaction was exactly the same as yours. It has succeeded in keeping me from “Crime and Punishment.”

    Because your reaction was like mine I have a word of advice for you:

    Stay away from “The Magic Mountain.”

    • #18
    • August 21, 2016, at 5:31 PM PDT
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  19. Member

    John Gabriel:

    Did you read it in Russian? I’m asking because English translations usually don’t give more than the full name (including the patronymic) and one shorter name. Translators know that English-speaking readers don’t get it; they don’t associate that many names with the character. Russians don’t have that problem, as a rule. Every first name is associated with half a dozen nicknames, and they know them all

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    • August 21, 2016, at 5:32 PM PDT
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  20. Podcaster

    twvolck: Did you read it in Russian?

    I think he read it from the original hand-written pages.

    • #20
    • August 21, 2016, at 5:48 PM PDT
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  21. Chief
    Jon Gabriel, Ed. Post author

    twvolck:John Gabriel:

    Did you read it in Russian?

    Nyet.

    • #21
    • August 21, 2016, at 5:49 PM PDT
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  22. Member

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.:

    twvolck:John Gabriel:

    Did you read it in Russian?

    Nyet.

    In Russian? I’m confused. I read it in the original Klingonese.

    • #22
    • August 21, 2016, at 5:52 PM PDT
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  23. Member

    I read Crime and Punishment years ago. A ‘slog’ is exactly how I would describe it. Since then I haven’t wanted to read anything by Dostoyevsky.

    Weirdly I never found War and Peace to be a slog, quiet enjoyed it.

    • #23
    • August 21, 2016, at 5:54 PM PDT
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  24. Member

    Severely Ltd.:

    A key to enjoying the story is to really nail the identity of the characters down as you meet them; it’s easy to get confused because of the long Russian names and particularly the Diminutives (shortened, and not so short, variations). It takes some effort to sort them out at first, but take your time. It’s worth it. You won’t meet a more interesting bunch of characters anywhere, from sordid to pitiful to lovable.

    An excellent point, which raises the question of Translations. Diminutives are almost universal through-out languages, however their meanings contrast greatly. In Romance languages -ita, ika, ette, etc are usually a connotation of familiarity and love but through context and intentional switch of the masculine and feminine, they can be pejorative . Cesar Augustus was often mocked as Augustulus to conflate his small stature with a lack of power (see: Little Marco). In Russian and Arabic, diminutives are everywhere, marking first and last names, places, emotional regard ranging from infatuated love to utter revilement. During the Cold War, we almost came to ICBM blows over the misuse of diminutives–I can’t help but wonder how many of our problems in Iraq and Syria stem from the Communication Breakdown diminutives create.

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    • August 21, 2016, at 5:57 PM PDT
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  25. Inactive

    My wife was a Russian major, which led indirectly to our living in Kazakhstan for a couple of years. While there, I read TBK and Anna Karenina. I liked them both, but I was living in a country where it was 40 below in the winter and the only English channels we got for our $35 a month cable bill was cricket on ESPN and the Bollywood version of Mtv, so there was not much in the way of distractions.

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    • August 21, 2016, at 6:12 PM PDT
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  26. Inactive

    Thanks for the breakdown, the book remains on my list to tackle this year. I read Crime and Punishment at the start of the year. I admit there were parts that dragged, and over all it has a somewhat depressed tone. Still, once you get pass that there are some really humorous parts and the end is really redeeming.

    I’ll see how The Brothers treats me this fall.

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    • August 21, 2016, at 7:08 PM PDT
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  27. Inactive

    With trembling hands I am going to read Crime and Punishment. I mean with a title like that it’s going to be a Russian 50 Shades of Grey, right?

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    • August 21, 2016, at 7:12 PM PDT
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  28. Thatcher

    blank generation member:With trembling hands I am going to read Crime and Punishment. I mean with a title like that it’s going to be a Russian 50 Shades of Grey, right?

    Nah. It’s definitely on the dark side, but not like that.

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    • August 21, 2016, at 7:23 PM PDT
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  29. Member

    Severely Ltd.: without God, all is allowed

    I read it many years ago, and it taught me the above although, in the version I read, it was “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” That lesson alone made reading it worth the effort.

    • #29
    • August 21, 2016, at 8:01 PM PDT
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  30. Inactive

    If you want to read great 19th-century novels, you can’t miss with Dickens, especially “Bleak House” and “Great Expectations.”

    “Anna Karenina,” this past year’s choice, was also fantastic, better to me than “War and Peace.” (Tolstoy said “Anna” was his first true novel.) Don’t be put off by what appears to be a thin plot, the doomed love affair of Anna, a 19th-century Russian wife with a cavalryman, Vronsky, spread over 800 pages. It’s the “minor” characters – Stiva, Karenin, Levin and especially Dolly – who truly make the novel.

    This year the selection I’ll be starting on Thanksgiving Day is George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” despite having read “Silas Marner” in high school.

    • #30
    • August 21, 2016, at 8:04 PM PDT
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