Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Brothers Karamazov

Every couple of years I re-read Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.  This latest endeavor was for last night's book club, and neither of my compatriots had yet experienced this masterpiece.  I was so happy that everyone enjoyed this new translation, and the book remains my favorite of all time.

The plot of the novel centers around the life and family of the unsavory Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a small-time swindler and the neglectful (at best) father of three legitimate - and probably one illegitimate - sons. None of the sons grew up in Fyodor's household, but they all return to their small hometown in the opening chapters.  Dmitri Fyodorovich is the oldest, and somewhat of a scoundrel himself.  He spent his youth wildly and irresponsibly, spending beyond his means, charming women, drinking and carousing.  Ivan Fyodorovich left his childhood home to attend school and never returned.  Alexei Fyodorovich, considered by the narrator to be the hero of this book, is young and saintly, living in a monastery as the book opens.

Fyodor makes an immediately unpleasant impression on the reader, who soon learns that there is a great deal of near-violent conflict between Fyodor and Dmitri, over both money and the love of a woman.  Tensions exist between each of the brothers as well, with the exception of Dmitri and Alexei.  And it isn't long before Fyodor is murdered in cold blood, with all suspicions falling on Dmitri.  The crime, the investigation and the trial are riveting; it is so modern that with a few tweaks (cars instead of troikas, for example) it could happen today.  As with any Russian novel, there are numerous sidelines and back stories and digressions, some of which are as poignant as the core action.

Whether because of this wonderful translation, or because I've read the book enough times the plot was familiar to me, I discovered quite a few new things this time around.  First of all, it's a small thing, but I hadn't realized that the name Karamazov translates quite literally into "black smear"; Dostoevsky does not hide that he intends this family to be doomed.  Second, this is a really funny book.  There are lines that made me laugh out loud (such as when the pious monastic Elder Zosima tells Fyodor, "Do not give yourself up to drunkenness and verbal incontinence."), and entire scenes that border on ridiculous.

Most notably, it was not until this re-read that I realized that the narrator is an important character in his own right.  He is never identified, though we can infer based on where he sits during the trial that he's a man of some importance in the town.  He is omniscient for all intents and purposes, but he is by no means impartial.  He says from the onset that Alexei is his hero; he speaks of Dmitri's impending downfall from the beginning; and he peppers his narrative with unnecessary clauses or fixates on a word for a page or two without every using it again.  This drove a great deal of criticism when Brothers K was published, but it adds a truly fascinating layer to the story.

I stand by my assertion that this is the best book ever written.  If you have never read it, procrastinate no longer!

Next up: For book club, Easter Island, which was written by Jennifer Vanderbes, a college friend of mine.  I'm also going to squeeze in Herzog by Saul Bellow before starting that one.

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