Thursday, 25 July 2019

Go Out at the Top: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Artistic output is a funny thing.  It is rare that the artist/musician/writer proceeds in a linear way hence it is unusual for the last work they produce to be the pinnacle of their achievements.  It's a lot more complicated that.  In the modern world with the emphasis on producing output the opposite can quite often be true - the best thing someone does is up first.

The aging process normally has an effect too - so Mozart's posthumous Requiem Mass, the late and multiple flowering of Philip Roth's latter output of novels from 1997 (Aged 63 onwards),the Matisse cutouts (late 70s onward) and David Bowie's last two albums ( released 3 years and 1 day before his death) are exceptions.  But to this group I would add Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov.  A massive fulfilling novel which I think is his best - written when FD was in his late 50s and published one year before his death - he died at 60.  I think it is the culmination of all his work and is really one of the best novels ever written.

It took me a  long time to get here as outlined on this blog I have spent the last 8 years reading all of FD's novels in order which again underlines the impact of the novel's strength.  Like distance running reading these books does take a big commitment.  You have to live with the big chunky ones for months.  My copy of the Brothers was with me for at least 7 months - now with a broken spine and indelible coffee stains - the paperback that is.   But whereas in particular with the last two major works of his that I read - Demons and the Adolescent  you can wobble a bit as the pace and the focus is lost the commitment is easy to maintain with the Brothers Karamazov.

Why then is it so good?  Well ironically one of the biggest reasons is one that I won't be fully able to cover in a blog post and that is the novel is massive.  Not just in the number of pages but in its content, ideas and characterisation.  It really is about eight  novels in one -   amongst these are a family saga (obviously), a love story, an exploration of religion, a murder mystery (honestly) and a courtroom drama.  That Dost holds this together in a coherent and fluid way could only really be done by an experienced writer at the top of his game.  It is a book you could really get obsessed with as I note Albert Camus did - trying to put on a stage production of it over several years

The framework of the novel is provided by the titular brothers and their relationship with each other  and several additional characters most significantly their father - a buffoon, terrible parent and abusive man - bravely called Fyodor (!) Karamazov.  It is not only his forename that Dostoevsky gives to this family group though - Ivan, Dmitry (a half brother of the other two) and Alexei  - probably not coincidentally 3 of the most Russian male names you could get but each of the men seem to espouse or personify some element of thought that FD had either promoted at some point of his life or had polemicised against.

One of the many enthralling things about the book is to see how Dost's own experience intertwines with it - there is a minor plot line in it about the death of a young child - FD's own son also called Alexei died 2 years prior to the book's publication.  One of the characters critically suffers from epilepsy as FD did himself.

Yet even the title of the book is not what they seem because one other man the servant Smerdyakov - who as the book progresses we can either see as a master villain or an annoying fool- is an illegitimate offspring of Karamazov.  So another brother enters the field,  And as I pointed out in the last review of the Adolescent - being illegitimate literally made you nameless in Russia at that time. 
In a way each brother represents elements of nineteenth century Russia -  Alexei (named by the invisible narrator as the hero of the piece) is a novice monk at the beginning of the work giving it up by the end, Ivan seems to be a radical atheist influenced by Western ideas - though he gets a rude awakening and collapses by the end and Dmitry is a romantic hero - an ex-soldier and at the heart of the intrigue of the book. 

But that is a bit superficial as the characters are more than just ciphers that FD is using to make a point - a criticism that you could have made in some of his earlier novels.  Another striking part of this 1880 work is the relevance of the human characterisation - the quirks and machinations of humans have not changed that much. FD proves himself to be an adept analyst of our condition.
In this way it is almost relentlessly contemporary.  For example there are a number of teenage and even child characters in the book - some suggest that Dost wanted to write a book focused on youth completely - one is a young teenage disabled girl who self harms (slamming her fingers in doors)  clearly not just a 21st century problem, one is a cock-sure 13 year old who thinks he knows it all.  Dostoevsky's ability to explain and analyse the roots of these feelings and characters is something many modern novelists could learn from.

The inter-generational dispute between Fyodor and his sons - in particular Dmitry who had a brutal upbringing as the oldest - forms the centre of the work but is reflected in smaller sub-plots about father and child relationships.  Fyodor as well as being an eejit is a dissolute character - or "voluptuary" as the work has it - commonly discarding women and not facing his responsibilities particularly as regards his children.  The dispute in the Karamazov household is about love and money.  A disputed inheritance and a sort of love triangle  between Fyodor and Dmitry with generally disinterested Grushenka - a woman who has been continually exploited by men throughout her life - and is viewed as a "Jezebel" by the local community.  Another triangle intersects that as Dmitry is nominally engaged to Katerina  jjealous of Grushenska but who may or may not be in love with Ivan.  So far so complicated but these settings really form the background to human interactions and discussion of broader philosophical context.

Currently in Western society particularly the UK and the USA there is a heavy promotion of  TV - binging on box sets of shows etc.  In many instances this is just a marketing issue with a lot of  mediocre telly repackaged but the very best of it - the Sopranos, Six Feet Under, the Wire is praised for its incredible narrative structure.   But reading this novel a lot of this innovation was used here.

For example 2/3 of the way through the novel  to ditch all the main characters and introduce a new one (the obnoxious teenager) and spend a few chapters developing him until it becomes clear what his relation  is to the whole plot and dynamic of the novel.  Critics would swoon at this being done on the telly but here it is brilliant and compelling. 

Equally the narrative around Smerdyakov in  the book is almost turned on it head near the end of the work : a Keyser Soze moment or from literature Uriah Heep.  Is he a fool or has he manipulated all of the characters for his villainous ends?  Similar to the Usual Suspects movie there is a point when you think you could re-read the whole book and get a completely different perspective. 

So alongside real human characterisation are these structural devices which really challenge the form of the novel - a major achievement  for a nineteenth century work.  As I am reading all of Dost's work in translation I cannot comment on the beauty of the prose - as in English it is someone else's words but these other elements more than make up for the absence of the original language. 

The mastery of this writing means that when Dostoevsky indulges in his musings on religion, the Russian character and how they relate to each other it does not unbalance the novel and make you wish you could skip a few pages.  For example one conversation between Ivan and Alexei takes the form of a distinct parable which stands removed from the rest of the work - it is labelled The Grand Inquistor.  In fact it has been published separately and even a short film has been made of it with John Gielgud.  It covers Jesus being resurrected and showing up in the middle of the Spanish Inquistion - where the Inquisitor has a long rant at him and eventually  concludes he must be executed as he is a challenge to the earthbound authority.  Essentially covering the tension between the purity of Christianity (and religion in general) and the reality of the instutionalisation of that belief system .  One cannot co-exist alongside the other.  It is also a dig at the Catholic  Church  - a common theme in FD's work.

This passage is difficult to read in comparison to the rest of the work and the closest that Dostoevesky gets to the tangential ramblings in his other big books but even this is done at a much better level.  It also informs the full work as Ivan is essentially ranting at Alexei the novice monk but by the end of the work the tables are turned and Ivan is having a crisis of conscience of his views.

The politics of nineteenth century Russia never far from FD's mind are actually pretty hidden here.  The only character that explicitly voices radical Western socialist-like ideas is the obnoxious teenager -here it is seen only as immaturity. There is none of the unbalanced polemic against radical change that so unbalanced Demons as a novel and gets Jordan Peterson and others so excited.  The work really goes beyond that which is another reason it works so well. 
The fulcrum of the work just over half way is the murder of (NOT REALLY A SPOILER ALERT) Fyodor with Dmitry in the frame for it.  Did he do it?  Again at a superficial level this is a murder mystery but actually by the end of the work you are not really sure  - it is still up for question.  Again to use another artistic form like a good movie you could be debating the end of it for hours with friends.  So once someone else has finished it let me know!

The murder for me comes in the midst of the best part of the book - Part 3 of the work - particularly the chapters called Mitya (after Dmirty) and the Preliminary Investigation.  They are incredibly written and show the unravelling and disintegration of Dmitry as he becomes more and more desperate from his love for Grushenka and his need for money.  He has terrible encounter after terrible encounter until he dissolves into a pool of broken humanity.  A bit like the Alan Partridge Christmas Special... It essentially develops into an alchohol fuelled frenzy with lots of hangers on and tense cringeworthy moments. Er...we've all been there.  It is brilliant, compelling, sad and often ignored in Dostoevsky's work very funny.  There is an earlier section of the book called Crack-ups - which apparently is a translation that could also mean Disintegration but this part is the real disintegration.  Like the most engaging work you both don't want it to end but equally want to finish it. This part culminates with Dmitry's arrest for the crime of parricide..

At some points you just have to admire Dostoevsky's intelligence - the senior monk  Zosima  who is the patron of Alexei and encourages him to leave the order which he does has a whole book within the novel devoted to his history which is really an exploration of the Russian Orthodox religion in microcosm.  But FD turns that all on its head when Zosima dies - another pivot of the work - as his corpse almost immediately emits a stench - not meant to happen to the pious and religious.  Thus all the tensions within the monastry on religious doctrine but mainly on the structure of leadership come pouring out literally before Zosima is buried  all because of the stink!- another brilliant part of the novel.

When the novel concludes with the trial of Dmitry - which could really be a book in and of itself to return to the multiple themes issue - it focuses in turn on each legal advocate for prosecution and defence.  Very cleverly each accuse each others of creating fictions about the death of Fyodor - or the perjorative "romans (French novel)" but of course we are reading a novel and our perspective on the death as a reader is dictated by what we have taken from the novel itself.  Very clever and even post-modern.  This is done quite knowingly by the narrator who is never revealed but seems to be FD dipping into the work himself. 

There is so much more to the work - the sub-plot of the dying child Alexei, the characterisation of the female characters, how dogs (!) become involved in it - I can only really scrape the surface.  It could become (let's see) a life's obsession but for Fyodor Dostoevsky (I think) it was his life's achievement.  An incredible novel. Repays the time you put into it.

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