I came to read this book by way of others. In several books I’ve read over the past year, I keep coming across references to The Brothers Karamazov. Finally, after most recently coming across several references while reading Beasts of Eden last month, I made a note to read this novel.. And what do you know! The very next book in my Easton Press “100 Greatest Books Ever Written” series arrived later that same week turned out to be a lovely leather-bound copy of The Brothers Karamazov.
This is the first time I’ve ever read any of the classics in Russian literature – but it certainly won’t be the last. One very enjoyable aspect of reading this book was that I didn’t know anything at all about it beforehand. I’d never studied it in college, had no idea what the plot was about, and until I read the introduction, I didn’t even know what time frame the book takes place in. I just pulled the book out of its box and started reading it .
I made a point not to read anything about this book, or about the author, until I finished it. The only exception I made was reading the scholarly introduction in the front of the book itself. So, unlike most who seem to have read this novel as part of some college course or book club assignment, I decided to read this cold, just to see how it comes off. Is this really a classic for a reason, or is just one of those books (like Silas Marner) that is only a “classic” because some teacher tells you it is?
As it turns out, this is a darn good read, and I deem it to be a classic for a good reason. Many good reasons, in fact.
Plot-wise, The Brothers Karamazov is basically a murder mystery and courtroom drama. Think of this as a heavy-duty John Grisham thriller set in 19th-century Russia, and you’ve got the basic idea. The titular “Brothers” are: Oldest brother Dmitri, age 28; middle brother Ivan, age 24; and youngest brother Alexey, age 20. The story begins “13 years ago…”, and as it was published in 1880. I therefore assume the timeframe of the book is 1867 or right around there.
None of the brothers drew a lucky card in life. Their father, Fyodor, the patriarch of the extremely dysfunctional Karamazov clan, abandoned all of the them (two different wives were in the mix, so technically this should have been “The Half Brothers Karamazov”, but we’ll ignore that) as small children to be raised by various servants and cousins. As grown men, he treats them at best like pets, and at worst like slaves. The father is a rich, egotistical, horny asshole (Doestoesky uses words like “sensualist” and “libertine”, but we know what he means). Long before it was clear that this was going to be a murder story, I was hoping someone would kill this son of a bitch.
The brothers are as different as night and day, and it’s quite clear that Doestoevsky has set each of them up as the representative of a particular point of view about the world:
Dmitri, who occupies a central part of the plot as the murder suspect on trial, is an out-of-work ex-military officer with little formal education. He’s terrible with money; whatever he gets he throws away on prostitutes, booze, and other “sensual” enjoyments. He seems to represent the uncontrolled, animalistic side of human nature. When he wants something, he takes it, without thinking much about it. He hates his father with an undying passion, and until the beginning of the story, hasn’t seen his father or his other brothers in 23 years.
Ivan, who is the brother most off stage, is the direct opposite. Ivan is highly educated, has traveled far and wide throughout Europe, is financially well-off, and is on reasonable speaking terms with their horrible father – mainly because, having made his own wealth, there’s nothing his father can hold over him. Ivan is a cold-hearted atheist, the kind that not only believes there is no God, but that the very concept is in and of itself evil.
Alexey is a monk at the start of the novel, although he leaves the monastery about half-way through the story (it’s established very early on that he is simply studying at the monastery, and is unlikely to take the formal vows and stay there, so I’m not spoiling the plot too much by giving that away). Alexey has a deep and abiding faith, not just in God, but in the very foundation of the Catholic church, its precise and exact teachings, and the teachings of the Jesuits. Alexey is the only one of the three brothers who is actually loved by their father, apparently because Alexey is so blatantly and obviously a kind, thoughtful man who tries (and usually succeeds) in finding the good in everyone.
Then there are about 50 other characters, all quite well rounded and described. Although the book only takes place over about a six-month period in a single town, it nevertheless feels Epic, mainly because of the vast cast of characters and the incredibly detailed background of even the smallest of them. This aspect, I think, is what makes this book so enjoyable. Doestoevsky thinks nothing of going off on a tangent for 20 or 30 pages, if that’s what it takes to clearly show where a certain character is coming from.
I won’t tell you who murders who, or what the final outcome is – although I will say that this is not a “whodunnit” type of murder mystery. You definitely know without a doubt who killed who before the trial even starts – so the suspense is seeing if the truth will come out, and if it does, how everyone involved will react to it. Unlike almost every modern story that tries this approach, however, this one is very unpredictable. And while some characters have happy endings, most definitely do not.
The Grand Inquisitor
It was around Book V (the novel is organized in 12 “books”, spilt up into 4 parts and an epilogue) that I really started to enjoy this big-time. Ivan and Alexey are having lunch in a private room at a local restaurant, and Ivan tells Alexey his long “poem” about The Grand Inquisitor. It’s a long, detailed, and disturbing story about how an Inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition captures and tortures Jesus Christ himself, who has come down to walk among mankind for a few days. The Inquisitor knows very well that his victim is the one and only Christ, but tortures and burns him at the stake anyway, since to him, it is far more important to keep the structure of the church intact than to risk the chance that Christ might spread some of his actual truths among the people. It’s a devastating poem.
It’s obvious from the tone of this whole section that Doestoevsky is himself profoundly religious, with Alexey being his proxy, and Ivan his nemesis. Yet, perhaps not surprisingly, I found Ivan’s point of view, along with his story of the inquisition, far more convincing and persuasive than Alexey’s somewhat simple-minded faith. This whole point of view comes to its apotheosis in Book V, Chapter 4, “Rebellion” (starting on Page 179, left column in my edition). Ivan goes on a rant for pages about the horrible torture of innocent children. Says Ivan, “I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness”.
Book V, Chapter 5, when Ivan goes into his Grand Inquisitor story, brings the whole diatribe to a thundering climax. Like all good literature, it relates to all people at all times, with ours being no exception. Hear how the Grand Inquisitor tells the imprisoned Christ just how much value people actually put on freedom:
But let me tell Thee that now, to-day, people are more convinced than ever that they have perfect freedom, yet they have brought their freedom to us and laid it humbly at our feet. But that has been our doing. Was this what Thou didst desire? Was this Thy freedom?
Some Closing Observations
One odd thing in this book is how, occasionally, a 1st-person narrator springs to life, in the middle of a novel that has quite clearly been told in the 3rd person for the entire time. This is most blatant during the trial, when the narrator comes to the fore and speaks as if he is a spectator in the courtroom gallery. I did find this to be odd and jarring, and kept wondering if the narrator was eventually going to be revealed as an actual character. He never is, and I decided that it was just an affectation of the author’s. Perhaps this a Russian literary device?
I guess Stan Lee must’ve read this book, because I was astonished to find that Spider-Man‘s credo is spoken nearly word-for-word on page 575 by the defense attorney, who states that “the greater the power, the more terrible its responsibility.”
I never did understand the whole subplot of “The Boys” that Alexey befriends (Book X), nor how it has anything to do with either the main plot or the religious themes. Maybe something got lost in the translation? More likely, I’m too dense to pick it up. But nevertheless, these sections are still enjoyable and well-characterized.
It occurred to me several times during reading this book that it would work very well in the modern world, and in almost any culture. Change the names of the brothers to David, Ira and Alex Karmez, set the story in some small town in modern-day Kansas, and you’d have a hell of a movie.
And finally, a plug for the Easton Press and its wonderful leather-bound editions. My copy of The Brothers Karamazov is a solid, five pound, hardcover book, bound in red leather and edged in gold. The physical size is large (11″ x 8″), and the book is typeset two columns per page. In the publisher’s introduction, it states this was done so that this very long novel could be printed using a large enough typeface to be readable, while not being so physically large and heavy that it couldn’t be held while reading. It’s a joy to read a book that is physically so pleasing to the touch and crisp to the eye.
To me, reading a book in a fine hardcover edition like this is like the difference between watching a movie on a crummy old VHS copy – or watching a new, High Definition disc re-mastering of the same film. In either case, you’re going to see the same acting, the same story, and the same visuals, but one is going to look a lot better than the other, and subsequently will be more enjoyable. A classic book should be read and enjoyed as a piece of art in and of itself. It should not be squinted at between sweaty fingers, deciphering tiny type printed on cheap paper between paperback covers.
So get yourself a nice copy of The Brothers Karamazov, settle down in a comfortable chair, and dive in. You’ll be transported to another place in another time, only to discover that life’s problems haven’t changed a bit since then.