Wednesday, September 16, 2009

fyodor dostoyevsky, the brothers karamazov

Note: today's review is supplied by Mr RWL, otherwise known as Chris, who adored Karamazov and wanted to share it with everyone. Who am I to stop him? I mean apart from being the one who rules this blog with an iron fist. I haven't read this, and I probably won't be any time soon. After all, one of the two people in the hivemind otherwise known as our relationship has read this. And I am ashamedly overwhelmed by books that are larger than hamburgers.

If you know this book, you know what it’s about – three (or four) brothers, and one of them killed their father (it’s a Russian novel, there’s GOT to be a murder—it’s the rules). I already knew this from discussions of this novel in tomes like 1001 Books You Must Read Before Literary Snobs Suffocate You With Their Pretentiousness, and it even said it in the first line of the blurb on the back, so, clearly not a spoiler. But I must have been spoiled by about three thousand episodes of Law & Order where the murder happens in the opening minute before the title sequence has even run, because, while I was expecting a murder, I wasn’t expecting it to happen around page six hundred of this thousand-page house brick.

Don’t get me wrong, this book was impressive. It is in danger of causing you brain-shear as your mind spins with its awesomeness. Kurt Vonnegut has a character claim in Slaughterhouse 5 that everything in life can be found in The Brothers Karamazov, and it was only a slight exaggeration to say so.

The characters, the themes and the scenarios are sophisticated and well explored, but you get the feeling Dostoyevsky doesn’t trust us to make intelligent reflections on the world he has created, so he shoves every possible detail surrounding his plot devices down our throats.
This is what reading The Brothers Karamazov is like: you know when someone is eating a bag of chips, and you know them well enough to ask for a bite, but only because you were a little bit hungry? The person then turns around and gives you the whole damn bag of chips. It’s an act of generosity, but you try and refuse because you didn’t want the whole bag, just a small nibble on one or two of them. But they insist and then you’re stuck with more than you can eat, but you don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful, so you have to gorge yourself on every last crumb until you feel stuffed and maybe even nauseous from so much consumption.
Dostoyevsky is a little over-generous with his words. When one or two paragraphs would have satisfied the reader and got the point across, Dostoyevsky slams you with a 10 page paragraph-less wall of text at the end of which you can’t help but wish you’d taken a sneaky flip past to save some time.

But, no, seriously, it’s a great book, extremely rewarding once you have got to the end. It is probably the only book I have read that so convincingly expounds completely contrasting points of view on religion, making each of them seem intelligent and defensible. In the end though I think Ivan, the atheist brother, comes off best intellectually, though the writer’s sympathies are clearly with Alyosha, the young would- be monk.

Women are almost completely refined to their living rooms throughout the whole novel, to the point where one is even crippled and living in a tub. Even Grushenka, who is presented as ‘getting around’, doesn’t actually manage to get around.I utterly recommend you take the month or so it will (eventually) take to read this book. It is in the same vein as family epics such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and East of Eden, and considering it came first, those books probably owe a lot to it. Despite its verbosity, the fact that you feel guilty when you skip sections (not that I did...that often...ahem) is testament to how much you were actually enjoying it until you ran out of stamina.

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