How to disengage from The Brothers Karamazov?

How to disengage from The Brothers Karamazov? Merely rhetorical, of course. Does adding the question mark make my statement a question? I want to read nothing else right away, fog bound as I am with Dostoyevsky’s novel parked in the centre of my mental runway.

I imagine that there are readers who read this story as a thrilling tale of murder and sexual friction, but that would be to disregard an encounter with massive principles and judgements. It isn’t fashionable to write such novels these days. It is barely recognisable as a novel. There are certainly few concessions to plot or structure.

I’m told that Dostoyevsky dictated his story, without returning to it, served it up just as it flowed from his crazy genius mind. I’ll have to read a decent biography. I last read Dostoyevsky in a grand passion in my late teens, tearing through Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, and The Gambler, reading for aesthetics as much as ideas. But I am glad I waited for The Brothers Karamazov — I understood that it would be essential to read it in the right spirit, with sufficient reading behind me to be intrigued and enriched by its echoes of other texts

This is a book to fully inhabit, from within the utterances of the Elder Zosima and the elation and despair of Ivan, those twin poles of Dostoyevsky’s indictment of God and religion through a debate on the ethics of killing. In the 800 odd pages of The Brothers Karamazov it is impossible not to be drawn into this darkest tragedy, to identify in part with the moral, religious, and psychological themes. It isn’t possible to disengage from this book as it concerns itself with issues that most of us take very seriously. The openness of its ending is a judgement in itself that the issues are too complex to warrant any final conclusions. What I shall immediately miss is the vivid dialogue, Dostoyevsky’s razor sharp perception and his extraordinarily complex characters.

24 thoughts on “How to disengage from The Brothers Karamazov?

  1. This is a novel that has haunted my imagination for decades. I keep returning to it frequently – sometimes just to re-read certain chapters. That sequence of chapters, especially, where Ivan has three meetings with Smerdyakov in that over-heated room – a sort of prefiguring of hell – and then returns through the blizzard, half-delirious, back to his own room, there to meet a projection of his own self in the form of he Devil … or is it the real Devil? … that entire sequence is imprinted so deeply and so vividly in my mind that it seems more real than reality itself.

    • That sequence of chapters are electrifying, so very potent. I’m sure that is how I shall reread this book in between returning to read it all the way through.

  2. I read The Brothers Karamazov more than 50 years ago, and its torment and longing remain vivid and still provocative. It echoes down the corridors in Bulgakov and Mandelstam and so many others so that it never fades. It’s a good idea to revisit chapters, and I’ll do so. Thank you.

  3. Engaging with Dostoevsky is the best thing to do – and you’re right, one does tend to inhabit his books. I think I’m overdue to occupy another one!

  4. I have a hit and miss history with Dostoevsky. I’ve tried Crime and Punishment three times and simply disengage before I reach the end of the first part. The Idiot is one of my favourite books. I have long thought that if I read no other Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov is the one I want to read. However, I have to plan for longer reads and I’ve already set aside a few for this year.

    You are tempting me though.

    • As a postscript, I was thinking about your comment about Dostoyevsky on Twitter,
      That it is said that he ‘often wrote without going back and rereading. Remarkable that this might be just what flowed from his pen.’

      That made me think of Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, where the character Dostoyevsky ‘thinks of the madness as running through the artery of his right arm down to the fingertips and the pen and so to the page. It runs in a stream; he need not dip the pen, not once.’

      • Perhaps some echo of Coetzee’s book, though not a favourite, echoed as I wrote my Twitter comment. Incidentally, the other superb Dostoyevsky homage is Atiq Rahimi’s A Curse on Dostoyevsky. I prefer it to Coetzee’s book.

    • There was a time when I considered Crime and Punishment my favourite book, and I love The Idiot, though in both cases it’s been over twenty years since I read either. The Brothers Karamazov is of quite another order, the work of a writer in full command of his craft.

  5. I read a lot of Russian writers with great enjoyment from my teens onwards, but never Dostoevsky. When I retired five years ago I chose him as my first big reading project. I read the fittingly immense Frank biography and then all the novels with a kind of astonished awe but I stopped at Brothers Karamazov. I don’t know why. I perhaps felt I would only read it once and I didn’t feel up to it. That all sounds a bit precious! Anyway thanks to your infectious enthusiasm I’ll lift it to the top of the pile of those big books that, on my death bed when putting my affairs in order, I’ll regret never having read.

  6. Auspicious timing once again, I see, for doing drudge work on the front side of the web and using a visit to your blog as an incentive before I tackle my chores. It’s Dostoevsky Week!

    Marvelous that you read BK, Anthony. I’m not at all surprised that you loved it. I think you should go for total immersion now: (Re-)read nothing but D. for the next few months. Then try a biography, if you still feel like doing so.

    Who told you D. dictated BK?! Fire the bum! 🙂 No. D. once hired a stenographer for the purpose of dictating The Gambler because he was flat broke and too f’d up to meet his publisher’s deadline any other way, which would’ve resulted in his loss of all rights to his works for the next decade or so. Not only was the novel submitted in time, but D. and the stenographer were soon married, which definitely helped straighten him out.

    That was 14 years before BK’s ultimate serialization and later publication as a complete novel. But D. had been jotting down ideas, segments, notes, etc., for 7-8 years, many of which eventually made their way into one or more of the book’s multiple drafts. Then, the death of his favorite son (Alyosha) and a subsequent visit to Optina Monastery solidified his efforts: After two years of concentrated writing, D. completed The Brothers Karamazov, his last and greatest novel. He died a few months later.

    Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky is, of course, good. But I recommend reading Konstantin Mochulsky’s 1947 biography first, if not solely. It’s impossible to overemphasize how different the Russian language, Russian worldview, and Russian culture were, and are, from their Western counterparts.

    Imagine Russian literati reading a massive biography of, say, Herman Melville, written 30-40 years ago by a well-respected Russian academic who specialized in American literature of the 19th century. Regardless of the work’s accuracy and detail, its insights into the heart and soul of Melville (and his novels) couldn’t help but be Russian insights into the Russian experience of Melville (and his novels).

    Have you read any of François Jullien’s books? His arguments about the difficulty, if not impossibility, of a Westerner understanding Chinese thinking can also apply to a Westerner understanding Russian thinking. Jullien’s The Book of Beginnings is well worth absorbing — if not before you ingest a biography of Dostoevsky, certainly before you read Som Raj Gupta’s The Word Speaks to the Faustian Man, especially because Gupta harvests what Jullien sows.

    • Thanks as ever for an insightful response to my post. I shall certainly read Konstantin Mochulsky’s biography of Dostoyevsky for the eminently sensible reasons you elaborate. I’m also grateful for the introduction to François Julien’s books – they look fascinating.

  7. I’m the bum. Dostoevsky dictated everything from The Gambler on. To his wife, yes. Or such is my understanding. Under the punishing constraints that produced The Gambler, they developed the method that served Dostoevsky to the end.

    He would write out elaborate notes but the actual production of the text was through dictation to Anna Grigorievna. This article has a bit of description of their method, including a quotation related to Karamazov, taken from Anna Grigorievna’s memoir.

    This blogger supplies a page of Dostoevsky’s Karamazov notes. I wish it were easier to see more of them.

    • Hah! Thanks for outing yourself, Tom. For some reason, it never occurs to me that the anonymous person I’m slagging might actually see it. 🙂

      Seriously, though, I was slagging only the fanciful notion that Dostoevsky dictated BK and, “without returning to it, served it up just as it flowed from his crazy genius mind.” There’s no indication of anything at all like that in the primary sources: D.’s notebooks, diaries, letters, and Anna’s memoir. The very few references to their working sessions (not necessarily constant over the years) describe D. dictating from written manuscripts; Anna taking it all down in shorthand; Anna writing out a copy in longhand; D. making corrections to that copy; and Anna then producing a “final” version of his most recent addition to the work-in-progress.

      But the first week or so of their 28-day Gambler marathon was an exception because D. had no manuscripts, which is why he was desperate enough to try a stenographer in the first place. It turned out to be rough going for both of them: D. couldn’t get the hang of oral storytelling, and in any case, was under even more stress than usual; Anna was stunned not only to be working for her family’s literary idol, but to be witnessing the progressive wretchedness of his condition. Nevertheless, they managed to get in the groove (they had to!) and soon settled into a routine.

      As Anna wrote, “The more we worked, the more Fyodor Mikhailovich became involved in the work. He did not dictate directly anymore, creating his work on the spot, but worked at night, dictating to me by day from his manuscript…. So we decided to work like this…. Our work proceeded successfully, and [after The Gambler was submitted] the last part of Crime and Punishment, which was about seven printed signatures long, was written in four weeks.” [See The Dostoevksy Archive, edited by Peter Serkin, for this and other portions of Anna’s memoirs (among many other interesting firsthand accounts), along with a few photos of D.’s notes and drawings.]

      D.’s and Anna’s life together was one of great struggle, poverty, illness, and grief, so their “dictation” method is given little or no mention in Frank’s and Mochulsky’s detailed biographies; it’s a pretty trivial issue. And as should be clear to readers of D.’s diaries and notebooks — not to mention the novels themselves — D. was in no way an oral fabulist, spontaneously spewing intricate layers of psychological, philosophical, sociopolitical, and religious dissonance between his epileptic fits….

      By the way, that article by Amy Rowland is a misleading arrangement of quotes from D. and Anna, reproduced out of context and sequence in order to (I suppose) create an interesting tale — a tactic not uncommon among third- and fourth-tier paraphrasers of the massive Dostoevksy papers. But as is often the case, the original source material (especially D.’s letters on this) are even more interesting.

      As for Anna’s Reminiscences, as Alexandra Popoff reminds us when describing one particular incident in her book, The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants, “In her memoir, written forty-five years later, Anna changed her account dramatically to present Dostoevsky the opposite from what he was in life.” When you combine that motivation with the normal deterioration of memory, the vagaries of translation, and a myriad of interpreters’ cultural misunderstandings across time and space, Anna’s rather scanty memoirs seem a lot less authoritative.

      As for the blogger’s photo, Joseph Frank includes it in the fifth volume of his Dostoevsky biography and describes it as “a page from the manuscript of The Brothers Karamazov.” I hereby grant your wish by making it easier for you to see more of them! [If WordPress demolishes that hyperlink, just search Google Images for ‘dostoevsky notes’ (no quotes).]

      (Typing this in a hurry online. Please excuse any messes I’ve made.)

      • That I have been misled is irritating but not too surprising.

        I can be more precise about where I am getting this idea, though: from Jacque Catteau’s Dostoevsky and the Process of Literary Creation, specifically pp. 178-9, which I hope can be seen here. Or see p. 255. But Catteau’s description may be more fanciful than I had realized, or understood.

        The person who wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classics, which is where I saw this, relies on Catteau. He describes an exhausting marathon session of writing and dictation, daily for nearly a month, producing the first part of The Idiot. His description left a strong impression on me!

        As for seeing the manuscripts, I meant easier than that. Google Images I know how to use. That’s how I found the example I picked.

  8. This is rather a late comment to this post, so apologies, but I was wondering if you have yet read Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden. An amazing book “about” Dostoevsky. My piece about it can be read in Quarterly Conversation 32. By the way, really enjoy this blog, have been doing catch up reading. Thanks and cheers

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