Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Brothers Karamazov: Part 1

On Sunday, I mentioned I was taking part in a read-along of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov with a group of other bloggers. It is being hosted by Dolce Bellezza, who is also providing links to all of our thoughts. We'll be posting every Thursday in April about each part we read that previous week (4 parts in the book).

This is my second experience reading Dostoevsky. I read Crime and Punishment back in September as my second book. I thought it would be good to get it out of the way and I managed to survive pretty easily.

However, when it came down to reading any more big Russian heavyweights, I seem to be panicking. I haven't even thought of the huge Tolstoy volumes, so when this opportunity presented itself, I jumped at the chance.

When I started reading last week, I had a crappy edition of the book. Now, I have nothing wrong with purchasing inexpensive editions of most of the classics. For the most part, if the title was originally written in English, no matter what price you pay the quality is nearly the same. You just might get different introductions and notes. However, for translated works it is completely different. So, imagine how frustrated I was when I didn't find any of the passion in this as I did when I read Crime and Punishment. I ended up towing my Borders coupon and my Borders rewards to the store to get a new, better copy. I ended up purchasing the Pevear and Volokhonsky edition, which has a great reputation, and I am not disappointed. I have learned my lesson: Sometimes it is better to pay a little more.

On to the book.

I love Dostoevsky's humor in writing. I find that it really comes alive in this book. The narrator seems to just know everything about anything Karamazov, which I find entirely humorous. While exploring the history of this somewhat dysfunctional family, the narrator still manages to make it all seem very real and human.

Dostoevsky begins the novel by explaining the history of the family, starting with the father, Fyodor Pavlovich. He is described as a seedy fellow, who married twice. Both wives died after leaving him male children. His first wife gave him a son, Dmitri (Mitya), who eventually turns into a ruffian. His second wife bore him two sons; Ivan and Alexei (Alyosha). Ivan is kind of a surly fellow, atheist and seemingly well-learned. Alyosha is devoutly religious and we find him in adulthood living at the monestary.

Each of the three boys are distinctly different. Mitya seems to be a womanizer of sorts and is caught between two women-Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka. While he is engaged to Katerina, he would rather be with Grushenka. Unfortunately for him, his father also has the hots for Grushenka. In addition, it seems that Ivan is in love with Katerina (and you thought Stephenie Meyer's love triangles were ridiculous).

Poor little Alyosha is caught in the middle of this mess. As the youngest son, it seems he is also the only one who has some semblance of right and wrong and of morality. We get to see who he is learning from partway through this first part when the family turns to the Elder at the monastery for help resolving a dispute.

I have to say, the monastery scenes were by far my favorite. Dostoevsky manages to combine religion and politics in a way that is truly Russian. I especially loved how he developed the worshipers in their own way. Each was given a back story so that I could connect with them.

So far, I am loving this book as much as I loved Crime and Punishment. While at first the names scared me, they have become so familar I don't even notice any more. Each character is so fully developed and unique that I don't need to focus on the names, but on what they are saying.

I am looking forward to seeing how Dostoevsky works all of this out, and to see what happens to Alyosha.

I want to leave you with some of my favorite passages. This one is actually taken from Dostoevsky's introduction to his work,

"In fact, I am even glad that my novel broke itself into two stories "while preserving the essential unity of the whole": having acquainted himself with the first story, the reader can decide for himself whether it is worth his while to begin the second. Of course, no one is bound by anything; he can also drop the book after two pages of the first story and never pick it up again. But still there are readers of such delicacy that they will certainly want to read to the very end so as to make no mistake in their impartial judgment," (4).

Here the Elder is giving Fyodor some advice;

"Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others," (44).

When Mitya is telling Alyosha about the mess he is in, he gives his reasoning for doing so;

"I've already told it to an angel in heaven, but I must also tell it to an angel on earth. You are the angel on earth. You will listen, you will judge, and you will forgive...And that is what I need, that someone higher forgive me," (105).

Until next week, happy reading Dostoevsky!


  1. I enjoyed the monastery scenes the most too! :)

    But don't be scared of Tolstoy!!! Seriously, Anna Karenina is SOOO good and it's really accessible and P&V have done a translation of it. It makes me sad that so many great readers are intimidated by the Russians...I want everyone to love them. hehe

    (BTW, the Classics Circuit is going to be doing a Russian tour in June. In case you need more incentive!)

  2. The P & V was definitely worth that trip to Borders. Glad to hear that it improved the read for you.

    The monastery scene was especially interesting because it presented so many themes of the book concurrently, each held within a characters or two - those of faith, those of reason/the intellect, hedonism/self-serving behavior. And then of course the preternatural calm of the elder. Does it reveal a greater truth as he takes his unexplained bow?

    Can't wait to keep reading?

  3. It's so true, that the translation of a work is critical! I find the P and V a very easy read, and that makes it all the more enjoyable. I agree with what you said about each character being so fully developed and unique that I don't have to focus on their names; although, I am trying to fully grasp what motivates each one. I'm so glad you're participating in the read along, it's a pleasure to read your thoughts and feel your enthusiasm.

  4. Im with Eva, I loved Anna Karenina, but I haven't read anything else by russian authors. I will try to though. I like the review

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  6. I can't find any P&V translation here in the Philippines. Booo. I feel like Im missing out on all the fun :(

  7. Allie, your post wants me to read this book when you are done. Love, Mom

  8. I am another monastery scene fan! I would love to see it acted out on a stage. I also quoted the part from the author's note in my post because it amused me. So far it is highly entertaining. I shelled out the money for this translation too!