Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

702 pages
Originally published 1879-1880
Translated by Constance Garnett in 1912
Reprinted 2004 by Barnes & Noble Classics
New York, NY

I count the reading of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky as one of my greatest literary accomplishments. It may not have been the longest book I have read, but it was the first piece of Russian literature I have read and it was also one of the most difficult books I have ever read, if not the most. (Next to it Dickens seemed fairly easy to read and understand.) There were a few times I was tempted to set the book down, especially when some very "yummy" Inter Library Loan books arrived at my library, but I kept my resolve. I began The Brothers (as I soon came to call the book) on January 1st determined not to read anything else until I finished the book. It seemed the only way I could get the book finished before the January 20 book club meeting where my friends and I would be discussing the novel. My persistence paid off as I finished all 702 pages in 17 days!

So what exactly is The Brothers Karamazov about? On the surface it is the story about the dysfunctional family of Karamazov living in 19th century Russia; of the very different lives and beliefs of the three Karamazov brothers Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha. Of the life and debauchery of their father, Fyodor; and of his mysterious and brutal murder and the investigation and trial that follows.

At least, that is what I understood the book to be about when I bought a copy and started reading, but what I soon learned that it was much more.

For starters, Dostoevsky takes his time telling this story, spending at least 400 pages to set the story, develop the characters, and explore deep philosophical thoughts about the origins of good and evil and the nature of freedom. During these first 400 pages it was definitely work to get through each chapter. I found the hardest chapter to understand was the one titled "The Grand Inquisitor," which is steeped full of theological and philosophical questions and pondering. I was so puzzled (and a little bored) when I finished the chapter that I first turned to my husband and said, "Blah blah, blah blah..." before pulling up the Cliff Notes website where I could read about what I had just read.... in 21st century English. (This definitely helped. From then on when I came to a section I didn't quite grasp, I made a note of it and returned later to review it in the Cliff Notes.)

But it wasn't all work. For a reader who quits before page 402 they have indeed quit too soon. For after this point Fyodor Karamazov is murdered and as the saying goes, the "plot thickens" and likewise begins to pick up its pace. What follows is a very different type of detective novel as the local police and the three brothers work to solve the mystery of who killed their father and for what purpose. Without realizing it the story moved into overdrive and before I knew it I had reached page 550 of the book and suddenly I was reading a page turner, which I couldn't put down until the end of the Epilogue on page 702... Which actually isn't really the end.

That is to say, when Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov he intended it to be the first in a trilogy about the family. But this was never to be, as shortly after its publication Dostoevsky died. So while the story does take a while to get started, it does leave the reader with a little bit of an open ending. All the important questions are answered, but there are still enough lose ends to leave the reader Nothing that doesn't answer the important questions brought up within this book, but enough that the reader can use their imagination to decide the fates of each brother and the supporting cast.

There were numerous passages that I jotted down in my "Book of Books" as quotes I just had to remember. And when it came time to discuss the book at my book club I found that everyone who had read the book all the way through felt the same as I did. The Brothers Karamazov is a classic. It is a worthwhile read. But it doesn't follow that it'll be an easy one. Dostoevsky has been likened to writers such as William Shakespeare and Leo Tolstoy and I couldn't agree more. There was so much dialog in the book with very little description or narration that at times it almost felt as though I was reading one of Shakespeare's plays, except without the "doth" and "wherefore art thou" in the language.

All in all, I was surprised by The Brothers Karamazov. As I read I didn't think I would like it -- it was depressing... a lot, it was confusing... a lot, and it was a challenge to read. But in the end I did like it. The story had meaning. The characters were well developed. It got me to really think about certain aspects and I felt as though my reading comprehension was expanded and maybe that my brain grew a size. (LOL)


Dana said...

I really enjoyed reading your review! Sounds like taking on this book would be a challenge, but a worthwhile one!

Margaret Pangert said...

That's amazing that you actually read this book. It's way too daunting for me! I remember reading Chekhov in college (The Cherry Orchard, etc.), but that's as deep as I would go. I see by having some fortitude Dostoevsky is worth the read. Hats off!

Amateur Reader said...

Boy, is this right. Whatever virutes Karamazov might have, yummy it is not.

There are people in the world - not me, but intelligent people - who think that the "Grand Inquisitor" chapter is the greatest piece of writing in the history of the novel.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read this one yet, but I've intended to for a long time. I really enjoyed your review.

Marie said...

Great review. Congratulations on finishing it- I still haven't. You make it sound terrific and I appreciate your honesty about your reading process!

hopeinbrazil said...

Congratulations on a job well done. I have Dostoevsky on my list for this year so this may be a book I'll tackle. I enjoyed your review very much.

Anonymous said...

I must have quit before p. 402 when I first attempted to read it several years ago, but I have heard it so often highly recommended that I do intend to try again. Thanks for the review!

Judylynn said...

it's good to have book clubs to challenge you to finish a book you would otherwise put down. I've been wanting to read this one, but I haven't gotten the courage yet. Good job on finishing it! And thanks for the review.

I'm adding you to my blog list.

Framed said...

I read this book for a Classics challenge a few years ago and did manage to finish it. I just didn't like it at all. Those people just seemed to be yelling at me from the pages of that book. It was a really hard read for me.

wong said...

I am reading Brothers K right now and half of my soul has been entrenched in it.. remaining in this state, I have a feeling, until the last page of the book (and maybe well after). thanks for your review! it's great!!