Friday, August 15, 2008

The Brothers, The Brothers

One of my favorite novels is Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. It's one of the few books i've read multiple times, and back in my college days i read portions of it in the original Russian. I love Russian literature in general, and over the years I’ve read everything from Lermontov to Tolstoy to Bulgakov. But for some reason, I never read The Brothers Karamazov. I’m not sure why—maybe it’s because they made a movie out of it that had William Shatner playing one of the brothers.

Despite that I had high expectations for the book, and I really wanted to love it the way I love Crime and Punishment. When I started to read it a couple of months ago, I assumed that I’d eventually be drawn into it, even if the beginning was a bit slow. In theory, this is exactly the sort of book I like: deep, philosophical themes couched in a murder mystery/courtroom drama. But, Jesus, the most interesting thing that happens in the first 300 pages is the death of a monk ('cause he's really old -- no mystery here).

It's an incredibly complex novel. The structure, the characters, and the subject matter all serve to explore themes of faith vs. rationalism and what is morally permitted if there is no God. And of course, there are the Freudian overtones in the story of a son killing his father over a woman. The three (or four) brothers cover a spectrum of different personalities and represent the paths you can take in life and the dilemma in the fact that you can't choose all of the paths. But i just didn't feel it, like with Crime and Punishment.

Crime and Punishment is not a happy book. In fact, it's a bit oppressive at times. But what always struck me about the book is that you feel this oppressiveness in the writing, you feel Raskolnikov's fear and guilt. I never really felt sympathetic at all with the characters in The Brothers Karamazov. It may be that i read it too late in life-- all of the brothers are still young men and it's hard for me to relate to any of them. If there's a character in the book to whom i most closely correspond it would be the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, who is an ... um ... i forget the Russian word for "asshole".

Crime and Punishment also works better as a crime story. Even though you know the murderer from the outset, there's a fascination in the way the detective in the story hounds Raskolnikov (this is the basis for the television show Columbo). In The Brothers Karamazov you know that the accused is not the murderer, and furthermore the actual murderer is revealed before the trial starts. There is "drama" in the trial, but no real suspense. It must have been incredibly frustrating to the people reading it in the original serialization.

Like all Russian realism, everything in the book is supposed to be significant, but i'm still scratching my head over certain characters, like Ilyusha, a boy who is at first tormented by his peers and then becomes their friend just in time to die. I'm still not sure about the significance of the Elder Zosima (the aforementioned dead monk) either. His death involves one of the strangest episodes in the book. Although i suppose it's yet another illustration of the boundaries of faith, it's really surreal. The one thing that this book has over Crime and Punishment is a sense of humor. However, it's not the sort of humor that will have you laughing out loud. It comes out more in absurd contrasts or gentle pokes at a character's foibles.

I regret that i no longer have the ability to read the book in Russian. Although i read what seems to be regarded as the best current English translation, the language still didn't ring true. From what i understand Dostoevsky's prose in this book is a bit unorthodox to begin with, so a translation is bound to seem odd no matter how skillful.

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