"What is this babbler trying to say?" Acts 17:18

Friday, June 20, 2008

Dostoevsky Again

My last post made me think of a much better book written by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov is one of my favorite novels and definitely the best I have read from Russia. Dostoevsky’s penetrating insight into the fallen human soul and his ability to translate these insights onto paper with intensity is extraordinary. Many laud authors for their “subtle” portrayal of character; Dostoevsky, on the other hand, with honest directness unlayers his actors piece by piece, in an intensely suspenseful story of love and hate.

The story could easily have been broken into two or three separate full-length books. The whole history of Father Zossima, for instance, which spans his entire life yet is only a framework to contain his voluminous wisdom and sayings could be a separate study altogether. But before you turn away from such a long-winded and boring sounding book as The Brother Karamazov (a classic in the sense of “a book nobody reads anymore”) let me press that it is very good.

Yet even the word good must be qualified; this is no Sunday school story, no David kills Goliath and becomes king narrative. This is King David murdering Uriah to cover up his adulterous affair with Bathsheba, this is David faking insanity and hiding from Saul in caves. And so it is with the brothers Karamazov: Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan and Alyonsha. Each must confront the moral choices before them and sometimes stand and sometimes fall.

It would be impossible to condense the story. Some stories can be outlined in a page or a few minutes and that brief description might be as good or better than reading the full tale. C.S.Lewis calls such stories myths. He describes the other kind, those like The Brothers Karamozov, as being uniquely an author’s own: incapable, without loss, of being retold. If I sketch the outline of a morally degenerate father hated by his children, eventually murdered by one of them, contributing to the insanity of another, and imprisonment for a third, you will be rightly amazed that I esteem it so highly. Yet such is the case.

The plot is not what draws me to it, but rather Dostoevsky’s moving portrayal of character. Alyosha immediately draws the heart with his quiet shyness, aglow as it is with faith and hope. His brother Ivan is just the opposite: distrustful, pessimistic, at home in the world (as Alyosha is not) but without any real hope. Dmitri is a shifting cross between the two, at one moment able to reach mystic heights of benevolence, at another sinking to bitter, disgruntled agnosticism. His monologue (again, a standard feature in Dostoevsky’s writing) to Alyosha before his trial is an excellent example of this interior conflict. At one moment Dmitri pours out his climatic “hymn:”

Even there, in the mines, underground, I may find a human heart in another convict and murderer by my side, and I may make friends with him, for even there one may live and love and suffer. One may thaw and revive a frozen heart in that convict, one may wait upon him for years, and at last bring up from the dark depths of a lofty soul a feeling, suffering creature; one may bring forth an angel, create a hero! And then we men underground will sing from the bowls of the earth a glorious hymn to God, with whom is joy. Hail to God and his joy! (626).
Immediately after this speech he reverts to his original gloom:
It’s God that’s worrying me…What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right—that it’s an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? (626).
This is the Dmitri described by the prosecutor as, “two extremes at the same moment.”

Among the minor characters, those that don’t contribute to the main action, Zossima is significant. The author spends an incredible amount of time on this saint who adds little to the plot. I was reminded of the Bishop of Digne in Les Miserables. Even though they take little part in the drama, they both strongly influence those around them who do. My favorite, however, is the schoolboy Kolya. He is immature in his maturity, putting all childish things behind him except the fear of seeming childish. His character is fascinatingly depicted. He has a desperate desire for acceptance and admiration that is only too realistic. One way he tries to gain this is by talking about those ever-recurrent subjects: politics and religion.

‘Oh, I’ve nothing against God. Of course, God is only a hypothesis, but…I admit that he is needed…for the order of the universe and all that…and that if there were no God he would have to be invented,’ added Kolya, beginning to blush. He suddenly fancied that Alyosha might think he was trying to show off his knowledge and to prove he was “grown up.” ‘I haven’t the slightest desire to show off my knowledge to him,’ Kolya thought indignantly. And all of a sudden he felt horribly annoyed (584).

I must halt my rambling discourse or risk running on forever. Here is a quote that sums up the book:

‘And did you understand it?’ Alyosha asked.

‘Oh, yes, everything…that is…why do you suppose I shouldn’t understand it? There is a lot of nastiness in it, of course…. Of course I can understand that it is a philosophical novel and written to advocate an idea….’ Kolya was getting mixed up by now.

And so am I.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor The Brothers Karamazov. Trans. Constance Garnett. London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1945.


David said...

Have you read Solzhenitsyn's "A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich"? One of Ivan's fellow inmates in the Gulag is a believer named Alyosha. Ivan complains that God may answer Alyosha's prayers but . . . . Have to let that go. It might lead to a plot spoiler.

Brian Carpentier said...

I did read "Ivan Denisovich" a long time ago (a long time relative to my total time on earth, probably 5 or 6 years ago anyway). Details and names are a bit hazy (time to read it again) but I wonder, since you remind me, if Solzhenitsyn's baptist character is intentionally modeled on Dostoevsky's Alyosha. And Ivan for that matter. "May answer Alyosha's prayers but"...what? you are going to force me to look it up.