Thursday, March 03, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

At its heart this is a murder mystery. Local businessman, sensualist and buffoon Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov has three sons: impetuous army officer Dmitri by his first wife; atheist-intellectual Ivan and pious-novice Alyosha by his second. As both wives are deceased, the father spends his money on heavy drinking and fast women. As the novel starts he has set his heart on Dmitri's latest fancy, the young beauty Grushenka.

This rivalry in affairs of the heart, plus Dmitri's desperate need for funds will end up in the father's murder and Dmitri in court for the crime. All the evidence is against him, but is he in fact guilty?

So much for the hyper-detailed reality-TV strand. The second component of this immense novel is its 'philosophy', expressed in sequences such as: Ivan recounting his famous fable of 'The Grand Inquisitor' in which the Catholic Church is portrayed as in a strategic alliance with Satan; later in the novel, Ivan hallucinating a dialogue with the Devil himself, where that entity ruefully points out how necessary he is to prevent life from becoming completely bland - an endless church service. However, saintly Christian characters are also allowed a fair hearing - this is not a simplistic or overly partisan novel.

The third benefit of this novel, which Dostoevsky must have intended less, lies in the intimate acquaintanceship the reader develops with provincial Russian life of the time. The debates the characters engage in are remarkably modern: religion vs. atheism; the rights of women; the pros and cons of enlightenment values. In the 1860s serfdom had just been abolished in Russia and the regime was a Tsarist autocracy. But autocracy is very far from the later Nazi or Stalinist variants of totalitarianism, where state-surveillance was all-pervasive and everyone lived in fear of arbitrary denouncement, torture and death. In Dostoevsky's vividly-imagined town, no-one is in fear of the state. There is a background bureaucracy but the middle-class officers, doctors, lawyers, landowners, innkeepers and merchants just go about their routine business. People get drunk an awful lot and there are endless fights; it's like Saturday night Glasgow has morphed to become an entire country. The uneducated peasantry are barely part of society at all, constituting a semi-bovine underclass of ‘others’.

This much-lauded translation, by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, runs to 776 pages. This much space allows Dostoevsky time to develop his characters organically in the miniscule details of their daily lives, conversations and interactions. The author has given life to a variety of different personalities and the plot develops by their (frequently headstrong) behaviours.

This novel has been described as the best novel ever written and it is superlatively done. Dostoevsky did not sit down and think he was going to write a classic, and no-one should be put off, thinking this book is inaccessible. It's fun, warm, witty, gripping and a page-turner. I'm a fast reader and it's taken me twelve days to finish it; it both needs and requires your extended consideration ... so make some space!