The Brothers Karamazov: The Summing Up.

I have finished The Brothers Karamazov (see earlier posts: 1, 2), and am still stunned and unsure of what to say. I should probably go right back and read it again, but I think I’ll put that off for a few years; I’ll just mention a few things that struck me. The remainder of the novel, since that last post, consists of Book 10 (Alyosha hangs out with the schoolboys), Book 11 (Ivan hangs out with Smerdyakov and has his encounter with the Devil), and Book 12 (the trial and its consequences). The Alyosha chapters are charming if not especially relevant to the main line of the book; the same, in fact, could be said of the earlier sections focusing on him — the whole Father Zosima section could have been cut with no detriment to the plot, but of course it was central to Dostoevsky’s vision, and Alyosha would have been the protagonist of the projected sequel that he never got to write. The Ivan chapters are riveting and harrowing, just as I remembered them from my decades-old first reading. And the trial is far better than I remembered; the local prosecutor, hitherto not much respected by the community, gives the speech of his life, eloquently tying the various bits of evidence into a convincing (and erroneous) picture of events, and then the hotshot Petersburg defense attorney turns that picture inside out, showing how each of the apparently damning elements could be otherwise explained and insisting there is no proof that Dmitry either killed his father or stole his money. The jury retires, there is a brief section of comments from the crowd (the ladies want Dmitry let off, the men want him convicted), and then vox populi speaks: the jury finds him guilty on all counts. There is no explanation, just the bare fact; Dmitry cries out that he is innocent, then prepares himself as best he can for Siberia, while those who love him hatch a plan for his escape.

What struck me forcibly about the trial, especially having recently read Anna Karenina, is its exemplification of what Gary Saul Morson calls vortex time, the apparent swirling of events down and in to create a sense of inevitability that is not objectively inherent in life (if, like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and me, you believe in free will). Anna allows herself to be swallowed up by it as she hurtles toward suicide, while the prosecutor forces Dmitry into it, each creating a plot focused inexorably on producing doom. Life has no plot, but people love plots and insist on creating them, often with bad results. Dmitry knows he is innocent of the murder he is charged with, but knows also that he had wished his father’s death and could easily have accomplished it that night; he welcomes the chance to atone for all his previous vileness (though he doesn’t think he can bear to be struck by an officer if he actually goes to Siberia, a convincing trait for a scion of the landowning gentry class). The last few pages, with Alyosha delivering a “we will never forget this moment” speech to his assembled disciples (twelve kids!), are sickly-sweet, but he wouldn’t be Dostoevsky without some of that (just as Dickens wouldn’t be Dickens). Whatever my qualms about one or another detail, on the whole this is the only Dostoevsky novel I don’t yearn to edit, to carve off extraneous elements and bring out the potential greatness. The Brothers Karamazov needs no apology and no editing, and I’m glad he lived to write it.

And now I have finished my Long March through 19th-century Russian literature. I will tie up a few loose ends (finish the Writer’s Diary and the Golovlyov Family), then celebrate by rereading the Strugatskys’ Улитка на склоне (Snail on the Slope), which I found confusing the first time around. Then, who knows: maybe Sologub’s Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon), maybe some Merezhkovsky, maybe Trifonov — I can splash around as the spirit leads me. I will, of course, report on whatever I read if I find I have anything to say.


  1. Congratulations!

  2. Thank you!

  3. Yes, this is outstanding.

    Most of my favorite parts of Karamazov are in those last two books. Dmitry’s transformation, or whatever you would call it, is full of wonders, crazy things. His fantasy of America, things like that.

  4. Yes, the fantasy of America, I forgot to mention that! What a crazy ride!

  5. I don’t understand this bit: “And now I have finished my Long March through 19th-century Russian literature.” Was nothing worth reading written in the last twenty years of the century? Does the 19th century of Russian literature somehow end in 1880, as the 19th century of history and politics is often (and for good reason) defined as 1815-1914? Are you just saying that you’ve finished the massive peaks and can now ramble around the foothills? (You don’t seem to be talking about reading works in order in the last paragraph.) I know very little about Russian literature, so please make your answer a simple one!

  6. Oh, there’s good stuff — stories by Chekhov, Leskov, and Garshin, for example — and I’ll be reading it eventually, but the great age of the Russian novel ended with The Brothers Karamazov, and that was always the goal of my reading program. Now I can skip around rather than being driven by the calendar.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    still stunned

    Ain’t it the truth !

  8. Just re Michael Hendry’s query I am of course reminded of the Ramones’ contention advanced a hundred years after the Bros. Kaz. was being serialized: “It’s the end, the end of the Seventies / It’s the end, the end of the century.”

  9. The Brothers Ramone — now there’s a novel waiting to be written. “Your Honor, I realize appearances suggest my client did in fact beat on the brat with a baseball bat, even saying as much in so many words, but I intend to show…”

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