The re-reading files

Has anybody here read The Brothers Karamazov lately? Or, many times and with great interest? Or anything along those lines? Read it in Russian perhaps? (Do I have any Russian readers? I’m not sure…but then I wouldn’t necessarily know, would I.)

Just wondering. I read it once, centuries ago, when I was in high school. It was my read all the long things phase, combined with a read all the Russian things phase. Clearly I didn’t like it much, or I would have read it more than once, as I have Anna Karenina. But I don’t remember it well.

I picked it up yesterday and took a stab – and found it immediately unreadable. It’s not just the translation: it’s clearly very wordy in a bad way; turgid, undisciplined, prolix, on and on ish.

And then there’s Father Stinking Zossima – oh take it away. Dostoevsky was a preachy Christian and a reactionary, so I probably shouldn’t expect to be able to like The Brothers K. I thought I would give it a shot in case there was good stuff I’d forgotten, but now I’m thinking no I won’t.

Anybody want to argue the other side?


  1. machintelligence says

    Argue the other side — no thanks, but it does bring back memories of the unit on Russian literature in high school. I know we did War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, and Dead Souls — grim sounding titles all.
    I remember War and Peace having too many characters, with too many names for each one. Depending who was speaking, they might use a title, a given name, a family relationship or a pet name. I had to make a table of names to make sure I knew who was speaking about whom.
    One of my favorite memories was a matching question where one of the answers was Alfred E. Neumanovich with Madski Magazinski. The teacher had to throw it out because most of the best students were not readers of Mad Magazine, and missed it.

  2. Landon says

    Nope! My important thing I learned doing a BA in English – the difference between “important” and “entertaining.” I hate the hell out of James Fenimoore Cooper, for instance, but I would still assign “Last of the Mohicans” if I ever had to teach an American Lit course. Important, if not entertaining. Brothers K goes the same for me – I think your description nails it. War & Peace is certainly important, and even technically brilliant… but yeah, not so much for the fun.

    Full disclosure: I actively enjoy reading Hawthorne. Take everything I say with a grain of salt.

  3. says

    I loved Brothers K when I read it in high school in a single weekend. I’d read a certain amount of epic fantasy before that, which takes care of most language problems. I haven’t gone back and reread it, though. I have reread Crime and Punishment several times, a book that made me much more uneasy.

    And Anna K is wonderful where War and Peace is a mess of people I could never manage to care for.

  4. maddog1129 says

    I will argue for the other side. First, I didn’t expect much. Second, the pace is very slow, esp. for modern readers. BUT it is very dense, and for my money, has way more laugh-out-loud funny moments than I ever expected. BK is something to be picked apart in discussion, not simply to be consumed by reading at a sitting. It’s difficult to unpack all that is in it, and that’s where a reading buddy or group would certainly help. It’s an exploration of many different viewpoints on issues of God, religion, theism and atheism, social commentary, etc. Many of the characters are avatars for certain points of view. Dostoyevsky IS a religiously minded person, so I think his “understanding” of what atheism is falls flat, particularly to a modern atheist. It is the theist’s understanding of what the word means, and so misses the mark to an extent, but it still makes a great counterpoint for discussion. This is a novel to be savored, not galloped-through. I believe it was written as a serial, and maybe should be read that way, too.

  5. says

    Yay, thanks, different takes.

    I have somewhat more patience with long and dense than many modern readers…but only somewhat. George Eliot – worth it for the brilliance. Dickens – ditto, though it helps to be willing to skim. Moby Dick – worth it at least in places. Tale of Genji – worth it. Don Quixote, worth it. Fielding, very worth it.

    Still, I like the exploration of many different viewpoints, so maybe I’ll do some more sampling.

  6. savagemutt says

    I loved it, but I don’t ever go into a book looking for anything more than being entertained. Perhaps it helps to just read it as a murder mystery. I’d read Crime and Punishment before I read The Brothers Karamazov so I kind of knew what I was getting into, philosophically.

  7. says

    Ah well for a murder mystery I think I’ll just go with Stieg Larsson. He’s prolix too but he’s not goddy with it. Plus I love all things Swedish. Anyway I already know who killed Daddy Karamazov.

  8. mnb0 says

    Dostojevsky may have been a reactionary christian and The Brothers Karamazov may be or may be not dull (I haven’t read it and don’t plan to do so), but here he nails the Problem of Evil quite some effect by means of the character Alyosha:

    [A] poor five-year-old girl [who was subjected by her educated parents] to every possible torture. They beat her, flogged her, kicked her, not knowing why themselves, until her whole body was nothing but bruises; finally they attained the height of finesses: in the freezing cold, they locked her all night in the outhouse, because she wouldn’t ask to get up … [to relieve herself] … in the middle of the night (as if a five-year-old sleeping its sound angelic sleep could have learned to ask by that age)—for that they smeared her face with her excrement and made her eat the excrement, and it was her mother, her mother who made her! And this mother could sleep while her poor little child was moaning all night in that vile place! Can you understand that a small creature, who cannot even comprehend what is being done to her, in a vile place, in the dark and the cold, beats herself on her strained little chest with her tiny fist and weeps with her anguished, gentle, meek tears for ‘dear God’ to protect her—can you understand such nonsense?
    Can you understand why this nonsense is needed and created? Without it, they say, man could not even have lived on earth, for he would not have known good and evil [nor would he have known God, presumably]. Who wants to know this damned good and evil at such a price? The whole world of knowledge is not worth the tears of that little child to “dear God.” I’m not talking about the suffering of grown-ups, they ate the apple and to hell with them, let the devil take them all, but these little ones!

    Just replace the girl with Elisabeth Fritzl and the quote is highly relevant.

  9. Rodney Nelson says

    I hate the hell out of James Fenimoore Cooper, for instance, but I would still assign “Last of the Mohicans” if I ever had to teach an American Lit course. Important, if not entertaining.

    I loathed Fenimore Cooper. The man was both a poor writer and a bad storyteller. The only enjoyment I ever got from him was reading Mark Twain’s masterful Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.

    The idea of the Indians is to drop softly and secretly from the arched sapling to the dwelling as the ark creeps along under it at the rate of a mile an hour, and butcher the family. It will take the ark a minute and a half to pass under. It will take the ninety-foot dwelling a minute to pass under. Now, then, what did the six Indians do? It would take you thirty years to guess, and even then you would have to give it up, I believe. Therefore, I will tell you what the Indians did. Their chief, a person of quite extraordinary intellect for a Cooper Indian, warily watched the canal-boat as it squeezed along under him and when he had got his calculations fined down to exactly the right shade, as he judge, he let go and dropped. And missed the boat! That is actually what he did. He missed the house, and landed in the stern of the scow. It was not much of a fall, yet it knocked him silly. He lay there unconscious. If the house had been ninety-seven feet long he would have made the trip. The error lay in the construction of the house. Cooper was no architect.

    There still remained in the roost five Indians. The boat has passed under and is now out of their reach. Let me explain what the five did — you would not be able to reason it out for yourself. No. 1 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water astern of it. Then No. 2 jumped for the boat, but fell in the water still further astern of it. Then No. 3 jumped for the boat, and fell a good way astern of it. Then No. 4 jumped for the boat, and fell in the water away astern. Then even No. 5 made a jump for the boat — for he was Cooper Indian. In that matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of details throw a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it. This comes of Cooper’s inadequacy as observer.

  10. says

    Larsson I found just good fun. Very not Dostoevsky. Quite possibly the anti-Dostoevsky. That’s really all I have, here.

    I did try to read Karamazov once. Didn’t get at all far before being paralyzed with not caring. Don’t honestly remember much about what I did get through, but do recall, yes, a bit much priest.

    Mind, I don’t think it takes much to get too much priest. You’ll note even Sondheim recommends only a little.

  11. hotshoe says

    Forget the Russian. You should read The Brothers K, by David James Duncan

    It’s about family, baseball, church, the Vietnam war, conscientious objection … according to the author, the title is indeed a reference to The Brothers Karamazoff, but I wasn’t clear how it was meant.

    Maybe I need to put The Brothers K on my re-reading list. Twenty years since its publication might provide some renewed perspective.

  12. Daniel McCoy says

    I read The Brothers Karamazov a number of years ago when I was on a roll of reading “classics”. I was struggling with the book a bit, not enjoying it particularly, but trying to soldier on in order to get to the Grand Inquisitor sequence in context. I remember that I happened to be moving house when I was only about a quarter of the way into it and the book inadvertently ended up packed in a box somewhere. I found another copy in a bookstore and picked up where I had left off and my enjoyment of it increased dramatically. It was a different translation, and obviously a much better one. This is 20 years ago and I no longer have either copy, so I can’t remember the translation. I just remember that the “bad” one translated all of the Latin and French quotes into English along with the Russian, whereas the “good” one only translated the Russian into English.
    I wouldn’t say that the better translation made it a book I would highly recommend as a novel to a modern reader, but it definitely changed it from a hard slog into a book that I could get through it for the historical interest.

  13. says

    Interesting. I was on the same roll around the same time, and then a few years later I ran a book club along those lines – not just novels but also Shakespeare, Thucydides, that kind of thing. Hella fun.

    I think I’ll settle for the historical interest of having read it once. :- )

  14. Daniel McCoy says

    Moby Dick was on the list just before Brothers, and Marcus Aurelius ended up being the highlight of that roll through some classics. I may feel a new one coming on.

  15. carlie says

    Thank goodness I’m not the only one. I’ve been trying to read it for literally 20 years, and I still haven’t made it all the way through. There’s just something about the way it’s written that bores me to tears within a couple of pages.

  16. says

    Exactly, Carlie. It’s boringly written.

    I think when I was a teenager I didn’t notice or thought that was just my immaturity. Now I know when something’s boringly written.

  17. Daniel McCoy says

    The Flying Karamazov Brothers are probably the only Karamazov brothers which I will return to.
    Don Quixote is on my list for the next time I venture into the dustier section of the library.

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