"The Childe...More restless than the swallow in the skies..." -Lord Byron, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Not Chummy with 'The Brothers Karamazov'

The Brothers KaramazovThe Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Brothers Karamazov joins Moby Dick in the category of books I have read so I can say I have read them. However, this book had been recommended to me by someone whose opinions I value. So I had high hopes that the Dostoevsky’s famed novel would pull me in and prove riveting. This did not end up being the case.

If I were to rate this book on storytelling prowess, on style, on richness of intellectuality, we would be talking four stars, maybe five. My rating is a personal reaction based on lack of affinity. This is the third time I have tried to get into Dostoevsky. I tried to make it through this book years ago and failed. Before that I dropped out about a third of the way into Crime and Punishment.

Dostoevsky’s writing is neither cryptic nor abstract. Making it through is not easy, but doable so long as you give the book your full attention (and keep track of the multiple names for each character). Furthermore, The Brothers Karamazov is at turns a riveting father-son angst tale, a whodunit, and a courtroom drama. All of these story types are highly accessible and Dostoevsky executes them with rich dialogue and engrossing philosophy.

Nevertheless, I failed to strongly connect with this familial epic. I muscled through the last 120 pages over one day and four separate coffee shops. It was a slog. The characters are generally unlikable, and what sympathy I can muster comes from several of them suffering from mental illness beyond their control. To his credit, Dostoevsky reveals through the lawyers in the novel’s trial sequence that he is aware of just how melodramatic these brothers Karamazov can be. Everything in the novel strikes me as deliberate and well-crafted. Dostoevsky was a master. Just don’t count on being charmed. His novels may best be suited for serious students of Russian literature, instead of occasional readers of it like myself.

A word on expectations. I mistakenly went in looking for a sprawling historical epic like War and Peace (a personal favorite). This novel fits into backrooms, balconies, and backyards. Dostoevsky opts for long passages of expansive dialogue between intimate associates rather than grand action or far-flung travel. The novel is in many respects a play. Once I adjusted to that format I warmed up a bit to the story. Ultimately, though I did not connect emotionally as I’d hoped, I am glad that I made it through. Novel reading ought to be work now and then. *pats himself on the back*

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