This band of brothers

March 2, 2009

The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Modern Library, 1992)
Translation: Pevear/Volokhonsky
838 p.  Second reading.

Some say this is not Mother Russia’s greatest novel. Bernards, each and every one. They put forward one or another pathetic rival.  I confound them with my praise!  Yes, let me go further!  Let me say that this is not only the best and worthiest novel Russia has blessed us with, all unworthy though we are, but even the greatest of all!  Oh, there are others, I know, that command respect, and I love them, but here and now, rocking in its wake, I cannot but bestow all my affection on this, the final fruit of the life of a great writer, man, and Russian.  Yes, Russian most of all!

Happy families are all alike, a Russian proverb-maker once said, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.  It was a true saying, a true proverb, and never so true as with this family, this band of brothers — not forgetting their father, either, of course.  They are unhappy; they know unhappiness in all the ways that a true Russian soul can know it, with sincerity and whole-heartedly — though we exempt young Alyosha as a special case!  Alexei Fyodorovich, our young hero, stands apart, even on a pedestal, a small pedestal so as not to embarrass him.  He is the hero, the spiritual element which triumphs over all — or would have triumphed had not death, which comes like a thief in the night, knocking on the window, struck down our author mid-stride, before his glorious work could be fully accomplished. . .

His brother Ivan Fyodorovich is unhappy, and in his own way.  His unhappiness is hidden behind a cool demeanor and high airs, but it is there all the same!  Psychology, we know, is a sword with two edges, it cuts first one way and then another, but still we are bold to wield it, if only for a moment.  Ivan is tormented, yes, with the torment of a deep soul!  He is tormented not by love of a woman – though he is tormented by that too – but tormented most of all by God and fate and suffering.  He takes the center of the stage only a few times, but who can deny that the very weight and gravity of his role nearly overwhelms the rest?  Bernards only.  His depth takes him down, though — which is a danger for deep men — and he comes to know him who of old was luminous, but is lately darkened.  Yes, Old Scratch!

No, this story belongs to Mitka, to our dear Mitenka, or, to put it plainly, to Dmitri Fyodorovich.  It is his guilt or innocence that is in question.  His is the true Russian heart, shorn of discipline and reserve.  He is a scoundrel — he declares himself a scoundrel, beating his breast!  He has that Karamazov unrestraint, that wild and frenzied passion for life, and no shortage of faults.  He is, in other words, his father’s son.  He has that inheritance at least.  But he is a child, an open-hearted man without guile, a man who has, as it were, taken thread and needle and stitched his heart there on his sleeve, where anyone may see it.  Oh, he is a fool, a raving, pop-eyed fool, but a fool for whom we have pity and not contempt.  Consider his fate, too, you who would withhold your heart from him.

Am I a fool?  I have said that here is the greatest of all Russian novels, and even the greatest novel of all without exception.  In this I have spoken boldly, and I honour my own words and am even proud of them!  Yet its very greatness, the very truth of my declaration, diminishes me, for what words can I offer that would be worthy of the object?  None. Yet here I am, adding word to word, and to what purpose?  I should — I shall! — keep a modest silence as I stand in the shadow of greatness.  No doubt I have already said too much, speaking out of turn. Therefore, in the presence of this noble company, this I proclaim concerning myself: I am a poodle. A pure-bred poodle, though not a Russian one. Yes, the greatest poodle of all without exception!  Precisely so.

7 Responses to “This band of brothers”

  1. Janet Says:

    I’m overwhelmed. Amused? Yes. But, mostly overwhelmed.


  2. cburrell Says:

    Oh, I’m just having a little fun at my own expense.

  3. Janet Says:

    “Alexei Fyodorovich, our young hero, stands apart, even on a pedestal, a small pedestal so as not to embarrass him.”

    This is my favorite line.

    AMDG, Janet

  4. Nick Milne Says:

    I’m wary of any attempts to dish out the “greatest of all novels” award, but it’s really hard to argue with it in this case. Only Don Quixote offers any serious challenge, and such other possible contenders as might be proposed are more properly to be praised for having certain aspects that are comparable to (or greater than) The Brothers K‘s example rather than simply being wholly superior. The Brothers K, by comparison, has the whole package.

    Also, glad to see you’re using the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation; they do good work and it deserves to be recognized. They tread a dangerous path in principle, what with their chosen methods, but in practice it hasn’t yet proven to be a problem. Volokhonsky is an assiduous linguist and Pevear knows good prose. I’d like to see them tackle Grossman’s Life and Fate sometime, but for now I’m cool with them sticking to the older classics.

    Also also, that note about this being your “second reading,” included in your little preface, puts you in a grand and exclusive elite. Even I’m not there yet, unfortunately. ;_;

  5. Janet Says:

    I’m there, but then I’m 58.

    AMDG, Janet

  6. cburrell Says:

    My first reading was when I was a freshman, so it was more of a “half reading”, or a “half-witted” reading.

    I’m also wary of tossing around “greatest novel” accolades, but I thought that if I hedged my bets a little and put the claim into the mouth of someone who is delirious that I could get away with it. So I did.

    Almost all of my exposure to the great Russian novelists has been under the tutelage of Pevear and Volokhonsky. I sure hope they are doing a good job.

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