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Monday, May 04, 2015

The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky


Book Review
The Brothers Karamazov(1880)
by Fyodor Dostoyesvsky
LibriVox Free Version- Constance Garnett translation


  There are so many thing that can be said about The Brothers Karamazov but the major categories are probably:

 1. The relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to Fyodor Dostoyevsky's other works, with particular attention paid to Crime & Punishment.
 2.  The relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to other great works of Russian literature, with particular attention paid to Gogol and Tolstoy.
 3.  The relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to 19th century literature in terms of influences on and as influencer, with particular emphasis on mid 19th century English novelists like Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins.

 There is a fourth question, what is the relationship of The Brothers Karamazov to the modern Audience.  That question at least, is so easy to answer that it requires no analysis.  The Brothers Karamazov is a quintessential "bucket list" book, often regarded as something one is supposed to read and something one will read eventually.  It maintains this rank alongside other Russian novels like the author's own Crime & Punishment and Tolstoy's War & Peace, and non Russian modernist works like Ulysses by James Joyce.  I've listened to all four of these titles as free Librivox audio books, and if I could give one practical piece of advice it is for those in that "bucket list" category of readers or would-be readers to take advantage of the Librivox resource.  It is true that the quality of the readers...is variable.  But overall, you can't beat free, and the Android/IPhone app interface is quality.  I think more people would intake The Brothers Karamazov and those other bucket list type titles if they knew they could listen to them for free on their mobile phone.

    The Brothers Karamazov is typically considered as Dostoyesvsky's masterpiece, a reputation assisted by the proximity of the Author's death to the publication date, it's length and the strength of the work itself, a philosophical novel that is also a murder mystery, courtroom drama and novel of sensation in the mid 19th century sense of that phrase.  I think it is fair to opine that anyone who actually makes it to the end of The Brothers Karamazov has an investment in saying that their time and energy weren't wasted.  The Brothers Karamazov is one of those 19th century works of fiction that is so long that it contains both stories within stories, lengthy digressions from the main narrative and OF COURSE enormous philosophical speeches.    The enormous philosophical speeches are so synonymous with Russian literature that the genre of the "19th century philosophical novel" is tantamount to saying "19th century Russian literature." 

  However, I would argue that the lengthy philosophical speeches is Dostoyevsky's version of the lengthy digressions that authors like Charles Dickens used, often in the form of characters who speak around the subject and narrators who include scenic descriptions.  These scenic descriptions were very much a part of Crime & Punishment, but by The Brothers Karamazov, the locations of the events has faded into the background, replaced by incredibly lengthy dialogues between characters.  These dialogues are preset in all his works, but it is only The Brothers Karamazov that the dialogues and monologues alternate.  

   Personally, I prefer to Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky.  The intense mental claustrophobia of Dostoyevesky's protagonists make The Brothers Karamazov emotionally draining.  At times, the experience of listening to this book felt like drowning in the deep end of a swimming pool.  Tolstoy's expansive scenarios are like the polar opposite of Dostoyevsky's claustrophobia.  Linking them together because of their shared penchant for philosophical discourse is almost unfair. 

  By the end of The Brothers Karamazov, I began to perceive the influence of the sensation novels of the mid 19th century- Wilkie Collins is the most well known author from this period.  These novels combined supernatural twists with criminal procedure.  Here, the explicitly supernatural is absent, but there are more than enough freaks and geeks to keep the proceedings "sensational."  It's hard not to finish The Brothers Karamazov and not feel that he was writing for the same kind of Audience he would imagine would read Dickens or Collins.  I don't even know if Collins was translated into Russian, so that is just a guess on my part. 

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