On Rereading The Brothers Karamazov

So I can only go so long without reading one of Dostoevsky’s big four novels it seems, and the time has come around again to tackle The Brothers Karamazov. As someone who’s written a book (as yet unpublished), I  can admit that, great truths about the human condition aside, I am utterly in awe of the way that FMD and the other great 19th century novelists get their plots going. For FMD in particular there’s the way that he basically tells you that you need lots of backstory in order to understand the main plot. If you’re willing to put in some extra time and effort now, you’ll be much better able to understand what happens 200 pages hence. FMD proceeds to give you that background in a way that is engaging and horrifying and wry, and without really calling attention to it, he begins to relate the main events of the plot. You stop to think about when the plot of the book (as separate from the background thereto) actually began and it hits you that the two aren’t really separate at all and you’re drawn in. Then he begins dropping hints about specific characters and their relations and you’re drawn in all the more.

Anyways, I last read BK in college, and of course a great many things have happened since then. I’ve become more mature and aged and wise and all that, and I’ve also read some of Nabokov’s literary criticism. Nabokov, in case you didn’t know, wasn’t much for FMD. He found the books affecting as a young man, but that he’d lost his taste for them as he’d grown, presumably for their lack of interest in aesthetic innovation.[1]

And so at least a part of my motivation in rereading the book is whether or not it still has the same grip and affect on me. For the record, my first time through I read the whole thing in about three days and, upon finishing wanted to ask every person I’d ever known to forgive me, even if I’d never done them any wrong, and I still give money to people on the subway fairly frequently because of the story of an onion.


[1] While language games aren’t really FMD’s reason for writing, one passage in his Demons does presage a bit in Joyce’s Ulysses. FMD’s Kirillov plays with a small child by tossing a “ba” back and forth, the “ba” being of course a very small child’s way of saying “ball.” In Ulysses, Leopold Bloom dons a “high grade ha,” the gag being that the t in “hat” has worn away from the label of his hat. Nevermind that the example from FMD is spoken while Joyce’s is written: that little detail has always stuck with me.

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2 Responses to On Rereading The Brothers Karamazov

  1. bostonthom says:

    A well written critique Mike and your reference to how Dostoevsky develops the backstory strikes me as I confronted the same issues in writing my first novel.

  2. Andrew Barker says:

    Curses! I still have to dig my copy out of a box somewhere to read this along with you. Slow down for a week or so, would you? If not, I shall fly at you, you scoundrel!

    I must say, I don’t think there is book in existence that I’ve cited more ineptly in conversation than Karamazov. And I cite it relatively often. I’m always noting parallels between certain scenes and my own life, yet as soon as I bring them up, I can never quite remember what happened in the scene, then I forget what the point of bringing up the scene was, then fall into a panic in which I can’t be certain if the scene I’m thinking of wasn’t actually in Notes from Underground or the Idiot instead.

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