Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” (1880) bears a heavy burden. Most scholars regard this Russian classic — roughly 900 pages long in this new translation by Michael R. Katz — as an achievement comparable in scale and power to Homer’s “Iliad,” Aeschylus’s “Oresteia” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” Albert Einstein, no less, thought the novel quite simply “the supreme summit of all literature.” Other admirers include two of the most provocative explorers of the human psyche: Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared the Russian author “the only psychologist from whom [he] had anything to learn,” and Sigmund Freud, who likened Dostoevsky’s dramatic imagination to Shakespeare’s.
For a contemporary reader, though, these endorsements may carry a slightly negative charge, causing “The Brothers Karamazov” to sound offputtingly intellectual, one of those books you’re supposed to read despite its being a slog.
It’s not that at all — which doesn’t mean this masterpiece is beyond criticism. Leo Tolstoy scribbled in his diary that Dostoevsky’s “dialogues are impossible and entirely unnatural … I was surprised by his sloppiness, artificiality, the fabricated quality … so awkward … outright unartistic.” Anton Chekhov called the novel “good but pretentious.”
Vladimir Nabokov simply dismissed virtually everything Dostoevsky wrote as “poshlost” — vulgar, cheaply journalistic, second-rate kitsch.
Nobody can deny that “The Brothers Karamazov” can be prolix and repetitive, partly because it initially appeared over the course of two years as a magazine serial. Yet it is also as enthralling and nightmarish as a modern psychological thriller or film noir.
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Consider the basic plot. The debauched and venal Fyodor Karamazov has three sons, the soulful sensualist Dmitry, the intellectual atheist Ivan, and the gentle, spiritual Alyosha. When Dmitry grows besotted with the earthy Grushenka, his rich and coolly beautiful fiancée Katerina nonetheless refuses to give him up, largely out of vanity, even though she has come to love and be loved by Ivan. Meanwhile, Karamazov père drools over Grushenka himself and promises the flirtatious but staunchly independent young woman 3,000 rubles in return for her favors. Insanely jealous, Dmitry finally assaults his father during a family get-together, even threatening to kill the old man. Observing it all, the silently morose Ivan appears to disdain everything and everyone, himself included.
To all the troubled people in this provincial town, the 19-year-old Alyosha acts as mediator and confessor, partly because the sweet-tempered lad — Somerset Maugham thought him “perhaps the most engaging creature in all fiction” — possesses a forgiving and understanding heart. When the novel opens, Alyosha has been living in a nearby monastery as the disciple of the saintly, deeply humane monk Zosima, who preaches that one should never tell lies, especially to oneself, and that each individual is responsible for everyone else on Earth. Though overshadowed by the tempestuous Dmitry and the charismatic Ivan, Alyosha was actually intended as the main focus of “The Brothers Karamazov.” In fact, the whole novel supposedly serves as merely a preamble to a future, never-written account of his later life. Alas, Dostoevsky — all of whose major characters clearly embody aspects of his own extremist personality — died in 1881, shortly after completing this summa of his most deeply felt themes and obsessions. He was 59. Forty thousand people are said to have attended his funeral procession.
Against its fundamentally soap-operatic setup, the novel’s suspenseful plot unfolds in zigzag fashion, the chapters alternating among the three brothers, as an unnamed narrator relates their movements and actions in the days, then hours, preceding the murder of Fyodor Karamazov. Because Dostoevsky learned much of his art from Gothic romances and those “horrid novels” so beloved by Catherine of Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey,” he adopts many of their most sensational elements. We learn that Fyodor may have fathered an illegitimate son, named Smerdyakov, who is now his unctuously obedient servant; that Grushenka was sexually abused by a much older man when she was just 17; and that Katerina planned to sacrifice her virtue to save her father from financial disgrace. Meanwhile a frail little boy is slowly dying of consumption, doubts arise about Zosima’s sanctity, and Alyosha’s faith wavers. There’s even an orgiastic bacchanal and a dramatic courtroom finale.
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Like Dostoevsky’s other novels, “The Brothers Karamazov” presents the souls of its major characters as ideological battlegrounds between faith and reason, setting the Russian spirituality and selfless Christianity represented by Zosima against the socialism, nihilism and rationalism of the West. As a conservative Russophile Christian, Dostoevsky hoped his novel would be a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God to man, but as an artist he gives equal weight to the atheistic and empiricist worldview. Polyphonic in structure, “The Brothers Karamazov” deftly orchestrates numerous diverse voices as its principals argue about God, religion, love, the soul, poverty and much else. But don’t expect the civilized philosophical dialogues found in Plato or George Bernard Shaw: Dostoevsky typically opts for theatrically over-the-top excess — his people rant and weep one moment, then bow and kiss the next, sometimes even kneel abjectly before one another. Since nearly all of them lack the usual social filters, their conversations quickly morph into intimate, even shameful confessions.
Throughout a novel that breathlessly rushes from crisis to crisis, Dostoevsky knits the whole together through symbolic doubling (Ivan and Smerdyakov), the foreshadowing of future events, recurrent imagery (candy, fingers, laughter, demons) and several other rhetorical devices. Appropriately enough, the three most celebrated chapters of this great novel-tragedy — all involving Ivan — combine terror and pity. In the emotionally lacerating “Rebellion,” Ivan tells Alyosha that he has collected news clippings of the tortures inflicted upon small children. One 8-year-old boy, having accidentally injured a rich landowner’s favorite hunting dog, is stripped naked, told to run and quickly torn to pieces by the rest of the pack before his mother’s horrified eyes. There are other comparably harrowing and sadistic stories. Even if God does somehow exist, Ivan declares that he absolutely refuses to bow down to any being who allows such things to happen to innocent children.
In the following chapter, “The Grand Inquisitor,” Ivan then relates the gist of a poem he has composed. In 16th-century Spain, Jesus Christ suddenly appears in Seville, heals a blind man, raises a girl from the dead, and then immediately finds himself arrested and thrown into prison. There, he is visited by the Grand Inquisitor himself, who announces that the Christian savior will be burned at the stake the next day. Why? Because Jesus and his high-minded teachings have demanded too much from humankind. People cannot bear very much reality and inevitably break down when faced with moral quandaries. In their hearts men and women long to surrender their anxiety-laden free will to authoritarianism (which, alas, seems true even today). Consequently, the church now does all the decision-making for its members, who experience “the joy of submission” and are given in return security and happiness. This dark parable climaxes with one of Dostoevsky’s most paradoxical flourishes: The imprisoned Jesus never says a word to the Grand Inquisitor, but suddenly kisses the old man on the lips, then disappears into the night. People have argued over the story’s meaning ever since it appeared.
Nearly as powerful is a third astonishing episode, one in which the now-feverish, increasingly guilt-ridden Ivan hallucinates that he has encountered the Devil in the flesh: “He was some sort of gentleman … with quite long, thick, dark hair streaked slightly with gray, and a short pointed beard. He was dressed in a brown jacket, evidently fashioned by a good tailor, but now a little worse for the wear, at least three years old and completely out of fashion.”
To Ivan’s dismay, this down-at-the-heels Satan gradually reveals how the sensitive young man’s rationalism and rejection of God have led him to the verge of complete mental breakdown — and helped inspire the murder of his father. After all, throughout the novel Ivan has periodically asserted that once you take away the prospect of immortality from human beings, then “everything is permitted.”
While “The Brothers Karamazov” is certainly idea-driven, let me stress that Dostoevsky’s driving is fast and furious. Admittedly, this is a more diffuse novel than “Crime and Punishment” or the stunning novella “Notes From Underground” (“I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man”), but the sheer vitality, the thirst for life, that characterizes all the Karamazovs sweeps the reader irresistibly along. It is a work of restless energy and plenitude, filled with unexpected reversals and revelations, at once raucous and poignant, satirical and grand. As a troop of boys sings out on its last page, “Hurrah for Karamazov!”
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But what of this new translation? There are many earlier ones, starting with Constance Garnett’s, which first appeared in 1912 but remains admired to this day for its smoothly readable Edwardian prose. In introducing his own translation, Katz — a professor emeritus of Russian at Middlebury College — argues that Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s widely acclaimed 1990 version sometimes sacrifices “tone” and “overall sense” by keeping a “too close adherence to the Russian text.” His own work, he maintains, better captures the differing speech patterns of the various characters, while also bringing out the novel’s wit and humor. That humor appears most memorably in Fyodor Karamazov’s buffoonish outbursts and in satirical scenes with the wealthy, obtusely Westernized Madame Khokhlakov, but also in the more quietly comic cameos of Dr. Herzenstube, who, whatever the ailment, always concludes that he just can’t understand it. There’s also an exceptionally charming vignette in which a little boy and his younger sister debate where babies come from.
So which English-language version should you read? Not knowing Russian, I simply made some spot comparisons among these three texts, and the differences struck me as minor. While I certainly enjoyed rereading “The Brothers Karamazov” in this well-designed Liveright edition, I suspect that almost any modern translation will convey the deeply felt humanity, as well as the majesty, of Dostoevsky’s final masterpiece.
The Brothers Karamazov
A New Translation
By Fyodor Dostoevsky. Translation by Michael R. Katz
Liveright. 928 pages. $40
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