Reading Russia: The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov

Posted by @ 8:29 pm on April 21st, 2009

policegoatIt’s very hard for me to separate these two books in my mind. Elements of each strike me for their similarity: the characters Prince Myshkin and Alyosha Karamazov, Nastasya Filippovna and Agrafena Svetlova, Parfion Rogozhin and Dimitri Karamazov, Gavrila Ivolgin and Ivan Karamazov; there is some sort of complicated love triangle between everyone; someone is murdered in a gruesome fashion (by knife and by pestle); and so on.

The heft of these books encourages me to take them on long journeys, so that I may always have words to read. I want to wear them on my feet and grow two inches taller, because I am only 5’6″ and I read a study somewhere that taller people tend to make more $ in the business world. I want to hollow out these books and store smaller books inside of them and even smaller books inside of those books. These are the kinds of books that make me wish I could escape from writing stories that involve two people saying stupid things about sperm whales to each other. These are the kinds of books that make me miss good storytelling.

As I was reading both of these books, I often found myself sincerely worrying about the characters: I hope the prince recovers! If only Ivan had not left for Moscow, the fool! Will anyone suspect Smerdyakov? I followed the relationships between the characters very closely, and I recall feeling emotions for these characters. There are two scenes that really affect me, and I’ll talk about them below.

There are not many recent, enormous contemporary social novels that have affected me this way, except for Infinite Jest and maybe some others that I cannot name right now – my bookshelf is currently full of story collections and other short books, so I’m not really reading big social novels anyhow. Maybe that’s why. But I have to admit that reading The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov creates in me a different effect than when I read the work of, say, Gary Lutz, or I don’t know, who else? My point is this: it was a relief to be able to feel concern for characters as if they were real people. I don’t know why, but it felt good to worry about them. See, when I read Lutz, different parts of my body light up, specifically, parts in my head. It is a different kind of reading that I apply to Lutz’s pages: more grammatical/mechanical, less concerned with the fleshy bits. Is anyone familiar with what I’m describing? I’m curious to know if others have found themselves enjoying a suddenly different way of reading? I mean really enjoying it because it is refreshing and new? And by new, I mean, it is how I used to read long ago, before I tried to write for myself?

telephonetoohigh1Here are two passages that affected me in the old way (with light commentary to give you an idea as to what I’m talking about). In the first passage, Nastasya Filippovna has just tossed one hundred thousand roubles in the fireplace and commanded, Ganya, her doomed suitor, to claim the money if he wishes. If he will crawl into the fireplace to retrieve the package before it burns, he may keep all of the money, but to do so would be to humiliate himself in front of the party of people gathered at the apartment. This is Nastasya’s revenge upon him for his pursuing her because of her large dowry, even though he is ashamed of her reputation.

But Ganya had been through too much that day and evening and was unprepared for this final, unlooked-for ordeal. The crowd parted in front of them and he was left face-to-face with Nastasya Filippovna, about three paces from her. She was standing right by the fireplace, waiting, her burning, piercing stare fixed upon him. Ganya, in his dress clothes, hat and gloves in hand, stood mutely looking at the fire with his arms folded. A mad smile hovered over his face, white as a sheet. True, he couldn’t take his eyes off the fire and the smouldering package, but it seemed that something new had entered his soul; it was as if he had sworn to withstand this torture; he did not move from the spot; after a few seconds it became clear to them all that he would not go for the parcel, that he had no wish to do so.

By the end of the scene, the climax of Part I, Ganya faints from the inner turmoil caused by his struggling to resist the money in order to save his pride, but Nastasya Filippovna departs with his rival, Rogozhin. Sorry if this is confusing? I think you have to have read the book to really follow me here, because this scene is important because of how strongly we see Ganya suffer (thus making the later violence of the book possible), but I think you can still get a sense of what Dostoevsky is doing with the two of them face-to-face, the mad smile, torture, etc. It’s a moment of extreme emotion (shame, pride, greed, etc. etc.) and Dostoevsky describes it well. Interesting to me are the various phrases (‘white as a sheet’ for example) that appear in the text, phrases that strike us (just me?) now as ’empty’ and ‘useless.’ But I don’t mind them here. I don’t know why, to be honest. Anyone?

This second passage is from The Brothers Karamazov and it surprised me for personal reasons. It’s a bit of a rant by the father of the brothers, Fyodor Karamazov. He’s speaking to the Elder Zosima a sort of weird, anxious standup routine, and the Elder tells him to not be ashamed of himself, to which Fyodor responds:

…When I go among people I do indeed always feel that I’m more vile than any of them and that they all take me for a buffoon, and so I say to myself: “Very well, I really will play the buffoon, I’m not afraid of what you think of me, because you’re all of you to a man more vile than I!” That’s the reason I’m a buffoon, it’s shame that makes me so, great Elder, shame. From pure mistrust do I play the lout.

This speech, which reminds me of the narrator from Notes from the Underground, shook a little bit of myself out of my safe space. Look, there is something I recognize here: this desire to protect myself from ridicule because I cannot bear shame, even though I tend to seek it out. Others cannot ridicule my selves/ideas/appearances if I know that the selves/ideas/appearances I’ve presented are not serious. Fyodor, for this reason, is my favorite character in the book, even though I don’t relate well to his voluptuousness. This shaming of myself is something I struggle with (I’m not claiming it all for my own – I imagine others do the same), and then I foolishly wonder why in other, more serious situations I’m discounted as a worthy participant. I wonder how badly I’ve hurt myself trying to protect myself? I don’t think it really matters; it is yet another thing to torment myself over.


Thank you for reading my blog post about The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov. Up next: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin.