Dostoyevsky and I, Part III

I finished The Brothers Karamazov, all 604 pages of it. It took me a long time. It is the third Dostoyevsky novel I reread recently (preceded by Crime and Punishment and The Idiot) and I am glad I got to it last. For sure, it is the best. I struggled in the beginning but gobbled up the second half. And what a trailblazer! What an opener of literary roads!

Reading the first chapters felt like a school assignment, with parts that were tedious and parts that were somewhat rewarding. I had to work my way through them in order to understand the facts later, in all of their painstaking detail, the repetitive information, the many — too many — characters with complicated and unfamiliar names, the psychology, and the philosophical underpinning and symbolism of the novel. The writer lays the groundwork to reel you in and then he captures you. I had to go through Father Zossima’s religious teachings, and his strong Slavic idealism that impressed me, but didn’t surprise me, plus that unique section (Book V, Chapter 5) called The Grand Inquisitor which knocked me off my feet the first time I read it almost fifty years ago, and now it wowed anew. How could it not? God descends on 16th century Seville “in that human shape in which He walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago…He came softly, unobserved, and yet, strange to say, everyone recognized Him.” But the Grand Inquisitor, after having his men “lay hands on Him and lead Him away,” tells God what He had gotten wrong when He had created the world.

I have a confession to make. It took me so long to finish The Brothers Karamazov because I stopped and read another novel in the meantime. It was A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles (462 pages). I had borrowed the book from the library and I had to return it within a certain amount of time. The interruption gave me the opportunity to compare the two, which, in turn, produced a new perspective. The novels are radically different, of course, in amplitude and psychological depth, but they both describe Mother Russia, and in that sense, it was impossible not to compare them. Chronologically speaking the two Russias are almost a century apart, but A Gentleman in Moscow was written a few years ago, and its craft is noticeably different. I would say the craft has evolved. Dostoyevsky’s writing feels like slurping deep, rich Russian borscht with buckwheat and sour cream, full of sustenance, while the second tastes like a light and sophisticated hot consommé. Read the following descriptions of interiors, the first by Dostoyevsky, the second by Towles, and judge for yourself.

He found himself in a regular peasant’s room. Though it was large, it was cumbered up with domestic belongings of all sorts, and there were several people in it. On the left was a large Russian stove. From the stove to the window on the left was a string running across the room, and on it there were rags hanging. There was a bedstead against the wall on each side, right and left, covered with knitted quilts. On the one on the left was a pyramid of four print-covered pillows, each smaller than the one beneath. On the other there was only one very small pillow. The opposite corner was screened off by a curtain or a sheet hung on a string. Behind this curtain could be seen a bed made up on a bench and a chair. The rough square table of plain wood had been moved into the middle window…

Alongside the stacks of Sevres plates bearing the hotel’s insignia were samovars that stood two feet tall and soup tureens that looked like the goblets of the gods. There were coffee pots and gravy boats. There was an assortment of utensils, each of which had been designed with the greatest care to serve a single culinary purpose. From among them, Nina picked up what looked like a delicate spade with a plunger and an ivory handle. Depressing the lever, Nina watched as the two opposing blades opened and shut, then she looked to the Count in wonder. “An asparagus server,” he explained.

Notice how the first description proceeds tediously on and on, while the second one weaves in the elegant yet now odd table setting reflecting times past, and the question of a child of the new world.

And here is what Towles says about Russian names: …the character names in Russian novels are notorious for their difficulty. Not content to rely on given and family names, we Russians like to make use of honorifics, patronymics, and an array of diminutives — such that a single character in one of our novels may be referred to in four different ways in as many pages.

They both pay tribute to Gogol, and Pushkin (Towles, of course, admires Dostoyevsky), and they both like tradition, customs, and the open land. They admiringly speak of duels, that romantic and savage settling of scores; and their characters drink — boy, do they drink! But there is no failing in observing the humor in Towles’ tone, and that smartness of the hindsight that imparts onto the reader a luminous and knowing smile. After all we’ve already defeated Communism, and so did the gentleman (the Count).

This brings me to the second part of The Brothers Karamazov, after the commitment of parricide. Two of the stepbrothers could have physically done it, and a third one might have been morally responsible for it. That third one had survived the visit of a humble landlord dressed in a worn out jacket, who was the Devil himself. Alyosha, the saintly brother and a disciple of Father Zossima, serves as counterbalance, along with the schoolchildren who represent the future. The action moves at a gallop: first the delirium and the crime, then the orgy in Mokroe, then the trial. All this was written long before Perry Mason, before Presumed Innocent and A Time to Kill. In 19th century Russia jury trials involved a prosecutor, and a lawyer for the defense. They both presented arguments, and all the facts were overturned and reinterpreted, all with a deep psychological twist. And how different reality looked each time! And how grabbing it was.

While this might not be the first example of a legal and psychological thriller in the annals of literature, it sets the foundation for the modern norms. But does it teach me to be a better writer? Of course it does — in that intricate and meandering way that reaches me through the years, along with the influence Dostoyevsky has on all of us.

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