Fyodor Dostoevsky — The Brothers Karamazov

Probably the best thing Dostoevsky wrote. The saga of the Karamazov family: despicable old Fyodor Pavlovich, and his sons, the sensualist Dmitri, rational Ivan, and saintly Alyosha, their lives and beliefs and loves, and eventually, the violent crime that rips the family apart and brings them even closer together. It’s also a rather stunning portrait of Russia in the 1800s, both the religious beliefs, the hard lives of the lower class, the values and ideas percolating among the educated men.

Dostoevsky’s omniscient narrator, wordy and verbose though he is, worms his way into the brains of the array of complicated, memorable characters, opening them up to you on the page. His own voice is so clear and unmistakeable, grounded in repetitions, repeated phrases, irony and flights of poetic fancy, that it is almost a character in and of itself. And the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is really a pleasure to read, much closer to the original Russian than Garnett, but still preserving the character and poetry of the narrator’s voice.

Although each of the Karamazov brothers embodies a different “ideal,” or way of thinking, they are far from one-note and in fact the thing that really impresses me is the complexity of the characters for the time period. One of my favorite creations is the “low woman” Grushenka, one given to caprices, cruelty, and extreme pride despite her situation. She’s hilarious, teasing and humiliating the staid and upper class Katerina Ivanovna one moment, having a serious conversation with Alyosha the next. And although Dostoevsky “redeems” her at the end of the novel (as, in fact, he does with Katerina herself), it’s not a self-righteous or unrealistic redemption. It comes as a natural evolution of character; her pride, the defining characteristic, remains.

The Brothers Karamazov is many things: murder mystery, courtroom novel, family saga, and in some ways a religious and philosophical treatise, but it’s never boring. Dostoevsky keeps you hanging on until the last page. And it’s rightfully considered a masterpiece.

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