Review of The Brothers Karamazov (1879)

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Fyodor Dostoevsky (writer).

Read in 2021.

Read in Constance Garnett’s 1912 translation.

A proud, hot-headed scoundrel is put on trial for the murder of his father.

If you misread this book as a murder mystery, it’s pretty bad. The truth of the murder is that the household’s cook did it for money. This is the simplest available explanation, it is very simple indeed, and this makes it credible. Happily, the story violates several of the “rules” of murder mysteries, as formulated later by S. S. Van Dine.

Around the simple answer, Dostoevsky builds a more complicated event where Dmitri, the man formally accused of murder, does in fact think he has killed someone, namely Grigory, the man who raised him. That attack was neither fatal nor premeditated, but Dmitri did do it and left his victim for dead without summoning help. This means that Dmitri is morally equivalent to a murderer. As a result, the whole question of Dmitri’s guilt in the more successful and literal murder is uninteresting. He is obviously an asshole and a few years in Siberia might do him some good.

Because Dmitri attacked Grigory, there is little weight of characterization attached to the literal murder, as far as Dmitri himself is concerned. Even so, the lawyer who defends Dmitri in a vividly satirical courtroom drama does so on the basis that the murder victim, Fyodor, failed in his paternal duties, so that Dmitri’s hypothetical murder of Fyodor was not “parricide” and therefore not bad. This is one of the most ludicrous elements of the satire, because even if you follow that argument, Dmitri’s true father in a moral sense would have to be Grigory, making Dmitri more guilty, not less.

That’s all obvious, and yet, around the realistically simple answer and the unrealistically complicated circumstances, Dostoevsky builds a massive outer shell of truly literary novel, more than 800 pages. It’s such a volume of text that the preliminary investigation of the murder does not begin until the ninth “book” in the series. Van Dine’s particular genre had thankfully not been invented when Dostoevsky was working, but just like Van Dine, Dostoevsky is obviously enamoured with all the paraphernalia of crime and the glamour of upper-class murder in particular. He loved spending his time at court to gather inspiration, prefiguring Van Dine and many other subgenres in a later flood of crap.

None of that makes The Brothers Karamazov worth a look.

It is also rather dull that Dostoevsky persists in associating atheism and certain scientific advances with murder. His own understanding of such things advanced after Crime and Punishment (1866), but the association is still there and still based on a fearful misunderstanding. Progressives in the book say that “everything is lawful”, as if the mere realization of the falsehood of a religion affected literal law, or inspired anybody to murder.

There is a great deal of Christian theology in the book. I don’t normally go for that sort of thing, and it’s tied in with the idea of atheism leading people to murder, but unlike the New Testament (ca. 110 CE) it’s written with profound and learned understanding of human weakness. Without embracing gnosticism, much of it juxtaposes a good elite Christianity (Alyosha and Zosima, those who accept responsibility for everyone) from a bad popular Christianity, reaching up to the many monks who attack Zosima after his death. Some of it juxtaposes Christianity with later ideas, principally those of Rakitin, a failing seminary student who is both malicious and hypocritical.

Rakitin embraces socialism and neurology, that is human decision-making as chemistry and “the little tails”(!) of neurons, as if these were opposed to higher-level intention. Therefore, like most of the Karamazovs, Rakitin embraces sensualism, that is hedonism. He does so in a state of youthful confusion similar to Raskolnikov’s, but in this book, Dostoevsky doesn’t stop there. Ivan’s comprehension of Christianity’s failure is clearly superior to Rakitin’s, although Ivan himself is not a positive atheist. He rejects not the gods but their creation, with a famous phrase on the metaphor of life as a ticket to the world under certain conditions:

It’s not God that I don’t accept, Alyosha, only I most respectfully return Him the ticket.

The most celebrated chapter of the book is Ivan’s prose “poem” about an inquisitor who arrests Jesus when the god returns to Earth; it’s about the Catholic church knowingly serving Satan, which is to say it spells out Dostoevsky’s dark philosophy of popular or pragmatic Christianity having gone wrong. Less celebrated but more influential on later literature is Ivan’s own fall into madness, in which he has a vivid conversation with Satan.

Whereas in the “poem” miracles produce bread rather than faith, Ivan’s Satan talks about miracles in a more intelligent way: A way that prefigures B. F. Skinner’s theory of intermittent reinforcement. This Satan, whose appearance is as prosaic as it would be in cheap arthouse films, says he wants to keep people in a state of alternating belief and disbelief, like Skinner’s lab rats, frenzied by the lack of certainty. The fact that Dostoevsky had Ivan succumb to such a brain fever should probably be taken to impugn atheism in general, but still, it does show that Dostoevsky understood more than Christianity. In fact, intermittent reinforcement is an important part of the formation and maintenance of any religious faith: Only rarely, the believer encounters coincedences that seem to indicate the value of faith, but there is always contradiction and doubt. This doubt leads to frenzy, especially because, in Christianity, it is coupled with recrimination.

The philosophical track of The Brothers Karamazov thus ends well, and it has been hugely influential, but it never quite blossoms into a central idea. Dmitri the asshole is a sensualist intrigued by Rakitin, but although he clings to honour, he is not part of the philosophical track. “God was watching over me then” he says about the moment of the murder, but his motives have nothing to do with Christianity. The real murderer in turn is only slightly connected to theology or philosophy: Smerdyakov, who reveals his dark intelligence to Ivan in a grubby room with cockroaches crawling under the wallpaper, claims inspiration from Ivan, but no causal relationship is established. Rather than atheism itself, the working-class Smerdyakov seems to represent class struggle and the more Machiavellian forces of Bismarck and the coming 20th century, including the deprecation of art and luxury under the Bolsheviks.

Another candidate for a central idea is nationalist. As in so many of the classics from this era, there is a general assumption that each nation has its particular psychological type and character. The prosecutor at the trial recycles Nikolai Gogol’s image of a troika and suggests that the Karamazovs as a group—and this would include Smerdyakov—represent Russia, and particularly the problems of Russia. No doubt this was Dostoevsky’s intent, but they are a varied group. Alyosha in particular, being based on an idealized version of Dostevsky’s own son, is a compelling character, but hardly representative of his or any nation. Leo Tolstoy got closer in Levin’s chapters of Anna Karenina (1873).

What Dostoevsky offers in place of an interesting plot or central idea is another one of those things Van Dine condemned for use in murder mysteries: Literary elaboration. Here, according to Mikhail Bakhtin’s famous analysis, elaboration comes in a carnivalesque, “polyphonic” mode. Dostoevsky refers respectfully to Tolstoy but does not tell the story through the thoughts of his characters, building them up from the inside. Instead, Dostoevsky participates as a character himself, pretending to pretend to tell a true story, ambiguously mixing fact and illusionistic fiction without taking centre stage. His other characters consequently fill the gamut between simple, even comic types (Madame Hohlakova; the marginal Poles) and novel, truly rounded characters brought to life by their actions in a thousand incidents, almost as rich as Tolstoy’s. This includes even the women.

Occasionally pretending to drop the ball through his prolepses (“But I am anticipating”), Dostoevsky uses the murder plot to sew everything else together. This works, briefly, in the climax of Dmitri’s arc, at Mokroe. Carefully staged, the scenes there and in the lead-up are an utterly masterful collision of modernism, realism and high drama. At Mokroe, the preceding elision of the murder creates a sense of indeterminacy, again akin to Skinner’s intermittent reinforcement, as well as to Van Dine’s puzzles.

As I mentioned, the sense of mystery is limited by the fact that, before Mokroe, Dmitri’s assault on Grigory has already revealed his nature. Many of the characters ignore that fact throughout the book, apparently because Grigory, the victim, is a servant. Somehow, the satire barely touches on that. Like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky shows a subtle contempt for the working class. If he had gone the distance and made class more central, the novel would have anticipated the forces at work in the 20th century, and particularly in Russia, even more effectively.

The bourgeoisie of the 20th century would grow to love murder as a literary motif. I wonder whether Dostoevsky’s obsession with crime legitimized it by association with his talent. Read the book anyway; it’s wonderfully rich in colour, texture and humanity. The lack of a single, central idea or point is secondary to the sheer joy of good writing.

References here: Valis (1981).

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