…being the first of an occasional series of posts containing random thoughts that occur to me during my latest reading of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov
The setting of The Brothers Karamazov is a familiar one in Russian literature. It is a provincial town, unrelievedly dull and grey, mean and nasty; at best mind-numbingly monotonous, at worst filthy and evil; peopled by eccentrics and madmen, mean, venal, and petty – people whose souls are dead.
People whose souls are dead. Indeed. This town was first depicted by Gogol in the play The Government Inspector, and then, in the novel Dead Souls. In this novel, Gogol quite explicitly painted this town as Hell. Dead Souls was intended to be a tripartite work which, like Dante’s poem, was to depict Hell in he first part, Purgatory in the second and Paradise in the third: the third part was never written, and much of the second part was destroyed by Gogol himslf in what appears to have been a fit of insanity before his death: the only part we have left is the first part – Gogol’s vision of Hell. And this vision of Hell appears to have haunted Russian literature ever since.
We see it repeatedly in Chekhov’s works. It is this Hell from which those three sisters longed so to escape to Moscow; it is this Hell that appears through so many of his short stories – “Ward No. 6”, “Ionych”, “In the Ravine”, and the novella My Life. In the wonderful novella Three Years, Yulia does manage to escape: she escapes to Moscow, as the three sisters had longed to do. She doesn’t quite find there the happiness she had hoped for, but she knows well what her fate would have been had she remained.
This town is also the setting for Saltykov-Schedrin’s remarkable The Golovlyov Family, where it seems that the only possible escape from this soulless desert is the grave: it is possibly the darkest and most despairing novel I have come across. This town is the setting, too, of Tolstoy’s last full-length novel, Resurrection, in which he looked in horror at the conflagration that was raging under his readers’ very noses, and at the enormity of the suffering human beings inflict on each other as a daily matter of course.
And this town appears in Dostoyevsky too – in The Devils, and also here, in The Brothers Karamazov. That grey, grotesque Hell Gogol depicted never seems far from the Russian literary imagination.