Archive for December, 2010

A Merry Christmas to one and all!

I shall be taking a break over the holiday period, but expect to be back posting here in the New Year.

In the meantime, may I wish you all a very Merry Christmas. And hopefully, we’ll meet up again – in a manner of speaking , that is – in the New year.

“A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens

Everyone knows A Christmas Carol. It’s about as famous as the story of Christ’s Nativity itself. Even those who have never opened a book know at least the outline of the story. No matter how frequently it is derided for its tweeness or for its alleged sentimentality (usually by those who haven’t read it), its popularity, some hundred and seventy years after its first publication, seems as great as ever, and it continues to be loved by readers of all levels of sophistication. It has been filmed for both the big screen and the small countless times, and appetite for further adaptations doesn’t seem to have dampened. Every Christmas, theatrical adaptations appear on countless stages. Everyone from the Carry On team to Blackadder to the Muppets to the scurrilous (but nonetheless very funny) Viz magazine has parodied it, confident that their intended audience would pick up the reference. Its themes and motifs turn up in all sorts of unexpected places. If you turn to, say, Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych, the opening scene presents us with a group of businessmen who mention in bored and unconcerned tones the death of someone they had known: this scene is taken directly from the fourth part of A Christmas Carol, in which former colleagues of Scrooge speak in similarly unconcerned tones about Scrooge’s death. Or consider Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, at the start of which the protagonist has a vision of his own funeral; as the film progresses, we see marks of Dickens’ novella all over it: in both cases, a miserable old sod is redeemed after revisiting his own lost past.

That so many people know about the story without having read it is, of course, a tribute to the power of Dickens’ work; but it also means there are a great many misconceptions about it. It is still regarded as essentially “twee” – which, I see, is defined as “affectedly dainty or refined”. I suppose it can’t be denied that Dickens is often whimsical in this work, and, to certain readers, that whimsicality may well appear “affectedly dainty or refined”. But those who actually do read it are often taken by surprise by its emotional power; and, as with those who come to Capra’s film It’s a Wonderful Life with similar preconceptions, they are taken by surprise by how dark so much of it is. It is true that the novel ends in a mood of joy – and, this being Dickens, the joy is presented in a whimsical manner rather than with the seriousness of a Schillerian Ode. But the joy has been hard-earned. Before we reach that joy, we have to glimpse into the abyss.

It is towards the end of the third part that we are prepared for what is to come. The Spirit of Christmas Present reveals two children under his robes. But these are not by any means cute, Disneyesque children:

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

‘Spirit, are they yours?’ Scrooge could say no more.

‘They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want.’

There is so much to comment upon in just this one passage. Amongst other things, very few writers would use the adjective “menacing” where the adverb “menacingly” would seem the more obvious choice (“…and glared out menacing”), but Dickens had a superb ear: that sentence, he knew, had to end strongly with a stressed syllable. The rhythms and the sonorities of this passage could hardly be improved upon. And the effect, even out of context, is, for me, chilling.

And then, immediately, we are with the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come. He shows Scrooge a dead man, and then takes Scrooge into what is effectively Hell. This is a world from which all feelings we like to imagine as human are missing. The woman who used to clean in the dead man’s house has robbed the dead man of everything – even the shirt off his back – and, in this dark place grimed with more than merely physical filth, she attempts to sell them. Scrooge, at the stage of his education, can feel the absence of what should be sacred, and he recoils at it. Does no-one have any feelings for this man who has died? In reply, the spirit shows him people who had been debtors to the dead man, and who, despite knowing they shouldn’t, are merely relieved by the death of their creditor. But this is not what Scrooge wants to see. Does no-one feel any tenderness?

It is at this point that we are taken to what, I think, lies at the heart of the story. We are shown the Cratchits mourning their dead child. Some have accused Dickens of being sentimental in this passage: I think such people are too embarrassed by naked emotion: this passage is, for me at least, the most convincing depiction of grief I think I have come across in fiction. And it is by no means placed in the story gratuitously: Scrooge needs to see for himself how deeply human beings can feel for each other. He needs to see that even the pain they feel marks them out as human.

In Michael Slater’s recent biography, we are told that Dickens was a man enthusiastic reader of Wordsworth. This does not surprise me. Wordsworth had spoken in The Prelude of a community of the living and the dead:

There is
One great society alone on earth:
The noble living and the noble dead.

Wordsworth had also depicted in his poem “We are Seven” a child who insists that he and his siblings make seven, even though several of his brothers and sisters are dead. Here, the Cratchits’ child is dead: but he remains nonetheless one of the family. No – this is not sentimentality: this is a true depiction of true emotions, and something Scrooge – and all the other Scrooges of this world – need to witness. There is nothing “dainty” about this, and certainly nothing “affected”.

(I also think Dickens had taken from Wordsworth the Rousseau-esque idea of the essential innocence of childhood, of corruption only appearing as one becomes older: Scrooge as a child had been quite innocent; it was only as he had started to become older that corruption had set in. And if he is to be reformed, he must first be given a glimpse of his childhood state.)

The last part of A Christmas Carol is, of course, pure joy. But it has been earned. It has been hard-earned.

A Christmas Carol seems to me the greatest of modern myths, and it resonates as powerfully as any myth of any period. It is difficult to imagine a time when people won’t know the story of how Scrooge was reformed. For me, it is essential reading for this time of year. Dickens wrote four other Christmas Books, of which three are very fine (The Battle for Life is the sole failure). But none matches this, one of the greatest masterpieces, I think, of a very great writer.

A Karamazov Diary: 11 – Presences

The 19th century is usually regarded as the high-water mark of the realist novel, but I don’t know that it makes much sense to regard The Brothers Karamazov from such a perspective. One can do so, of course, but viewed from a strictly realist perspective, the novel is bound to emerge, I think, as deeply unsatisfactory. But there are other approaches to the work that are, perhaps, more rewarding.

There’s a whiff of sulphur about this work, a whiff of the demonic. Translator David McDuff suggests in his introduction that it is actually the Devil himself who is the chief protagonist of the novel. Throughout, devils are referred to – sometimes casually in passing, but often with dark intent. When Dmitri, for instance, is being interrogated, and cannot understand the evidence presented before him, he says that it must have been the Devil who had killed his father. And, unless we insist on seeing it all from a strictly realist perspective, he was surely right.

I can’t think of another novel (except perhaps James Hogg’s much underrated masterpiece Confessions and Private Memoirs of a Justified Sinner) where the presence of the demonic is so apparent, so palpable. From the first chapter to the last, the Devil seems to be lurking around every corner. Dostoyevsky delays his actual appearance until that extraordinary climactic scene where the Devil in person appears to Ivan; and even there, he offers us the possibility that the Devil is merely a hallucination. But if the reader is aware of how persistent this diabolical presence has been throughout the novel, then the Devil need not be seen here as a hallucination at all. In Dickens’ Bleak House, the spontaneous combustion of Krook may simultaneously be taken both as metaphorical and as literal; similarly, the apperanace of the Devil here needs to be taken simultaneously on both levels.

The problem for the modern reader is, perhaps, to see through the realist trappings of The Brothers Karamazov. A novel such as, say, The Master and Margarita, presents itself as a work of fantasy throughout: The Brothers Karamazov, in contrast, presents itself as realist on the surface. But this surface is grossly misleading. 19th century novelists broke through the bounds of realism far more frequently than modernists or postmodernists like to imagine.

Perhaps Dostoyevsky intended the presence of God to be apparent also, but if this was indeed his intention, he surely failed. After Ivan’s departure towards the end of the second part, Dostoyevsky gives us three chapters devoted to Zosima: the episodes related from Zosima’s early life read like the sort of fable Tolstoy was writing in his old age (it is astonishing how many parallels seem to emerge between these two acknowledged opposites) and, while they don’t appear to fit comfortably with the rest of the novel, are fascinating; Zosima’s sermons, on the other hand, emerge merely as worthy but trite. And the saintly Alyosha never really convinces, even in the particular context of this novel. But once again, Dostoyevsky was hardly the first writer who had failed to make Good quite as vivid or as exciting as Evil. The presence of the Devil, however, is undeniable: it is this presence gives the novel an excitement and frission that I don’t think I’ve encountered elsewhere.

A Karamazov Diary: 10 – Ivan

The Brothers Karamazov is, on one level, a thriller with many unexpected twists and turns in the plot. But it is not possible to discuss the character of Ivan without giving away some of these twists and turns. So if you haven’t yet read the book, but plan to, and don’t want the twists of the plot revealed, it might be best to give this post a miss.

Ivan famously says that if God didn’t exist, then everything would be permitted. This has been seen as an attempt on Dostoyevsky’s part to justify religious belief. Probably it is: it seems to me quite likely that Dostoyevsky himself did not think it possible to have any reasonable grounds for a moral code without belief in God. This is not to say that atheists are necessarily immoral people, nor, conversely, that believers are necessarily moral people – but merely that without belief in a divinity of some sort, there can be no moral code that is binding.

Not surprisingly, this has proved controversial, and I don’t know that I want to enter into this controversy: ethics is a difficult area, and I would prefer not to rush in foolishly where even experts fear to tread. But whatever Dostoyevsky’s own thoughts and convictions on the matter, in the context of Ivan and of the role he plays in the novel, his statement is perfectly coherent. Having rejected God – having rejected God even if God were to exist – Ivan feels he has to formulate his own moral code; and that, in the process of doing so, any moral imperative that comes from God, or claims to come from God, is, and must be, irrelevant: he has to start from scratch – nothing is given to begin with. In this sense, everything is, indeed, permitted.

Ivan is aware that his statement may be interpreted in different ways, but that doesn’t seem to bother him: quite the contrary – it seems to amuse him. He knows that Dmitri has been much struck by this thought, and he knows also that Dmitri has interpreted it in his own manner: but when he repeats to Alyosha that everything is, indeed, permitted, he adds that “Dmitri’s version of it isn’t bad either”. Even as he says this, Ivan is hoping that Dmitri would kill their father. As he puts it, what does it matter if one reptile were to kill another? Indeed, if one were to formulate one’s moral code on strictly rational grounds, then the killing of so depraved and so wicked a man as old Fyodor Karamazov need not be seen as a crime at all.

In the event, of course, it is not Dmitri who kills the the father, but Smerdyakov. This is what Ivan had been dreading. If Dmitri is the murderer, then the guilt is his; but should Smerdyakov turn out to be the killer, then it is he, Ivan, who is guilty, for Smerdyakov would have done it for Ivan’s sake. And what is more, Ivan had given him the go-ahead to do it. Not directly, of course: nothing is said directly. But in a sort of coded message, Ivan had effectively told Smerdyakov that he could go ahead with the killing. So terrible is this, that Ivan had, to a great extent, hidden his true motives even from himself; but Smerdyakov had understood it, and when he confronts Ivan with it afterwards, Ivan cannot deny it: being intellectually honest, he cannot deny it to his own self what he had desired, and, more, what he had actually done.

This idea of a “transferred guilt”, as it were, possibly derives from Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov (it is present also in Mussorgsky’s opera based on the play, composed some ten or so years before The Brother Karamazov was written). Boris had been tortured with guilt for the killing of the young Tsarevich Dmitri. He had not killed the boy himself, and nor had he given direct orders: but he had wanted it; he had made his desire known; and it had been done on his behalf. He could deny his guilt to the world, but not to himself. In both the play and in the opera, we see, in some of the most intense and terrifying of scenes, Boris being driven mad with guilt: eventually, it kills him. In Dostoyevsky’s novel, we see Ivan suffering tortures equally terrible. On the very last page of the novel, Alyosha describes him as being “on the point of death”.

Of the three brothers – at least, of the three legitimate brothers: Smerdyakov may well be a fourth Brother Karamazov – Ivan is the only one who is denied a moment of revelation, of epiphany. Not for him the glorious spiritual experience Alyosha has as he hears the reading of Christ’s miracle at the wedding feast in Cana; nor for him the transforming dream Dmitri has after his torments through Hell. Ivan goes through his own Hell, of course: mirroring Dmitri’s passage through Hell in those three chapters of the preliminary investigation entitled “The Passage of a Soul Through the Torments”, Ivan is given three chapters in which he meets with Smerdyakov, in a room unnaturally hot; and in the course of these meetings, his most unthinkable nightmare proves to be true: it is indeed he, Ivan, who is the murderer. But where Dmitri after journeying through Hell is granted a transforming vision, Ivan, after his journey through Hell, has to face the most horrendous nightmare of all: he has to meet with the Devil.

The novel at this stage has reached so febrile a pitch of intensity, that even the physical appearence of the Devil himself does not seem out of place. Ivan knows that this figure is a hallucination – is, indeed, an aspect of his own self-accusing soul. And yet, by this stage, Ivan cannot be sure even of his own knowledge. As he raves and babbles to Alyosha afterwards, he seems to believe that the figure he had encountered really was the Devil in person.

The scene with the Devil is perhaps the climactic point of the entire novel, and is the most dramatic and powerful scene in a novel full to bursting with dramatic and powerful scenes. (Thomas Mann later paid tribute to this scene by writing his own version of it in Doctor Faustus in which the protagonist, Adrian Leverkühn, meets the Devil is a hallucination brought on by syphillis.) The Devil comes not in a sulphurous flames or with thunder and lightning, but unassumingly, in the form of a rather shabbily dressed middle-aged gentleman. And his conversation – throughout the scene, it is the Devil who does virtually all the talking, while Ivan is driven further and further towads the edge of insanity – is not in grand, sonorous, Miltonic tones: it is everyday, peppered with jokes and anecdotes, almost convivial and friendly. But the Devil knows exactly how to drive Ivan mad: he knows exactly where to insert the needles to cause the maximum of pain. The scene builds over some twenty or so pages with insidious intent. This figure is, of course, most likely to be an aspect of Ivan’s own psyche; or, conceivably, it could actually be the Devil. Most frighteningly, it could be both.

Ivan’s mental collapse could, I suppose, be seen as a sort of moral judgement – as if Dostoyevsky were saying “This is what happens when you reject God”. But to see it in such terms is to reduce an extremely complex work into something very simple-minded. Even if we were to believe that rejection of God inevitably leads to this (and I don’t for a minute think that Dostoyevsky would believe something quite so simplistic), it is worth remembering that Ivan’s argument against God has not been answered. One must not look for easy solutions in a work such as this.

A Karamazov Diary: 9 – Alyosha

Dostoyevsky states quite clearly at the very start that Alyosha is the hero, the principal protagonist of the novel, but I doubt too many readers can qute see it this way. It is not of course the first time that Dostoyevsky had attempted to depict a perfectly good, even saintly, person: there had been Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. But Myshkin had been mentally ill. Here, Dostoyevsky attempts to depict another figure embodying the Christian concept of goodness, but this time, without the mental illness to account for it. I can’t say that the result is convincing.

In terms of the plotting and structure, it is Alyosha who holds the novel together. It is he who knots together the various disparate elements – Dmitri and Ivan, his father, Grushenka, Katerina Ivanovna, the Snegiryovs, the children, Mrs Khokhlakova and her daughter Liza. Often, for long sections of the novel, we follow Alyosha “doing the rounds”, as it were, visiting each of the people in turn. But is Alyosha more than merely a form of structural glue? What sort of figure emrges?

For most of the novel, Alyosha is but a witness to the passions of others. The only time his own passion takes centre-stage is in that sequence after the death of Zosima, in which Alyosha goes through a period of disillusion (though not loss of faith), but which nonetheless culminates in his receiving a sort of mystic vision. I find much of this sequence frankly incomprehensible, although, for reasons I cannot account for, impressive. But, important though these chapters no doubt are in thematic terms, they play no part in the central drama: in this central drama, Alyosha is never more than an observer, and never a participant.

In keeping with the idea of the state of childhood resembling the state of prelapsarian innocence, there is something childlike about Alyosha. In The Idiot, also, Dostoyevsky had given similar childlike qualities to Myshkin. For that matter, when Melville had set out to depict innocence, he too had made this innocent figure child-like. But both Myshkin and Billy Budd are flawed – one with epilepsy, the other with a stammer that renders him inarticulate; and both are doomed. Dostoyevsky here attempts to depict a figure possessing a childlike innocence, and, indeed, a goodness that may be described as saintly, but not to present him in a tragic light. I cannot see the result being in any way successful: apart from those chapters following Zosima’s death, Alyosha emerges as, frankly, bland.

One can, I suppose, make too much of this. From a dramatic viewpoint, Hell is always more interesting than Heaven: Dante’s Purgatorio and Paradiso are nowhere near as frequently cited as is his Inferno; and while Milton’s Satan is among the most powerful of literary creations, Milton’s God is really a bit of a bore. If Dostoyevsky can be seen to have failed in making Good appear as interesting as Evil, then, at the very least, he is in good company.

A Karamazov Diary: 8 – Children

The subplot in The Brothers Karamazov concerning children seems to be tacked on almost as a sort of afterthought, so it’s a bit surprising to read that the entire novel was initially intended to be primarily about children. Obviously, Dostoyevsky’s conception changed radically, but the idea of writing about children, however imperfectly realised in the finished product, never quite went away.

We first come across children in the third part of the novel, in which Alyosha sees a group of children throwing stones at another child. Alyosha tries his best to stop this, but, when he approaches the child at whom the stones were being thrown, the child bites him on the finger. Later, Alyosha finds out why: this child had witnessed his father being publicly beaten and humiliated by Alyosha’s brother, Dmitri, and the sense of shame on behalf of his beloved father is eating into his very soul. Alyosha later visits the boy’s family on a charitable mission, and finds them living in the most abject poverty. The boy’s mother appears to have become half-witted, one of the boy’s sisters is hunchbacked, and the boy himself is very ill. The father, devoted though he is to his sick boy (shades here of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) is, nonetheless, a Dostoyevskian buffoon. But beneath that buffoonery, Dostoyevsky depicts a man who feels everything deeply, and is only too aware of the injuries and insults he has received throughout his life, and of his abject humiliation, witnessed by his own son.

After this section of the novel, we lose sight of the children for some 500 or so pages. But the theme of the children remains present: when Ivan speaks to Alyosha of human suffering, it is the suffering of children he focuses on. Adults, he says, have “tasted of the apple” – and so, it may be possible (though still not, perhaps, very credible) to provide some sort of explanation for their sufferings; but when we come to the suffering of children, there cannot be even a hint of an explanation. Similarly, when Dmitri has his transforming dream, it is the suffering of an infant that is central to it.

In the novel, the children emerge again after Dmitri’s arrest and interrogation. In terms of pacing, this episode with the children relaxes the tension before the start of the next dramatic wave, and, in this interlude, we are introduced to the children more specifically: the child who had bitten Alyosha’s finger is dying – it is almost as if Dostoyevsky is daring us to find this episode sentimental – and the other boys, still innocent at heart (despite having once thrown stones at him), make up their differences and go to visit him. And visiting the sick child too is that childlike figure of Alyosha.

The theme of childhood was, I think, important to Dostoyevsky because, in common with so many other writers both then and now, childhood was seen as a state of innocence, an image of a prelapsarian condition free of sin; and the act of growing up becomes, by analogy, an image of the Fall. Children, as Ivan says, haven’t yet tasted of the apple. This idea of children’s state of innocence, together with the idea of the corruption that comes with growing up, was explicitly stated by Rousseau, and was taken up enthusiastically by others. Wordsworth, for instance, specifically regarded growing up as a distancing from the Divine:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

This idea is present in various different forms also in the works of Dickens and of Tolstoy, and is present even to the present day: this is why we continue to be shocked by a novel such as The Lord of the Flies, say, and find particularly unpalatable awful crimes committed against children, and perhaps even more unpalatable those committed by children. And the idea the innocence of childhood is very much present in Dostoyevsky. This is why, at the very end of the novel, when Alyosha addresses the boys after Ilyusha’s funeral, he tells them to remember this moment of childhood: even in our fallen states, we may have a chance of redemption only if we carry with us something from before the Fall.

To address the vitally important issues of innocence and of corruption Dostoyevsky had, of necessity, to depict childhood, or, at best, a person of childlike simplicity (Alyosha). But in neither, I think, is he entirely successful.

The main problem with depicting children is that it is very difficult for an adult to enter into the mind of a child. Even Tolstoy, who seemed able to enter into any mind at will, generally kept children on the fringes of his novels (although Seryozha does make a few telling appearances in Anna Karenina). Mark Twain obviously depicted children well, although one suspects that he really knew well only a particular type of child. As far as I’ve read, the finest depictions of a child’s mind may be found in the novels of Dickens. But on the basis of the depictions of children in The Brothers Karamazov, I get the impression that while this is an area with which Dostoyevsky wanted to address, he felt uncomfortable with it. In the event, instead of depicting a group of children, he effectively depicts only one – Kolya Krasotkin – and keeps the rest ( even the dying Ilyushka) in the background.

Kolya is a boy nearly fourteen (as he keeps reminding everyone), and is highly precocious; he is outgoing and extraverted; intelligent and aware of his intelligence; patronising of those whose intelligence he can see is not up to his own level; and yet, nowhere near as mature as he likes to imagine. In the context of the novel, I find him charming in small doses, but find also that a little goes a long way: beyond a few pages, he becomes frankly tiresome. The question remains why Dostoyevsky focussed so unremittingly on this one boy while leaving all the others more or less in the background: I think the reason is simply that Dostoyevsky felt confident in characterising this particular child, but didn’t feel so confident about characterising the others. So, for all his good intentions about writing a novel about children, the best he could do is to bring them into a subplot that is likely to strike most readers as more or less irrelevant; and even within this subplot, he fails to make too much of his theme. I doubt any reader ever reads this part of the novel with anything other than impatience, and wishing that the novel would move back to Dmitri and to Ivan.

“…but that would be boasting”

When biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what message he would choose to send into outer space in the Voyager spacecraft, he said: “I would send the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach … but that would be boasting.”

I wish I knew how to write about music. As with so much else, I do not have a background in music, and have never studied it. Over many years of listening and reading up about it, I suppose I now know enough to be able to bullshit a bit over a few drinks, but any more than that and I’d get found out rather easily. And that leaves me with a problem: one of the purposes of this blog is to talk about my loves and enthusiasms, but how can I talk about music when I know so little about it? At most, I can gush a little. And perhaps write a few sentences trying to explain my very subjective responses – though even there I’d be floundering.

I am now seated at my PC at home, having returned from the Wigmore Hall in London, where I heard violinist Thomas Zehetmair give a recital of some of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin. He started with the 3rd partita in E. (If you mention the home key of the work, that tends to give the impression you know what you’re talking about!) And then moved on to the 3rd sonata. Which is in C major, by the way. It’s the one with the massive fugue in the middle. And then, after the interval – which gave us the opportunity to catch our breath – he played the 2nd partita in D minor, the one that ends with that astounding chaconne – some fifteen minutes or so of pure, unadulterated passion.

As I write, it’s now nearly two hours since the concert ended, and I have spent that time negotiating the London Underground system, and then a mainline train back home. And my head is still in a daze: I can’t think clearly. How could one unassuming-looking chap on a platform armed only with a fiddle produce so powerful an effect? Granted, that unassuming-looking chap is one of the world’s finest musicians; and granted also that the music he was playing is unsurpassed for all sorts of reasons that I can’t even begin to articulate. But even so…

When those opening chords of the chaconne rang out, I could feel a shiver … I was about to say I could feel a shiver run down my spine when I realised that’s a bad cliché: but for all that, it was a shiver, and it did run down my spine. And then followed those variations on that series of chords, each variation leading inexorably on to the next in a passionate flood, sweeping all before it. Isn’t it a miracle that a mere arrangement of sounds could have so powerful an effect?

I know that the older I get, the grumpier I get: I moan and whinge and rant and rave about too many things that irritate me, that annoy me, that upset me. But – let’s be honest – if, after work, I can go into London, and, for a ticket costing £15 (one can easily spend that for a round of drinks these days!) experience something like this, then life does have a lot going for it, doesn’t it?

A Karamazov Diary: 7 – Dmitri

About half way through the novel, after that extraordinary chapter in which Alyosha seems to experience a moment of transcendence, we are brought very much back to earth with Dimitri. And over the next two hundred or so pages, Dostoyevsky gives us what amounts to almost a steady crescendo, the atmosphere intensifying by the page till it seems to reach breaking point. I don’t think I have come across anything quite so breathtakingly exciting in any novel, except perhaps for certain sequences in that other deeply problematic masterpiece – Moby-Dick.

Dmitri is, to put it mildly, an odd character, but in a novel where everyone is odd, that is perhaps not saying much. He is at once a sensualist (or a voluptuary, as David McDuff translates it) – a man who lives unthinkingly for the pleasures of the moment, a man who acts first and thinks afterwards. That is, when he can be bothered to think at all. At times he is no better than a thug. And yet, at the same time, he is a man of honour, and very conscious of his sense of honour. In these chapters in which he takes centre-stage, we see him becoming increasingly maddened and delirious: a nervous tension builds up in him, acts on his volatile personality, and almost drives him mad. Yet, despite all this, Dostoyevsky manages scenes of pure comedy: forinstance, there is that chapter entitled “Gold Mines” in which Dmitri, convinced that Mrs Khokhlakova will lend him the money he so desperately needs, puts up with her endless vacuous chatter until he finally realises that she has no intention of lending him a copeck. Or that scene in which Dmitri is fooled into travelling out of town to ask for a loan from a peasant merchant who turns out be in a drunken stupor.  Yet these comic scenes, far from dissipating the tension, serve to increase it: Dmitri gets into such a frenzy, that we are in no doubt that he is capable of committing murder.

And here, Dostoyevsky lays out twists and turns of the plot that even Agatha Christie may have been proud of. But despite the whodunit element, it doesn’t ultimately matter: the question of who done it seems to pale into insignificance: what is overwhelming is the depiction of a mind apparently becoming unhinged.

Dmitri is apprehended by the authorities at the height of a wild party, and then begin the scenes of interrogation. These really are some of the most thrilling scenes in all literature. Dmitri’s own story  is unbelievable: indeed, his account of his actions and of his motives is so bizarre, we have to pinch ourselves as we’re reading it.. But the man we see in such a state of delirium, we realise, is capable of anything – of any action, of any thought, no matter how bizarre. The gravity of these scenes is in no doubt: three of these chapters are actually headed “Passage of a Soul Through Torments”. And as one becomes caught up in them that is the impression one gets: this is nothing less than a journey through Hell.

And then , at the end of this astounding sequence, Dostoyevsky gives us another of those visionary moments – one of those moments that are so extraordinarily affecting, and yet which seem to be beyond analysis. Dmitri, in his tortured state, falls asleep, and he dreams of a landscape that is bare and cold and unforgiving, of peasant huts burnt to the ground. And amongst this desolation stand a group of peasants. One of them is a mother holding an infant. The child is frozen and starved, and is crying, and there is nothing the helpless mother can do. Dmitri is confused. What’s happening? Why is the child crying? His coachman, also a peasant, patiently explains that the child  – the “”bairn” – is crying because of hunger, because of cold. Dmitri doesn’t understand. Why is the child hungry? Why is the child cold?

When Dmitri wakes up, he finds that some kind soul had put a pillow under his head: he doesn’t know who it is. But, apparently no longer delirious, he tells his interrogators quietly that he had had “a good dream”.

This entire passage is tremendously moving, yet I’m damned if I know why. Why does Dmitri think this a good dream when, like the stories Ivan had told Alyosha, it tells of the most unbearable suffering of children – of those who least deserve to suffer? What significance does this dream have to Dmitri? Here, I’m afraid, the novel loses me once again. It clearly does have great significance fror Dmitri but I don’t know why. Later, in prison, Dmitri refers to this dream both to Grushenka and to Alyosha; and, in relation to this dream, he speaks of all of humanity being responsible for all of the rest of humanity – of everyone being guilty for everything, as Zosima had said. Once again, this loses me. I don’t understand either why Dmitri should find this idea so profound and so beautiful. The idea of universal guilt was, after all, a nightmare to Kafka: what does Dmitri find in this idea that allows him to face with fortitude even hard labour in the mines of Siberia?

This novel is frustrating as there is far too much in it of the most vital importance that seems to be going over my head. I can sense that it is the work of a visionary: but the vision itself keeps eluding me.

A Karamazov Diary: 6 – Puzzles and challenges

Friends ask me if I am enjoying The Brothers Karamazov. Normally, it would seem a reasonable question to ask, but somehow, with this particular novel, it seems almost irrelevant. It’s a novel that I often find very strange: it puzzles me, and it frequently infuriates me. But at the same time, it also intrigues me, and fascinates me, and, indeed, haunts my imagination. So how can I sum up what I feel about this strange book? How can I possibly answer that simple and really quite reasonable question “Are you enjoying it?”

There are a great many elements that continue to puzzle me deeply. One is the behaviour of Grushenka, who, at no point, behaves in any way that seems to me in any way explicable. This may well be another aspect of Dostoyevsky’s contention that human behaviour is not susceptible to rational analysis because it is in no way rational. That may well be so, but when every single act of a character makes you wonder what on earth is the matter with her, then the action of the novel becomes hard to follow. Up to a point, I can see why Dmitri, Ivan, Smerdyakov – even Katerina Ivanovna – behave as they do, but everything Grushenka does is so very outré that I don’t even know how to start thinking about it.

The other character that puzzles me is Father Zosima. Up to a point, he is a sort of Tolstoyan saint – except, of course, Tolstoy would have made him a peasant rather than a monk. He is a wise, decent old man, whose goodness and compassion for his fellow human beings are simple, self-sacrificing, and unaffected. But what exactly does he mean when he speaks of everyone being guilty for everyone? The concept of shared guilt is a strange one. Surely someone who is saintly – someone such as, indeed, Zosima himself – does not bear the burden of guilt of someone who commits atrocities? And if he does, why? I cannot sympathise with this concept of shared guilt: I find this concept far too alien to my sensibilities. And yet, this concept seems to be at the heart of the novel: by the end, as I remember, a man who is innocent of a murder happily takes on the guilt of the murder, and agrees to be punished for it. And at this stage, my imaginative sympathy for the religious viewpoint – or, at least, for Dostoyevsky’s religious viewpoint – comes to an abrupt halt: try as I might, I can’t take in this concept. It’s not so much that I can’t accept this: I don’t understand how it is possible for anyone to accept this.

And what is the significance of Zosima’s body putrefying prematurely after his death? The other monks in the monastery – who are not depicted as in any way admirable – see this as evidence of Zosima’s unworthiness. Alyosha, however, continues to believe in Zosima’s saintliness; and yet, he is deeply disturbed by it all. He is so disturbed indeed that he is tempted away from his faith: he even allows Ratikin to take him to the house of the depraved Grushenka. But it is in Grushenka’s house that something happens – something that, once again, I don’t quite understand. Grushenka, who had been intent on seducing the chaste Alyosha, suddenly decides not to do so when she hears of Zosima’s death. And she tells a folk-story about an onion: it is a story about a mean old woman whose one good deed in all her life was that she once gave an onion to a beggar; and now, when her soul is in Hell, her good angel holds out an onion for her, so the old woman could grasp it and be pulled out. However, mean and selfish as ever, as she tries to grasp the onion, she kicks away the other souls in torment who are trying to grasp it also; and so the onion breaks, and she finds herself still in Hell, her last hope of redemption gone. What is the significance of this story here? Why does Grushenka suddenly pull back from her intention of seducing Alyosha? And, most importantly, why does this restore Alyosha’s faith? Maybe it would help if I had more of a religious outlook, but, although I can sense a great significance in all this, I find it very elusive: I cannot grasp it any more than the old woman in Hell could grasp the onion.

The chapter that follows, though, is one of the most wonderful in the whole novel. Alyosha, exhausted and half asleep, hears the story being read from the gospels of Christ’s first miracle – of how Christ had turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. That first miracle was one thatendorsed human pleasure, human joy; and hearing this, Alyosha experiences an ecstatic moment of mystic revelation. Once again, I don’t claim to understand any of this, but Dostoyevsky does convey movingly a visionary sense of epiphany, a momentary revelation of the transcendent.

To use that over-worked expression, this is a challenging book, and while I don’t feel I am always up to the challenge, I am enjoying being challenged by it. There’s much I don’t understand; and I continue to have a great many reservations about many aspects of it: but even so, this is one of those handful of masterpieces where it is the reader who is measured against the achievement, and not the other way round.

A Karamazov Diary: 5 – Irrationality

The 19th century novel is usually described as “realistic”. It seems to me a strange description given that at least four major novelists of the 19th century – Gogol, Dickens, Melville and Dostoyevsky – seemed to have no interest at all in surface realism. But Dostoyevsky seems, if anything, and anti-realist writer. Far from exploring why his characters think and behave as they do, he insisted on the impossibility of such an exploration. This impossibility is not – as it is in Tolstoy – because the reasons dictating human behaviour become too complex beyond a point for the human mind to grasp; rather, it is because there is no reason to human behaviour: for Dostoyevsky, human behaviour was essentially irrational in nature, and, indeed, often perversely, knowingly irrational. It is for this very reason that Dostoyevsky found so repulsive attempts to regulate human thinking: to regulate the disorder of the human mind into some sort of regular pattern was to do violence to humanity. (These ideas are stated very powerfully in the short novel Notes From Underground, which may be seen as a sort of prelude to the big novels that followed.) And yes, while it is true that the human mind free of any regulation could be a source of terrible violence and atrocity, Dostoyevsky, while not advocating anarchism, was insistent that any attempt to regulate mankind’s thinking – quite apart from being sinful in a religious sense – is no less a source of violence and of atrocity. Dostoyevskians often point to the horrors of Soviet Communism as confirmation of Dostoyevsky’s prescience in this matter.

Without debating the ifs and buts of all this, it clearly presents the novelist with great technical problem: any work of art must have some sort of order, some sort of internal logic: so how can one present characters whose behaviour is so at odds with anything resembling reason, and not end up merely with chaos? I don’t know that Dostoyevsky entirely solves this problem: much of what he writes does seem to me somewhat chaotic in nature. But given his perspective – and given also, perhaps, his almost permanently embarrassed financial state that forced him to write quickly – this sense of chaos is perhaps inevitable. I rarely get a sense of long-term planning in his novels: they seem to me, rather, a series of improvisations. Many of the improvisations are, admittedly, brilliant: but some, it seems to me, aren’t.

But this leaves the purely technical problem of presenting within a patterned whole a set of characters whose thought and behaviour lack pattern. To address this, Dostoyevsky creates, often very convincingly, a fictional world in which virtually everyone is in a state of hysteria – or, at least, teetering on the edge. At times, this can appear risible: but perhaps the comedy is not entirely unintentional. At other times, it can appear overwhelmingly dramatic and exciting. It creates an environment that is unlike any other I have encountered in fiction – an environment that is quite unmistakable. It is like seeing the world in flashes of lightning.