A Karamazov Diary: 12 – Retrospect

I finished this over the Christmas break, and I now find myself, somewhat to my surprise, missing it: I had become quite accustomed to entering that curious fictional world Dostoyevsky presented, a world so unlike any other I have encountered, whether in fiction or in real life. Not that Dostoyevsky’s fictional world is completely unrelated to our own, of course: there are many elements in it that are recognisable. But it is precisely because of the resemblance that irruptions of the irrational can so shake the reader.

And the irrational does irrupt – quite frequently, and often quite spectacularly. There were many points where I simply could not understand – even within the context of Dostoyevsky’s fictional world – why some of these characters behave as they do. Even if a fictional world is not always consistent with the real world, one does expect at least an internal consistency: otherwise one would be left merely with the random and the unconnected. But even an internal consistency I did not always find: in particular, Grushenka’s actions seemed to me utterly incomprehensible at every step. Whether this failure is due to my inability to understand adequately to Dostoyevsky’s fictional world; or whether Dostoyevsky has not always succeeded in creating an internal consistency; I do not know. But if Dostoyevsky’s aim was, as I think, to convey the essential irrationality of the human mind, an irrationality that renders futile any attempt at rational enquiry, then I think it can be said that he has succeeded. The result, however, is odd, to say the least.

A novel as madly ambitious as this is bound to have its failures. But why dwell on them? There are any number of novels that have no serious flaw simply because they did not aim very high in the first place – novels that display little more than a merely bland professionalism that is sometimes mistaken for artistry. Needless to say, The Brothers Karamazov is not such a novel. This is a novel that demands from the reader a very high degree of imaginative and emotional engagement. Of course, given its very idiosyncratic nature, not every reader will be capable of engaging – or even perhaps willing to engage – at such a level: indeed, I am not sure that I quite managed it myself. But the riches on offer for those who do engage with it are, I think, obvious. For whatever criticism one may make of Dostoyevsky, what is undeniable is the extraordinary vividness of his work: even years after reading, individual scenes, individual characters, even individual moments, haunt the mind with a ferocity that makes most other fiction appear insipid. Once you read scenes such as that of Dmitri’s interrogation, or of Ivan’s meeting with the Devil, there is no possibility of forgetting them: they become part of you, part of your mental furniture. At least, that has been the case with me; and I don’t claim, even after my third reading, to have engaged with this novel to anything like an adequate level.

The two novelists I love most remain Dickens and Tolstoy, but I think I can understand why, for many, the most powerful literary presence is Dostoyevsky. Whatever its flaws and shortcomings, The Brothers Karamazov remains a stupendous achievement.

5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jeremy on January 8, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I truly enjoyed reading your post! I too have read Dostoyevsky and I love it! I read The Brothers Karamazov last year and thought, while one of the most difficult books I’ve read, it was definitely the most fulfilling. With Dostoyevsky, you definitely have to dig beneath the surface. After reading The Brothers Karamazov, I discovered a new found respect for his writing. I read Crime and Punishment in high school back in 1995 and enjoyed it as well. But with Karamazov, I don’t think I’ve seen philosophy mixed in so well with a book.

    Sometime down the road, I plan on tackling The Idiot, and maybe a few more of his works. He’s starting to become my favorite author. Tackling something like Dostoyevsky isn’t for the light of heart, that’s for sure, in my opinion.

    Great post! Thanks for sharing!


    • Hello Jeremy, and welcome to the blog.

      I very much enjoyed reading “The Brothers Karamazov” again, although, as I say, I continue to find it a troubling work for a variety of reasons. But there’s nothing quite to match the experience of reading a novel of such obvious quality.

      Since you are obviously a keen Dostoyevskian, I think you’ll enjoy “The Idiot”. “Demons” (also translated sometiemes as “The Devils”) is another major work. Of his mature novels, the one I haven’t yet read is “The Adolescent”.

      Hope to see you around here,


  2. Nice post.
    I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov eight times, Crime and Punishment 11, and Demons 4.

    Just picked up the abridged version of Joseph Frank’s literary biography of Dostoyevsky….it’s been cut down to a measly 1000 pages.


    • Hello Clint, You’re obviously more of a Dostoyevskian than I am. But even so, I have managed Crime & Punishment & The Idiot twice each, and this was my 3rd reading of The Brothers Karamazov. (I have to have another go at The Devils.) I have great difficulty with Dostoyevsky, but we shouldn’t expect literature to be easy and comfotable. While I was reading The Brothers Karamazov last year, I was writing a series of posts on it, recording my reactions to various aspects of the novel. (If you click on Dostoyevsky in the Tag Cloud to your right, that should take you to them). While I still have trouble with much of it, it continues to fascinate.

      The biography you mention has been very well received. I am not usually one or biographies, but I was thinking of trying this one out (at least, the 1000 page abridgement: the full edition seems only for the most diehard of Dostoyevskians).

      Apparently, when Dostooyevsky was in Dresden, Ibsen was there at the same time, and it appears they were regular customers at the same cafe. They wouldn’t have known of each other’s work, and it is unlikely they would have spoken to each other – but it’s fascinating to speculate on the possibilit that they might have done!


  3. So far I’m really enjoying the biography and am thankful for the abridged version. Dostoyevsky’s work has always challenged me, inspired me, given me hope, and made me not feel so terribly alone in the world, so you could say I’ve had a vested interest in returning to him over and over again. I am by no means a Dostoyevksy scholar though.


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