Dostoyevky’s Lumbering Karamazovs

KaramazovMy recurring suggestion that novels should have a bit of ‘flabbiness’ in them in order to highlight the author’s vision or personality—to convey what their open world looks like, to borrow a gaming term—has been successfully countered by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (published 1880).

While I lamented the absence of this quality in otherwise solid books like Patrick deWitt’s Undermajordomo Minor and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both of which could have benefited from a less exacting grip on story beats, The Brothers Karamazov goes so far in the other direction that I was thirsting for a shred of plot to buoy my interest. Of course, the book has to be seen in its socio-historical context and within the author’s overall oeuvre—etc, etc—but looking at this through purely a reader’s lens, I thought that spreading a thin (albeit compelling) plot across ~800 pages demands too much.

I’m glad I made it through the whole thing, though, and this hasn’t soured me on Dostoyevsky; Crime and Punishment is one of the most gripping reads I can recall. And my impressions of The Idiot or novellas like The Gambler and The Double from my undergrad years are pretty positive.

In The Brothers Karamazov, it’s not the bombastic, overwrought monologues that bother me so much as the painful lack of a strong edit. You can see the author losing the thread, then spotting a glimpse of it and chasing off in another direction only to find there’s nothing there either. It’s like watching someone walk through a sparsely furnished house and flicking the lights in each room on and off; they’re looking for something, but you don’t know what and they don’t know how to tell you … because maybe they don’t really know what “it” is.

That motive to pursue some meaning greater than the plot at hand is what I love about the novel as a form. It doesn’t matter to me whether the author clearly articulates what it is they’re trying to reveal, only that they’ve made the effort to look for something bigger in the first place. I think you can feel some earnestness of ‘the search’ in most great art.

However, The Brothers Karamazov does this so much that it falters under its own weighty ambition. (Cormac McCarthy suffers from this at times too, as demonstrated in Blood Meridian.) It’s a book written at the height of the author’s fame, published just one year before his death, but it unfortunately doesn’t age well and is better left to academics or readers who want a challenge.

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