Rereading The Brothers Karamazov

When I was young, the best book I had ever read was Where the Red Fern Grows. I remember asking our school librarian about her favorite book (fully expecting that she would share my fanatical enthusiasm for the ballad of Old Dan and Little Ann), and when she waffled with “oh, I have too many favorites to choose just one” my eight-year-old face must have registered my disgust. This person, whom I had previously held in such high esteem (since, as far as I knew, librarians just read books all day, and what could be better?), clearly did not view literature with an appropriate seriousness. She couldn’t even name a favorite book! The book (Where the Red Fern Grows, obviously) that was better than all other books!

While Red Fern held the throne, I loved plenty of other books (the Narnia stories were probably the primary competitor), but it was the book that was mine when I was eight in a way that other books were not. It got under my skin and sent me off in search of other books that could provide at least a taste of whatever it was that happened when I lost myself in its pages. As the years went by, there were other books (I have not read Where the Red Fern Grows in many, many years and don’t know when I’ll return to it – probably with my kids when they’re old enough), favorite books, books I loved, books that were secretly and particularly mine. There still are, I suppose, although I don’t fall in love with the intensity of that eight-year-old fighting back the tears through the final pages of Where the Red Fern Grows, or the ten-year-old terrified by the journey through the mines of Moria, or the teenager absorbed in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or the college student studying Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. I still find authors I love, books that sound some chord that harmonizes with something fundamental in me – I seem to remain more willing to fall in love with a book than many – but you can only read Where the Red Fern Grows for the first time that first time.

I’m writing about my mildly embarrassing love for a tale of a boy and his hunting dogs, because I’ve been trying to figure out why I’ve taken so long to reread The Brothers Karamazov, one of those books that I claimed as mine (along with all the other pretentious, self-serious, theologically-inclined college students who “just want to know what it’s all about, man”) when I first read it. It became the book when I first read it, the best novel ever written, the book that I wanted to wrestle with, to champion, to hold as mine. But, it was more than a decade before I picked it up again. Part of it is just that Dostoevsky is (in my experience) always a challenge to reread. “You can’t read Dostoevsky over and over” Hemingway says in A Moveable Feast, “How can a man write so badly, so unbelievably badly, and make you feel so deeply?” It’s the depth, that ability to make the reader feel like they are risking a case of brain fever (a real medical diagnosis in the 19th century, I’ve discovered), that makes rereading difficult (and perhaps, the “badness” plays a role too – although what actually constitutes Dostoevsky’s “badness” is a matter for debate). His books often leave me feeling exhausted in a way that Tolstoy or Eliot or Dickens do not. Dostoevsky (at least in the “big four” – Crime & Punishment, Demons, The Idiot and Brothers Karamazov) wants the reader to a wrestle with questions of ultimate meaning, and that takes energy (and maybe some sort of courage). And, I do think this sort of thing is easier for a young reader: the questions feel slightly more alive and open. Or, maybe it’s just that when I was young I had more of the resilience (and ignorance) needed to probe deeply into the “meaning of life.” It’s not that getting older means I have discovered settled answers to every metaphysical or existential dilemma, it’s more that I have built up my armor and evasive tactics over time and more often deal with these things at a glancing angle rather than head on. That’s the theory, anyway – I still feel like I get walloped with existential haymakers with uncomfortable frequency.

So, that’s part of it, but part of it is also the whole you-can-only-read-Where-the-Red-Fern-Grows-for-the-first-time-that-first-time thing. What if I reread it, and didn’t like it? What if it wasn’t mine any longer, but some stranger’s (the stranger, in this case, being my younger self)? Or, alternatively, what if I’ve already so built the book into my personal mythology that I can’t encounter it any longer as a book, but can only see it as I made use of it in the past?

But, I did reread it. And I thought it was great: it remains one of my favorite novels. It was a different book from the book I read years ago, at least as far as I am a different person after a decade – not better or worse, just different. For example, this time around I realized that I really did not understand the idea of “polyphony,” which many readers, following Mikhail Bakhtin, describe as a central strength of Dostoevsky’s novels (and if the reference to Bakhtin makes you think I know what I’m talking about … uh, no. I’m only familiar with Bakhtin at second-hand – although I’ve recently embarked on an attempt to remedy this, and yes, I would like that gold star sticker, thank you very much). I had always thought polyphony could be described as allowing for a variety of different viewpoints/voices within the world of the novel without allowing any one to dominate. So, you have characters who represent faithful belief (Alyosha/Zosima), the atheists (Ivan/Smerdyakov), the sensualists  (Mitya/Fyodor Pavlovich) etc., and Dostoevsky puts the different characters into dialogue with each other without giving an authorial endorsement to one over the other. This is partly true in a summary sort of way, but not quite the full picture. Dostoevsky actually seems to poke fun at this way of conceiving the novel with the prosecutor’s speech at the end of the book, where the prosecutor describes each brother as representative of a different aspect of contemporary Russian society (I’m not quite sure what all is going on in the lawyers’ [painfully repetitive and long-winded] final speeches: they seem like they’re supposed to be funny, but I feel like I need some footnotes to explain the jokes).

This time around it seemed clearer that the polyphonic effect is not achieved just be setting up competing voices and making sure there are “representatives” for this or that ideology and then trying to be “fair” to each. Rather, Dostoevsky achieves polyphony by introducing just enough ambiguity and conflict within each character to complicate their status as a “representative” for this or that point-of-view. It is the little twists, the underlying ambiguities in characterization, that make the different voices come alive as real voices. So, Ivan is an atheist, sure, but he’s also in many ways the most God-obsessed character in the book outside of Zosima (including Alyosha, arguably, which is one of the interesting points of tension in the book). Or, Smerdyakov kills Fyodor Pavlovich because he has swallowed Ivan’s atheism whole and “everything is permitted” – and so functions as the “representative” of the logical conclusion of Ivan’s nihilism – but he also kills for less abstract reasons: because he is a mistreated and ignored bastard, nursing resentment against the father who will not acknowledge him. It is the internal conflict, the multiple explanations of motivation, the self-deception, the many voices within a character, that make the novel polyphonic.

I’m not sure why this struck me so forcefully this time around. Part of it is the result of having read more Dostoevsky in the intervening years and realizing to what extent this sort of internal conflict and ambiguity is a central theme in his work (after reading Notes from Underground or Demons I’m not sure why anyone would take the initial “Author’s Note” at face value). I suppose also that as a young reader I was hungry for answers and Dostoevsky was a sage who seemed like he might be eager to provide them, and so it was easy to read the book as a conflict between competing visions of reality (and again, this is at least partly what the book is about). But, reading Dostoevsky’s novels narrowly as only philosophical/ideological treatises actually misses one of the main pleasures of his work: his vivid characterization. I also think moving out of young-adulthood to not-so-young-adulthood which, among many other things, has forced me to confront some of my own internal contradictions and self-deceptions, allowed me to better see the characters as actual human beings, conflicted and strange in the ways human beings often are.

There were a variety of other things that stood out to me on rereading – the importance in the book of children/childhood/youth perhaps most of all – although I’ll save that for some other time. I suppose I’m just happy to announce (again, I’ll take all your gold stars) that I was able to reread the book, able to be affected by it in some way again, and able, again, to put it on that internal shelf labelled, mine.