Category Archives: Dostoevsky, Fyodor

The Brothers Karamazov: Read from August 02 to September 10, 2014

I wonder what inspired Dostoyevsky to write this novel? During the trial it is mentioned that there was a woman in St. Petersburg who had given birth and then killed the infant, hiding the little body and then later it was discovered she had done this numerous times. I wonder if, assuming that story is true, Dostoyevsky began to wonder about how difficult it would be to forgive someone like that, to see into their heart and find something good. This novel is, after all, about that very idea, the idea of never being able to know what goodness really lies in another persons heart and how difficult it is, or even how inappropriate it is, to judge anyone, no matter how evil they have been.

The novel ends with a promise, a promise that all the boys and Aloysha will never forget each other, never forget little Ilyusha, and never forget the goodness of their childhood memory together. Even, if later, they grow cynical or do many terrible things, Aloysha asks them to always remember this one good moment in their life because it may save them someday, just as an onion almost saved another sinner. Those small moments of goodness could, at least in the eyes of God, be the one link to salvation for even the most terrible sinner.

The novel also deals with the questions of faith and belief and it is these parts I found most fascinating because Dostoyevsky makes the strongest case I’ve yet heard that counters the scientific arguments of logic and reason. And while I think Dostoyevsky was too hard on science and too opposed to the good science can do for humanity, he does show how logic and reason can absolutely condemn an innocent person. At times I wondered if Dostoyevsky was trying to tell us it would be better just to forgive all criminals and then let God figure it all out later.

And that’s the real issue here: forgiveness. How difficult is it really to forgive someone. Not just any regular sinner either, but a person who has done something horribly terrible. And what sort of world would we live in if we did, in fact, forgive everyone easily? A world where we forgive a terrorist or the rapist of a child? Can we even imagine such things? In the character Smerdyakov we have someone who is cunning and ruthless and who takes advantage of the people around him, but we never really know why he does what he does. Smerdyakov is the closest character to the ‘main villain’, but we never get his own thoughts, we only see him through the eyes of others. He is difficult to forgive because we don’t know him, yet this is exactly they point Dostoyevsky is trying to make: we MUST forgive Smerdyakov, he is in the greatest need of it as Father Zosima alluded to earlier in the novel.

Dostoyevsky is not foolish enough to think that we can always forgive, however. He knows we will always be carried away by our emotions and passions. He knows those passions will lead us to do terrible things and to also condemn others, too. He quite clearly sees the onion layers that make up human interactions, the dual nature of all people who can be both good and bad at the same time. He knows how complicated people really are. But he also plants that seed of doubt in our mind while reading this novel as to if we really are qualified to pass judgment on any person. He wants us to know that nothing is what it seems and even when we are positive we know a person we might very well be wrong about them. He’s showing us the danger of gossip, of judgment, of not walking in another person’s shoes. And he’s also showing us how we are all conflicted, how we ebb and flow between goodness and sin and even how what we perceive in others as sin might actually be virtue as in the case of little Ilyusha and his father, Captain Snegiryov, or even the Grand Inquisitor who though his actions go against God he is actually doing so because he is for God.

Then there is the faith question, the tricky nature of how faith works. Here he shows us that if God himself showed up at our doorstep and said “I am God, here I am”, we would actually doubt the existence of God even more. But the lack of any proof of God, the absence of proof is the very thing that is needed for their to be faith. If we know for certain there is the possibility of salvation at the end of life then what point would life have since that would take away our own free will? We would already know beforehand if we are saved or doomed so why bother going through the motions?

The book even goes so far as to make me want to be a better person. I found myself questioning my own opinions and judgments of others while at work and out and about town. I started wondering what sort of life each person I saw was really living, how good or how bad, what tragedy or joy they were dealing with. I started to wonder if perhaps you could just do away with all the different religions in the world and have everyone read this novel instead.

And even as I write this it does sound rather absurd and I can imagine anyone reading this saying “Well clearly this person has a religious agenda”, but that’s not the case. In fact there is no way I could convince you that I don’t have an agenda because you can’t see into my own heart and know how I really feel about this subject. All I can say is that I was sincerely moved by this novel and that it makes me want to look at the world differently and that I had a better understanding of belief and faith than when I began the novel.

This book is not some “depressing Russian tome”, but aside from its philosophical and theological nature it is a well plotted family novel and murder mystery. Like all of Dostoyevsky’s other works it’s wordy and characters seem to speak in long speeches, but it’s never boring – even when it is. Dostoyevsky also makes a great counter to Tolstoy in that Tolstoy allowed you to see into a character’s mind where Dostoyevsky is always more interested in looking into his heart.

This is a novel of great compassion and is one of my favorite reading experiences I’ve ever had.

98% done with The Brothers Karamazov

So the trial went right into the night, until past 1 am. I’m assuming that’s how it really was in Russia at the time? But then it only took an hour for the jury to reach a verdict. And whose side do you come down on: cold logic or the passionate plea? Wasn’t passion what got everyone in this mess to begin with? So we have to meter our passion, temper it with wisdom.

20 years. He’s lucky it wasn’t death.

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Here the defense presents the facts as we, the reader, have learned them and yet even though we know they are true they don’t actually seem very believable against the case the prosecutor made. The truth is nearly unbelievable because it goes against our own common sense.

And so should a person be judged by the accumulation of his sins, by the sheer weight of them, or is each one unique and independent?

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The speech by the prosecutor is one of those moments in literature where it would be easy to pass it off as a misfire or, more bluntly, a really boring bit. However it is these moments, like the descriptions of the landscape in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom or the scientific observations of the whale in Moby Dick that encapsulate the whole point of the book. Here it is used to show that logic can’t lead to faith.

And in this proof of his argument is the wonderful description of the condemned man measuring the distance to the gallows and thinking how much time he has to this street and then to that and that it’s not so bad … all the way to the rope. Here there is faith against logic.

So the whole book is about how society (that’s why this is a murder mystery with a court scene) is drifting away from what Father Zosima hoped would be the future of Russia towards the more secular and scientific future of no morality. Dostoyevsky is trying to show that you can’t have faith with reason, that logic and absolute proof can’t lead you towards absolute belief. He is saying belief and truth start from within and can only be seen by ourselves. Nobody else can see our truth because each person’s truth is different – only we know where our heart is (the money bag) and what the truth even if we can’t prove it.

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So why does Smerdyakov kill himself (and Fyodor)? We get a lot of talk all through the novel about how Smerdyakov is a terrible person (stinking, as his name suggests), but isn’t he the most in need of pity? The only person who seemed to show him any respect was, ironically, Fyodor (trusted with the money, sent him to school, told him the knocks). Doesn’t his suicide (off-stage, too) show him miserable and lonely?

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So then if God or the Devil were to appear to you, wouldn’t that not actually be good enough evidence to prove they exist since the whole point of faith is to do so without proof. Perhaps that’s why Dostoyevsky frames this whole novel around the search for truth because even being able to see the truth soes not mean what you are seeing is, in fact, true (the eyes deceive).

We have to have faith Dmitri is innocent?

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Ivan is the one character most plagued by doubt. The story the devil tells him about the nose, about how man missing his nose is free not to be led around by the nose but, in fact, does want to be led around by the nose and is, again in fact, being led around by the nose he doesn’t have is a wonderful analogy. And I just thought of Gogol’s ‘The Nose’.

He both believes and doesn’t. He doesn’t want to commit.

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Smerdyakov is endlessly fascinating. He, too sees that Ivan would feel responsible for his fathers death, but unlike Alyosha who tries to calm his conscience, Smerdyakov takes full advantage of him. And, really, isn’t Ivan partially responsible for the murder? He did know something was going to happen and all he had to do was stay to prevent it. Turning your back to a wrong is still a decision to participate.

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It is not you. Now how could Alyosha have known Ivan felt himself to be partially guilty for his father’s murder? Did Alyosha have those same feelings, too?

When Dmitri goes on so passionately and eloquently about how he will go to Siberia for ‘all men’, as if he’s a martyr, I didn’t believe him. Everyone loves to talk but they say little and Dmitri kept contradicting himself, ending with the escape to the US plan

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Dostoyevsky’s ability to make you empathize with his characters is uncanny. A lot of his genius is in introducing a character from only one point of view and then only later, and through another characters eyes do we learn their inner lives. he makes the case for always caring about people, especially when they are at their worst because we rarely know the struggles within others. Never judge.

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There is this wonderful sense of Dmitri ‘unraveling’ before the inspectors. He’s really being forced to examine his own actions, motives, and thoughts in a way he might never have before. Perhaps this will be a first step to him re-examining his relationship with Katerina whom he has been nothing but blindly impulsive against. All the major characters have been through examined change, but his comes harder = Z’s bow.

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So far the detectives are not nearly as tricky as Porfiry in Crime and Punishment. In that novel the psychological games he played with Raskolnikov were wonderfully devious and probably quite true to how a real detective works. Here Dmitri is a much different suspect and the authorities are far more relaxed believing they have their man and an iron-clad case. But we don’t know Dmitri’s mind so we can’t know the truth

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Book 8 is a lot of fun to read. The whole section is plot driven and reads like a good crime novel but the preceding chapters give it a literary frame of morality and deeper characterization.

I still don’t trust Grushenka, however, she has been used for so long that I would be a jerk to dismiss her uncertainty with Dmitri – she’s always sending him away them calling him back.

She’s a great character.

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The murder happens off-screen. I’m sure we’ll revisit it, however, what we get is all reaction to the murder.

Dostoyevsky writes Dmitri as in a frenzy. As the chapter goes on everything feels near confusion, he acts without knowing why and doesn’t seem to care. He jokes for no reason, is totally impulsive and the writing reflects that confusion and desperation. This feels very modern and is very well written.

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All this wouldn’t be happening to Dmitri is he’d just give it up. But he’s so stuck with his pride and lets himself get carried away just like his father.

Is Madame Khokhlakov just fucking with him? I mean, she can’t be that obtuse as to not know he wanted to borrow money, right? She must just be playing dumb to save face. Samsonov however, is cruel.

He’d do well to listen to the people around him, but he won’t

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It’s always darkest before the dawn – that’s why we get the reading of the Marriage at Cana. And the miracle does happen, and just like a miracle it seems hard to believe even when we see it because how unlikely was it that Grushenka would form such a fast and honest bond with Alyosha?

Love the metaphor of the onion.

The night image of him on the ground and the stars above and the emerald dark sky is beautiful.

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What’s so striking about this ‘novel’ is how it’s both very modern – post-modern, actually – but about a very old subject: religion and morality. When Zossima dies and the body immediately begins to decompose and smell bad, I’m reminded of a touch of magic realism. And how ambiguous is this image, how it can be seen from many points of view.

This is always a very surprising novel, quite unlike what I expected.

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It would be funny if it weren’t so sad about how wrong Zossima (and Dostoyevsky) was about how a person would no faith could never hope to gain power in Russia. Which then leads me to wonder if Dostoyevsky was either that blindly optimistic or that this book was more of a plea because he saw which the way the wind was really blowing?

The world turned out exactly how Dostoyevsky did not want it to turn out.

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Funny how that all three, Zossima’s brother, Zossima himself, and the stranger are all seen as being not right in the head when they see the point of life in God. Zossima is taken the most seriously but even he is somewhat laughed off and only the stranger really takes him seriously – to the point of wanting to kill him

Funny then too how Dostoyevsky’s brotherly philosophy through Zossima turned so wrong in Russia

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Zosima’s bow and Christ’s kiss of the Grand Inquisitor both highlight what a person of faith must deal with when confronted with a logical argument that can’t just be explained away. Yet like the suffering of little children that Ivan (and Alyosha) detest, even these logical arguments are part of the imperfect world, the world that man can’t hope to be like Christ in. Suffering is because of imperfection

Just kiss

30% done with The Brothers Karamazov

While I was at work today I was in the same room with one of the new people whom I’ve been irritated with because they loud and opinionated and seemingly in want of a lot of attention. But as I was growing more annoyed, I thought of Aloysha and what he might do. It was strange, but calming and it got me thinking about the positive effect this book can have. It seems its art is in its theology of goodness. Unexpected.

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I don’t believe Snegiryov was insincere when he tells Alyosha how much that 200 rubles would mean to his family. I believe he meant every word he said, but was he just doing that make his point of pride to Alyosha? Is he, too, like Katerina and Ivan, martyring themselves for pride? The boy, Ilusha, his pride is not sinful, he has no other way to defend his family so biting Alyosha makes sense, but adults know better.

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The first four chapters (and I’m guess the rest, too) of Book 3 seem to be dealing with the idea of how to face cruelty and trickery from others with compassion. The boys who throw rocks and the boy who bites Alyosha, his father insisting on remaining wicked by paying women to sleep with him, Lise claiming her letter was a joke, and Father Ferapont’s strange behavior towards everyone, Zosima especially.

All tests.

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I like that Dostoyevsky created Smerdyakov because he’s the sort of character who is smart enough to go toe-to-toe with someone whose beliefs are opposite but just as strong. He’s clever and he reminds me of people I have known in real life.

This is quite the family Dostoyevsky is creating here and it’s unlike most other Russian novels where everyone feels like they’ve had a bath recently – everyone here is soiled

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Am I supposed to take it as given that Fyodor actually did rape “stinking Lizaveta”? We only have circumstantial evidence.

And to add further doubt in my mind is the very next chapter deals with Dmitri who though he initially was going to give Katerina money to sleep with him, he actually doesn’t and just gives her the money because he’s disgusted with himself.

Is this a parallel or a contrast? Hard to say.

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While I knew what I was getting into with more Dostoyevsky, this is something a little different. Crime and Punishment was far more plot driven but here we’re audience to various philosophical and theological debates. Since both sides present so well, it’s quite interesting.

Fyodor Pavlovich is a wonderful character. You can feel his passion carry him away and you sort of get the feeling he really can’t control it

8% done with The Brothers Karamazov

Family counseling, the 19th century Russian version. I like the way Dostoyevsky initially told us about these characters but now we’re getting shown them. Aloysha’s embarrassment is telling in that he is not as saintly as he wishes and that his spiritual growth is still a work in progress. We also get to see a cross section of regular people’s lives through the women, but strange it’s all women. No men.

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I’ve put this novel off for too long; it’s time to tackle this beast. Dostoyevsky’s ability to see into the heart of a person is equaled only by Tolstoy’s ability to see their minds. Here we already know what is at the core of the main characters, especially Aloysha’s gentle spirit in a family of sin. His father thinking about Devils pulling him down with hooks is both sad and comical.

Crime and Punishment: Read from February 26 to March 12, 2013

Never have I had such a love / hate relationship with a novel.

To be fair, there wasn’t anything I necessarily hated about Crime and Punishment, rather, there were just so many times I was frustrated with it. In an earlier update I made as I was reading this I compared the book to jazz and as a precursor to novels such as ‘Manhattan Transfer’ and the modern art movement. I still stand by that statement but I feel Dostoyevsky’s novel was more of a fitful start to the ‘modern’ movement and that it would take a much more conscience effort by later writers to really improve this style of novel writing.

Of course, Dostoyevsky didn’t set out to write the first ‘modern’ novel, but he was reacting to modern life and the freedoms that come with it. And that’s the odd thing about this book – the freedom that suffocates our characters. True, most everyone in the book is wretchedly poor and thus shackled by poverty or alcoholism or pride or some other wicked vice, but they’re free to decide how to behave in such a setting. Everyone is bothered by regrets; except Sofia (the hooker we never see turn a trick and who has the now over-done ‘heart of gold’ trope) but they’re all regrets that were of their own conscience making. They chose to kill, or be lecherous, or terrible in some other way and they knew it and they all regretted it. There was no one to guide them – everyone in authority was either non existent or corrupt in some way – and so this ‘modern’ world has to be navigated blind.

And that’s the problem. All this freedom is stifling. Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows if they even have free-will. Nobody has an identity – except, of course, Sofia. Raskolnikov kills two people just to feel something, anything, to see what he’s ‘made of’, what his place in society is and when he gets to Siberia he finally feels free because he now knows his place. And he resents it, which is pretty funny and probably this joked is missed because the rest of the book is so damn depressing, but it’s funny that he hates it all but at least he knows what to hate. It’s a wonderful joke Dostoyevsky tells here and makes the rest of the book worth it.

So I’m not sure the book could have been written any different, but the claustrophobia of it all, the long soliloquy’s that, while fascinating, really go on and on and on and never really resolve anything – which is why it’s funny when Razumikhin says we’ll talk our way to the truth.

The fact Dostoyevsky was able to pull this novel off is a feat and makes the book earn its place as a true masterpiece. I personally don’t think I ever want to revisit it and I’m wary of reading more Dostoyevsky, but I loved that the book challenged me so much and it did have some wonderful moments that are truly unforgettable – the horse beating, the murders, anything concerning Svidrigailov.

As a student of human behavior (and I use the term cautiously after reading this book), Crime and Punishment is a must read for its psychology and for its art.

I loved it and I hated it; which is why it was almost perfect.

95% done with Crime and Punishment

I’m interested to know if this novel is the precursor to genre books, specifically crime and noir novels. There are a lot of tropes here: hooker with the heart of gold, damsels pulling guns, dark and stormy nights, crime (obviously), and a sly and perhaps corrupt detective.

At least the style of pages and pages and full chapters of monologues never really caught on. While fascinating, it can be tedious to.

89% done with Crime and Punishment

I love how even in 1866 everyone knew tobacco was bad for you and made you sick. Even in Tolstoy’s ‘The Cossacks’, the Cossacks themselves hated smoking and wouldn’t allow it in their huts and they complained about Russian officers who all stank up the place.

I’m glad I don’t smoke anymore but if I were Raskolnikov, I’d start. Everyone knows his secret. He will unravel and everyone knows it.

81% done with Crime and Punishment

Dostoyevsky must have had intimate knowledge with death because the way he can kill off a character is almost a little too real.

This far in and I’m still struggling with exactly what I should wrap my brain around. The novel is far too literary to be taking literal, so what specific themes should I be focusing on? Damnation? Guilt? Suspicion and paranoia? Crime and/or punishment?

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“… they can’t convict a man on what they have against me.”

I wonder how many soviets read this without any irony?

The funeral dinner and the 100 Ruble note was a comedy and tragedy all rolled into one without ever once being funny or sad. Dostoyevsky would have been onto something truly great had he given his characters more dimension. The allegation of theft for the 100 rubles was quite wonderful, however.

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Dostoyevsky is at his best when he sets his characters to oppose each other in a cat and mouse game. The interrogation, for example, was actually fun to read.

But when he sets out to moralize and preach, when he’s not being suspicious but rather ‘in control’, he becomes rather dull.

Then again, perhaps that is the entire point. Madness is more fun than the social norms, at least for the madman anyway.

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What sets Tolstoy apart from Dostoyevsky is that Tolstoy didn’t ever have to force his stories to go in the direction he wanted. Intellectual, philosophical, historical and social discussions arose naturally and as part of the narrative (except during the narration of War and Peace).

Here, however, we have a very ‘modern’ novel with lots to say and not enough art to always say it. It’s not bad, but it’s unnatural

54% done with Crime and Punishment

What if the after-life is nothing more than a single, cramped, dirty room filled with spiders?

Raskolnikov has got to be dead and he’s reliving his life as a hell, right?

I mean, who else has all these people just walking into his room cramped, dirty room and telling them about the after-life?

St. Petersburg must have some bad parts of town, but this is just out of the question a bad part. It’s Dante bad.

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I’m probably wrong, but there is a sense I keep getting that none of the characters in the book (other than Raskolnikov) are real. It feels like all these people inhabit his deranged mind somehow.

And there’s something about the landlord, like she’s a demon that’s always watching him but just out of sight. It’s creepy.

At times it’s downright uncomfortable to read this book. It’s amazing like that.

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It’s unsettling to think that a person who does us a good deed could also be someone who recently split open the skull of an old Jewish pawnbroker with an ax.

Worse still, how would we know if we are mad enough to do it ourselves? Could at any moment we become obsessed with the thought of a terrible crime and then do it?

I wonder if this is what death row inmates think about?

33% done with Crime and Punishment

There’s a great expressionist painting from 1912 by the German Erich Heckel called ‘Two Men At A Table’. While the painting has nothing to do with the events of the novel, it does capture the claustrophobia of delusion that’s the theme of the novel.

Everything is in disorientation. The city is hot and stinking even at night. Every room is cramped and workmen clean blood stains from the floor.

Terrifying.

29% done with Crime and Punishment

One of my favorite novels is Dos Passos’ ‘Manhattan Transfer’. That book was structured very much like (then) modern art – it was disjointed, characters melted in and out of the story, there was not a single, strong narrative but rather a mood to the story. It was jazz.

This book feels like the first notes of that modern movement. This could almost be a stage play too; it’s hardly a novel.

It’s engrossing.