The Reader of Dostoyevsky – Part III

20 years ago when I first read this, partly in the parking lot of a Macy’s on my lunch breaks from selling women’s shoes, I read it halfheartedly and just “got through it.” For that reason I barely remembered the plot. Perhaps my reading acumen is much better, I’ve aged well, or simply in a place to pay better attention, but I did enjoy The Brothers Karamazov much more the second time around.

While still fresh in my memory, the plot goes something like this: Three Karamazov brothers have a rotten father who they all wouldn’t mind seeing dead. The three brothers distinctly represent the body, mind and soul. Dimitri/Mitya is driven by his animalistic passion and temper, Ivan by his intellect, and Alyosha (a monk in training) by his heart and soul. The crux of the story is a love triangle between Mitya, his father Fyodor, and a tart named Grushenka. Mitya is also already somewhat promised to Katarina, and in his constant quest for money to feed his passions, effectually takes money from Katerina intended for one purpose and spends it in a free-for-all on Grushenka. In this first part of the book, Dostoyevsky sets up all the evidence that will be brought against Mitya, for he shows no caution in exclaiming all over town how he’d like to kill his father. When his father is actually murdered, Mitya is naturally the prime suspect.

After the murder of Fyodor we are then treated to the police interrogation and subsequent courtroom drama to learn of Mitya’s fate. There are two good sections of the court scenes—the prosecutor’s statement, and the statement by the defense.

There are actually a few similarities with Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot which I think is a tad more accessible. Common threads are lust, epilepsy, characters driven to their destruction by lustful passions, and the abused, beautiful female siren who draws everyone to their own wreckage. The brothers in Karamazov distinctly symbolize not only the mind, body and spirit of the human condition, but it seems intended to represent the mind, body and spirit of Russia herself. That I’ll leave for critics and Russian historians, and skip to what I do want to talk about: Pleasure Reading.

Does your idea of reading Dostoyevsky look like this?

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Emil Filla “The Reader of Dostoyevsky” (1907)

Even if you haven’t read Dostoyevsky, you probably imaging dark, depressing, tedious, difficult, exhausting—everything this painting by Emil Filla conveys. I first saw “The Reader of Dostoyevsky” 1907 in the Prague Modern Museum of Art. I was there 4 weeks in 2000 writing my second novel. I immediately fell in love with the painting, and Czech art in general. The pallid man is slumped, exhausted, the colors of the room like glowing embers, and through the window the looming towers of the St. Vitus Cathedral. A copy of Dostoyevsky on the table.

I see something else, however, and perhaps the cross on the wall is a clue. I see a man also at rest, at peace, in an almost opiate state. I see that I suppose because that’s more akin to what I personally feel after completing a Dostoyevsky novel—the kind of complete fulfillment that the very best of literature can give.

People read for different reasons, and what you read for pleasure/entertainment depends on what you find pleasurable. I will probably never read a romance paperback or a John Grisham novel, and I’m just not into fantasy or science fiction. I’m sure if I picked up a murder mystery I’d read it straight through to the end and be entertained. But generally speaking, my primary issue with those genres is that those writers don’t write about the worlds I want to experience. Given the chance between the sisterhood of some traveling pants, or living in 1850 Russia for 1,000 pages, I’ll take the time travel to Russia every time.

To each his own, but for me, spending 1,000 pages with Dostoyevsky is like a month long Ted talk, and I could not be more entertained, moved, or engaged. In reading Dostoyevsky I get to authentically inhabit the skin of virtually every class of citizen of Russia at the time, from school-age boys, to crippled teen girls, peasants, and the wealthy highest society. That unique opportunity is a far greater pleasure to me than anything I could find in commercial fiction. Besides, as someone who wants to write literature, I think of this analogy: Mozart didn’t get to be Mozart by listening to One Direction.

I started this three part blog post framing it around the concept of reading as a cure for depression. My wishful thinking was that if I dove into a book that would take me two to three months to read, by the end I will have emerged at the other end with some tangible progress in changing my life. So, did it work?

I have finished my TV pilot, and now I’ve got the “show bible” to complete. I have started exercising again. I have toyed around with the idea of opening a retail business, and spent some time on the government small business website completing a business plan. And while I’ve gotten nowhere with fixing my biggest headache, my paying job, I did apply to a few companies, revamped my resume (again), and think I might have done well enough in my first phone interview to get to the next stage.

Sure, all that could have happened without reading The Brothers Karamazov, but because I took to the book as a remedy, who knows what placebo effect it may have had? In fact, I’m glancing at my bookshelves for the next fatty that might “finish the job.”

Postscript… I wrote the above prior to actually finishing The Brothers Karamazov and would like to say something else of it. In the very last chapter of the Epilogue, Alyosha attends the funeral of a young 11 year old schoolboy. After the burial, Alyosha is with the boy’s schoolmates and he suddenly becomes impassioned with a lust for life, for “the now.” He says, “And even if we are occupied with most important things, if we attain to honour or fall into great misfortune—still let us remember how good it was once here, when we were all together…” How fitting for someone who underwent the reading of this novel as “a cure” for depression, because in the end, what is important are the experiences we have with one another. My daughter is coming up on 10 months old. When I started The Brothers Karamzov she could not crawl. Now she’s crawling everywhere and beginning to stand on her own. She has two visible bottom teeth and wants to put every single dangerous and poisonous thing in her mouth. When all is said and done, years from now I will hardly remember these daily battles, but will always remember my wife and I in awe at watching our girl grow.

So it’s only fitting that I repeat here the last line of the novel: “Hurrah for Karamazov!” Absolutely!