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Blogging the Brothers K - Book One

lidocafe, marri and I have decided to embark on a summer project to read and blog our reading of The Brothers Karamazov. We are dividing it up by "Books" - each of us will blog one book in turn, and the others will comment. I'll link to the blogs in turn, in case any of you on my flist are interested in following along (or commenting!). I am first.

Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner in our district who became a celebrity (and is remembered to this day) because of the tragic and mysterious end he met exactly thirteen years ago, which will be described in its proper place.

I will do what I'm always telling my students to do when reading a novel, and that is to spend a little time thinking about the title, the first line, and any preface or other "paratextual" material. So what do we learn from the title and the first line? Well, it's about brothers (well, duh). But let's not dismiss the obvious. It's about brothers, yes. And about their relationship to their father, and to each other. This relationship (or perhaps the various complexities of the different relationshipS, as each of the young men is different and each may have a different relationship to the father and to other brothers) will be important, if not central, to what we are going to read. We also learn that the father dies, under tragic and mysterious circumstances, and that is going to be crucial to the story, too. We learn from his placement at the beginning and also from the author's preface that Alexei is going to be the hero of this work. He is a third son (do I dare apply folkloric principles and think that as the third son he is bound to be the most successful or likeable of the brothers?)

The preface is an interesting document. The author tells us something about his hero, but is self-deprecating and plants in our minds the notion that Alexei is not a typical hero, that he is eccentric in some way. We are also told that the novel will be in two parts - the first about an episode thirteen years ago and the second to be about Alexei "today." A translator's note points out that part two was never written. Was it ever intended to be? If not, then why mention it?

Book I is called "A Peculiar Family History." Without knowing Russian, it is difficult to tell whether the ambiguity of the modifier is intentional. Is this a history of a peculiar family, or a peculiar history of a family? Or both? ETA: or is it peculiar in the sense of unique? It could be...

Effectively, the chapters of book 1 introduce us to the main players - Fyodor, the father, and the brothers K: Dmitry, Ivan and Alexei. Dmitry is a son by Fyodor's first wife, the other two by the second. So Ivan and Alexei are full brothers; Dmitry is a half brother to the other two. Dmitry is passionate, wild, spends too much money, and thinks his father has cheated him out of his inheritance. Ivan is somewhat mysterious, sullen and secretive but obviously intelligent. Alexei is charming, good-looking, likeable, extremely squeamish about "rude things" about women, and, at this point in the novel, destined for a monastery. Fyodor Karamazov is a thorough-going scoundrel: debauched, neglectful of his sons, "wretched and depraved" but also "muddle-headed" (again, I wish I knew Russian) in the sense of being amoral but not also ineffectual. The section ends with news of what is to be a momentous gathering of all members of the family.

The two mothers, by the way, have only small roles but are described remarkably vividly. Dmitry's mum is passionate and fierce - it is rumoured that she beats Fyodor - and runs off with another man. The second wife was young, in a miserable home situation, and seems to have run off with Fyodor in preference to suicide.

There is another striking character in this work: the narrator. He (doubtless it is a he) appears to be a member of the community in which the Karamazovs live. He is garrulous and judgemental, and his comments on the brothers seem designed to influence our opinions of the brothers and to place us in a similar position of witness and judge.

Have I left anything out?


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 14th, 2009 04:15 am (UTC)
Ooh, I'm going to enjoy your posts on this. I loved this book, but it's been ages since i read it, so I'm sure I'll have forgotten many things.

Welcome home, by the way!
Jul. 14th, 2009 04:22 am (UTC)
:-) thank you!
Jul. 15th, 2009 05:01 am (UTC)
Interesting. I like the double meaning of "peculiar." In Marri's and my translation, Book I is called "A Nice Little Family," and the sarcasm is clear. The primary reason I chose this translation is that its critics claim that it has restored to the novel the modernity and versatility, as well as the flavour of humor, inherent in Dostoevsky's use of language. My teacher of Russian lit told his students that this novel is considered extremely challenging for translators because Dostoevsky's language is so vivid and because he employs so many voices and styles within the work. I think you're reading the Andrew R. McAndrew version? Also supposed to be good. And isn't that a great name . . . ?

I am really enjoying it so far, and you're right about the narrator. The style of language clearly distinguishes him from the author, whose style is represented (and perhaps for that reason?) in the preface.

Alyosha fascinates me--his refusal to judge others is presented as a strength which yet will always be seen as a weakness. It is also a contrast to all around him. Everyone is judging everyone else in life, the novel seems to be hinting, and certainly the people in this book are presented in light of their many judgments. Marriage prospects are judged (and sentenced); parents and guardians are judged; children are judged and either helped or hindered; Grigory judges Karamazov's wives and condemns one and defends the other, and the narrator judges all. Yet Alyosha stands apart.
Jul. 15th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
That's a very good point about the preface deliberately setting the narrator apart from the author - I hadn't thought of that, though it's clear that the narrator is a "character" of a sort and not the author.

Yes - there's definitely a lot of judging going on. I'm interested in all of the brothers - I find Ivan intriguing, too - and also in the fact that both the author and the narrator seem determined to undermine our liking for Alyosha.
Jul. 15th, 2009 03:42 pm (UTC)
Hmmm, I don't feel at all like the author or narrator is trying to undermine my liking for Alyosha. Quite the contrary. I shall look again.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 20th, 2009 04:03 pm (UTC)
Re: Hmm...
It's my first exposure to "classic" Russian lit, too, believe it or not! Like you, I'm enjoying it.

I like Ivan, too! I find him most intriguing, and more so after Book II.

I read Alyosha's concern about Zosima meeting his family as rather typical adolescent embarrassment about someone he admires meeting a family he's a bit ashamed of - particularly his father...
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )


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