Make Way, Joseph Heller, for Dostoyevsky

“THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is a joyful book,” begins the introduction to the Pevear and Volokhonsky 1990 translation. These were the first words within the hard copy that I read when setting out on this adventure, and given what I knew about its subject matter, this seemed a strange and perplexing statement. How could a book that deals with the story of a son accused of killing his father be described as fundamentally “joyful”? I’ve read several other books based on court cases and murder trials – L’Etranger and Native Son being the two that stand out in my memory – and none of those books can, in any way, be considered “joyful”. What a strange word to describe such a dramatic and brutal story!

And yet, 776 pages later, I find myself in total agreement with Pevear’s word choice. Never have I read a book with such energy, power, clarity – and, dare I say it, joyfulness! Oh, there is tragedy, true. Indeed, that is the magnificence of the book: there is, in fact, far more tragedy than there is happiness (a murder, a suicide, a child’s illness, and a descent into madness, are just the most striking examples of tragedy in the book) , and yet the overwhelming spirit of the book is joyful, forward-looking, enthusiastic, emotional, passionate, and almost celebratory. As the lawyer Ippollit Kirillovitch says, there are “two abysses, two abysses, gentlemen, in one and the same moment,” one “above us, an abyss of lofty ideals” and the second, “the abyss beneath us, an abyss of the lowest and foulest degradation.” And that is exactly how it is. In the BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, both abysses exist simultaneously, feeding off of each other, the greatest of tragedies giving rise to the most beautiful of celebrations, sentiments of base degradation and of lofty nobility living in perfect symbiosis with each other throughout the novel. The BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, is, above all, a celebration of spiritual passion, sentimentalism, and, yes, the joys of life.

Such a characterization would not be possible if Aloysha were not the “hero”, as proclaimed by Dostoyevsky in his own introduction. Aloysha, whose perfect honesty, simplicity, and pure love for everyone he meets earns him a reputation as an “angel” and a “cherub”, is the emanation of the goodness and happiness in the book. Though he is the youngest of the three brothers, he serves, at various times, as a spiritual adviser, messenger, counselor, comforter, and facilitator to almost every other character in the book, and particularly to his two older brothers. Strangely, he plays little role in driving the plot forward–he is not so much an active character as he is a quiet source of inspiration for others’ actions or beliefs. He defends his accused brother Mitya incessantly, and believes in his innocence from the beginning, though all the evidence seems to be against him. His passionate, sympathetic response to a woman’s cruel speech and proud hostility brings her to her knees and induces a spiritual revolution in her soul. He speaks kind and gentle words to his father, Fyodor, that great “buffoon” who is reviled and mocked by nearly everyone else in society. And he stands up for a young, injured boy who is being bullied by his classmates–and then brings those same classmates together as friends to the boy’s bedside when he falls ill.

Indeed, the most truly “joyful” moment of the book is Aloysha’s, a moment of overwhelming beauty and love for the whole world.

“Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. […] The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars….Aloysha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth.

He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages. ‘Water the earth with the tears of your joy, and love those tears…,” rang in his soul. What was he weeping for? Oh, in his rapture he wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss, and ‘he was not ashamed of this ecstasy.” (362)

Perhaps the most astonishing thing for me, reading this book, was how precisely Dostoyevsky elucidates all of his characters’ thoughts, emotions, personalities, and even speech habits, so as to create characters that are distinct and real in a way that I had never imagined possible. As the narrator walks the reader alongside and into each character’s mind, it is impossible not to sympathize and understand his every thought and action. Dostoyevsky created a psychology for each of his characters; he knew each of them as well, if not better, than I know my own father, mother, sister, or best friend. He can account for the smallest action–a sigh, a frown, a misplaced word–and explain exactly why that character made that motion at that precise time. This novelist must have understood the human condition–or, at the very least, the Russian condition–far better than any of our studied psychiatrists or psychologists do today, with all of our fMRIs and personality tests. Dostoyevsky was a master of humanity, in the same way that Michelangelo was a master of painting, or that Chopin was a master of the piano, and that mastery is profoundly demonstrated on every page of this book.

When I was starting out, my dad said to me: “That is one book where every word is valuable.” I didn’t realize the truth of his statement until the last one hundred pages, the grand closing arguments of the trial. The book opens with several chapters of personal history, explaining how each of the brothers came into existence, their upbringings, etc., and there are many chapters in the book that seem to be relatively unimportant (though always interesting) diatribes on religion or philosophy. As unimportant as they may seem at the time, however, it struck me during those last one hundred pages that without those chapters, the fullness and richness of each character, his interactions with the world, his personal and existential struggles, could not have been revealed without such depth and breadth of “background” information. The dialogue about the Grand Inquisitor, for example–one of the most famous passages in the book–seemed at first mostly like Dostoyevsky’s attempt to bring some of his own personal religious struggles to life through his characters; however, in the Fourth book, as Ivan is struggling with “brain fever” and descending into delirium, reflecting on Ivan’s dilemma with the Grand Inquisitor helps to justify, personality-wise, his developing insanity. This is only one example. Every word in this book is valuable–not just intrinsically, for its philosophical or moral worth, but also for its contribution, later, to the character development and the conflicts within the book. Every word is valuable.

I first read Catch-22, by Joseph Heller, when I was eleven years old. Since then, that book has remained constant as “My Favorite Book Of All Time”, the big #1. Twelve years is a long time to hold a book on a pedestal, and I think it may take some time to adjust to the idea of having a “New Favorite Book”–and I’m not even confident that that will, ultimately, be my judgment. Perhaps these two masterpieces can share the spotlight. That being said, however, THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV is without a doubt the only book that has come close, in all those years, to replacing Heller’s place in my heart. This is a book that makes you want to run out to all your friends, beat each of them over the head with the whole eight-hundred page physical volume until he agrees to read it immediately, and then salivate with anticipation while you wait for him to tell you exuberantly exactly how much he loved it. It’s that kind of book.

The Brothers Karamazov has been around for close to one hundred and fifty years, so this review is really nothing new. There are countless other, far more in depth, professional, well-cited academic essays out there, written by people far more learned than I. So please, take this for what it’s worth: a casual reader and aspiring writer’s first thoughts on a manuscript that captured her soul and imagination. That’s about it. That being said, I hope that if you have read the book, you enjoyed and/or agreed with this post; and if you HAVEN’T read it, I hope that this will have convinced you to go out, buy/borrow/steal a copy immediately, and enjoy one of the finest pieces of literature ever written.