Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Brothers K. (2)

Anyone interested in the 19th century novel, or intellectual history--or history for that matter--should add this book to his or her reading list. Though I don't suppose there are many who will: it is not a lot of fun; it's raw as well as deep; it'll tear you up (well, it tears me up); it's nasty, brutish, long, AND thoroughly, minutely intelligent. It makes me wish I knew Russian for it seems, in a very deep way to be 'about' language itself as a communal enterprise, created by all, controlled by none, that ties people together when religion and ethics fail. As fail they must.

Published in 1880, it seems to take place at some earlier time (about which Dostoevsky is deliberately evasive) either shortly before or shortly after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861--a time, that is, when Russia was beginning to be seriously influenced by Western modes of rationality (science, liberalism, the Enlightenment). The rational organization of social, economic and political life, already well advanced in the West, was still a new thing in Russia, which makes Dostoevsky's novel--as he was well aware--unique: to read this novel is to enter a world that had not changed in any essential respects for thousands of years. The lives of ordinary people in pre-modern Russia had more in common with Roman peasants than with the life of anyone born in the West after, say, 1900.

I still don't know how to talk about this book, which firmly resists analysis and summary. Unlike other 19th century novels and most of the 20th century novels as well, The Brothers K seems not to have a plot. And here I want to quote something that Goethe said about Hamlet:

It pleases, it flatters us greatly to see a hero who acts of himself, who loves and hates as his heart prompts, undertaking and executing, thrusting aside all hindrances, and accomplishing his great purpose. Historians and poets would fain persuade us that so proud a lot may fall to man. In Hamlet we are taught otherwise: the hero has no plan, but the piece is full of plan. Here is no villain upon whom vengeance is inflicted according to a certain scheme, rigidly and in a peculiar manner carried out.... Here in this play of ours, how strange! Purgatory sends its spirit and demands revenge; but in vain! All circumstances combine and hurry to revenge; in vain! Neither earthly nor infernal thing may bring about what is reserved for Fate alone. The hour of judgement comes. The bad falls with the good. One race is mowed away, another springs up.

No one before Goethe had ever noticed that Hamlet gives the illusion of not being a play at all, for the very good reason that the very idea of such a play was unprecedented. (Perhaps the only precedent in the 19th century for a novel that creates the illusion of not being a novel was The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy?) The old cliche about Hamlet, that he can't make up his mind, contains a smidgeon of truth: in a play without a plot, you have to have a hero who doesn't know from minute to minute what he is about to say or do. Now this exactly describes the Karamazovs who never know what they will say or do next. And this strikes me as a very modern development in the art of the novel.


  1. It has fascinating, complex characters and interesting plots. But the author plays a nasty prank on the reader. When you expect to find out what happens, Dostoevsky says: Tune in for the next novel.

  2. The fact that the Karamazovs never seem to know what they will do next is a great strength. The fact that as the book ends, Dostoevsky doesn't seem to know what he will do next is a weakness.