Brothers Karamazov

“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”

― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Reading Dostoevsky in New Orleans

We finished our reading group (The Wild Detective’s DRBC [Difficult Reading Book Club]) attack on Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Seven hundred thirty six-odd, dense pages. This is definitely the way to devour an elephant like that: broken up into manageable chunks and each followed by a weekly Zoom meeting to discuss and clarify the confusion.

I actually sort-of read the book in college. It was assigned on, say, Thursday and I had to write a paper on the next Wednesday. That’s not enough time. Not surprisingly, I have no real memory other than a feeling of panic and dread. And the memory of relying too much on a little yellow pamphlet.

The Brothers Karamazov is often mentioned in short lists of the greatest novels of all time. That’s a bold statement, but one I can support.

First, it is a novel of ideas. Philosophical questions are presented and then played out across the stage of the plot. The plot is complex yet melodramatic. There are many things, a whole tangled skein of threads, going on at once. Reading it like this, especially in the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, is how much humor there is in the book. The characters are deep and complex, and the novel uses a lot of literary devices that are considered “modern” (unreliable narrators, stories within stories within stories, subtle shifting points of view, ambiguous ending, unknown first person plural narrator) which helps keep the dense text fresh.

It is the story of faith against rationality. There is no doubt on which side Dostoevsky sympathies lie – but he does not give his intellectual adversaries short thrift. He has the courage to give the other argument strong, even unassailable defenses and weapons. There is no straw man here. It makes for robust conflict and gives the reader incredible insight and the opportunities for hours of thought.

Faith and Doubt, Free Will (Dostoevsky acknowledges the existence of free will and understands that it is the key to salvation, but paints it not as a blessing, but as a curse – as a terrible burden that will flatten and destroy all but the strongest of men), and the need for moral simplicity and clarity are the battlefields that the novel is fought over… and the victor is very much in doubt.

Plus, I learned a new word… nadryv, And wrote about it here.

Great Big Books

For a goodly period of time now I have been reading short fiction. That is a good thing – I ‘m writing a mess of short fiction and I should read material similar to what I’m working on – plus, I simply don’t have spare time to waste on anything other than a series of wordly aperitifs.

A snack is not a meal, however, and I have felt an irresistible desire to devour a more hearty course of scribbling. There is a heartiness and depth to a long book. There is a feeling of victory as you down the entire thing. And there is meaning of a subtle nature that can only be conveyed over a longer period of time and greater number of pages.

So I opened up a new Collection in my Kindle library called, simply, “big” and have been watching for sales on ebooks. Even the heaviest tome only takes up a few billion bits of electron cloud inside my Kindle – and the price can be surprisingly affordable. There is no better bargain in the entertainment world than a long book. I’ve been working on variety too, from classics to modern, to homegrown to translated – it’s not hard.

Of course, I’m (mostly)leaving out long books I’ve read before (actually, I’m leaving out books I remember reading). The two that come to mind immediately are “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and “Moby Dick.”

Kindle

Call Me Ishmael

My list so far:

  • Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon (I’ve read about a third of it in the past – will start over. That seems to be how I read Pynchon… dive in, go as far as I can, then beat a retreat until I can return to the scene and soldier on)
  • The Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell (I know, not technically a single book. I’ve read the first one in the series, but remember little. Like the Pynchon above, I’ll have to start fresh).
  • American Gods, Neil Gaiman
  • Anna Karenina, Tolstoy
  • Battle Royale, Koushun Takami (saw the film, now I want to read the book. It’s surprisingly long – there must be a lot in there that didn’t make it onto the screen).
  • The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky (I read this in school. Wrote a paper about it. Don’t remember a single thing. Have to read it again).
  • The Three Musketeers, Dumas (After reading The Club Dumas, now I want to go over the source material. It’s been filmed to death, of course, so I’m curious about the original)
  • Cryptomonicon, Neal Stephenson
  • The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing (Started this years ago, couldn’t get going. We’ll see how it goes this time)
  • Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke (I know nothing about this book. Intend to keep it that way until I start to dig in).
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • War and Peace, Tolstoy (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)
  • The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, Haruki Murakami (I’m a big fan of Murakami. Time to tackle his Big Book)

There are two I don’t have and am waiting to pick up on sale (I have time):

  • 2666, by Roberto Bolaño (I have this one in hardback – but would like to have an electronic copy before diving in)
  • Underworld, by Don DeLillo (I’m shocked I’ve never read this. Shame on me)

And finally, I’m starting with:

The War of the End of the World, by Mario Vargas Llosa.

The Kindle gives you running percentage that shows how far you are – a very helpful goal-setting device for devouring something Big. I’m at about sixty-six percent and enjoying the tome. It’s a horrific semi-historical account of an uprising around the previous turn of the last century in a poverty-and-drought-devastated area in Brasil.

I have a method of working my way through big, long, complicated books like this. I keep a pen and paper and carefully sketch out characters as they appear. The kaleidoscope of scenes filled with picaresque folks that comes strolling across the page can get confusing and frustrating without memory aids. This one is especially difficult because many of the protagonists have the same name. Usually, once I get about halfway through, I don’t need the notes anymore, as the characters have become close acquaintances of mine… over time.

I have no idea how long this will take or whether I’ll stick to it (will probably take breaks). I hope I’m able to live long enough.