Friday, September 30, 2016

A Review of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

What is this? Hannah doing a book review? What has the world come to?

I know, I know. I usually do a book review combined with a recipe inspired by said book. Well, that's not going to work this month because I royally messed up the recipe I tried for The Brothers Karamazov, September's book of the month.

I tried to make kvass, a Russian fermented rye bread drink. Ideally, this drink is nonalcoholic,  though sometimes it has a low (0.5 to 1%) alcohol content. Given that I don't drink, I wanted mine to be nonalcoholic. As it turned out, I did something wrong and it ended up being about 1 to 2% alcoholic. And it didn't taste very good. So not only did I make booze, but I made bad booze.

Needless to say, I will not be publishing the recipe for you all to try. You're welcome.

Sometimes things just don't turn out the way we'd like them to. And no, I'm not just talking about kitchen misadventures.

Fyodor Dostoevsky has been an author that has fascinated me for some time. There was something unique in his writings that I couldn't quite figure out where it came from, so I did some reading on his background.

His father was a cruel man who died unexpectedly...quite possibly murdered by his own serfs. Fyodor spent several years in a Siberian prison and as a forced serviceman in the army for being part of an anti-government group. He suffered from epileptic seizures, was almost constantly in debt, and his first wife of seven unhappy years died of consumption. Spiraling into more debt and gambling, he married for a second time, this lady somehow managing to help him put his life back together. He had four children, only two of which survived to adulthood.

After reading this, suddenly so many pieces of his writing made sense.

Fyodor Dostoevsky is known for writing psychologically complex characters and pushing farther into themes of religion and politics than most writers were (or are) willing to go. If you've read multiple stories by him, you may notice that he also had something of a fixation on the word "spite."

So far, my favorite work of his is The Brothers Karamazov, the largest and last novel he ever wrote. It is the story of the Karamazovs: Alyosha, a monastic novice of great faith, the cynical atheistic Ivan,  the flippant and destructive youth Dimitri, and their father, a depraved old man.

The general plot of the story is patricide, both the events leading up to and taking place after this incident. It serves as the central point of the story, but, like the murder in Crime and Punishment, it isn't so much the crime that is the focus of the book, but the ideas and people surrounding it.

At first glance, Alyosha is the spiritual and faithful character who loves all and works to heal the problems within the Karamazov family. The father and Dimitri are the exact opposite: sensualists who love only themselves and bring pain upon all those around them. Ivan is the tortured intellectual who denies the existence of God and yet cannot be happy with this conclusion.

But, as the book progresses, you realize that each of these characters is not exactly as they seem. They are all connected by the "Karamazov way." Dimitri is not as depraved as you would think, and the father is not, in fact, a complete idiot. Alyosha and Ivan, though seemingly having exactly opposite religious beliefs, both have the same questions about the world and it's fallen state.

Each Karamazov has within them the same draw to the dark, perverted side of life, but they each also have (or had) a sense of right. Each sit at difference points on this spectrum, Alyosha closest to the pure side and the father completely over in the depraved side.

One of the unique points about Dostoevsky's writing is that he isn't afraid to go deep and ask all of the questions everyone else is to afraid to ask. This is one of the few novels that I've read that skips over the "Does God exist?" question and goes straight to, "Why would he create such a terrible world? If he loves, then why would he create a place knowing that his creations would suffer so greatly and that some would be damned to hell? Is this all worth it?" Which, honestly, is the question that most people have, even if they think that it's the existence of God that they're questioning.
To me, he is one of the few authors who is willing to look at Christianity in a full light: At the brilliant and the beautiful, but also at the questions that many seem to think it's followers should not ask.

One of my favorite parts of the book, and one that I think sums up one of the main conflicts for Ivan and Alyosha's beliefs, is this one:

"I accept God and am glad to, and what's more I accept His wisdom, His purpose -- which are utterly beyond our ken; I believe in the underlying order and the meaning of life; I believe in the eternal harmony in which the say we shall one day be blended....Yet, would you believe it, in the final results I don't accept this world of God's....I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts...that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men -- but though all that may come to pass, I don't accept it. I won't accept it."

I think that only a very tortured mind would have been able to write such passages. Dostoevsky's characters and stories are clearly crafted out of his own questionings. It seems that he took his own suffering and worked hard to turn that pain into something that would make other people learn and think and grow. That takes a lot of bravery.

The Brothers Karamazov is one of the few books that made me underline passages, put notes in the margins, and go back and reread sections. Here is a book that asked all of the difficult questions without trying to answer them a tidy, perfect way. Rather, points are made, countered, and questioned in such a way that it forces the reader to really think about what they believe and why they believe it.

Dostoevsky is one of the authors that inspired me to approach Christian fiction in a new way: Ask the hard questions. Don't shy away from the confusing parts of the faith. Christians are not perfect and shouldn't be portrayed as such. Believing in no way means not questioning. I applied these concepts to Skies of Dripping Gold and was excited about the results. Dostoevsky, C.S. Lewis, and Douglas Adams (don't ask) were largely helpful in my discovery of my own style of Christian fiction.

For those of you who are like me and have a curious mind full of oh so many questions, The Brothers Karamazov is certainly a book to consider reading. That being said, this is a Dostoevsky novel and it is Russian literature, which is pretty much synonymous with very dark and difficult, so proceed with caution.

It's a book I'm very glad I read and one that I mean to revisit. Have you read this novel or others by Dostoevsky? Please tell me what you thought! I'd love to hear about your favorite Russian novels.

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  1. I'm reading Brothers Karamazov right now! I've kind of stalled out, because I keep on getting distracted by other books. But when I put my mind to it and commit to reading for a while, I enjoy it. Definitely has lots of great themes and hard questions that are handled in an honest, thoughtful way.
    I've also read Crime and Punishment. It's pretty interesting that Dostoevsky's second wife "redeemed" him in a way... similar to Raskolnikov and Sonya!

    1. How cool! I'm glad you're enjoying it. It does take a lot of commitment to read, since you really have to get in an engaged mindset.

      Yes, I thought that was interesting about Raskolnikov and Sonya, too! He often has a "redeemer" character in his novels, so I always wonder if he based that off of his wife.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. This sounds like such an interesting book! I may have to check it out :)

    Ellie | On the Other Side of Reality

    1. Yay! It's a very good book. I hope you enjoy it!

  3. I'm so glad you enjoyed the book Hannah. I listened to the audiobook earlier this year and enjoyed it quite a bit. One of my favorite bits was the dialogue between Ivan and Alyosha late in the book, in which Ivan tells his tale the "Legend of the Grand Inquisitor." A great discussion about some of those "difficult questions" to which you referred in your review. If you enjoy that sort of discussion and line of thinking, you may like this article I came across while researching the novel:

    It's a heady read, but has some great points.Say hello to the family!

    1. I also really enjoyed that section of dialogue! Thank you so much for leaving the link to the article analyzing it. I read it all in one sitting and, though my brain hurts a bit, I'm fascinated by what the writer had to say. I liked his take. Both Ivan and Alyosha saw a problem. Ivan tried to work it out intellectually (and somewhat selfishly), Alyosha recognized how futile this was and instead tried to help fix it. Cool parallel!

      Thank you for the comment! I really appreciate it. Tell your family 'hi' back. =)

  4. I'm working through this book right now myself, but I found the chapter entitled Rebellion" which comes right before "The Grand Inquisitor," almost unreadable. It seems like Ivan pulls up some of the absolute worst cases of abuse to question God's goodness, but I wonder why the author had to go so far...


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