Monday, May 3, 2010

Enough! as Turgenev said.

Or, Karamazovian Aesthetics, Part II, or After Today I Stop Complaining about Dostoevsky.

Even though he is such a bad writer, sometimes, and in The Brothers Karamazov (1879-80) as bad as I can remember.  Please to gaze upon this marvel:

"Right," Alyosha smiled quietly. (764)

I am afraid I cannot recall if any character in Karamazov ever smiles loudly.  I think I would have noticed.  Here, Dostoevsky has gotten tangled up in his limited method of delineating this particular character.  Alyosha is always murmuring and muttering, smiling weakly and embarrassedly and adverbily.  A limited number of combinations are available, and Dostoevsky is in a hurry, so he does not care that this permutation makes no sense.

At least that line is bad in an original way.  The clichés are worse.  A few pages later, a woman’s “eyes flashed with savage wickedness” (767), and not for the first time.  Pure nonsense, borrowed from worse novels.  Dostoevsky was not the writer to prune this stuff. He did not care.

I do care.  I want le mot juste, the integrated work of art, perfect at any degree of magnification.  Other recent readers complained about structural problems, uneven (whiplash-inducing) pacing, weak characterization, and cavalier use of novelistic devices, especially that off-and-on narrator.  What novelist today has earned our trust enough to endure forty pages of "talks and homilies" on religious matters? 

Dostoevksy has some advice for me, if that's the sort of thing I prefer.  He suggests that I spend my time with the books of Ivan Turgenev, and return to Karamazov when I tire of Turgenev's glittery Franco-German trash and want to read about important things.

Now, first, reading more Turgenev is an excellent idea, one I hope to pursue later this year.  Second, Dostoevsky is not completely wrong.  He spent his writing career, post-Siberia at least, trying to push his novels someplace new, someplace he thought Turgenev or Nikolai Gogol could not go.  If he had to break the novel in the process, bash it into fragments and tape up the pieces, so be it.  Some scenes are in the wrong place.  Some sentences are ugly.  Some characters make no sense.  So what.  So what.  Did I understand what Dostoevsky meant by that clumsy description of Alyosha?.  I did.  Then: so what?

If I read Dostoevsky wondering why he's not Tolstoy, I'm reading him wrong.  Which is certainly my prerogative, but I think I can do better.

So after today, no more whining about Karamazov.*  “Enough! As Turgenev said.”  I want to find out what he’s doing right.  One thing, at least.

I don’t know if I’ll spend the week on The Brothers Karamazov, but I do know that I will title every post with a brutally miscontextualized quotation.  Today’s beauty can be found in the stark raving mad “Gold Mines” chapter, p. 385.

All quotations are and will be from the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation, 1990, North Point Press.

And before I forget, thanks to Dolce Belleza for organizing the readalong.

* Anyone else who wants to whine criticize Karamazov, though, please, pile on!


  1. '"Right," Alyosha smiled quietly. (764)
    I am afraid I cannot recall if any character in Karamazov ever smiles loudly.'

    Hahaha. Hurrah for Karamazov! I am looking forward to this week of posts from you VERY much. It is worth pondering that hardly any authors today could write a book like this and still be respected... Curious.

  2. Haha, I read that line yesterday and specifically remembered how ridiculous it was. I'm trying to decide whether I want to complain more myself or not. Tomorrow, I hope.

  3. Question: Have you received any threatening or insulting comments in response to your posts on why D. is terrible? He is a sacred cow for many...

  4. "I am afraid I cannot recall if any character in Karamazov ever smiles loudly."

    Although it's been years since I've read Brothers, I'm tempted to rise to D's defense. Sometimes my wife, for instance, communicates a lot with a smile / smirk / grin / quizzical lip, and so on. In a grammar perhaps unique to her, a quiet smile is a hushed rebuke. And I should know: I don't hear it all the time. Best, Kevin

  5. "I do care. I want le mot juste, the integrated work of art, perfect at any degree of magnification"-hum-this sounds like the prelude to your eventual comments on Parade's End-to me in my cynical moments Dostoyevsky seems like a crazy uncle who may well know more than you ever will but the price of learning from him is very high-ask him how he is today and you will be given an explanation of the nature of being and even though your eyes glaze over after a few seconds he will go on for an hour-within the lecture there maybe some of the wisest things you ever heard but...

    I sort of see D as a writer for your youth and Tolstoy for later on in life-

  6. Kevin - I like it! But I don't buy it. At this point in the book, D. has gotten us used to substituting "smiled" and other verbs for "said," another technique that's discouraged today as Bad Fiction Writing. E.g.,

    "'That's very true,' Alyosha smiled, 'but is it acquired unwillingly or deliberately?'" (p. 199)

    This ain't communicating with a smile. It's just "said, smiling." And, really, it's not that D. is unclear, but that his clumsiness creates a ridiculous penumbra around what he actually meant.

    I like the "crazy but wise uncle" thing, too. I refuse to accept that D. is just a writer for my youth, though. I can handle him now just fine! No, better, better. My reading comprehension was not so hot back then.

    Colleen, the great thing is, just going by the ethics of The Brothers Karamazov itself, everyone is equally guilty of every crime. Therefore, if I commit a crime against Dostoevsky, his greatest fans have, at the same time, also committed the exact same crime! So the smartest thing to do is to ignore me. No original crime, no shared crime.

  7. Karamazov was the first book I covered in my "Reading List" series, and it was a tough beginning. It took me forever, I found it hard to like, and to judge from what I've learned since, I missed most of the point. Ah well.

    My write-up is here if anyone wants to enjoy, decry, or correct a Karmazov-bashing.

  8. Michael5K, spot on about how Karamazov works as a social novel, whether that was Dostoevsky's intent or not. That's a side of the book I'm not going to write about - there's too much, too much.

    Dickens was not paid by the word, though! He was paid by installment, which is totally different, somehow.

  9. I stand de-mythed! As it happens, I'm listening to Great Expectations on tape at the moment, and loving it. Looking back at the Karamazov review I'm feeling like I damned Dickens with faint praise.