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!