Friday, May 7, 2010

Where will our underground hymn take place?

Forget America, America means vanity again!  And there’s a lot of swindling in America, too, I think.

That screamer, and the title of the post, are from p. 595 of The Brothers Karamazov, “A Hymn and a Secret,” in which Dmitri considers his future as an escaped convict.  Dostoevsky was, politically, a devoted Russian nationalist and a dedicated America-hater, and Dmitri, the character, has no idea what he’s talking about.  So the discussion of America is a fantasy, a good one.  Here, almost 200 pages later, Dmitri tells us what he might do in America:

Grusha and I will arrive there – and there we’ll immediately set to work, digging the land, with the wild bears, in solitude, in some remote place. Surely there must be some remote places there…  And we’ll immediately start on the grammar, Grusha and I.  Work and grammar – about three years like that. (765)

The next step in the plan, after learning English as well as an Englishman, is to sneak back to Russia to live incognito, pretending to be Americans.  “That’s my plan and it will not be changed.”

So what I want to know is, has anyone written this novel, the novel of Dmitri and Grushenka in America?  I want to read it, I mean, if it’s good.  Should they stall in New York, with the “wild bears” a perpetual fantasy?  Or should the novel be Prairie Karamazov?  Myself, I would send them to California.  At some point Ivan arrives, and becomes a revivalist preacher.  Alyosha, when he shows up, gets involved with unions and enters politics.  Or else teams up with John Muir to help create Yosemite National Park.  Dmitri never learns English as well as an Englishman, so, according to the unchangeable plan, he can never go back to Russia.


Speaking of novels, Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden Baden (1981, New Directions ed. published 2001) is simply a great one, worth reading regardless of one’s interest in Dostoevsky.  Dostoevsky is the protagonist, or one of them, with much of the story about his gambling addiction and his marriage.  The other central character is the author, the “author,” a Soviet physician, who visits Dostoevsky-related sites and tries to understand his own entanglement with the writer:

‘Now, that’s what I call a real beating!’ I heard someone say behind me – and tearing my eyes away from the screen, I turned around and saw them, sitting there, taking it in turns to swig from a bottle, and this gulping noise continued until the end of the film – and from various corners of the auditorium, like the plopping of stagnant water, you could hear sniggers and cackles, especially during Ivan’s conversation with the devil about faith and the immortality of the soul – and they guzzled beer and vodka like a group on that trade-union trip ‘In Dostoevsky’s Footsteps through Staraya River’, who would arrive at the place, dive into the River Pererytitsa and then, taking another swig, swim up to the ship’s propeller and thrash about in the waves it created. (66-7)


When I began this pass through The Brothers Karamazov, I had also just begun Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, a novel written on entirely different principles.  Ford gives the very last page of his enormous, eccentric literary history The March of Literature (1938) to Dostoevsky, “the greatest single influence on the world of today” (850).  Ford compares Karamazov to Sophocles, and Villon, and “The Victory of Samothrace.”  He imagines the future of literature as “the fusion of the genius of Dostoevsky with the art of the impressionists.”  I have no idea what that means, but it would be a novel that blends the psychology of Dostoevsky with the “crowd form” of Flaubert, the “mental subtlety” of Henry James, the “kindliness” of Turgenev, the “panache” of Conrad, and the “minute observation” of William Henry Hudson (I mentioned that Ford is eccentric?)  I still don’t know what he means, but I want to read that book.


  1. Tsypkin’s book is wonderful. I just re-read The Gambler just so I could re-read Summer in Baden Baden again. Not that it's a required prerequisite, but I thought it would be a nice lead in this time round.

  2. Dostoevsky has taken such a pounding as a result of The Brothers Karamazov group read, Amateur Reader, that I'm afraid I've pushed back making my acquaintance with him just a little bit longer. Alas, it's seemingly impossible to find too many great novelists who don't carry a weird Ford Madox Ford torch for the reading him will prob. only be a matter of time due to the author/reader peer pressure factor ("trustworthy" blog posts be damned). In the meantime, a reread of Gogol's Dead Souls suddenly sounds way more appealing to me than almost any Dosto title I can think of at the moment!

  3. "So what I want to know is, has anyone written this novel, the novel of Dmitri and Grushenka in America? I want to read it, I mean, if it’s good. Should they stall in New York, with the “wild bears” a perpetual fantasy? Or should the novel be Prairie Karamazov? "-I wonder what they would have made of the Indians?-they could have related to the prairies as being like the steppes-I would love to see this done as a grand cross country epic with all sorts of side adventures-

    I will be very interesting in seeing your posts on Parade's End-I just ordered The March of Literature-I did not join the BK read along as I did not want to read that and Parade's End at the same time as it would leave me no time for small reads-

  4. Dwight - I was thinking the same thing. I want to spend a little more time with Dostoevsky himself (including The Gambler, which I have not read) before going back to Tsypkin.

    Not that, as you say, there's any necessity. I've known a number of readers with no previous exposure to Dostoevsky who immediately took to Tsypkin.

    Richard - you would, too, I think. It was curious how many of the readalongers were reading Dostoevsky for the first time. I'm glad Karamazov was not my first Dostoevsky! Notes from the Underground is a good place to start.

    A reread of Dead Souls, Greatest Novel of the First Half of the 19th Century, always sound good to me.

    mel - Yes, a cross-country epic. From Ellis Island to California, all the way across. The Karamazovs homestead in Oklahoma and mine silver in Colorado. They cross paths with Walt Whitman and Lady Isabella Bird. This gets better and better.

    I love Ford's literary history. His depth of reading rivals Sam Johnson or Borges. His judgments are idiosyncratic, though, and occasionally something closer to crackpot.

  5. I'm happy to see that other people have read the Tsypkin. It occurs to me that it would fit in well with the recent (US-centric, I think) liking for Walser, so I'm surprised not to see it more widely mentioned. (Or has it been w.m., and I just haven't noticed?)

    "... at this period in his life he had been writing a particularly prolific amount about the Slavonic Question, emphasizing the God-given role of the Russian people whose vocation it was to free the rest of Europe, the basis of this chosen destiny being, in his opinion, the special, unique nature of of the Russian national mentality and character which, amongst other things, was demonstrated in the use of unprintable words, pronounced in various ways and with various shades of meaning, which were employed by the common people not, of course, to insult others or abuse them, but to express the subtle, profound and even saintly feelings, buried in the soul of every genuine Russian."

  6. I still don’t know what he means, but I want to read that book.

    Ha, yes, but I think I will be happy to settle for "just" reading The March of Literature itself.

  7. Pykk - if there had been book blogs in 2001, Tsypkin's book would have been as well-covered as Walser. It all comes from one publisher, New Directions.

    That I am generating more enthusiasm for Tsypkin's beautiful little book and Ford's strange big one than for Dostoevsky tells us what, I wonder?