The Superfluous Brothers Karamazov Read-Along Part I: Like sands through the hourglass…
If you find yourself in perplexity, go to the master post for the read-along schedule.
Part One of The Brothers Karamazov could be called an infodump. Our narrator, after telling us who the hero of the story is (bit presumptuous), introduces us to the Karamazov patriarch Fyodor Pavlovich and each of his three sons in turn. We learn about Fyodor’s wives and how each son was brought up, and where they are today. But Dostoyevsky somehow brings us to the first crucial set piece of the book – the meeting with Father Zosima at the monastery – seamlessly. And from there, we are off, with outbursts and hot takes and accusations and of course, a love triangle (or two).
One of my favourite things in the world is to start reading a big, canonical, serious classic only to realize it’s about a love triangle. Dmitri isn’t our hero (apparently) but he is the central point in two rivalries: between him and his father, over “scandalous woman” Grushenka, and between him and his brother Ivan, over “good girl” Katerina Ivanovna. This is approaching Days of Our Lives-level shenanigans (recall Brady Black and his father John Black both being with Kristin, and later Brady and his *grandfather* Victor fighting over Nicole…)
Reviews and read-alongs past
One reason I called this read-along “superfluous” is that when it comes to The Brothers K, so much has been written already. Here are a few articles and blog posts that are worth reading and will enhance your understanding of Part I.
The first is about the then-in-progress massive Dostoyevsky biography by Joseph Frank, reviewed by David Foster Wallace, writing at the height of his fame in 1996. He explains the mix of heavy themes and juicy drama in the Brothers K:
One thing that canonization and course assignments (8) obscure is that Dostoevsky isn’t just great, he’s fun. His novels almost always have just ripping good plots, lurid and involved and thoroughly dramatic. There are murders and attempted murders and police and dysfunctional-family feuding and spies and tough guys and beautiful fallen women and unctuous con men and inheritances and silky villains and scheming and whores. Of course the fact that Dostoevsky can tell a really good story isn’t alone enough to make him great — if it were, Judith Krantz and John Grisham would be great fiction writers, and as matters stand they’re not even very good. What keeps them and lots of other seriously gifted plot-weavers from being very good is that they don’t have much talent for (or interest in) characterization — their plots are usually inhabited by undeveloped or broadly drawn stick figures.
You’ll have to read the full article to see the footnote, #8 of 25, because this is DFW!
I also revisited last year’s Brothers K readalong hosted by Ripple Effects. Their post on Part I does a great job at introducing the characters and pulling some of the main themes – and incorporating a Peanuts comic! Participant “Naptime Author” also pulls together a great character list and plot summary, while “What’s That Mark Reading?!” (great blog name), makes some fascinating observations about whether Alyosha is really the “hero” (I’m skeptical too) and points out that perhaps the central question here isn’t “is there a god” but “is it worse to be a sinner or to be an atheist” which is more interesting, and put me in mind of the themes in The Books of Jacob.
My superfluous reactions
While I’m not surprised to see the good girl (Katerina) vs. bad girl (Grusehnk) set up, I like that we also have a more benignly mischievous female character, Lise, who I will just pretend is not fourteen years old (though her crush on Alyosha is relatively chaste SO FAR). I also *loved* that we first see Grushenka being manipulative not towards a potential lover, but towards Katerina, tricking her into making a display of affection then not returning it, forcing an outburst not really fit for such a “good girl.” This is a good example of the dramatics you’ll find in part one:
‘Brazen hussy!’ Katerina Ivanovna said without warning, as though she had suddenly understood something; she flared scarlet and leapt up from her seat. Unhurriedly, Grushenka also got up.
‘That’s what I shall tell Mitya when he gets here – that you kissed my hand, but I kissed yours not at all. And oh, how we will laugh!’
‘Dirty vixen, out!’
‘Oh, how shameful, young mistress, oh, how shameful, ‘tis not decent for you to say such things, dear young mistress’
‘Out, brutal veneal creature!’ Katerina Ivanovna began to howl. Every feature of her utterly contorted face was a-quiver.
‘Oh so it’s venal now, is it? You yourself use to go and sell your charms to the young gallants in the twilight for money when you were a young girl, why, I know you did.’
Time to start reading Part 2
As for what’s next? Well, “is murder okay sometimes” is another recurring Dostoyevsky theme and it’s no spoiler to say we are about to find out.
A year or so ago I started listening to an abridged audio version of this book on BBC Radio 4, but other ‘life stuff’ got in the way and I slipped out of the habit. Now I wish I had persisted as it certainly sounds worthwhile…