Thursday, September 1, 2016

Book #63 - The Brothers Karamazov (Fyodor Dostoevsky)

It took me five long months to finish this latest book on my list.  FIVE months.  That's a long time, even for a middle-aged man with encroaching senility like me.  And so to celebrate completion of this very long, very Russian novel, I'm drinking a rather non-Russian drink, a gin martini.  Now, you might think that if I wanted to commemorate the completion of this Russian classic, I would drink a true Russian drink.  Perhaps a vodka martini, skipping the martini part and just drinking the plain vodka ice cold.  Or maybe sipping on a White Russian, or a Black Russian (does anyone in Russia actually drink those drinks?  I rather suspect not).  But perhaps the gin martini is indeed appropriate, because surprisingly, the martini has appeared in two crucial moments in US/USSR relations.  One came during the Tehran Conference, the first strategy meeting held during World War II between the "Big Three", Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill, in the Soviet Union's embassy in Tehran, Iran from November 28 to December 1, 1943.  In order to help break the ice, Roosevelt, a big gin martini fan, made Stalin his first ever martini.  When FDR asked him how he liked it, Stalin famously replied: “Well, all right. But it is cold on the stomach.” And during the cold war it was President Dwight Eisenhower who introduced Nikita Khrushchev to the drink, causing Khrushchev to remark that the martini was "America's most lethal weapon".  So clearly my justification for drinking one should be apparent.  Sort of.  And if not, what the fuck, it tastes delicious.  This one is made with Tanqueray No. Ten gin, which is a delightful gin, and makes a great martini, in my humble opinion.  I like it much better than "regular" Tanqueray.  Anyway, where was I?  Stalin...FDR...oh yeah, Dostoevsky.

Did I mention that this book took me five months to read?  At 776 pages, that's about 155 pages per month, or about 5 pages per day.  Woah.  You're probably thinking that my brain is totally fried from years of gin and whiskey and daydreaming about Chloe Sevigny, and that my reading skills have naturally decaying into a slow crawl, and thus it would probably take me five months to just read a Chinese restaurant menu,  let alone a dense philosophical Russian novel, but I swear it's not that.  Or is it?  How could I tell if my brain is slowly collapsing in on itself like a black hole?  Argh.  Regardless, this book was a very slow read for me.  Ponderous and heavy and philosophical and laden with meaning, 98% of which probably flew right by me like an F-35 flying full speed past a caterpillar.  I wish some literature professor(s) somewhere would wrote a series of books called "Cliff Notes for Adults" where people like me could go and read about what they had just read and get a good explanation of all the complexities and meanings that are flying right by their overworked and under-trained heads.  Because this book has been called one of the greatest novels ever, if not the greatest, and I feel like much of it, if not most, was lost on me.  Sigh.  My martini is empty.

OK, I just took a break and solved that problem.  Anyway, the plot of the book is about the Karamazov family:  the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, his three sons, Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, and his illegitimate son Smerdyakov.  Fyodor, the father, is a total decadent and drunken asshole.  But a very wealthy decadent and drunken asshole.  He sired his three legitimate sons from two marriages, but can't seem to remember which son was from which wife.  And frankly, it doesn't really matter because he doesn't give a shit about his sons, and took no part in their upbringing.  He's too busy counting his money, drinking himself silly, and trying to seduce young women (with the help of his money).  One night he got very drunk and sexually assaulted a mentally handicapped woman named Stinking Lizaveta, resulting in the birth of his illegitimate son Smerdyakov, who he keeps around the house as a servant.  And one of the young women he's lusting after is Grushenka, who his son Dimitri is in love with.  As you might imagine, this is a sore spot between the two, to put it mildly.  Fyodor is decadent and disgusting, and no one seems to like him, but what the hell he's rich, so he gets away with a lot.  Until he gets murdered.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Judging from the character and behaviors of Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, you would hardly think the three are brothers.  Dmitri takes after his dad...he's a sensualist, and loves to spend his rubles on the booze and the bitches.  Wooo, if you want to have a good time, then party with Dmitri!  Dmitri is engaged to a woman named Katerina, but he dumps her to pursue Grushenka, who as I mentioned his father is also chasing after.  And Dmitri is in a big fight with his father over his inheritance.  In other words, there's bad blood between Dad and Dmitri.  Real bad.  Early in the novel, Dmitri rushes into his father's house and assaults him, and threatens to come back later and kill him.  I mean, this family put the fun in dysfunctional.  Then there's brother Ivan, the cold-hearted rational intellectual.  Ivan thinks a lot about God and how terrible he is because of all the suffering in the world, and WTF God, that's just not cool.  He's not sure if God is just evil or if there really is no God.  His ideas eventually lead to his father's murder after which he descends into madness.  But again I'm getting ahead of myself.

And then there's the third legitimate son, Alyosha.  If anyone is the hero of this novel it's him.  Alyosha is the exact opposite of his father...loving, kind, devoutly religious, and wise.  He's almost a saint, and in fact when the novel begins he's studying at a monastery with an elder named Zosima to live the life of a monk.  But the wise and saintly Zosima, on his deathbed, commands Alyosha to leave the monastery and live his life out in the real world.  So he does, which certainly makes for a better novel, because otherwise he would just pray and study in the monastery through the whole thing.  Everyone loves Alyosha and recognizes his love and wisdom, and Alyosha loves everyone right back.  Yep, he's definitely the odd one out in this family.

Meanwhile Dmitri, also known as Mitya (everyone in this novel has like eleven different names), is busy trying to scrounge up enough money to run away with Grushenka.  He has some money, but he took this from Katerina who asked him to send it to her sister.  Mitya is wild and crazy and passionate, but at the bottom has a good heart, so he wants to pay Katerina back and not feel like a criminal.  But one night he goes to his father's house, thinking Grushenka is there, but she's not.  He sees his father through the window, and clearly sees Grushenka is not there, so he leaves.  But on the way out, things happen, he clubs his father's servant with a brass pestle, leaves the servant for dead, and takes off.  Next thing you know he's got a bunch of money and is throwing a wild party at an inn where Grushenka and a former lover are hanging out.  Mitya thinks she and her old lover are gonna get back together but no, she declares her love for Mitya and they decide to get married.  WOOO!  Then the police barge in and arrest Mitya for the murder of his father.  Whaa??

Did he do it or not?  Doestoevsky's writing makes it unclear...what exactly happened that night at his father's house?  The murder happens "off camera" and we don't learn about it until the police barge in.  Where did Mitya get the money to throw a wild party at the inn?  But we soon learn he's not guilty.  Then we learn who really did it (spoiler alert: Smerdyakov).  Apparently Smyerdyakov was inspired by Ivan who kept saying that if there's no God then who cares what any of us do because there are no rules, so Smerdyakov kills Pops.  Smerdaykov confesses this to Ivan and then kills himself soon afterwards.  Ivan has a breakdown, no doubt inspired by guilt, and becomes physically ill with fever.  There's a trial and Mitya is found guilty, because frankly it really looks like he did it even though he didn't.  The book ends with Alyosha plotting a way for Mitya to escape to America with Grushenka by paying off some of the guards who will be hauling him off to Siberia.  Does this actually happen?  We don't know because the book ends and Dostoevsky is dead so we can't ask him.

This book was not an easy read.  The first half, in fact, was really slow and ponderous for me.  Then it picks up because, well, MURDER!  And then it slows down again.  The novel is weighty with questions of faith.  What is faith?  What does it mean to have faith, and what does it mean to lack faith?  Alyosha has faith, and truly believes in God, goodness, and love.  And by doing so he inspires others and brings out the best in them.  Ivan, on the other hand, has doubts.  He tries to logically determine whether there's a God or not, and can't do so, which leads him to reject God and religion.  But when explaining this logic to others it leads to the murder of his father, and seemingly to his madness at the end of the novel.  Faith involves a leap into the irrational, Dostoevsky seems to be saying, but by taking this leap the practical results are good for man.  Hmm, recalling my college philosophy class, this reminds me of Kierkegaard, who talks about a leap of faith.  Faith is not rational or logical, which, as a scientist, bothers me a bit.  But in the end Dostoevsky strongly makes the case that faith is better than the lack of it.  Hmm, let me ponder that over another martini...