(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
The Brothers Karamazov (1880)
By Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Book #57 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1880 The Brothers Karamazov (first published serially in the two years previous) is what's known as a "philosophical novel," using a stripped-down and highly symbolic storyline to instead mainly pontificate on a whole variety of weighty subjects in our lives, like God and Death and Love and whatnot. In this case, it's a look at a miserable SOB named Fyodor Karamazov, and the three grown sons who each dislike him in varying degrees -- Dmitri, a fellow sensualist (i.e., like his father, he enjoys abusing the proverbial wine, women and song), who starts the novel literally trying to wrest his inheritance away early; Ivan, a bitter rationalist and nihilist, like so much of Russia's intelligentsia was in those years; and angelic monk Alyosha, meant to represent the radically liberal Christian theology that Dostoyevsky so passionately believed in by this point in his life. (And these are only the three sons he will admit to in public; there's also the sullen houseboy Pavel, who may or may not be Fyodor's illegitimate son by way of local crazy woman "Stinking Lizaveta.")
As such, then, the actual plot of the book reads many times like a mere skeleton, presenting just enough twists to drive the story forward between long (and I mean long) discourses on philosophy -- Fyodor and Dmitri fall in love with the same woman, for example (who deliberately strings them both along literally for no other reason than to be petty, yet another dig by Dostoyevsky against modern lifestyles and moral relativism); and eventually Fyodor is killed, and a large amount of money stolen from his house; and Dmitri ends up being accused of the murder and goes through a lengthy trial; then eventually the real murderer confesses to Dmitri at the very end, then kills themselves before Dmitri can prove his innocence to anyone. Oh yeah, and Alyosha befriends a group of tough orphans, just to have them mess with him for the entire rest of the book; and there's this priest who's beloved by the locals, but who ironically turns a bunch of them to atheism after his death, because of his body having the audacity to start rotting, instead of staying perfectly preserved like the locals had been taught happen to saints; and then there's the million other digressions and subplots buried in this doorstop of a manuscript, all of them helping to establish the now proud stereotype of the wrist-slashingly depressing dysfunctional-family thousand-page Russian epic (which believe it or not is still only a third of the length Dostoyevsky originally envisioned -- too bad he died only a few weeks after this first volume came out).
The argument for it being a classic:
Treasured by a whole series of intellectuals in the years since its release, fans of The Brothers Karamazov claim that, much like Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it was one of the first books in history to prove that novels can be legitimate works of art (a premise much more hotly contested in the 1800s, when novels were mostly thought of the same way we currently think of first-person-shooter videogames), a sort of perfect blending of character, plot and philosophy that displayed a kind of sophistication simply not seen in other books of the period (and indeed, few books since); and though its style is all over the board, one of these styles he uses constitutes an important early example of Realism, the anti-flowery school of thought that first started gaining steam here in the last twenty years of the Victorian Age, and which eventually became such a common way to tell stories that most of us don't even realize it has a special name. Now combine this with what Dostoyevsky has to actually say, a message ultimately of compassion and optimism (despite all the doom and gloom) that many people respond to in this very visceral, profound way, and it's easy to see why so many of his fans call this not just a classic but literally one of the greatest novels of all time.
The argument against:
Of course, not every intellectual loves this book -- his countrymen Leo Tolstoy and Vladimir Nabokov, for example, both found Dostoyevsky to be a mediocre writer at best, and the review pages for this book at Amazon and Goodreads are littered with horror stories of people trying and failing to get through this monstrosity, over and over throughout the entire course of their lives. And that's because The Brothers Karamazov not only suffers the same problem as a lot of other serially published 19th-century projects -- that is, it's simply way too freaking long -- but as a "philosophical novel" it contains sometimes entire novellas worth of purely dialectic discourse instead of narrative fiction, a book that reads as slow as drying paint and is just about as much fun. (And besides, this book set the precedent that eventually gave us Atlas Shrugged, and shouldn't we dislike it a bit just for that alone?) A book much more to be admired than actually read, critics of this novel seldomly deny its importance to literary history, but instead argue that it's much more for scholars only, and that most of us are better off reading about the book than reading the book itself.
Today's one of those days where one of my original rules regarding the CCLaP 100 has come back to haunt me -- namely, the decision early on to include only books I've never read before, in that this project first came about as a personal learning opportunity; because the fact is that I already read Dostoyevsky's more famous Crime and Punishment my freshman year in college and remember really enjoying it, while unfortunately I found The Brothers Karamazov both a bore and a chore, and just barely managed to choke my way through enough of it to do a write-up in the first place. And although I have nothing but the works themselves to support this theory, I suspect that this is a case of something that happened as well to his American contemporary Henry James; that is, as men born at the beginning of Romanticism, their popular early novels helped set the tone for what mainstream literature even looked like in the mid-1800s, but by old age both had grown much more abstract and experimental, not just because they could now get away with it but also as a natural reflection of the Modernist times just around the centennial corner.
So in a way, I suppose we should admire Dostoyevsky for staying "with it" all the way to the end of his career, unlike all those thousands of now forgotten writers who peaked at middle age and were never relevant again; and for sure this is a smart, beautiful, insightful novel, full of all kinds of things to mentally chew on for those looking to do so. But I suppose I was spoiled by reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina first; for while it's just as thought-provoking as Dostoyevsky's novel, it also has a much more engaging and fascinating storyline to go with it, making the entire experience that much more pleasurable and easy to go down when all is said and done. (So in modern terms, think of the difference between reading, say, William Gaddis and Michael Chabon, two writers both adored by academes but the latter with a huge mainstream fan base as well.) Although it's certainly worth some people's time, I can't in honesty say it's worth everyone's time, one of the criteria by which we're determining 'classic' status in this essay series; and while I unhesitatingly recommend it to heavy readers who are interested in seeing 19th-century literature at its headiest and most dense, I believe The Brothers Karamazov falls far short of being the proverbial "book to read before you die."
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
Midnight's Children, by Salman Rushdie
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)