Posted by: Sally Ingraham | April 8, 2010

The Brothers Karamazov: Book One

brothers kby Fyodor Dostoevsky
translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

Well, this has been interesting so far! Four men – father and sons – squabble over money and women, and in their free time wrestle with questions about God, morality, and free will. The action is jerky – passionate exchanges come to grinding stops when one character starts monologuing. At turns eye-crossingly dull, and mildly hilarious, The Brothers Karamazov is surprisingly engrossing.

I’m fascinated and puzzled by the writing style. The narrator is as much a character as anyone else in the story, and he’s not, as it were, an incredibly skilled writer! His often awkward sentence structure is what I’m finding the most amusing about the reading experience. This writer has all kinds of weird tics, and they add an odd sort of lightness to a fairly heavy story. The characters themselves, when they speak (at length) seem to have somewhat distinct voices, different from that of the narrator. In their introduction the translators claim that this narrator is definitely not Dostoevsky, and that he meant for the book to feel especially “written”. I would have to read something else by Dostoevsky in order to compare this, but for the moment it is somehow unsettling to find myself laughing over the bad writing found in this very famous book!

Moving on to things more specific to the first section (and sending up the SPOILER WARNING flag!)…

Father Karamazov – Fyodor Pavlovich – is a boorish man and often maddening, but his crazy speeches are quite astonishing. I’m finding him the most intriguing character so far. His sons are all nuts in their own way – what a nice little family! Dimitri and Alyosha seem fairly straightforward, but what is up with Ivan? That outrageous series of events at the monastery was one of the weirder scenes I’ve ever encountered, and all the foreshadowing is reminding me oddly of The Woman in White!

Plenty of philosophizing in this first section – the bit about Alyosha being a realist on p. 25 was interesting to me, and the whole question about whether there can be punishment for wrongdoing if there is no fear of eternal damnation (p. 64) or indeed any need to be virtuous at all if there is no immortality (p. 70). Not sure I agree with anyone in this book so far, but I’m willing to travel a bit further with them and their damn Karamazov “insect of sensuality”! We’ll see where this goes.

Thanks to Bellezza for hosting this read-along! I’m very curious to see what the reactions of the other participants are at this point. 🙂


  1. I’m really enjoying the narrator’s quirkiness too, and it’s so unexpected! 🙂 Yeah-the whole farce at the monastery had me wondering WHAT Dostoevsky was up to. hehe

    • I hope the Elder resurfaces at some point before he goes to meet his maker. He has some explaining to do!

  2. As I’ve said on a couple of other readalong posts today, Sarah, I read this years ago & remember loving it, but not many details. That said, the question of whether there’s a point to acting like a decent human being “even if there’s no Hell” or “even if there’s no God” has always struck me, as a lifelong agnostic, as so bizarre, and I think Dostoevsky was one of the first people I found asking the question in a serious, even tortured, way. My response, at the time and now, is always a puzzled “…why WOULDN’T there be a point?” but it’s fascinating to read the thought processes of someone so steeped in both religion and…I don’t know what…self-hatred? cynicism? blood-lust? that they literally feel the only thing keeping humans from slaughtering each other in the streets is a fear of eternal hellfire. I’ll be very much looking forward to the continuing thoughts as the readalong goes forward!

    • Yes, I’m definitely looking forward to more on this subject as the book progresses. I agree with you, but it will be interesting to see how Dostoevsky works it out. At this point he’s offered several different perspectives so I’m not clear on what he actually thinks. A tough subject to approach.

  3. How interesting about that narrator, Sarah! Makes me wonder how “intentional” his foibles are given what another readalonger claimed was the monologue-centric nature of the novel. Weird!

    • Yes, Nicole had some interesting thoughts on the narrator, and I do feel at this point that Dostoevsky crafted his narrator as much as he crafted the other characters. Again, I would have to compare the writing style of this book to his other works in order to really judge whether it is his usual style, or something different.

  4. “His often awkward sentence structure is what I’m finding the most amusing about the reading experience. This writer has all kinds of weird tics, and they add an odd sort of lightness to a fairly heavy story.”

    Richard wonders about intentionality in the quirky narration, and I have to say that I find it completely intentional. Intentional lightness. Intentional manipulation of language that may go unnoticed because of its bareness, simplicity. Who suspects the hidden depths of awkward synatx, weird tics, strange word choices. Strikes me as the product of a mind in love with language itself.

    • I agree – it does seem intentionally done. Curious how we are reading two authors this month who play with the language. Certainly Perec falls into that category!

  5. The only who makes any sense (to me) in the faith department is the red-cheeked Alyosha. Everyone else is so jaded, so cynical, so selfish that their faith is almost non-existent. It’s interesting that Ivan wrote a paper refuting Church vs. State, which is an argument I never can quite find a stance to settle upon.

    I’m confused as to why the elder Zosimov bowed to Dmitri…I’m hoping to have a better grasp of that as I read along. Dmitri is the last person I’d be bowing to. 😉

    Thanks for reading along, Sarah, and for you insightful thoughts. As always.

    • Thanks for inspiring me! I really hesitated over reading it when April actually rolled around, but then I decided to just go for it. Glad I did.

  6. That introduction – credited to Pevear only, by the way – is full of bizarre stuff. Maybe I’ll write about that later. Maybe I’ll politely avert my gaze.

    I’ve been trying to resist my Dostoevsky prejudices and read fresh, but I just don’t see what Frances sees. D. is rushing forward. This is not a polished book. Sometimes he is barely competent. Sometimes he is brilliant. “[A]wkward syntax, weird tics, strange word choices” are the opposite of “bareness” and “simplicity.” We’re a long way from Flaubert.

    To what extent is it necessary, or wothwhile, to find agreement with any particular character or sentiment in the book? Should the reader be working toward a position, or should he try to hold all of the different positions in some sort of suspension? I don’t know.

    • Interesting point. Since it’s always nice to find someone who agrees with you, I suppose I do keep an eye out for things I can say “Yes!” to. However I don’t discard a book when, as in this case, I don’t agree with anyone’s positions. I always attempt to keep an open mind and strive for that suspension you mention. However, is any of that necessary? That’s worth considering from time to time – or at least determining why I am reading what I am reading, and what I am seeking to get out of the experience…

      I mentioned elsewhere that this book felt especially serialized. Some chapters are better crafted than others, some have that little bit of brilliance while others are decidedly lacking. The writing style is something that interests me, but I’m not able to separate my idea of the narrator as a character from Dostoevsky’s actual skill at writing yet.

  7. Right, the serialization. I had not known about that the last time I read it. I wish P&V showed how the serial sections were broken up. Sometimes we can guess pretty well, though.

    There’s a long critical tradition of extracting the “correct” wisdom from Karamazov – what he really means. The existentialists pull out X, the Orthodox Russian critics pull out Y. So I know I’m reacting to this history – can they all be right? The way Karamazov works, maybe they can!

    I’m going to try to sort out when the narrator is really active and when the limited third person completely takes over. Maybe that will clear things up for me.

    • Claire just mentioned in the comments on my last post that The Brothers K reminded her of things she liked about Dickens, which makes me think that a lot of his works were serialized too. They seem much more consistantly written throughout though. It actually blows my mind that people can write like that – without being able to go back and edit things and reorganize events, etc. Skills – some with more than others!

      I’m very much looking forward to anything you post about this book. 🙂

  8. I agree with some others that the weakness of the narrator are intentional, but I often tend to give the author the benefit of the doubt. I did not read the introduction. I’m always hesitant to for fear of spoilers. Fyodor is my favorite so far as well. Completely detestable and yet absolutely hilarious! Your post also reminded me of something I found interesting: the comparison of sensuality to insects! Not what I would choose as a metaphor, but I guess it makes sense.

  9. […] in Winter I participated in The Big Read V: The Woman in White which was excellent fun, and read The Brothers Karamazov with Bellezza’s encouragement. The only reading challenge I joined was the extremely self […]

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