The Brothers Karamazov is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final masterpiece. It offers superb characterization, psychological depth and insight; intrigue, murder, and suspense; great daubs of humor, both madcap broadsides and satirical with a capital slice; that never-ending, cyclonical struggle between faith and reason; a sublimely Slavic melange of love, lust, deception, betrayal, violence, flight, revenge, apostasy, and redemption—capped off by a court trial scene that overrules Perry Mason and, in the renowned chapter The Grand Inquisitor, a full-court press by an impassioned Hierarch against Jesus’ abandonment of mankind to a terrifying freedom and overwhelming spiritual responsibility it neither wanted nor could manage that alone is worth the price of the book.
All right, I didn’t write the paragraph above (stole it from here), but it’s similar to what I would have cribbed from my CliffsNotes had I spent high school reading classics instead of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the D&D Monster Manual. A few years back I decided to make up for my literature deficit by reading at least one classic a year. Liked Moby Dick, loved The Kalevala, and 2016 was the year I’d finally read the book that smart people have told me to read for decades, The Brothers Karamazov. So what did I think of this, the greatest Russian novel ever written?
Eh. It was a bit of slog.
Fifty-three pages on a philosophical discussion in a monastery. Seventy-five pages on a trial’s closing arguments. Entire chapters written as a single paragraph. Referring to main characters with a blizzard of interchangeable and often unpronounceable names (Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, aka, Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alxeichick, Lyosha, Lyoshenka). Hey, I get the Russkie tendency toward verbosity and depression, but throw me a bone here, Fyodor. Couldn’t you reward your long-suffering reader with a fun ending instead of a sick child’s funeral? At least have Alyosha/Alyoshka/Alyoshenka making out with a buxom Gypsy girl during the wake.
Look, I’m glad I read it. “The Grand Inquisitor” section was impressive. I liked the interplay of faith and reason at the dawn of the scientific age. But the main reason I’m glad I finished The Brothers Karamazov is that I get to brag to people that I read The Brothers Karamazov. I’m dropping this new fact into unrelated conversations. I preface statements about football and pizza with “As Dostoevsky said.” When others admit they never read the book, I give them a sympathetic look and say, “you really must.” And then I soak in their shame at not being a Learned Man of Letters like myself.
But, let’s face it — the book is still a slog. By page 876, Ayn Rand was mumbling, “yo, Fyodor, wrap it up already.” So I have a few suggestions for a Karamazov reboot that will make it a lot more exciting to the modern reader:
Let me know what you think of the most recent Great Book that you’ve read, or The Brothers Karamazov itself. And if you haven’t read it yet … you really must.