My imagination makes me human
and makes me a fool;
it gives me all the world
and exiles me from it.--Ursula K. Le Guin
An Urban Journal Exploring Place,
Purpose, Literature, Memory,
and This Time
December, 2009 - Reading The Brothers Karamazov
Every year I try to read one or two classics that I avoided in college. The list, of course, is too long to make a dent, but, so far, I've found immense pleasures--Magic Mountian, Buddenbrooks, Middlemarch, Auggie March. The most recent, The Brothers Karamazov, I have to say, was more chore than pleasure. I found much of it tedious. I thought most of the main characters were soap opera caricatures--selfish people behaving badly. They never seemed to rise above the emotional level of an adolescent. I thought I would never get through it. And yet, I'm still pondering that ponderous story and the family dysfunction at the heart of it. That may be partly due to the fact that Christmas is looming, a holiday that so magnifies family dysfunction.
The parts I did enjoy: scenes set in the monastery, the chapter on Father Zossima and how he came to the priesthood, the chapter on the schoolboys, especially the precocious Kolya. Because he spoke so little, I listened more attentively to Alyosha, who listened so patiently to all the manics surrounding him. Well, yes, as in life, we're attracted to the good ones, the brave and clever ones, the gentle and sympathetic ones.
The main theme of the
novel seems to be the conflict between upholding the basic tenet of Christianity,
i.e., to love one another, and the impossibility of loving those who are
unworthy. The first is espoused by Alyosha in his speech to the boys at the
end. The scene follows their classmate Ilyusha's funeral, an event which
Alyosha hopes will tie his message to experience in the boys' memories and
give it more weight. He tells them to always remember Ilyusha and the love
they have for him. This love, he contends, has made them better than they
were, and remembering that feeling will guide them in acting wisely in the
Fyodor Karamazov was not a worthy father. How do you
love when the injury is so personal? And how does one not love a parent?
Neither Dostoevsky nor God answers those questions. I'm reminded of that
much-anthologized Philip Larkin poem, "This Be the Verse":