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In Praise of the Classics: The Brothers Karamazov

Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer

ImageEmpirical evidence overwhelmingly supports the conclusion that writers should stop writing at about age 55. You’ve pretty much said what you’re going to say the best way you can say it by then–basic brain chemistry dictates it. Even Kurt Vonnegut (rather gleefully) admitted as much in a Charlie Rose interview that recently re-aired after his death, cutting through the bullshit in characteristic fashion and telling Charlie (who fawningly protested that No! Surely that doesn’t apply to Kurt Vonnegut!) simply, “As you get older, you start getting stupid.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky published The Brothers Karamazov–arguably the greatest novel ever written and inarguably the greatest novel he wrote–when he was 60. At first, it only looks like a technicality that he wrote it after 55. What’s five years, right? Well, there are a couple of special factors we need to count in Dostoevsky’s case to determine his real age at the Bros. K. release party.


As we all know, the life expectancy of humans has increased as technology has progressed, sort of the same way inflation makes money worth less in real terms. Vonnegut made his statement in 1996, 110 years after Dostoevsky’s death. 1880 to 1996: That’s a lot of age-inflation. Let’s call being 60 in 1880 roughly being 85 in 2007 terms, when adjusted for inflation. But we’re not done yet adjusting for Dostoevsky. Keep in mind that not only did he publish it in 1880, he wrote it in 1880 in Russia. Life there is hard now. Life there was almost unimaginably hard in the 19th century. Not only was it fucking cold, but this was before good insulation and central heating. Basically everybody was an alcoholic. You had a good chance of getting run over by an ox-cart driven by one of the 20 million (give or take) peasants. Western medicine was mostly a rumor unless you were a member of the elite. Life to come under Stalin probably looked good compared to life under the Czars.

But it doesn’t stop there. Count Leo Tolstoy was born an unimaginably wealthy aristocrat with a huge estate and stayed that way his whole life. Dostoevsky–not so much. If Tolstoy was like the Paul McCartney of the 19th century Russian novel, then Dostoevsky was Old Dirty Bastard. For those of you who have been neglecting your Wu Tang Clan history, ODB was the notoriously self-destructive member of Wu who was born on the streets and basically ended up ODing or drinking himself to death or something equally horrible. Dostoevsky was like a raging compulsive gambler, getting blindingly, 19th-century-Russian drunk and racking up huge debts he couldn’t pay, then writing his novels at breakneck speed so he could sell them by the word to various 19th century Russian literary journals to pay his way out of debtors prison, for Christ sakes. Oh yeah, and he was an epileptic–had his first grand mal seizure when he was 9. And in case you forgot, he suffered from epilepsy while being treated by ahem the enlightened Russian medical establishment. (Basically, people talked about epileptics (or “spastics”) back then the way people talk about people with Downs’ Syndrome now).

By my reckoning, that makes him at least 130 in 2007 terms when he published The Brothers Karamazov. Am I missing something? Well, what about the fact that he was rounded up as part of an anti-czarist plot when he was 28 (and just experiencing some literary success), tried and convicted by a kangaroo court, sentenced to death, led to the fucking firing range, blind-folded, and had to listen to some firing squad commander say whatever’s Russian for, “Ready…aim…” and countenance himself with the fact that he was about to die, before whatever the 19th century Russian-equivalent of a call from the governor pardoning him came?  So let’s be safe and call him 1,800 years old when he finally got around to tackling The Brothers Karamazov.

(By the way, I don’t know quite where to put this, but he considered the 776-page Brothers Karamazov as like the prologue to an even longer and more profound book he was planning to write but didn’t because his 1,800 years caught up with him.)

So what is Bros. K. about? Four brothers, each one representing a different aspect of humanity, are drawn together after their father is murdered–presumably by one of them. There’s the intellectual one, the spiritual one, the sensualist one, and the evil one. Dad himself was a deranged hedonist. The deeply religious (apparently facing the firing squad can do that to you) Dostoevsky was pretty much baldly equating the loss of the father with the loss of the Father in the increasingly atheist world (Russian, which was deeply Christian for many, many years, was feeling the first thawing warmth of Western secularism in the second half of the 19th century, and the 1,800 year-old curmudgeon Dostoevsky didn’t approve), and exploring the ramifications and possibilities for human life.

If the plot of Bros. K. sounds familiar, that’s because it’s been fully digested by world culture and used as an archetype for Great Dramatic Tragedy ever since. Think about The Godfather, with its four very distinct siblings who have to come to terms with dad’s symbolic and then real death in Part I and II. Or Infinite Jest, who’s Incandenza family is a very conscious homage to the Karamazov’s. Or even the Jackson Five. Okay, that might be stretching it just a wee bit.

Speaking of David Foster Wallace, he described other people’s novels as being great entrées or delicious deserts or refreshing aperitifs, but a Dostoevsky novel as basically being a five-course meal in like the fivest-star hotel in the world. Dostoevsky is not the great subtle dissector of personality that Tolstoy is–Dostoevsky uses his characters and situations to debate the Big Questions: mortality, the existence of God, the meaning of life, etc. (Apparently, no question is too big for you when you’re 1,800 years old.) The most famous chapter in Bros. K–and one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever read in my life–is a chapter called The Grand Inquisitor, which is so good they sell it as a stand-alone book and like teach entire theology and philosophy seminars on. In it, the intellectual brother, Ivan, tells his younger spiritual brother, Alyosha, about a little story he wrote about the existence of God–and more specifically, about man’s need to believe in the existence of God. I won’t spoil it here by telling you what happens in the story, I’ll just reiterate that it’s mind-blowing and profound and generally a real two-hand head clutcher.

Plus the great thing about Bros. K is that it’s this really pulpy murder mystery full of sex, brutal violence, daring prison escapes, tense trials, and bawdy humor. No kidding–Dostoevsky, writing in the 19th century, is actually, legitimately funny. One of the great time capsule things to remember about Dostoevsky is that he was writing in a time where a professional writer (not one that was born an unimaginably wealthy count, but one who was born middle-class and who had like insurmountable personality and physical deficiencies that caused him to compulsively gamble away whatever earnings he made) was paid by the word to publish their stories in magazines. Dostoevsky didn’t have time to sit at home on some juicy grant or estate salary and polish his masterpiece for years–he published the chapters of Bros. K. * serially*, as he finished them, because he needed the money. And, writing for these magazines as he did, he had to splash in murder, sex, greed, and bawdy humor.

So let’s just conclude by saying that Dostoevksy was The Man, Brothers Karamazov was his masterpiece, and that you’re really depriving yourself if you don’t read it before dying at age 1,800.