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Audiobook Classics: The Brothers Karamazov

Updated on February 10, 2014

The Narrator That Shall Not Be Named...

Of the dozen or so available audio versions of The Brothers Karamazov, I chose the version narrated by Simon Vance, about whom I’ve waxed poetic in other hubs and dare not repeat myself. You can learn much about Simon on his site Suffice to say that, with over 700 audiobooks under his belt and a mini-storage locker full of awards, he’s in the top 5 of all time if not the pinnacle. His treatment of The Brother’s Karamazov (especially The Devil!) is impeccable - you won’t want it to end.

Heavy and Ponderous? Hardly!

Writing criticism about The Brothers Karamazov is, to state the painfully obvious, a daunting, overwhelming task. I am so completely floored by Dostoevsky's genius that I feel as if I've developed a case of attention deficit disorder: my thoughts are all over the place, my reactions are so visceral that they're difficult to articulate. Simply knowing that there are scholars that have spent the better part of a lifetime analyzing Dostoevsky's masterpiece, I imagine some of my obversvations may seem sacreligious. If that's the case well, as the Elder Zozima said himself "so be it".

To be honest I expected a heavy, dense, philosophical tome of sorts overflowing with misery; a stereotypical expectation or Russian literature, to be sure, that I was relieved of within the first several paragraphs.

"Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov...was precisely the type of man who is not only worthless and depraved but muddle headed as well..." (p. 7)

"Okay!" I cried. " A guy after my own heart! Bring it on!"

Fyodor Dostoevsky

A Nineteenth Century Soap Opera?

At first I felt like I was reading the prototype of the television soap opera. I don’t mean that in a negative sense, for most daytime soap operas are considered to be poorly written, poorly performed, horribly produced trash, despite the rabid loyalty of their viewership, rather I am referring to the general form and to some degree the tone of the drama. I had the distinct thought at one point that the famous nighttime soap “Dallas” and the long standing mystery of “who shot J.R.?” could not have been created without the great 19th century “whodunits” exemplified by The Brothers Karamazov leading the way.

I also wonder if the “chapter book” form of novels would have ever taken shape had it not been for the popular serial publishing style of the mid-late 19th century. I can imagine the experience of following the story chapter-by-chapter in the weekly paper, and how that form of storytelling dictated the structure of the narrative and especially the conclusion of each chapter. Like soap operas, the serial story must have a cliffhanger of sorts at the end of every chapter such that the reader is eager to read the next chapter, which is often, but not always, titled to recall the ending of the previous chapter. This observation led to a sort of bothersome question sat in the periphery of my consciousness as I read: to what degree was Dostoevsky’s story driven by commercial requirements and popular public taste.

If I was going to really effectively pursue this line of thinking I should do many hours more research on the serial novels of the mid to late 19th century, and particularly into the relationships between the publishers of the newspapers, magazines and pamphlets that carried these serials and the contributing authors. Dostoevsky, like Flaubert (though he was writing of an earlier time) and Dickens, clearly had his finger on the pulse of contemporary society; their collective thoughts, concerns, political and religious sentiments. It would be interesting to know how compelled they were to reflect contemporary society for the sake of attracting an audience, and what role their publishers played in those decisions. For while we can read Dostoevsky today as a chronicler of the events and people of his time, there is in my mind no doubt that he was writing what we today would consider contemporary commercial fiction as his primary source of income.

However, to simply say that The Brothers Karamazov was primarily a commercial endeavor, a "whodunit" soap opera that also captured the sentiments and spirit of the Russian people at that time might imply that the novel isn't much more than a museum piece. I have to say that I would pity those that see it that way, for they are missing one of the most profound and insightful portraits of the human experience that I've ever read. That's not to say that I have spent my life seeking out such literature. On the contrary I've spent more of my life in search of the eternal, endless laugh. Still, I can be awed. And what Dostoevsky accomplished with The Brothers Karamazov is something that, in my personal experience with books and literature of all kinds, is rare.

The Audiobook

This is the audiobook cover of the Simon Vance version.
This is the audiobook cover of the Simon Vance version.

Crass Buffoonery

To say that Dostoevsky was a sort of psychologist that scientifically analyzed human behavior wouldn’t come close to summarizing what appears to be an instinctual understanding of the human condition. Dostoevsky, perhaps even to his own bewilderment, was intimately attuned to the varied passions of the human heart and the longings of the spirit. More importantly, he had a unique gift that not only allowed him to see into our joys, sorrows, comedies and tragedies, but to articulate them in the form of characters that are so believable and real, even in the context of 19th century small-town Russia, that we can’t help but stand up at times and shout “that’s me! I’ve felt or done or said exactly that!” or “I know that person! I’ve seen them say or do exactly that!”

While each character is a complex psychological profile, probably the best example is the mirror personality of Dmitri and his father. Both display a fair amount of buffoonery, both admit to being "scoundrels" (over and over and over, I might add), both are examples of "the sensualist", and, to top it off, they both claim to love the same woman. However there is an important and profound difference that is really so simple some may discount it altogether: age. (Sometimes I wonder if the only people that respect and understand the effects of aging on the personality are those with a few years under their belts.) What we see in Fyodor is basically an aged, mellowed, and even wiser version of Dmitri; someone who has come to accept and even love his own crass buffoonery and his own tendency to try and make a joke of everything.

"You see before you a buffoon! Verily, a buffoon! Thus I introduce myself! It's an old habit, alas! And if I sometimes tell lies inappropriately, I do it even on purpose, on purpose to be pleasant and make people laugh. One ought to be pleasant, isn't that so?"

Dmitri loathes his father's drinking, womanizing, dancing, singing and partying nature just as he loathes his own tendency towards the same pleasures, and it is in this self-loathing, brought on by youthful tendency to take one's own self too seriously, that drives his own murderous, self-destructive behavior and suicidal ideation. Fyodor it seems has outgrown such harsh self-recrimination; he's come to accept himself warts and all, which it seems is reserved for those of us who don't have that much time left to enjoy our own self-acceptance. Thus the irony that Dostoevsky is so tuned into.

To create a son that hates and wants to kill his own father might be considered Oedipal, (not that the label is important) if there was a living mother. Instead, there's Grushenka. Fyodor isn't the type of man to recognize his own shortcomings reflected in his son, for such recognition would imply a sensitivity that neither of them possess, however he does know Dmitri's hot buttons. Why does Fyodor bait his son by attending to Grushenka? Is is simply the devil in him, or does he secretly enjoy seeing Dmitri act out the passions he had himself in his younger days? The only explanation for Fyodor purposefully vexing and enraging his son may be some sort of death wish he has for himself. If that's the case we can see that the self-loathing Dmitri publicly displays has gone underground in Fyodor, which I believe is simply a result of pickling the brain over the years and perhaps a related decrease in testosterone. If it's true that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, Dostoevsky gave the lion's share of those sins to Dmitri, leaving both father and son to wallow in the meaningless miasma of the sensual.

1958 film starring Yul Brynner, beardless

Those Fiery Russian Women

Madame Khochlakov, it would seem, would be a wonderful sparring partner for Fyodor and his foolishness, though she fancies herself on a higher social rung than the retired rabble-rouser. With Khochlakov and her daughter Lise, Dostoyevsky provides another view of parent/child dysfunction, for the Madame is the "buffoona" to Fyodor's buffoon, and Lise is the self-loathing offspring not unlike Dmitri. The Madame frequently provides comic relief in the narrative. Upon a visit by Alyosha the day before the trial, she exclaims:

"...I've regarded you as a monk, though you do look lovely in your new suit. Where did you find such a tailor here? But no no no...that is not the main thing. Of that...later. Forgive me if I sometimes call you Alyosha, I'm an old woman, all is allowed me," she smiled coyly. "But of that...later. The main thing is not to forget the main thing. Please remind me if I get confused. You should say 'and what about the main thing?' Ah, how do I know what the main thing is now?"

Talk about muddle headed! Her daughter Lise's behavior is equally absurd, though she is obviously suffering from what we might diagnose today as bipolar disorder or perhaps even schizophrenia. Where the mother appears to be not much more than a batty old broad and not much bothered or even aware of her battiness, the daughter is deeply disturbed by it, not so much in her mother as in herself, and the author refers to her as a "little demon".

"I want someone to torment me, to marry me and then torment me, deceive me, leave me and go away. I don't want to be happy!"

"You've come to love disorder?"

"Ah, I want disorder. I keep wanting to set fire to the house. I imagine how I'll sneak up and set fire to it on the sly. It must be on the sly. Theyu'll try to put it out, butit will go on burning. And I'll know and say nothing. Ah what foolishness! And so boring!"

Later, when Lise slams her finger in the door on purpose, I could only say "man, this chick is nuts!" Again, I find it interesting how, like Fyodor and his son, the parent's personality disorders are amplified in the children. While we can look at the Madame and Fyodor as muddle headed oldsters, the children are borderline psychopaths, and dangerous to boot. I don't know if the genetic nature of mental illness was discovered in the late 19th century, but it appears that Dostoevsky was a believer in the old saw "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

The Monastery Optina Pustyn.

The monastery of Optina Pustyn, where Dostoevsky was a frequent visitor.
The monastery of Optina Pustyn, where Dostoevsky was a frequent visitor. | Source

"Transmitting of Thoughts Through the Air"

My experience with the religious and spiritual dimension has been anything but intellectual, rather through the words of Father Zosima I have been inspired to examine the mystery of faith like never before. In truth, not long after reading those passages I want to church for the first time in many, many moons. And I did not find it disappointing (though I'll admit the congregation needs a little work on the hymns). I'll admit that partially because, as Carl Jung pointed out, the primary source of angst for folks over fifty is spiritual in nature: why are we here, what's my destiny, is you is or is you ain't my God, and so forth. So perhaps that partially explains why I'm so drawn to Father Zosima's writings.

While there are many beautiful passages in Alyosha's chronicles of Father Zosima's "talks and homilies", there is one in particular that caused me to pull off the mountain road from my beach community to civilization, rewind it and play it again, because it is at least as true today as it was when it was originally written:

"We are assured that the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. Alas, do not believe in such a union of people. Taking freedom to mean the increase and prompt satisfaction of needs they distort their own nature, for they generate many meaningless and foolish desires, habits and the most absurd fancies in themselves. They live only for mutual envy, for pleasure-seeking and self-display."

This passage only becomes more applicable and adroit as it goes on to depict a social environment that could easily be mistaken for America in the 21st century. Not that I have any personal beef with conspicuous consumers, the lifestyle hasn't much appealed to me. What is so remarkable is the timelessness of Dostoevsky's diagnosis and the fact that it so accurately describes our culture.

Closing Thought

There are a wide variety of Dostoevsky quotes in meme format.
There are a wide variety of Dostoevsky quotes in meme format.

Gladness From High Places

It does seem rare indeed to read something so entertaining and yet so thought-provoking. I felt almost at times the victim of a classic bait and switch. The "whodunit" baits the hook and sets it, and while being pulled through the story we are forced to stop, look and listen:

"My friends, ask gladness from God. Be glad as children, as birds in the sky. And let man's sin not disturb you in your efforts, do not fear that it will dampen your endeavor and keep it from being fulfilled, do not say, "Sin is strong, impiety is strong, the bad environment is strong, and we are lonely and powerless, the bad environment will dampen us and keep our good endeavor from being fuilfilled. Flee from such despondency, my children!" Father Zosima (p 319)

To which I say, "okay! Works for me!"


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