Actually, by the time this post goes live, I should be well beyond the halfway point. But I’m there, in the thick of it, and I should be finished with the book just after Canelli gets back from the Indian subcontinent. And I’m dying to discuss this book with him. I’ve got to know what he thinks–I need him to explain this thing to me–because, at this point, I see this book as a 19th Century morality play that somehow came to influence one of the greatest books of the late 20th Century but is now as disposable as phrenology, serfdom, and antiquated notions of what makes a person a good human being.
Here’s a quick synopsis of what I’ve read so far:
- Book I: All the major characters are introduced here. Fyodor is the father, and he’s a buffoon lech. He has three sons by two different wives. Dmitri is the first, son of Fyodor and Adelaide Miusov, and he’s a lech like his father, but, as we see in Book II or III, he’s got enough of a conscious about himself that he knows he’s a bad person. Ivan is the second, son of Fyodor and Fyodor’s second wife, Sofia Ivanovna, and he’s supposed to be an atheist and is, overall, a smarmy asshole who likes the idea of humanity but not humans individually. Alyosha is the third, also son of Fyodor and Sofia, and he’s a super precious snowflake that everybody loves and is also supposed to be the hero of the novel. There’s others: Smerdyakov the chef, Father Zosima the monk, Grushenka the first love interest, Katerina the second love interest, and a whole village of other monks, former soldiers, and former serfs. It’s kind of a weird experience reading this “book” as not a lot of modern and post-modern fiction starts the same way as this book does.
- Book II: Oh, there’s another character, a cousin or something, who appears here but hasn’t been seen since. Anyway, that cousin, Fyodor, and Ivan meet up with Alyosha and Father Zosima. They’re meeting there for some reason I missed while reading. I think it’s about money, since it’s supposed to be some sort of mediation between Fyodor and Dmitri. But nothing can get started because Dmitri, who’s supposed to be there, isn’t there. He shows up an hour late, and things start getting a little ridiculous. But until that happens, the reading is an effing slog as the whole thing devolves into a lecture by Ivan about how the church should run the state. Again, Ivan is supposed to be the atheist, but he holds positions that go counter to what an atheist, by definition, should believe. Instead, Ivan comes off as some sort of proto-Jack-Chick-tract-caricature of an atheist.
- Book III: This is where things get a little bananas. I should point out that by the end of this book, it’s clear that all the good guys are men of faith, and all the bad guys are dudes that ignore faith or allow “passions” to rule their lives. It was the exploration of Smerdyakov that finally made me realize this.
- Book IV: This whole book revolves around a sort of side-story involving Alyosha getting bit by a little boy and then Alyosha turning around and trying to help the boy’s family out of poverty. Yep, that Alyosha, he sure is a swell guy. A bit condescending and manipulative, but it’s all in the name of being a humble monk just trying to do a little good. (If this seems cynical, please, struggle harder to stay awake while reading the convo between Alyosha and Katerina while they discuss the poor family’s rejection of Alyosha’s bribe.)
- Book V: Bunk this book. It’s just a 3,000 page allegory about Jesus being a pretty righteous dude, as told by Ivan “the Atheist.” That’s what this book sometimes turns into: a seven-page paragraph about Jesus enlightening motherfuckers during the Inquisition. Bonus realization: this is the section Canelli read quite extensively during our last podcast.
- Book VI: Bunk this book, too. It is the equivalent to what I imagine to be a 19th Century Russian testimony. I just about threw the book down in disgust when, during a duel between a young Zosima and a rival, Zosima is shot in the cheek, and then runs up to his opponent and kisses him (as 19th Century men were wont to do). Like, he literally turns the other cheek. Why did I want to throw this book down? Because it was transparent, uninteresting, and an absolute failure of imagination on Dostoyevsky’s part.
- Book VII: Alyosha deals with the fact that, after Zosima passes away, his body does in fact rot like every other human’s. Boo hoo, Alyosha. Boo hoo. I’m up to the point where Rakitin has brought Alyosha to Grushenka, and I think Grushenka is trying to seduce Alyosha. Do it, Alyosha. Do something interesting for once in your god-forsaken-life.
So is it clear that I’m not enjoying this book? That I’m actually hating it? Why am I hating it? It reads like a lot of other 19th Century European fiction in that there’s 100 pages of philosophizing in one-way convos, then 30 pages of proper gentlemen dueling over the affections of society ladies, then another 100 pages of philosophizing. It’s just a whole lot of nothing mixed in with cultural beliefs and attitudes that are as antiquated as sticking a leather strap in a dude’s mouth before sawing his leg off to prevent gangrene from eating his foot.
So, it’s the one-way convos that last three chapters. It’s the incredibly limited 19th Century mentality that permeates the whole work. (God, people were so stupid back then.) It’s characters that don’t inspire any empathy. It’s the whole sense that faith is what makes the good guys Good. This last one Dostoyevsky pushes very hard, in both dialogue and exposition. Sure, there are moments when he’s exploring the darker sides of religion and faith (the splintering within the monastery, Ivan’s disgust at children’s treatment by religion), but they feel so falsely equivocating, so “both sides do it” fake. It’s like Dostoyevsky has to contrive artificial tension to help make certain characters more interesting. But I don’t buy it.
So now you see why Canelli is needed so desperately. I need him to say something that redeems this bore of a book. I need him to convince me that it wasn’t a mistake when I convinced him that we read this book; I need him to forgive me for forcing him to read this thing. Canelli, be Alyosha to my Dmitri!
UPDATE: It turns out Alyosha is genuinely sweet to Grushenka, and she has an epiphany that she’s actually a terrible person and that she needs to reform her ways. Christ. This Alyosha is fucking bulletproof. And uninteresting.