Within David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” from Consider the Lobster, there are two passages that, when I originally read them years ago, stuck with me and helped convince me it was a no-brainer to read The Brothers Karamazov. These passages, I felt, promised specific things to me. I still haven’t figured out if these things were delivered.
The first passage:
But the larger point (which, yes, may be kind of obvious) is that some art is worth the extra work of getting past all the impediments to its appreciation; and Dostoevsky’s book are definitely worth the work. And this is so not just because of his bestriding the Western canon–if anything, it’s despite that. For one thing that canonization and course assignments obscure is that Dostoevsky isn’t just great–he’s also fun. His novels almost always have ripping good plots, lurid and intricate and thoroughly dramatic. There are murders and attempted murders and police and dysfunctional-family feuding and spies, tough guys and beautiful fallen women and unctuous con men and wasting illnesses and sudden inheritances and silky villains and scheming and whores.
The first half of this passage makes me incredibly nervous. It’s an indictment against me: all my posts up to this point about BK plainly say I haven’t worked hard enough–according to DFW. I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to flip DFW the bird on this one.
The second half of this passage, well, I think you’ll see that I’m definitely in agreement about that.
Here’s the other passage that might’ve been even more responsible for getting me excited about reading Dostoevsky.
The thrust here is that Dostoevsky wrote fiction about the stuff that’s really important. He wrote fiction about identity, moral value, death, will, sexual vs. spiritual love, greed, freedom, obsession, reason, faith, suicide. And he did it without ever reducing his characters to mouthpieces or his books to tracts. His concern was always what it is to be a human being–that is, how to be an actual person, someone whose life is informed by values and principles, instead of just an especially shrewd kind of self-preserving animal.
“The stuff that’s really important” is stuff I like reading about. Give it to me. I’ve been done with irony for so long now (well, except for the excursion into Pynchon, that is). I was genuinely thirsty to read this book. But then I read the book, and now I’ve got to spend more time thinking about it and talking to Canelli to figure out how I feel about what this passage promised. I mean, Dostoevsky certainly wrote about the things DFW says he writes about. Man, I don’t know. Some of it was cheap, some of it proper for its time, but that ending, though. The Captain’s grief for his dead son. That was real and important in a way that just caught me off guard so hard, and I still can’t figure out what it means.