Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Have you fallen in love with disorder?

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
So. In a nutshell, this book is about three brothers: Alexei (Alyosha), Ivan (Vanya), and Dmitry (Mitya) and their relationship with their father. There's another brother (sort of, he's illegitimate and it's never proven) named Smerdyakov. There are two women important to the plot, Katerina (Katya) and Grushenka (Grusha). Dmitry is engaged to Katya, but blows her off to be with Grushenka, who is kind of a woman of ill repute. She was spurned by another lover, and becomes sort of a loose woman around the town. Mr. Karamazov (Fyodor) also falls in love with Grushenka, but she doesn't really love him. Alyosha is a kind and loving son, who starts off in a monastery, then leaves the monastery after his beloved mentor dies. Ivan is kind of wild, and very deep into philosophy and fairly atheistic. Mitya is very passionate and a little over the top (with a bit of an anger management problem) but generally well-meaning. Mr. Karamazov is killed. Mitya is blamed for it, but we're pretty sure he didn't do it. It turns out that Smerdyakov killed the old man because he felt that Ivan was asking him to (based on some philosophical discussions they had and some "cues" he thought he was receiving). Smerdyakov is never even considered as a suspect, though, because he "had an epileptic fit" during the day of the murder (which he actually faked, after which he had a real epileptic fit). Smerdyakov tells Ivan, Ivan gets sick with "brain fever" because he kind of did want his father dead (they all actually hated him, he was a really terrible father and he had orgies and drank all the time and all three boys were raised by other relatives and one of the servants) and Mitya is convicted of a crime he didn't commit. There's a random side story about a little boy whose father got beaten up by Mitya. The boy, Ilyusha, got in a fight with some other boys because he was mad about his father's honor, and Ilyusha ends up falling very ill and dying, much to the chagrin of the father. Alyosha mediates a reconciliation between the boys and Ilyusha, and makes sure that they all go to visit him while he's dying. The book ends with Alyosha speaking to the boys, encouraging them to hold on the good and just moments in life.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

I'm going to go right ahead and say it. I hated this book. Yes, Grandma, I know that hate is a very strong word, but I mean it this time. The book was extremely long (930 pages) and it really wasn't worth the read, in my opinion. I hate to say that about any book, but it's really how I felt about this one. I will say, though, that after researching the book a bit after reading it, I figured out why I didn't like it.

When I Wikipedia'd the book, I found this:

"Though religion and philosophy profoundly influenced Dostoyevsky in his life and in The Brothers Karamazov, a much more personal tragedy altered the course of this work. In May 1878, Dostoyevsky's novel was interrupted by the death of his three-year-old son Alyosha. As tragic as this would be under any circumstances, Alyosha's death was especially devastating for Dostoyevsky because the child died of epilepsy, a condition he inherited from his father. The novelist's grief for his young son is readily apparent throughout the book; Dostoyevsky made Alyosha the name of the stated hero of the novel, as well as imbuing him with all of the qualities he himself most admired and sought after. This heartbreak also appears in the novel as the story of Captain Snegiryov and his young son Ilyusha.

A very personal experience also influenced Dostoevsky's choice for a patricide to dominate the external action of the novel. In the 1850s, while serving his katorga (forced labor) sentence in Siberia for circulating politically subversive texts, Dostoevsky encountered the young man Ilyinsky who had been convicted of killing his father to acquire an inheritance. Nearly ten years after this encounter Dostoevsky learned that Ilyinsky had been falsely convicted and later exonerated when the actual murderer confessed to the crime. The impact of this encounter on the author is readily apparent in the novel, as it serves as much of the driving force for the plot. Many of the physical and emotional characteristics of the character Dmitri Karamazov are closely paralleled to those of Ilyinsky."

So that was kind of an "aha" moment for me, and it helped me realize why the book is so biased toward Alyosha when I really didn't feel like he did much at all. Dostoevsky's own time in Siberia also explains why he's so seemingly obsessed with it, and why his characters continually end up there. (For those of you who may have forgotten, Crime and Punishment is by the same author, and Raskolnikov, the protagonist, spends 8 years in Siberia. He was actually guilty, though.)

I felt like the book started building a momentum around 6 or 700 pages in (a little late, I know) but then it sort of fizzled at the end. The author also continually makes these cryptic references to "the sequel to this book" or to "future installments", and I was (a) baffled by this and (b) horrified that there might be, in fact, MORE to this story. Turns out the novel was supposed to be the beginning of an epic work, but Karamazov died 4 months after the first publication in a serial magazine.

All I can say is, thank goodness he didn't get to write any more.

I think the two most interesting comments in this book are about God and philosophy.

A woman comes to speak with the elder (Alyosha's mentor) in the beginning of the book, and she asks this question: "What if, after I've been a believer all my life, when I die it suddenly turns out that after life there's nothing at all, nothing but wild grass growing on my grave?" She says she's quoting "some writer" here, but whoever said it, I certainly identify with this statement, as I'm sure many people do. The belief (or lack of belief) in God features heavily in discussions between Alyosha, Dmitry, and Ivan, and I found it particularly relevant to my own life, as I discussed religion recently with my two older sisters, and we have disparate beliefs much like the Karamazovs.

When Smerdyakov tells Ivan why he committed the murder (oh, and there's 3,000 rubles involved, but that part is just too complex to add to the synopsis) he says, "I did it above all because 'everything is permitted.' And the truth is, I learned that from you." This was SO reminiscent of "Throw Momma From the Train", which was inspired by Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train". Perhaps Hitchcock was inspired by Dostoevsky (maybe he liked Russian Lit better than I have so far) but in any case, the Billy Crystal/Danny DeVito version is about miscommunication. Danny DeVito thinks that he and Billy Crystal have tacitly decided to kill each other's awful person (one's an ex-wife, one's a mother - "Owen! Don't feed me the unsalted crackers! Unsalted crackers make me choke!") so he tries to kill Billy Crystal's ex-wife for him. Billy Crystal is horrified, and doesn't plan to kill Danny DeVito's mother, but they spend the movie trying to come to an agreement.

Well, this has been a rather addle-brained post, I think, but I did spend most of the day helping Diana make spinach dip, devilled eggs, chex mix, and pies made of pumpkin and pecans. Ah, Thanksgiving.

On to Jane Eyre and Victorian self-sacrifice!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

There are, after all, several brothers

in the Brothers Karamazov. Therefore, I'm taking two weeks on this one. Sorry, no post until next week!

Monday, November 9, 2009

My very photogenic mother died in a freak accident (picnic, lightning)

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European man who comes to America and harbors a strange desire for young women. He calls them "nymphets", and particularly desires girls between the ages of about 11 and 13. He marries while still living in Europe, in the hope that the normalcy of marriage will quell his urges for younger women. This attempt is mostly unsuccessful, and his wife leaves him for a taxi driver. He moves to the States and moves to New England, where he becomes a boarder at the Haze home. Charlotte Haze, a middle-aged woman, and her daughter, Dolores Haze (aka Lolita) find Humbert Humbert to be endearing, and Lolita is exactly what Humbert desires. He marries Charlotte (after she confesses her love for him and says he can't stay because she's too much in love with him) and hopes that he will be able to secretly seduce Lolita by drugging her and her mother in their sleep. Charlotte discovers Humbert's secret, however, and asks him to immediately depart. He tries to persuade her his diary (where she discovered his secret) is simply the beginning of a novel he's working on, but she's unconvinced. As she crosses the street to mail letters revealing Humbert's true nature, she is struck by a car and killed. Lolita is away at camp, and Humbert hatches an elaborate plan to claim her as his own daughter and seduce her. He travels up to the camp, lies to Lolita (saying her mother is sick) and takes her to a hotel in the woods. He tries to give her sleeping pills and seduce her, but the pills don't work, and to his surprise (and assuming we're taking him at his word) she seduces him. He tells her that her mother is really dead, and they go on a long road trip moving from hotel to hotel and continue their affair. They move to another New England town after a while, and Lolita attends a girls' school, but they both get bored, and Lolita asks to go on a road trip again. While on the second road trip, a man starts following them, and eventually absconds with Lolita. Humbert goes on a mad quest to find Lolita, and when he finally finds her, she is pregnant and married to a random, rather simple man. It turns out that the man she ran off with was her drama teacher at the girls' school, and he was even more of a sexual deviant than Humbert, and she ran away. Humbert is crestfallen that Lolita is pregnant, but still asks her to run away with him again. She doesn't, and she decides to move to Alaska with her husband with the money that Humbert gives her. Humbert kills the man who absconded with Lolita, and goes to prison. Humbert gets the death sentence, and the book is supposedly not published until both characters are dead.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

The title of this post is from Humbert's description of his family history. I love the turn of phrase, but I admit I chose it because it's also the first line of a Billy Collins poem, and inspired the title of his poem collection, "Picnic, Lightning".

- First, I would like to mention that though it isn't clear from the summary, Humbert really is a rather lovable character in some ways, and I'm sure that a great deal of the success of this book is derived from the strangeness of this affection. I love the name "Humbert Humbert", and the way Nabokov plays with the name, talking about fondling Lolita in Humbertish, and whether she'd prefer a Hamburger or a Humburger.

- Humbert does make the rather valid point that Dante, Petrarch, and Poe all fell in love with "nymphets". Whether it's more "acceptable" because they were famous, or because it was a different time period, who knows. But what is important is that these men were satisfied with these women after they settled with them. They didn't tire of them after they hit puberty and move on.

- When Humbert's wife tells him she's leaving him for another man, they're in a taxi, and Humbert says, "What man?" And she points to the taxi driver and says, "That man." Hilarious. Delightful.

- Humbert travels to the arctic when he's on a "rehabilitation" journey (he's frequently in and out of treatment for mental illness in the beginning of the book) but he says that the Eskimo girls didn't tempt him. He says that "nymphets do not occur in polar regions." This was quite funny, I thought.

- When Humbert plans to fetch Lolita from her camp, he wonders at one point if he shall have to disguise himself as a "gawky female", Mlle Humbert, and set up camp near the outside of the establishment. The image of a gawky Mlle Humbert is incredibly amusing to me.

- Humbert references a "Dostoevskian grin" - never more will I be confused by these allusions!

- Humbert talks about blackmailing someone at one point, but says it seems too strong, and thinks perhaps he should mauvemail her instead. What a perfect color to use for this joke! Nabokov has such an incredible grasp of the language, despite having grown up in Russia and Paris before moving to the States.

- A mattress is supposed to arrive at the Hazes from Roosevelt Boulevard, Philadelphia. Ha! I didn't know it was around that long! I drive on it every day to and from work!

- Humbert makes a lovely point about how when we've lost touch with people, we treat them like characters in an already read novel. We think, oh, well Romeo will always die, Harry Potter will always defeat evil, and my friend so-and-so will always live in such-and-such a state and think such-and-such a way and it doesn't matter how much time passes, I'll just happily wait for her to live out the life I've already ascribed to her. I like this point, especially because I just met up with several of my very close college friends, and I think each one of them surprised me in a very major way, and I was so pleased to hear about all of their new endeavors and life changes.

- Though I liked Humbert, I must say that the drugging and the occasional violence against Lolita was entirely unacceptable. Since we're not condoning, but perhaps temporarily overlooking the pedophilia as Lolita is consensual, though clearly not old enough to consent, I must say that the removal of consent (drugging) and the abuse (grabbing Lolita's arm, twisting her wrist, physically forcing her in several situations) is simply something I cannot in any way overlook. And it made me dislike Humbert.

All in all, though, I think compelling is the best word to describe this novel. I'm glad I finished it, and I'm glad to be moving on.

I'll end with this quote from one of the women at the school for girls Lolita attends:

"With due respect to Shakespeare and others, we want our girls to communicate freely with the live world around them rather than plunge into musty old books. We are still groping perhaps, but we grope intelligently, like a gynecologist feeling a tumor."

Back to my musty old books!

Brothers Karamazov, here I come...