Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Adventure classics -- My winter with the Karamazovs

The Brothers Karamazov

by Fyodor Dostoevsky


A few years ago I spent a winter, in my memory a perpetually gray and icy winter, cleaning out my dead father’s deserted house in the country. After arriving one morning to find the back door kicked in, I brought my big dog for company. There was no TV or internet. Nothing to do except walk the dog (who was delighted to be out in the country) and sort through decades of family detritus.

That, and listen to an audio book of The Brothers Karamazov. I credit it with saving my sanity. Which, even while I’m writing it, seems like a strange claim to make for a story filled with enough sexual profligacy, murder, insanity and addictions to make the fiendish Ewing family of TV’s Dallas blush.

In fact, I can imagine them in a soap opera, a soap set partly in heaven, partly in hell and completely in Russia, starting with the father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, the one Dostoevsky gave his own name to. “He was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district,” the anonymous narrator states. “It was not stupidity--the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough--but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it.”

Having married twice for money, Fyodor has three sons, Dmitri (Mitya), Ivan and Alexei (Alyosha). His servant Pavel is also believed to be his illegitimate son from his rape of a disabled homeless woman. Then there’s Dmitri’s beautiful and high-minded fiancĂ©e Katerina (Katya) and the equally beautiful but much less high-minded Agrafena (Grushenka), lusted after by both Dmitri and his father. Sudsy enough, yet?

Dmitri visits his father, demanding money. Jealous of his father’s advances toward Agrafena and undeterred by rational middle son Ivan and saintly youngest son Alexei, Dmitri threatens to kill Fyodor. When Fyodor is at last found dead, and Dmitri is found with blood on his hands and a wad of cash he can’t account for, what could be more
expected than Dmitri’s conviction for murdering his father?

Except that he didn’t.

But it takes more than a sudsy plot or even the famous allegory of the Grand Inquisitor supposedly penned by Ivan to make a novel resonate with as many readers as The Brothers Karamazov has done since its first appearance in 1880.

Sigmund Freud decided a major issue was Dostoevsky’s apparent guilt over his father’s death, even though from natural causes. Can I fail to offer my assessment: that Dostoevsky’s obsession with dysfunctional and deadly family relationships had wider implications? In 1849, Dostoevsky was arrested and condemned to die by firing squad for reading and circulating copies of books criticizing Russian politics and religion. He and his fellow “conspirators” were standing in a December snow awaiting death when a last minute letter from the tsar, the “father” of Russia, arrived commuting their sentences to exile in a Siberian prison camp.

Years later, Dostoevsky’s young son, Aloysha, would die from complications of the epilepsy Dostoevsky believed he had passed on to his child. The writer immediately remained the loveliest character in his novel after his dead son.

A political “father” who threatens to kill his sons, a grieving father who blames himself for his son’s death, sons who threaten to kill--perhaps succeed in killing--their father. Text and subtext quiver like violin strings.

But this is supposed to be a month about historical fiction. So is The Brothers Karamazov historical fiction? Do a writer’s own experiences from decades earlier, transmuted into fiction, qualify for the term “historical”? The usual definition says no. I’ll leave it to readers to decide.

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a May of historical fiction with William Faulkner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Fable.)

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