[This is a journal in 9 sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
11 May 2011
Part 1 – Books 1-3
I don’t know what I was expecting from this novel. The moral questioning is no surprise but, to a reader brought up on the embedded moral debates of English 19th Century fiction, some of the more literal debates these characters indulge in aren’t embedded at all. The most memorable two of these so far have been in the presence of people – by which I mean men, and I’ll come back to that – who aren’t Karamazovs: a celebrated ‘elder’ in the local monastery and a servant with the most unpromising genetic provenance imaginable. I’ll come back to them as well.
We have a dissolute father, Fyodor, and three sons from two marriages. Dmitri is the son by the first marriage; the two by his second are Ivan and Alexei, universally known as Alyosha. The narrator isn’t a character, but he is local – events take place in ‘our’ town or ‘our’ monastery – and he is worldly enough to let us in on some of the gossip about these people. Dostoevsky isn’t always consistent: while most of the action is described using a kind of fly-on-the-wall technique, with exchanges and reactions described as though by an observer, he will occasionally let us inside the head of a particular character if it helps. Fair enough.
Book 1 is a quick jog through recent family history: Fyodor’s marriages, the birth of the boys, his lack of interest in any of them, and the ways they find of getting on with the grudging amounts of money they get from him. All four of these men are different, but very quickly each one of them, in some respects at least, seems to represent some archetype of behaviour. (It really does seem as schematic as that sometimes, especially early on when we haven’t seen enough to feel that we know them.) Alyosha is the youngest and most appealing, and is the one that Dostoevsky is most interested in. I wondered from the start, and still wonder, whether the whole novel might be this man’s journey towards some kind of understanding of how it is that we should live.
In Part 1 he hasn’t even reached full adulthood. In Books 2 and 3, which take place over two days, he is undertaking a kind of spiritual exploration. He’s at the local monastery studying under Father Zosima, the elder who, Dostoevsky assures us, is one of a particular type of eastern guru figures. Out of context, you might take his mysticism as Buddhist search for Nirvana…. But what we get in Book 2, all set in the monastery, is a clash of aristocratic worldliness with bona fide Christian values.
Fyodor has decided it would be a good joke to meet at Father Zosima’s cell, ostensibly to seek a reconciliation with Dimitri over a distinctly worldly dispute about money. The meeting becomes a parade of one sin after another – to the extent that I wondered whether Dostoevsky was actually ticking them off in one of his notebooks. Vanity, pride, anger, lust… and the complete inability of anybody in this class to rise to the occasion of a meeting with this renowned spiritual guide. For one man – I forget his name – the concern is all about form and the figure he himself is cutting amongst the company. For Fyodor, the self-proclaimed buffoon, it’s the opportunity to act the fool.
It seems that most of the time, nothing of what anybody says can be taken at face value. Allegations are made about who said what and when, Ivan makes a series of clever, disingenuous arguments – he’s become a writer of provocative essays – about the need to forge ever closer links between church and state. Alyosha says nothing, is mortified by the disrespect shown by all of them. He’s even more mortified – although Dostoevsky isn’t focusing on his point of view at the moment – by the real argument that erupts between Dimitri and his father. It’s a sorry, sordid affair – or two affairs – between both of them and one particular woman.
It gets worse for Alyosha. His associate Rakitin is having fun at Alyosha’s expense, and persuades him that, in essence, he’s a Karamazov – a sensualist at the mercy of forces beyond his control within himself. It’s another reason to see Alyosha as some kind of Everyman figure: if we believe Rakitin, as Alyosha himself does, he’s certainly saddled with man’s base nature. Already Father Zosima has let him know that the monastery isn’t the right place for him: the place for him to do good work will be out in the world. Ok… but it doesn’t stop Alyosha from wearing the cassock for now and, we later find out, sleeping with no mattress on the floor.
What else in Book 2? Part-way through the meeting, Dostoevsky decides we need to see Father Zosima at work. It’s his fly-on-the-wall technique at its most neutral: we see him dealing with a woman who has lost her child, and with a different woman, Madame Khokhlakov, with her daughter Liza. Are we supposed to admire his saintliness? Or, like the cynical Rakitin, see him as a poser who comes out with well-rehearsed platitudes? The important thing, I suppose, is the way Dostoevsky offers us the choice. Anyway, the old man’s ministrations appear to be working on Liza’s illness; she flirts with Alyosha who, as you’d expect, can’t cope at all. Later, after the clowning in the cell, Fyodor cries off lunch with the father superior – but then crashes in on it anyway for maximum embarrassment. Dmitri is more outraged than ever.
All through Part 1 we get Alyosha in role as bemused onlooker. In Book 3 this is mainly in connection with the triangle between Dmitri, Fyodor and the woman. He seems less like Everyman in these chapters and more like Candide: he is presented with tales of demonstrably unsatisfactory behaviour – or in the monastery, a series of quite different models – and, well, we will have to wait to see what effect they have on his moral education.
I’ll try to be quick. Dmitri waylays Alyosha on the way to their father’s house. The older brother is waiting for the woman, Grushenka, and he wants to tell Alyosha all about her. He’s in confessional mode, and everything about the affair has a sordid edge to it. One of Alyosha’s main charms for those around him is the way he doesn’t judge anyone… but as he listens, not judging, we make our own minds up about Dmitri. He has ended up betrothed not to Grushenka but to another woman, Katerina. There is a story of various scams: a captain making money from army funds has been shafted by his partner and, by a kind of fortunate coincidence, Dmitri is able to bail him out via his daughter, the said Katerina….
From then on, if we can believe the story – never a given in with characters whose accounts show themselves in the best light and everyone else in the worst – she never forgets the favour. Does she really love Dmitri? Is she merely grateful? How should I know? But they end up betrothed. Now Dmitri is confessing to Alyosha how has managed to ‘lose’ money of hers and can never face her again…. By the end of Book 3 Dostoevsky is still not telling us what Alyosha thinks, but the evidence is staring him in the face, as Dmitri himself and both women have told him, that he is a ‘scoundrel’.
And it gets worse. He wants Alyosha to go to Katerina, who is expecting the money, and simply pay her his compliments as a kind of parting shot. This seems to be Dostoevsky’s way of forcing Alyosha into a more active role, but we haven’t got there yet. First, apparently, we need futher confirmation of how rubbish the Karamazovs are. Inside the house, there’s the second of those debates going on – tell you in a bit – but it’s interrupted when Dmitri, convinced that Grushenka is in the house, comes in and, basically, beats his father up while threatening to kill him. Nobody deserves it more but, well, what a way to carry on.
The debate involves Fyodor, Ivan – I forgot to mention that he’s been staying there for a few weeks – and two family servants. These are Grigory, the long-suffering old retainer – we’ve had a little homily about his own struggle with superstition and remorse involving his only child, who died in infancy – and the boy, now Fyodor’s cook, that he kind of adopted. This is Smerdyakov, which doesn’t quite translate as Stinkypants but nearly does. He’s the illegitimate son of the local idiot girl, made pregnant by – if we believe the worldly insinuations of the narrator – Fyodor himself. He is epileptic, but he’s a good cook. He is also the most sincere atheist cynic in the novel so far, happy to argue, for instance, in favour of the renunciation of one’s faith if it will save your life – and to attempt to prove that according to theology there’s no hope for you anyway once the possibility has entered your mind. Fyodor thinks he’s wonderful, and Ivan likes him. Alyosha… well, we don’t know about Alyosha but we suspect he’s filing away the experience somewhere in his head.
Finally in Book 3, Alyosha goes to see Katerina where she’s staying at Madame Khokhlakov’s house. Almost incredibly – he’d thought they were terrible rivals – Grushenka is there too. And she’s awful… but then, the whole chapter is extraordinary in its presentation of women. After Alyosha has explained his mission from Dmitri – and Katerina seems not at all fazed by what he says – we get a page-long paragraph describing Grushenka. This is the narrator at his most worldly. Her charms are palpable, but ‘connoisseurs of Russian beauty’ will have no trouble in predicting how quickly they will fade. Katerina is impressed by her, thinks she is a lovely, generous woman – and then we see what she’s really like. She’s been playing a game with Katerina, has no intention of telling Dmitri she’ll stop seeing him. But… isn’t that what she promised Katerina? Katerina says she thinks so, says that’s what Grushenka promised.
Who to believe? Katerina, the noble, statuesque one? Or Grushenka, the one our narrator keeps telling us is sugary-voiced and very aware of the effect of her own mystique? Alyosha might be veering towards the obvious choice – but then he sees Katerina’s tears suddenly dry up as she puts together a different strategy. And we start to wonder – because this narrator has put the idea in our heads – if this woman is any more reliable than the other. She’s certainly plausible, seems shocked at Grushenka’s alleged change of heart. But we only have Katerina’s word for it that her version is the truth. Hmm. The only thing that’s clear from this chapter is that the women Dostoevsky is presenting to Alyosha are an inexplicable species.
He hurries back to his bed on the monastery floor. You know where you are in a monastery.
Part 2, Book 4
This novel seems to be resolving itself into a parade of tableaux for Alyosha’s scrutiny. In Chapter 1, as a kind of riposte to the messy realities of the outside world, we get something different. For a start, Father Zosima is dying and he’s practically being beatified before our eyes. And Alyosha’s eyes. Yesterday, one of his one-to-ones was with a woman concerned about her son, a soldier who has failed to write for so long she thinks he might be dead. Don’t worry, says the old man, he’ll write. And guess what? There was a letter for her when she got home. A miracle, cry most of the monks. Possibly a coincidence? cries a lone voice. Another choice for Alyosha to file away, along with a visiting monk’s story of his visit to Father Feramont, the oldest hermit in the monastery – the one who lives on bread and water and, at 75, seems the fittest of all of them. How is Alyosha going to separate the superstition from genuine spiritual power? As if I know.
After that… for Alyosha, it’s back into the world for the rest of Book 4. Who is he now? Pilgrim, perhaps. He’s less of an observer, more of a participant, however unwillingly or accidentally. He goes to see his father, bruised from Dmitri’s assault. The ‘old man’ – he’s only 55, but he’s lived life a lot faster than the old monk in Chapter 1 – considers getting rid of Dmitri with a final bribe. Then he changes his mind.
Time for a short interlude: the schoolboys throwing stones. Al tries to protect the boy being singled out by all the others, approaching him despite his antagonism. The boy bites his finger to the bone. The boy is entirely in the wrong, and yet Alyosha doesn’t condemn him or attempt to punish him. What does he think he is, some kind of saint? Is this any way to behave in the real world? I’ll come back to that, because the story does, later.
He goes to Madame Khokhlakov’s again to see Katerina. There’s some business between Alyosha and Liza, who has written him a letter in the meantime, one she now asserts is a joke. What’s going on? And what is Ivan doing there with Katerina? Isn’t he the ascetic, cerebral one? What…? Ivan, of course, is besotted with Katerina. And he can no more work her out than Alyosha can, is convinced that when she says she loves Dmitri she’s fooling herself. The chapter seems to be a continuation of the theme of the inscrutability of the ways of women, and what fools they make of men. I’m finding this strand extremely tiresome.
Anyway, there’s another errand for Al: Katerina has given him 200 roubles to give to a cashiered former captain recently insulted by Dmitri. As usual, he agrees without question. He arrives at the slum where the captain and his family now live. In the house are his demented wife, a girl with ‘withered legs’ and a proud girl back from her studies. The captain, Snegiryov, is also proud, and is immediately suspicious. Alyosha, as with the biting boy earlier, is Christian patience personified. In fact, the biting boy is Snegiryov’s son, and the reason for his aggression is explained: he was there when his father was insulted, and has put up with atrocious bullying ever since. However… he always gives as good as he gets, gets his retaliation in first. The tableaux I was talking about – basically, a series of episodes – are resolving into an exploration of models of behaviour. The boy behaves like his father, as Dmitri behaves like his – whereas, of course, Al seeks other models.
During Alyosha’s stroll with Snegiryov, the key issue for Alyosha’s scrutiny seems to be the man’s behaviour. By turns he’s proud, wounded, defiant…. Alyosha seems to feel only compassion for him, and is glad to be able to hand over the 200 roubles. At first Snegiryov is overjoyed, and lists the transformations the money will bring to their lives. But, right a the end of the conversation, he crumples the banknotes and throws them on the ground. Alyosha the non-judgmental observer of life, picks them up, can tell that Snegiryov has let pride, or an inappropriate sense of honour, get in the way of what could be a real help to his family….
Part 2, Books 5-6
The story of the rejected 200 roubles forms a strand in the first chapter of Book 5. Alyosha is back at the house of women where Katerina, according to Madame Khokhlakov, is hysterical after the humiliation of the previous day. But he’s hearing this from a witness who is hardly reliable, who seems to be suffering a degree of hysteria in her own right…. In comes Liza, and her mother leaves her alone with Alyosha. Among other things – tell you in a minute – they discuss Snegiryov. Alyosha does a highly plausible job of analysing why he behaved as he did, feeling only compassion for him and deciding that he will be persuaded to accept the money later. The unease that both he and Liza feel about analysing another human being’s behaviour strikes me as a sign of their maturity. I’m guessing that Dostoevsky would be pleased for us to admire his understanding.
Liza certainly admires him. The story about Snegiryov is in the context of a conversation that her mother, eavesdropping, sees as childish fantasy: the girl has known him since childhood – they saw a lot of one another in Moscow – and he is the only one she can ever love. Alyosha, taking Father Zosima’s words as a ready-made recipe for behaviour, decides they must marry as soon as he is old enough. Dostoevsky isn’t giving us any help here: some aspects of their conversation are perfectly mature, whilst at other times they seem to be playing a game.
Next. Dostoevsky needs to remind us of the existence of the unspeakable Smerdyakov, so he has Alyosha stumble across him, serenading a woman in a preposterous falsetto. He is rude and boorish: if he has any valid ideas about the unfairness of the inequalities in Russian society, they are largely lost in the unsympathetic way the author presents him. He comes across not as a radical thinker but as someone out for what he can get. I assume we’re being prepared for what comes later in Book 5, when we find out not only that Ivan also finds him just as unattractive, despite his clever arguments, but suspects him of looking after nobody but himself. I’ll come back to that episode, which appears in a surprising section separating the two theological interludes that make up most of the rest of Books 5 and 6.
For the first of these long interludes Alyosha isn’t in the monastery, but in a restaurant with Ivan. There’s something desperately unhappy or unfulfilled about Ivan. He loves his younger brother, shows him the genuine affection he regrets having shown too little of previously – and then sets about telling story after story to illustrate why, for him, belief in a loving God is an impossibility. Following harrowing tales of cruelty to children – in which both Ivan and Dostoevsky seem to be working to an agenda regarding the almost barbaric nature of Russian justice – we get cruelty to animals, the failure of justice in other countries….
Ivan has even written a ‘poem’ – not a poem at all, but a parable set in Spain at the time of the Inquisition. In it, an old Jesuit explains to Christ – newly returned to Earth in triumph – that He isn’t needed any more. The Church has spent 15 centuries sorting out he mess He left the first time, in which mankind was denied what it wanted: simple answers. That’s what the Church provides, and if Christ insists on staying He’ll have to be denounced. The people will be happy to follow the priests’ advice and will be happy to have Him executed all over again. Christ kisses the old priest and doesn’t stay.
Ivan seems to be searching for something that he knows that neither he nor anyone else can find. Dostoevsky has him using cutting-edge philosophical analogies: the Euclidian world to which God has confined mankind does not equip him to understand a multi-dimensional moral universe. Phew. (We find out later that he had been initially amused, but is now unimpressed, by the sorts of clever nit-picking of Smerdyakov.)
The other interlude is even longer and takes up the whole of Book 6, The Russian Monk. For some reason I can’t quite fathom, Dostoevsky sets up narrative devices to give some distance to the story of Father Zosima’s life. As readers, we know perfectly well that this narrator can go wherever he likes – he’s omniscient when he wants to be – but pretends he can’t here. So we get Alyosha’s written account of what he tells the other monks before he dies, arranged under headings labelled from a) to i). The first part of his story is essentially the parable of the Prodigal Son: Zosima was fast-living, self-centred and careless of others – yeh, yeh – until he wasn’t. Not for the first time in this novel (or Dostoevsky’s other fiction), the response of society to the zeal of the convert is to suspect madness. No further comment is made – except that even before he’s left the town in order to join a monastery, two stories within the larger one confirm the point.
Earlier in the story we’ve had Zosima’s account of his childhood and the death of his beloved older brother. He’s a free-thinking atheist, makes provocative remarks about the stupidity of religious practices – imagine a young Richard Dawkins – but then he changes his mind. Suddenly the world is full of God’s love, birdsong is a delight, the green of the leaves is a sign of a loving Creator… etc. As he approaches his death from consumption at the age of 17 he seems to have become almost a visionary. All the adults put it down to his illness.
Fast-forward to the days following Zosima’s conversion. A local philanthropist starts to visit him every evening, impressed by the stand he’s made against convention. He wonders if it’s the first step towards a kind of heaven on earth – the kind that we’re beginning to recognise. And, the man asks Zosima about the very moment of confession when he threw away his pistol during a duel: how did it feel? After many evenings the man confesses to a sordid, premeditated murder 14 years previously, and the story lets Zosima (and Dostoevsky) hold up for contemplation the nature of sin, confession, forgiveness. The man does eventually confess, and nobody ever believes him. The illness that kills him shortly afterwards confirms society in its opinion that his mind must have been affected. Inevitably everyone blames Zosima for putting ideas into his head.
It seems to confirm the impression we’ve been getting for most of the novel so far: Alyosha is continually being presented not only with the moral questions that he will have to deal with if he is going to live properly, but with the difficulties he is going to have if he tries to defy convention. Alyosha is already well liked – but will he ever gain respect in a corrupt world? Father Zosima has already warned him that he will face a lot of difficulties. In fact, as the old man approaches death he seems to be able to see the future as clearly as an Old Testament prophet.
Except… as book 6 goes on, Zosima’s vision of human relationships transformed by love begins to sound more and more hollow. Are we, like the devoted monks surrounding him, supposed to admire his simple, unwavering faith, within which there’s even a compassionate interpretation of what Hell is? Or are we expected to find him naïve, his faith in the perfectibility of human nature the fantasy of a sentimental fool? Has Dostoevsky deliberately subverted the old monk’s story with those others, particularly the consumptive brother who seems to have been his main role model…? I know what I think, but I’m not Dostoevsky’s target audience.
Anyway. Meanwhile, as I’ve said before, Dostoevsky is trying out different narrative techniques. There’s Alyosha’s written report of another character’s life story, various other characters’ use of stories to illustrate philosophical points, Dostoevsky’s own narrative games concerning what he does and doesn’t know. The biggest surprise in this respect comes in the section between Ivan’s conversation with Alyosha and Father Zosima’s confessions. Unprecedentedly, it’s Ivan that we follow almost exclusively, and for these two chapters the narrative style is entirely different from anything we’ve seen before in this novel.
What I mean is that Dostoevsky gets plotting: I’d guess that there are more plot developments in these two chapters than in the rest of Books 1-6 put together. It appears that thinsg are being set up for whatever is going to happen later: several times in these chapters Dostoevsky has Ivan looking back from some future time, with regret or shame, at things that have their beginnings now; later, at the end of the long Russian Monk interlude that makes up Book 6, Father Zosima dies, but we are told that other events overshadow his death….
It’s all to do with something that Smerdyakov seems to be setting up when Ivan arrives back at his father’s after leaving Alyosha. I’m wondering about Smerdyakov. He reminds me of the oleaginous Blifil in Fielding’s Tom Jones and, much more tellingly, of Robert Wringhim in James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner – both evil characters who pretend to be good in order to bring harm to the likeable but flawed young men in each of those novels. (Wringhim, another character with a name that fits him perfectly, is also almost certainly illegitimate. He is, if we choose to believe the evidence laid before us by the novel’s troubloed narrator, urged on by the Devil himself.)
Anyway. Whatever it is that Smerdyakov is plotting, he wants to involve Ivan, and makes sure that Ivan knows as much as he does. For instance, Fyodor has agreed a code of knocks on the window that he is to use in order to tell him either that Grushenka has arrived, or that something is wrong. This is to foil any attempts that Dmitri might make to muscle in – but, he tells Ivan, he’s been in such fear of his life – yeh, yeh – that he’s told Dmitri about the signals. And… he’s quite open with Ivan that he will fake an epileptic fit to make sure he’s out of it. By chance – i.e. because it’s convenient for the plot – the old servant Grigory is genuinely ill: the house will be open to all comers next night. Smerdyakov suggests to Ivan that he should make himself scarce by going to, er, wherever the next day…. so, in foot-high letters, he is signalling to Ivan – and Dostoevsky is signalling to his readers – that foul play is to be expected next night.
Ivan is troubled, paces his room into the night, even checks on his father – but he does nothing to prevent the impending crisis. Dostoevsky plays mind-games, literally: he tells us he is only letting us only so far into Ivan’s ‘soul’ because the time for that ‘will come later….’ And he has Ivan decide that he’s off to Moscow early next morning. He’s been planning to leave but, suddenly, he’s in a hurry. Time for some more plot: his father wants him to go to – wherever, the same town that the Smerdmeister mentioned – to check out a sale of land and, after some arguing, Ivan agrees. Smerdyakov is pleased, assumes Ivan is acting on his advice. So he thinks he knows where Ivan is going, throws a sicky – in fact, throws himself down the cellar steps – and doesn’t know that Ivan in fact changes his mind and takes the next train straight to Moscow. Got all that?
Part 3, Book 7, Alyosha, and Book 8, Mitya
For me, this is where the novel becomes really interesting. Dostoevsky goes for as psychologically realistic a portrayal of a conscience in crisis as he can muster. He does this, in two quite different ways, with the two brothers in turn.
Dostoevsky leaves the Dmitri strand to one side so he can get to work on Alyosha’s education again. The ‘event’ mentioned at the end of the Russian Monk section, the one overshadowing the death, isn’t the big crime we’re expecting – that was blatantly a tease by Dostoevsky, who has obviously picked up a few tricks from the newly fashionable genre of crime fiction – it’s the unmiraculous behaviour of Zosima’s body in death. It soon smells as badly as any other corpse, or worse, and Dostoevsky has fun satirising the superstitions of monks and townspeople alike. Father Feramont, the monastery’s fundamentalist old hermit, is the worst of the monks. The local populace take it as a de facto sign that Zosima was a charlatan all along.
Alyosha is grief-stricken, but for all the right reasons: he is appalled by the shallowness of those who have witnessed Zosima’s goodness, but would rather base their judgments on the absurd belief that it is mandatory for the bodies of saints to be incorruptible. It’s at this point that Dostoevsky tries out something new. Suddenly he is referring to the ‘novel’ he’s writing, and makes a frank admission of his great liking for this character: Alyosha is going to be the hero of this novel, so it’s important that we understand him. As though to illustrate how not to do this, he brings on the uber-cynical Rakitin again. He assumes Alyosha, like everybody else, is disappointed by the corruption of the corpse – and, for the first time, we see Alyosha angry
Rakitin has caught Alyosha at a weak moment and, for reasons of his own, he takes him to see Grushenka. She is worse than ever, and what we get is like a scene from the 18th Century Les Liaisons Dangereuses, with Alyosha as the innocent about to be seduced. Reader, she’s bribed Rakitin to bring him to her. However…. Even she is turned aside from her plan by the open simplicity of Alyosha’s misery at Zosima’s death – and, to confirm the biblical impression, later in the chapter she’s a ‘Magdalene’. Al is safe, and Dostoevsky can nip in and nudge along the next bit of the crime plot: Grushenka’s ‘seducer’ of five years previously is returning from Siberia and is in a nearby town. She’s already tricked Dmitri into thinking she’s at the merchant Samsonov’s house. But now she’s off, forever.
Alyosha returns to rthe monastery, as we knew he would – but he’s only going to stay three more days. As he visits the body of Father Zosima, he has a kind of waking dream of his old mentor’s return. One of the few reliable monks is reading from the story of Christ’s first miracle – the turning of water into wine at Cana – and, as he looks into the night sky, he has the most extraordinary vision of the ‘other worlds’ of which Zosima has spoken in the Russian Monk section. (For me – squeamish readers look away now – the only comparable thing I’ve read in recent years is in M John Harrison’s Light, in which the character called Seria Mau surfs the cosmos, not so much as the pilot of a starship as its surgically installed consciousness. Other worlds indeed.)
The action of Mitya begins two days earlier and I’m hugely impressed by this whole section as Dostoevsky goes for as psychologically realistic a portrayal of a conscience in crisis as he can muster. I wondered whether I was simply finding it comfortable to be inside a more conventionally novelistic narrative at last, one in which the author is perfectly at ease in his omniscience. The worldly narrator of earlier sections, who (usually) has to pick up his information where he can has morphed into an authorial figure with characters somehow at his disposal. We already know about his plans for Alyosha – as if it hadn’t been clear almost from the start he’s made it explicit in Book 1 of Part 3 – and now it’s ‘Mitya’ whose consciousness he’s going to let us in on. Dostoevsky’s decision to use the diminutive form of his name, not ‘Dmitri’ as it was for the whole of the first half of the novel, is a sign of the intimacy he wants to achieve. And, beyond that, he wants us to be sympathetic with the man who, so far, has been utterly selfish and unpleasant. Reader, it works for me.
We’re with him as he experiences rising levels of desperation for the 3000 roubles that must be returned for the sake of ‘honour’. It’s that totemic word again, when all he’s really talking about is civilised behaviour of the most basic kind. Where can he get that sort of money? (Dostoevsky reminds us that he shares the naïve innocence of a whole class of rich young men regarding where money actually comes from.) He pays a visit to Samsonov. As he makes his way there he believes his half-baked plan to get a big loan, with little more than his verbal assurance of his father’s land as collateral, is perfectly sound. Samsonov, a nasty piece of work at the best of times, decides to teach him a lesson. Dostoevsky details every last step of Mitya’s humiliation: scrounging a few roubles from the poor people at the house where he’s staying, pawning a watch, going on a preposterous wild goose-chase.
It’s only in retrospect that he has any insight into Samsonov’s motives; as he clutches at the next straw he convinces himself that this plan is bound to work, simply because he wants it so much,. He pawns his pistols with an old acquaintance and goes to see Madame Khokhlakov. Dostoevsky’s technique of piling on the agony reminds me of Thomas Hardy. He adds detail to tantalising detail of what she seems to be offering before she explains that she never intended to be taken literally: her apparent promise of a loan isn’t really that at all. All he gets is the exhortation to go to the gold-mines of Siberia and an airy promise of the good things that will come to him if he sets his mind to hard work. That’ll be the day.
As Mitya leaves, practically speechless, Dostoevsky does everything in his power to let us inside the mind of a man undergoing a kind of psychosis.It’s one of the reasons why this section is so efffective: we feel we’re in the hands of an author who knows about psychological extremes. And… it gives Dostoevsky the opportunity to move the plot along: as we knew it would, Mitya’s mind turns to his father and the inheritance he feels he’s been cheated out of. He goes to the house, climbs into the garden and gets as far as his father’s window. He is as self-deceiving as Fyodor, and is convinced Grushenka must be there – until the coded knock that we’ve always known he would use sends his father scurrying to look for her. And Dostoevsky has us sympathising with a man so desperate he will break absolutely all the rules.
And, reader, there’s a missing bit. The next time we see him, escaping in the dark, he has a bundle of banknotes with him – but we don’t know how he got them. Grigory is after him, roused from his sick-bed, and when he catches up with him at the fence Mitya hits him. I can’t remember whether he uses the brass pestle he’s pinched, but I do know there’s a lot of blood…. Which, because Dostoevsky doesn’t want any rubs and botches, is seen very clearly by the next man Mitya visits, the one he pawned the pistols with. He goes to the house where Grushenka has been staying, finds out she’s gone to see her ex-suitor, and we see how manically his plans mutate in these chapters: he’ll go to where Grushenka is and – what? He’ll make a big song and dance of relinquishing her, and then shoot himself. But… the mention of the town’s upmarket grocer’s gives him an idea: wouldn’t it be wonderful to recreate that scene of a month back when she is supposed to have fallen in love with him, however briefly?
So he pays hundreds of roubles for provisions for a feast, takes the fastest carriage he can to the town… and, contrary to all expectations, makes a good impression. The ex-suitor, by contrast, is making a terrible impression: he’s a liar and cheat and Grushenka can’t believe he’s the same man as five years before. That’s what she says, anyway. Soon, she’s all over Mitya, making all sorts of promises about ‘tomorrow’…. And then the cops arrive. ‘The old man!’ Mitya cries, desperately guilty about leaving Grigory bleeding. They take this to be an admission of guilt – of the murder of his father.
We don’t know whether he did it. Except we do, really: there’s already been a reference at his father’s house to the influence of God – and we know, because we’ve been inside his head, that the crime he’s feeling guilty about is the bloody assault on Grigory. So, did he simply climb in and get the money, which we know was all neatly wrapped up waiting there, while his father was looking for Grushenka? And is the real murderer Smerdyakov who, we know, is only faking his illness? If so, what could his motive possibly be?
500-odd pages in, and this has finally turned into a whodunnit.
Part 3, Book 9
This section has almost all the elements of a crime novel – tell you later – but, somehow, I don’t think that Dostoevsky’s motive is simply to keep us guessing. He seems to want Mitya caught in an existential trap which, nominally, he’s brought upon himself – but which is really of the author’s devising so that he can make some higher point. What point? Good question… but, this being Dostoevsly, it has something to do with the nature of good and evil. Mitya has shown himself to be self-serving, careless with other people’s money and often violent, but we know he’s incapable of murdering his father. (If we weren’t sure before, we are by the end of this section.)
Mitya’s own trap for himself is complicated. He has lived his life according to strict codes of honourable behaviour which have little to do either with any recognisable moral code or, for that matter, the criminal code of Russia in the late 19th Century. One example: the 1500 roubles belonging to Katerina that he has not spent, that he has kept sewn into a neckerchief since blowing the other 1500 a month previously. This has been his ‘amulet’, the totem that proves to him that at heart he is not a thief. The investigators are bemused by this idea, and this is what is so clever about Dostoevsky’s plotting. To them, the amulet sounds like the nonsensical invention of a desperate man; it’s only the reader who understands that, however wrong-headed, Mitya is perfectly sincere. His revelation of the sordid tale of his spending half the money is, in his eyes, proof of his sincerity.
Alongside this trap of Mitya’s self-destructiveness is Dostoevsky’s narrative trap. God-like – and I’ll come back to that idea – he has made sure that every last shred of circumstantial evidence points to Mitya’s guilt: any sane person would reach the conclusion that Mitya bludgeoned his father and took the money. This is certainly what the investigators believe right from the start, and none of Mitya’s assertions or explanations of his behaviour make any difference. The investigators don’t know what sort of novel they’re inside – and in the real world they believe they inhabit, his guilt is beyond any reasonable doubt.
What Dostoevsky makes Mitya suffer – a combination of self-inflicted injuries and authorial machinations – is almost identical to what Thomas Hardy does to Michael Henchard in The Mayor of Casterbridge, published six years later. Of course, Hardy – I’ve mentioned him already – is famous for his habit of behaving like an Aeschylean god. (He appears to confirm his own authorial stature at the end of a different novel: ‘The President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess.’) It’s an old technique, done to perfection in another novel I’ve mentioned before: 40 or so pages from the end of Fielding’s Tom Jones things look as impossible for Tom as they do for Mitya now, and it takes what Coleridge called ‘one of the three most perfectly planned plots in literature’ to rescue him. Had Dostoevsky read Tom Jones, published 130 years earlier?
More to the point as far as this section goes, had he read Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, published a mere 10 years before he started writing The Brothers? How should I know? Anyway, have I said enough about the way Dostoevsky plunders the new mystery genre? There’s the buffoonish official, the insinuating interrogator, the gradual uncovering of new evidence…. But what it’s really about is getting Mitya to start looking more closely at the way he lives his life. For most of this section, he seems like a kind of innocent, starting off by assuming that his assurances, on his honour, will be enough for the investigators. By the end, he’s just beginning to understand that his codes aren’t the same as everyone’s. One tiny ray of hope for him is that Grushenka seems to believe him – but she’s already described him to the investigators as a mere acquaintance, so her testimony isn’t going to be a lot of use. And, reader, Dostoevsky has got us caring about this man, got us speculating about what’s going to happen to him.
Have I mentioned the Smerdmeister in this section? He obviously did it, but we still don’t know why yet. But we do know – because there’s no other explanation for it – that he was the one who went through the door to Fyodor’s room between Mitya seeing it closed and Grigory seeing it open…. If this were an English novel, Smerdyakov would be toast by the final chapter and Mitya, a sadder and wiser man, would have undergone some kind of redemption. I’ve no idea if that’s where this one is going. The last time I read a non-British 19th Century novel (Maupassant’s Bel-Ami), I got it wrong almost from start to finish. However…. I haven’t forgotten that Ivan knows about Smerdyakov’s plan to pretend to be ill. Sure, he’s just started a new life hundreds of miles away – but a little obstacle like that isn’t going to be a problem. The problem will be to get anybody to believe his story, which sounds as preposterous as Mitya’s amulet of cash.
Part 4: Book 10, The Boys
Smerdyakov is mentioned early in Book 10, and it isn’t pretty. We’re reminded of his routine cruelty to animals – I think it was mentioned when he was first introduced as a character in Part 1 – and, worse, the way he urges others into the same kind of nastiness. I’ve mentioned Confessions of a Justified Sinner earlier, and now Smerdyakov is reminding me not so much of Wringhim as of Gil-Martin, the devil figure who tempts him to ever more reckless crimes. Of course, that was a novel angrily satirising religious fundamentalism. I’m still not quite sure what this one’s doing.
The Smerd isn’t the main character in Book 10, but we get to hear of a nasty little exploit of his via Ilusha, the angry boy Alyosha met in Part 2… and we get to Ilusha via a new character, the not-quite 14-year-old Kolya Krassotkin. He may be self-conscious about his age and height, but he springs into the novel practically a fully-formed adult. He’s the kid everybody in the class wants to be friends with, the one with the ideas and the ability to, well, make his way in almost any situation. He’s also impulsive, likes to wind people up, gets into scrapes – he’s still a kid really, for goodness’ sake – but he is thoughtful and likeable. Dostoevsky has endowed him with a generosity of spirit well beyond his years and, when they eventually meet, he and Alyosha hit it off more or less from the start.
Plot. We find out that Ilusha is dying of consumption, and that his father, as Alyosha predicted, is now willing to accept money from Katerina for the sake of his family’s survival. We’re several chapters in by the time Kolya arrives outside where they live: he’s put off coming for some weeks, and we find out why when he tells Alyosha: he’d been friends with Ilusha – really, he’d taken a protective interest in him – until he heard of what Smerdyakov had got him to do to a stray dog: feed it bread with a pin hidden inside. Kolya had taken it on himself to teach Ilusha that this was not the way to behave, was going through a boyish period of sending him to Coventry – but then the incident occurred that led to the bullying, and Kolya was the one singled out for the proud little Ilusha to cut with his pen-knife.
It feels like another moral tableau in the long line that has been presented to Alyosha right from the start: a tale of wrongdoing, judgment – and forgiveness that might well have come too late. Kolya gets a lot of things right in this section, but he’s imperfect. Is he being presented as an even younger Alyosha? Whether he is or not, a big part of his character his generosity – and generosity seems to be a big part of this section. Katerina is spending a lot of money on Snegiryov and his family, the schoolboys (they say) don’t need Alyosha to organise them to go and see Ilusha because they want to go anyway. And we remember Part 3, in which a lot of people tried to save Mitya from himself, particularly Perhotin.
Part 4 cont: Book 11, Ivan
Just when you think you know where you are with this novel – as if – Dostoevsky does something new. I was wondering why this section is subtitled Ivan: he’s been pushed to the edges for a long time by the trials of Alyosha and Mitya, and for some chapters in Book 11 he only appears as a bit-part player in other people’s stories: Katerina’s, Madame Khokhlakov’s, Liza’s…. Then he’s there in the middle of it all, and suddenly this novel is doing something I’ve never quite seen before: Dostoevsky has taken the crime fiction genre and turned it into a vehicle for a cutting-edge existential crisis. We’ve seen the near-psychosis of Mitya’s frantic efforts to salvage his sense of himself in Part 3 – particularly in the chapter subtitled ‘Delirium’ – and now we get Ivan’s descent into something even worse. He is confronted by the two men who seem to be able to look into his inner soul and reflect back to him what they find there: Smerdyakov and, in an extraordinary chapter, the Devil himself. Sure, there’s a pseudo-scientific explanation of the latter: Ivan is suffering from full-blown ‘brain fever’. But that doesn’t stop Dostoevsky venturing into territory that feels incredibly modern.
It’s the day before Mitya’s trial – the action has moved forward two months before we get to ‘The Boys’ in Book 10 – and at the start of Book 11 Alyosha is at Madame Khokhlakov’s. He wonders what’s been going on, especially with regard to Katerina, but first we have to get past the almost impassable gatekeeper who is Madame K herself. She seems almost like a baby, and Alyosha’s conversation with Kolya is fresh enough in the memory for us to be able to make the comparison. Every time she opens her mouth she lets the adult side down, with her endless vanities and her story about how Rakitin and Perhotin are fighting over her. Rakitin has written her a doggerel tribute to her injured foot and Perhotin, not knowing who wrote it – or so he says – has made her realise how awful and unkind it is. (We later find out that Rakitin is rather proud of his gold-digging motives in chasing the 40-year-old widow – part of Dostoevsky’s ongoing project to provide endless permutations on the theme of how not to live.)
Alyosha sees Liza, who is looking terrible. Ivan has been to see her, twice, and the effect has been awful. She is dreaming of devils and, when Alyosha has left following a long and disturbing conversation, she deliberately crushes her own fingers in the door. I’m beginning to wonder exactly how many disturbed mental states there are in this novel…
…and the chapters describing the harrowing two months that Ivan has lived through are one long disturbed mental state. Dostoevsky signals at the time of the conversation with Smerdyakov in Book 6, and Ivan’s restless pacing during the night before his hasty departure for Moscow, that this will turn out to be a fateful time for him. You bet. Half a novel later, in three agonising conversations that Ivan makes himself have with him, Smerdyakov forces him to confront his own motives for leaving his father to his fate. As we always knew, Smerdyakov is the murderer – but he doesn’t admit it fully until this eventful evening on the eve of the trial. He describes the faked epileptic fit, gives a minute-by-minute account of Mitya’s arrival, the unexpected arrival of Grigory, the murder itself.
Long before this, Smerdyakov has convinced him that he, Ivan, is to blame for the murder. Nothing Ivan said before his departure suggested that he didn’t want his father dead, or that he didn’t want Smerdyakov to kill him. At the root of it is that silly throwaway line of Ivan’s – if there is no God, everything is lawful. Ivan’s enfant terrible posturings have come back to haunt him now, because the amoral Smerdyakov took his words literally.
And it isn’t only words that are haunting him. (Good this, innit?) After his third and final conversation with the Smerd – we’ve been in real time for a chapter or two now, not flashbacks as with the earlier conversations – Ivan finds his tortured way home and notices somebody on the sofa. It’s the bloke who’s been before, the one he knows is a figment of his imagination… and it’s all rather entertaining as the devil plays rhetorical games to try to prove his own existence. Or not. He’s a character well known from late 19th Century fiction, the gent who’s spent his inheritance and can be patronised by the other characters. And it’s agony for Ivan, who knows his own sanity is slipping away from him on the eve of the very day when he needs to be coherent if he’s to convince the court of his own ultimate guilt.
I said it was an existential crime novel and I haven’t changed my mind. Ivan’s own philosophical prevarications have brought him to a point where it doesn’t matter to him that Smerdyakov wielded the weapon because, as he’s succeeded in convincing Ivan, he was carrying out Ivan’s inmost desires. His conversation with the devil is interrupted by knocking – it’s Alyosha, bringing news of Smerdyakov’s suicide. As Ivan already knows, nobody will believe his story in court (if he ever gets there in the state he’s in). Now, there’s nowhere for him to go except pin his last hopes to a pathetic sop to his own conscience; he’ll spend as much as it takes to finance Mitya’s escape. Dostoevsky has made quite sure that we are as certain as Ivan is himself that for him there’ll never be any way out of here.
Book 12, A Judicial Error
For the trial section, Dostoevsky has adopted the authorial persona familiar from Book 1: the interested local man, worldly and really no more privy to the inner lives of these characters than anyone else. It’s disconcerting to have Dostoevsky close down so many options for himself as he reports only what this persona sees, or what others have told him later. Some authors would offer an explanation, make it clear that we’re inside a different kind of narrative. Dostoevsky doesn’t… and we get used to it as quickly as he no doubt knew we would
However… the view we get of the court is necessarily skewed. For instance, the ‘ladies’ who have acquired tickets to watch are described in just that way we recognise: as small-minded and, essentially, as thoughtless as Madam Khokhalov. I’ve begun to think that we never get a more rounded view of women than the one on offer here…. And when the erratic behaviour of one of them, Katerina, has a devastating effect on the case, Dostoevsky has to work hard to convince us that it isn’t just authorial games-playing. It doesn’t convince me, because she’s a character he’s left on the back-burner for too long. We haven’t seen her at all between Books 4 and 11 of a 12-book novel and, for me, she’s simply given too much weight to carry in the trial. I’ll come back to that.
Anyway… we know about courtroom scenes. In this one – complete with uber-provincial jurors, conventional prosecutor, star defence lawyer – Dostoevsky begins with several chapters in which things seem to be going Mitya’s way. Rakitin is discredited, so his testimony against Mitya is, rightly or wrongly, deemed unreliable. Katerina, in her first appearance on the witness-stand, shows Mitya in the best light possible; Alyosha remembers a gesture that points to the genuine existence of the roll of 1500 roubles; Grushenka tells of his impulsive personality – and her complete belief in his innocence…. In other words, the people in the courtroom get a far more balanced view of Mitya than we might have expected. The narrator of Book 12, whoever he is, lets us know that it looks as though the court will show mercy – or would have, he tells us, had it not been for the catastrophe that is about to take place.
This is the second appearance of Katerina in role, apparently, as the personification of the woman scorned. Grushenka’s testimony has reminded her of something she already knows, that Mitya would only use the money she lent in order to pursue her rival. But now, being a woman, she can demonstrate just how inconsistent the fairer sex can be. (Dostoevsky doesn’t refer to the fairer sex, but he might as well.) She tears Mitya’s reputation to shreds before our eyes, producing as the clinching bit of evidence a letter he wrote before the murder. We’ve already seen it, and know that it contains Mitya’s statement that he will kill his father if Ivan leaves the house. In the eyes of the court, it’s tantamount to to a confession. The star lawyer, who’s been doing so well all day, can only look on as impassively as he can.
It’s 8.00 pm, so we think we might be getting a rest soon. No chance. What we get are chapter after chapter of summing up, first by the prosecutor and then by the defence counsel. By about the third or fourth chapter of the prosecutor’s summing-up I was finding it all rather tedious: yes, I wanted to say, we’ve already been through how all this evidence can be construed…. But by the time we’d had the defence counsel’s long speech, we realise that Dostoevsky isn’t merely revisiting the details of the case, but is demonstrating, again, the slipperiness of the very concept of truth. Blimey.
I wrote a short while back that we know about courtroom scenes. I don’t know how ground-breaking this one was in 1880, but I’m impressed by the way Dostoevsky, simply through the medium of an observer reporting what he hears, is able to make Mitya’s case seem hopeless, then hopeful, then hopeless again, then hopeful again. As the prosecutor goes through the facts of the case – the ones placed there by the godlike author I was complaining about in Book 9 – we see how, through a careful selection of evidence, and through the newfangled science of psychology, he is able to build up a completely plausible case for Mitya’s guilt. Then, in a speech full of denials that this is what he’s doing, the defence counsel does exactly the same, selecting different evidence and a different psychological spin, to make an equally watertight case for the opposite. The spectators make so much noise showing their approval that the president of the court has to threaten to clear the room.
While the members of the jury deliberate, our narrator for this section moves around the groups of people scattered around the courtroom. Dostoevsky is reinforcing his main point because, as we knew there would be, there are as many opinions of the case as there are speakers. But… this chapter has one of those subtitles that tells us exactly what to expect: The Peasants Stand Firm. Mitya is found guilty on every single count. The end. As if.
I’ve been living with this novel for three weeks now, so I think I’m allowed to say that there are parts of the Epilogue that I don’t like at all. Alyosha is doing his best as an intermediary among three characters who appear to have morphed into drama queens. Sure, Grushenka, Katerina and Mitya have never been of a retiring disposition, but the sketchy plotting of these last few chapters has left them with little to fill their time, as far as I can see, beyond melodramatic posturing. For me, the two women have always been highly problematic – are there any readers who find them either plausible or sympathetic? – and Dostoevsky, apparently having taken Mitya’s crisis as far as he can in the extraordinary Book 9, now simply has him telling anyone who’ll listen how he can’t stand – what? – well, anything really.
Briefly. Katya hasn’t loved Mitya for a long time, and if she’d given Ivan the impression that she did, well, she didn’t mean to. She feels a bit bad about torpedoing Mitya’s case in the courtroom but, hey, she was feeling a bit of hatred for him just then, and what’s a girl to do? Now, she’ll do what she can to carry out Ivan’s pre-breakdown plan to organise an escape – and, yes, she will go and see Mitya in the prison hospital. (The trial has tired him out, poor thing.) And, reader, there’s something close to a love scene. She loves Ivan, but she loves Mitya as well, and there’s a genuine reconciliation. As if I care.
Then… what would be the worst thing that could happen at that moment? The unexpected arrival of Grushenka, perhaps? Which happens, so there can be some more drama. Will she forgive her? (Will who forgive who? I forget.) Maybe. Is there any kind of reconciliation? I’m not sure – but…
…I do remember writing during Book 9 that If this were an English novel, ‘Smerdyakov would be toast by the final chapter and Mitya, a sadder and wiser man, would have undergone some kind of redemption.’ Well, it’s not an English novel, but I think both those boxes have been ticked. Dostoevsky ends the novel when there’s nothing definite for Mitya, only half-formed plans for a future life in America. As he asks Alyosha, can you imagine Grushenka in America? But never mind all that. What’s clear is that Mitya is on the way to being a reformed character: nobody is more able to describe his shortcomings more accurately than he is himself. And that’s where we leave his story. That’s where we leave all the stories, except one.
Dostoevsky needs to finish the thread he started in The Boys, all those chapters ago before the trial. Famously – i.e. I’ve read about it recently – Dostoevsky’s own son died at a young age around the time when the novel was begun, and in the final chapter we get the funeral. Ok, it’s not the author’s son who’s being buried, but Snegiryov’s, sad little Ilusha… and Dostoevsky makes it as heart-breaking as he can. Alyosha is there, taking the boys through the questions they need to ask about death and resurrection…. And Snegiryov is there, inconsolable. The question hanging in the air appears to be, what if that’s it? What if there’ll be no joyful meeting in some eternal future? Dostoevsky draws our attention to the undeniable facts of interment: the hole in the ground, the soil on the little coffin, the pieces of bread Snegiryov throws because Ilusha wanted to be listening out for the birds coming down to eat it. Alyosha doesn’t give any glib answers.
And that really is it. Dostoevsky has given the final chapter over to his hero, the new generation who need models of behaviour, and to Snegiryov who simply can’t cope because – because of what? Because he’s a late 19th Century Russian for whom nothing is certain beyond the unbearable fact of the death of his beloved son. But there’s one tiny hope. His crazed, simple-minded wife had wanted the flowers that Snegiryov considered were Ilusha’s alone, and he had snatched them from her. At home, after the funeral, he gives them to her, broken and half-frozen. Perhaps, Dostoevsky might be saying, these little proofs of kindness are all there is in a world where we only have one another.