F.M. Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov, eng
W Somerset Maugham: Ten Novels & their Authors, Pan Books (& Heinemann) ISBN 0330254979
Dostoyevsky had been pondering over The Brothers Karamazov for a long time, and he took more pains over it than his financial difficulties had allowed him to take with any novel since his first. On the whole it is his best constructed work. As his letters show, he implicitly believed in that mysterious entity which we call inspiration, and counted upon it to enable him to write what he vaguely saw in his mind's eye. Now, inspiration is uncertain. It is more apt to come in isolated passages. To construct a novel, you need esprit de suite. that logical sense by means of which you may arrange your material in a coherent order, so that the various parts shall follow one another with verisimilitude and the whole shall be complete, with no loose ends hanging. Dostoyevsky had no great capacity for this. That is why he is his best in scenes. He had a truly remarkable gift for creating suspense and dramatizing a situation. I know no scene in fiction more terrifying than that in which Raskolnikov murders the old pawnbroker, and few more striking than that in The Brothers Karamazov in which Ivan meets in the form of a devil his troubled conscience. With the prolixity of which he could not correct himself, Dostoyevsky indulges in conversations of immense length; but even though the persons concerned express themselves with such abandon that you can hardly believe that human beings can so conduct themselves, they are almost always enthralling. In passing, I may mention a device he often used to excite in the reader a tremulous susceptibility. His characters are agitated out of proportion to the words they utter. They tremble with emotion, they insult one another, they burst into tears, they redden, they go green in the face or fearfully pallid. A significance the reader finds it hard to account for is given to the most ordinary remarks, and presently he is so wrought up by these extravagant gestures, these hysterical outbursts, that his owo nerves are set on edge and he is prepared to receive a real shock when something happens which otherwise would have left him little perturbed.
Alyosha was designed to be the central figure of The Brothers Karamazov, as is plainly indicated by the first sentence: 'Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a landowner well-known in the district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place.' Dostoyevsky was too praotised a novelist to have without intention begun his book with a definite statement that marks Alyosha out. But in the novel, as we have it, he plays a subordinate role compared with those of his brothers Dmitri and Ivan. He passes in and out of the story, and seems to have little influence on the persons who play their more important parts in it. His own activity is chiefly concerned with a group of schoolboys whose doings. beyond showing Alyosha's charm and loving-kindness, have nothing to do with the development of the theme.
The explanation is that The Brothers Karamazov, which runs in Mrs Garnett's translation to 838 pages, is but a fragment of the novel Dostoyevsky proposed to write. He intended in further volumes to continue the development of Alyosha, taking him through a number of vicissitudes, in which it is supposed he was to undergo the great experience of sin and finally, through suffering, achieve salvation. But death prevented Dostoyevsky from carrying out his intention, and The Brothers Karamazov remains a fragment. It is, nevertheless, one of the greatest novels ever written, and stands at the head of the small, wonderful group of works of fiction which by their intensity and power hold a place apart from other novels, conspicuous as their different merits may be, and of which two thrilling examples are Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick.
Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a besotted buffoon, has four sons, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, whom I have already spoken of, and a bastard, Smerdyakov, who lives in his house as cook and valet. The two elder sons hate their disgraceful father; Alyosha, the only lovable character in the book, is incapable of hating anyone. Professor E. J. Simmons thinks Dmitri should be considered the hero of the novel. He is the sort of man whom the tolerant are apt to describe as his own worst enemy, and, as such men often are. he is attractive to women. 'Simplicity and deep feeling are the essence of his nature,' says Professor Simmons; and further: 'There is poetry in his soul which is reflected in his behaviour and colourful language. His whole life is like an epic in which the turbulent action is relieved by occasional Iyric flights.' It is true that he makes high-flown protestations of his moral aspirations, but as they do not lead to any change for the better in his conduct. I think one is justified in attaching small importance to them. It is true that he is capable on occasion of great generosity, but he is also capable of shocking meanness. He is a drunken, boastful bully, recklessly extravagant, dishonest and dishonourable. Both he and his father are furiously in love with Grushenka, a kept woman who lives in the town, and he is insanely jealous of the old man.
Ivan. to my mind, is a more interesting character. He is highly intelligent, prudent. determined to make his way in the world and ambitious. At the age of twenty-four he has already made something of a name for himself by the brilliant articles he has contributed to the reviews. Dostoyevsky describes him as practical, and intellectually superior to the mass of needy and unfortunate students who hang about newspaper offices. He, too, hates his father. The sensual old wretch is murdered by Smerdyakov for the three thousand roubles he had hidden away to give Grushenka if she could be induced to go to bed with him, and Dmitri, who had often threatened to kill his father, is accused of the crime, tried and convicted. It was ia accordance with Dostoyevsky's plan that he should be, but in order to effect this he was obliged to make the various persons concerned behave in a manner that outrages probability. On the eve of the tria], Smerdyakov goes to Ivan and confesses that it was he who had committed the crime and returns him the money he had stolen. He makes it plain to Ivan that he had murdered the old man on his (Ivan's) instigation, and with his connivance. Ivan goes all to pieces, just as Raskolnikov does after murdering the old pawnbroker. But Raskolnikov was wildly neurotic, half-starved and destitute. Ivan was not. His first impulse is to go at once to the public prosecutor and tell him the facts, but he decides to wait and do so at the trial. Why? So far as I can see, only because Dostoyevsky saw that then the confession would come with more thrilling effect. Then comes the very curious scene, to which I have already referred, in which Ivan has an hallucination in which his double, in the form of a shabby gentleman in reduced circumstances, confronts him with his worse self, with its base ness and insincerity. There is a furious knocking at the door. It is Alyosha. He comes in and tells Ivan that Smerdyakov has hanged himself. The situation is critical. Dmitri's fate is in the balance. It is true that Ivan was distraught, but he was not demented. From what we know of his character, we would have expected him at such a moment to have the strength to pull himself together and act with common sense. The natural thing, the obvious thing, was for the two of them to go there and then to the defend; ing counsel, tell him of Smerdyakov's confession and suicide and give him the three thousand roubles he had stolen. With these materials the defending counsel, who, we are told, was an uncommonly able man, would surely have thrown enough doubt in the jury's minds to cause them to hesitate to bring in a verdict of guilty. Alyosha puts cold compresses on Ivan's head and tucks him up in bed. I have mentioned before that, for all his goodness, the gentle creature was strangely ineffectual. He was never more so than on this occasion.
Nor is an explanation given of Smerdyakov's suicide. He has been shown to be the most calculating. callous, clear-headed and self-confident of Karamazov's four sons. He had made his plans beforehand. With great presence of mind, he seized the opportunity that a lucky chance presented to him, and killed the old man. He had a reputation for complete honesty and no one could have suspected him of stealing the money. The evidence pointed to Dmitri. So far as I can see, there was no reason for Smerdyakov to hang himself, except to give Dostoyevsky the occasion to end a chapter with a highly dramatic announcement. Dostoyevsky was a sensational, not a realistic, writer, and so felt himself justified in using methods which the latter is bound to eschew.
After Dmitri has been found guilty, he makes a statement in which he proclaims his innocence and ends it with the words: 'I accept the torture of accusation, and my public shame. I want to suffer, and by suffering I shall purify myself.' Dostoyevsky had a deep-rooted belief in the spiritual value of suffering, and thought that by the willing acceptance of it one atoned for one's sins, and so reached happiness. From this the surprising inference seems to emerge that, since sin gives rise to suffering and suffering leads to happiness, sin is necessary and profitable. But was Dostoyevsky right in thinking that suffering cleanses and refines the character? There is no evidence in The House of rhe Dead that it had any such effect on his fellow convicts, and it certainly had none on him: as I have said, he emerged from prison the same man as he entered it. So far as physical suffering is concerned, my experience is that long and painful illness makes people querulous, egotistic, intolerant, petty and jealous. Far from making them better, it makes them worse. Of course I know that there are some, and I have known one or two myself, who in a long and distressing illness, from which recovery was impossible, have shown courage, unselfishness, patience and resignation; but they had those qualities before. The occasion revealed them. There is spiritual suffering too. No one can have lived long in the world of letters without having known men who had enjoyed success and then, for one reason or another, lost it. It made them sullen, bitter, spiteful and envious. I can think of only one case in which this misfortune, accompanied as it is by humiliations which only those who have witnessed them know, has been borne with courage, dignity and good humour. The man of whom I speak no doubt had those qualities before, but the mask of frivolity he wore prevented one from discerning them. Suffering is part of our human lot, but that does not make it any the less evil.
Though one may deplore Dostoyevsky's prolixity, a fault he was well aware of, but could not, or would not, correct; though one may wish he had seen fit to avoid the improbabilities improbabilities of character, improbabilities of incident - which cannot but disconcert the attentive reader; though one may think some of his ideas erroneous, The Brothers Karamazov remains a stupendous book. It has a theme of profound significance. Many critics have said that this was the quest of God; I, for my part, should have said it was the problem of evil. It is in the section called 'Pro and Contra', which Dostoyevsky rightly considered the culminating point of his novel, that it is deal with. 'Pro and Contra' consists of a long monologue which Ivan delivers to the sweet Alyosha. To the human intelligence the existence of a God who is all-powerful and all-good seems incompatible with the existence of evil. That men should suffer for their sins seems reasonable enough, but that innocent children should suffer revolts the heart as well as the head. Ivan tells Alyosha a horrible story. A little serf boy, a child of eight, threw a stone and by accident lamed his master's favourite dog. His master, owner of great estates, had the child stripped naked and made to run; and as he ra4he set his pack of hounds on him and he is torn to pieces before his mother's eyes. Ivan is willing to believe that God exists, but he cannot accept the cruelty of the world God created. He insists that there is no reason for the innocent to suffer for the sins of the guilty; and if they do, and they do, God either is evil or does not exist. Dostoyevsky never wrote with greater power than in this piece; but having written it, he was afraid of what he had done. The argument was cogent, but the conclusion repugnant to what with all his heart he wished to believe, namely, that the world, for all its evil, is beautiful because it is the creation of God. He hastened to write a refutation. No one was better aware than he that he had not succeeded. The section is tedious and the refutation unconvincing.
The problem of evil still awaits solution, and Ivan Karamazov's indictment has not yet been answered.
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