Monday, 14 February 2011
Russian literature, for a long time, has been the thorn in my literary education. I simply never got around to reading much of it. I've put a few names under my belt so I could show off (War and Peace most clamorously, and some Gogol and Bulgakov), but there was one colossus of a novelist whom I especially felt was lacking from my mental librairies: Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I don't think there's that many people out there with a BA and MA in literature who never touched anything Dostoevsky until the age of 25, so I feel kind of privileged (I guess in a game of humiliation it would have scored me a few points). Anyway, last November I headed off to Russia and I needed some reading material to kill off the dead space in my travelling time, so I thought it was time to patch holes. I got hold of a copy of Dostoevsky's two supposedly greatest novels, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and I set down to reading them.
I finished the first in mid-December, and the latter only a few days ago, and I thought I'd make a blog-post out of it. It's not an in-depth analysis or anything, so don't expect anything ultra-insightful; just my thoughts as they come up.
Crime and Punishment (CAP) is going to be forever dear to me in memory if only for the particular experience of reading it. I went through the whole thing in St Petersburg, as a way of killing daylight hours before night came and I could go out partying. I spent four, even five hours a day inside this Russian pub on Nevsky Prospect, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes (two habits I've never much indulged in, and the latter I stopped since coming back), and reading either contemporary British poets, or Dostoevsky.
My choice of reading material was quite illuminated, because CAP is a novel which flows very well. The back of the book and the introduction went a way towards hyping it, describing it as 'one of the greatest and most readable novels ever written', and a 'most gripping' story. That's hyperbolic, of course; people used to airport novels aren't going to find this such a big page-turner, and there's several instances in the narrative when it kind of slows down. Perhaps most importantly, one has to share some of D's most human/philosophical interests to really get engaged with the things and events being described. That being said, it's still a novel which proceeds quite quickly, not at all burdensome to read, thanks mostly to an intent narratorial voice which never loses sight of its subject-matter.
Did I like it? Yes, I guess. I wouldn't say I was overblown by it, but it's definitely an interesting tale. D's technical merits are undisputable: the things that the prose does are very far ahead of its time; you could even say that D was the first truly modern author, and there's no doubt that he cast a long shadow over all the great novelists who came in the 20th Century. However, I think my main issue with it was this: I didn't think the point it made required a novel. Or at least, not one in excess of 400 pages. D's discussions are existential - essentially, he's weighing up the practical possibilities of our metaphysical freedom. Starting from the presupposition that God only exists if we accept him, he considers what we can and cannot do with our boundless liberty of action. Ultimately, from what I understand, he comes to the conclusion that a philosophy of action that does not account for a person's spirituality ends up crippled by its own hubris, because a man's moral nature inevitably draws him back to (re-)imposing a moral schema on an amoral universe (in the novel's specific case, by self-punishment for the 'crime' which the protagonist thought he was at liberty to commit). I could probably elaborate a bit on this, but the novel has been summed up by many others, often and well, so I won't add anything more.
It's an interesting parable. My problem, as I said, is that I didn't think it required a novel. I'd have been equally satisfied with an essay on ethics (provided it was competently written, of course): something more direct, making its points by argument and demonstration, and not through the twists and turns of a narrative. Alternatively, a narrative, but more concise (the obvious point of comparison is Camus' The Outsider; a paragon is unfair, given the different periods when the two authors were writing, but the Frenchman's is an example of a philosophical novel which is so successful because, well, because it's brief, however simplistic that may sound. Consider also Orwell's Animal Farm or Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. I don't think their stories are any less complex or important than that of CAP, but they draw their parables in a hundred pages or less).
Then again, the objection is subjective. I do have some trouble with the medium of the novel in general, as I think it's quite dispersive (compared to poetry and essays, anyway), so maybe it's just me. In any case, if economy (or lack thereof) is an issue with CAP, this is even more marked with The Brothers Karamazov (BK), a monster of a novel running to almost 900 pages, second in length only to the above-mentioned War and Peace (according to the introduction, anyway).
BK is a fascinating novel. D's last piece of work, completed shortly before his death, it is by many considered to be his masterpiece. The story follows three brothers and their (mis)adventures before and after the death of their father by murder. The attention to detail is remarkable: D draws a tremendous fresco of the little village where things take place, and the characterisation (covering a fucknut of characters) is one of the most convincing, exhaustive and complex you'll ever find. This meticulousness of evocation is the novel's strength and, to some extents, its weakness, as the novel uses up a lot of pages to cover a story in which not that much happens in terms of real 'events.' (Some parts I thought to be almost a waste of space: the prosecutor's speech in the trial towards the end of the novel is a good thirty pages long, and it does nothing but re-narrate everything that has already occurred).
What really intrigues me about this novel is the narratorial voice. It's kind of hard to explain, but it's like D were deliberately trying to create an ancient, almost chtonic novel. His concern with form is palpable, organic. CAP, by comparison, feels so fresh and innovative because it apparently relinquishes questions of conventional form and congruity in favour of a direct, extemporary voice sticking like glue to the events and the thoughts of the characters at the very instant that they happen. There's no concern other than the raw telling of the story, in CAP. With BK, things are more sophisticated. D seems to have gone back to the origins of prose as a form of expression, like he were trying to create a primal, formally perfect novel: the novel as it is meant to be written.
Personally, I think he succeeds completely. BK is 'the' novel, the very heart of how this form expresses meaning. It is perfectly balanced, with the primary narrative 'holding' events, monologues, dialogues, philosophical reflections and even other narratives (stories of the past, told by the characters themselves) within itself without ever losing a single quantum of stability or unity. As with primary novels of the late Eighteenth Century, the narratorial voice is attributed to a 'real' person within the diegesis; in this case, the person speaking is an unidentified inhabitant of the village where everything is taking place, one who frequently foregrounds his/her presence by introducing chapters and characters with anecdotes of his/hers. Even so, the voice never becomes anything more than a voice: the speaker is never actually introduced, never interacts with any of the other characters at all. It grounds the narrative in a sense of reality while never being obtrusive.
I'm really not sure why D, who proved so subversive and radical with CAP, then turns so conservative with BK. Coming to questions of evaluation, the two are almost hard to compare. But for what my two cents are worth, I preferred CAP. Not only because it's faster, more furious and shorter, but precisely because it felt not as close to the 'heart' of the novel (as I mentioned, I'm not completely enamoured when it comes to this literary form). Besides, there were other issues which marred BK, partly relating to the novel form itself (and D's decision to bind himself to the very core components of the form), and partly for the tale in itself.
For one thing, I had the same problem with BK as I did with CAP, in that I would have preferred D's reflections to be more ordered and concise. Admittedly BK, which encompasses a tremendously broad spectrum of spiritual perspectives, is less 'precise' than CAP and therefore would have been much less suited for an essay. CAP is a linear parable, BK is more of a journey through many different perspectives. On the other hand, though, the narrative itself didn't do much for me emotionally. There's a few very nice moments, but most of the things that happen I thought to be, well, uninteresting. The introduction, in its typical sales language, gushes that "if you want money, sex and violence, you will find them in BK." But while there's plenty of money going round, there really isn't much of the other two. The murder itself is never described, and there's nothing in the book which we could call 'violence' other than a couple of scuffles. As for sex, there's one suggestion that Karamov-Father may have impregnated a mentally retarded girl at one point, and that's it. The rest of the novel is as chaste as anything written in England in the 19th Century. The idea of Katerina Ivanovna or even Grushenka contemplating a shag is as plausible as that of aliens landing in the middle of the village and introducing everyone to laser-beams. There isn't even a kiss in this book, that I can recall. Honestly, if it weren't for the South Americans, I sometimes wonder if we'd ever have known what it's like to have a novel with plenty of sex in it.
(Come to think of it, and in fairness to D, CAP does include quite a bit of sex. Though it's alluded to rather than explicitly described - which is a good thing, in the context of this story - one of the main characters is a young girl who has ended up in prostitution, and there's a few scenes where the topic of sex is suggested almost with a certain sleight of hand. Anyway, I'm losing myself in pointless discussions here - let's get back to the point).
In general, CAP just seemed more pertinent. The entire narrative was a little too diluted for the purposes of its meditation, in my opinion, but formally at least, it stuck with the story. BK goes out of its way to describe the lives of people whom I have difficulty caring much about. So Father Zossima used to be a soldier and he converted just before his duel... yay. At least War and Peace discusses the 'great' events of life and history (albeit with varying success, and with less lucidity than D). BK is, I dunno... parochial? I just don't see why I have much reason to empathise with these people stuck in a village a hundred miles from anything, worried about getting three-thousand roubles from their inheritance and about marrying this person or that (the mechanics of their falling in love are also a bit mysterious to me... Alyosha decides to marry a girl on a wheelchair with whom he has exchanged, uh, about thirty words in all the time he's known her?).
I confess that I have difficulties criticising D because every single person who told me about him was enthusiastic to an extreme (including some girls I loved, which I guess has an ironic resonance given the concerns of the character in the novel and my own as I write these lines). I did like the book, I just didn't feel it to be as 'timeless' as people give it credit for (especially the writers of these introductions). In fact, and at the risk of saying something idiotic, I wonder if its time may not already be coming round. Of course this has nothing to do with D himself and everything to do with the novel form in general, which in many ways is the most naturally transient of all literary forms. Novels are built around a voice which is actual, unmediated; they speak the same language of the times they were written in, even when they 'dress up' in other voices. This is why they're so effective to tell stories, and why they're so easy and pleasurable to read. It's like having a friend telling you a story in person. But this is also why they decay rapidly. Your friends become grandpas and your own nephews find them old and slow, if not boring. It reminds me of Beethoven's wane in popularity in Vienna over the last ten/fifteen years of his life - a dramatic decline in attendance and critical favour, exacerbating his already considerable sense of isolation, all the more astonishing because he was writing some of his best work ever. The great contemporary novelist Alessandro Baricco sums it up in 'Lesson 21' by saying that they (the Viennese) were "a world in movement," while Beethoven was old. Or, to use another word, he was still. I think it's the same with ourselves today. Today, to 'have culture' doesn't refer to being learned in how living organisms work or how the Phoenicians dressed, or knowing how to build a boat or factorise an equation. Mostly it means to have ready many novels from the 19th Century (and early 20th). It's our banner, one way that we make sense of things. I think the upper limit is reached with Joyce and Proust: they are the last 'great' novelists, and most of the stuff coming later seldom counts as 'culture' (with a number of interesting exceptions, mostly sophisticated writers like Borges or Calvino).
Beethoven, in the last years of his life... now you know why he was so pissed off.
This is not an historical constant at all, of course. There used to be a time when reading novels was seen as a pastime for the uncultivated, for romantic girls at their homes, adolescents, bourgeois gentlemen, and in general people who wanted to be up on the latest fashionable bestseller in Europe. 'Gentlemen' read poetry and the Classics from Greece and Rome. Today, 'gentlemen' read 19th Century novels. They read Tolstoy and Zola and Melville and the Brontes. And they read Dostoevsky. He is precisely one of those 'indispensable' authors (the term 'indispensable' is one of those hyperboles we use to describe a certain cultural quality of a book; it is almost interchangeable with, say, 'life-changing' or 'timeless'). The quality of his work, per se, will remain forever, I just wonder how long it's going to be 'indispensable' for. Truth is, I don't even know if I'd call it that now. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the things which we can't live without tend to be the first we leave behind.