Saturday, October 13, 2012

Trouble With the Karamazovs

now finished: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Reading the same book for a month? Wishing I had more time to devote to it? Folding down pages and lamenting my lack of ability to read in the original language? Ahhh, must be time for another Big Russian Novel.

This one was destined to be anti-climactic. I've been meaning to read The Brothers Karamazov for SO long. I kept trying to persuade my Los Angeles book group peeps to read it (L.A.! That's so many cities ago!...although I need to go back there, by the way) when we had our The Books We Should Have Read in High School book group. That being said, they were probably right about not reading it at that time; I guarantee we would not have had a 100% successful finish rate. And, I no longer think of this as a Book We Should Have Read in High School whatsoever. College, maybe, though. In fact, college definitely. It's that kind of book. I probably would have loved it in college. I didn't really love it right now. I thought it was long-winded.

Now, recall that you are reading someone who absolutely loves her some long Russian novels. (And short Russian novels, but aren't there fewer of those?) Who read Anna Karenina (the whole thing! really!) in high school. Who considers reading War and Peace one of the top five greatest life experiences. Who has often pondered how Russia, much like the American South, does it -- how those two places crank out so freakin' much good literature, although they never make readers actually want to live there or anything.  Long is great. Long-winded is quite another thing. I'm not entirely sure that Dostoevsky edited this book at all.

It turns out that The Brothers Karamazov should be even longer; he was planning to write a three-part saga, but he died. This was his final novel. I kind of see him as this old man (even though he was only sixty-ish) with a life's great work behind him so everyone just lets him write and create and do whatever he wants in his art, without trying to stop/edit/finesse him to make it better. Kind of like Clint Eastwood does now. We don't really demand anything of Clint anymore; we just take what he gives us and continue to praise his genius. I think Dostoevsky was kind of rambly in the Brothers but no one cared. Why not? Just let it all wash over you. (No word on whether he kept an empty chair around to stimulate discussion.)

So, there are a few great things about the book. One, he has this crazy ridiculous insight into the human mind. So you can actually get through the book on that alone, marveling at the way these flawed characters are depicted and delighting in some of his pithy summaries of thought processes that are a bit like Kerouac's in the way they make you think, "Wow, he finally said what my brain has been trying to say for twenty years."

But then you kind of want the plot to go somewhere instead of reading five mystical pages about what place love and Christ and death have in our jacked-up world...

Eventually the plot goes places, of course. I frankly think the book got really good around page 500. (I am aware that this is FAR too much to ask of, oh, most readers.) And despite the fact that SO few people read this blog and even fewer are planning to ever read The Brothers Karamazov, I just can't offer up spoilers, which means I can't talk about huge, gigantic, major, point-of-it-all happenings like "whodunnit" and why.

I can say that Alyosha was annoying at first, but then I really got to like him, once I kind of understood him. Dmitri seems like a big jerk, but once you tap into his confusion you start to understand him a little better, too. Ivan is presented as all dark and dismal and atheist but I kind of liked him more in the first place than I did the others.

Another great thing about this book is that there are definitely great quotes. Like:

", I, all of us are in a state of aberration, and there are ever so many examples of it: a man sits singing a song, suddenly something annoys him, he takes a pistol and shoots the first person he comes across, and no one blames him for it."   --p. 528, ISBN: 1-59308-045-X

He wrote that line in 1879, kids!

Speaking of the edition I read, I would really like it if the Barnes and Noble Classics edition hadn't told me a major plot point on the back cover. I mean, I guess everyone is just kind of expected to know what the book is about, but I am still of the belief that anything that happens after three hundred pages should not be on the back cover, period.

Basically, this book is really different from Crime and Punishment and Notes From Underground, my two previous Dostoevsky endeavors, both of which I loved. This book is more winding, more overtly philosophical about Big Questions (is there a god? what is family? what is love? death? society? justice? and so on), more pointless in some ways (Ilusha and Kolya Krassotkin....why? just, why?), and definitely more long-winded. Which, I already mentioned that.

However, I will say one thing: this book would be really hard to fake. The experience of it is quite different from its fame and all you hear about it in the world. I think one could fake The Scarlet Letter or Moby Dick or Hamlet a lot more easily. The Brothers Karamazov is really famous, but what do we know about its details in the world? It's about a family. With brothers. It's big and Russian. It's full of ideas and peasants and society. 'Cause it's Russian. With brothers. This, my friends, barely scratches the surface. As much as I think Moby Dick is utterly wasted on high school and college students and has so much more to say to adults who are disillusioned with life in the workplace, I still think the famous ideas about The Whale match the book itself, more or less. Not so with this book. So that's my advice to you: if you are one of the millions who has not read this book, don't try to fake it to impress that potential date at the bar who adores it. You will be called out faster than you can say Smerdyakov.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

When Yalom Babbled

finished Sept. 4th: When Nietzsche Wept by Irvin Yalom

Apparently, this book has a subtitle. The whole thing is When Nietzsche Wept: A Novel of Obsession. Well, as I noted on Goodreads when I first finished it, it didn't strike me as a novel of obsession at all, more like a novel of jabber.

I mean, with a title like When Nietzsche Wept I would expect it to be most if not all of the following: dark, literary, intellectual, profound, edgy, dense.  This book has been on my bookstore radar for years, bought by lots of those black-clad young professionals and artists and dark-side-of-preppy university students. I had high hopes. But, Yalom's novels just really aren't like that at all. They're downright lighthearted.

In fact, as I read When Nietzsche Wept, I began questioning myself as to why Yalom even made it to the top half 13 authors of my A-to-Z literary blog project.  The first book I read of his, when I originally chose him as my 'Y' author, was The Schopnhauer Cure, and it was like this in a lot of ways:  oddly frivolous,  pretty contrived, and in many ways not really a novel at all, but forced into the format of one.

Anyway, it's interesting to learn about Nietzsche and the psychologist Dr. Joseph Breuer whom Nietzsche apparently never met but whom Yalom imagines him meeting for this novel. But then, as with all historical fiction, I find myself wondering how much of the imaginings are just distortions that would never have happened but exist only in the author's mind but are now going to be forever associated in MY mind with these real historical figures (and this is why I hate historical fiction, duh.)

But if this book hadn't skipped along quickly like the trifle it is, it would have annoyed me. I am definitely not passing Yalom on to the semi-finals. His books remind me how interesting these philosophers are -- I mean, I totally get his love for/admiration of/desire to write about cool people in Western Philosophy -- but mostly they just make me want to put down his novel and go read the philosophers' actual words, myself.