annotation by Telaina Eriksen
I am, generally speaking, a cheerful and uncritical reader. I don’t know if this stems from my childhood where I, without complaint, read my mother, father, and six siblings’ cast-off books or whether it stemmed from an early knowledge that writing books is hard work. My childhood was salted with books like Devil’s Desire by Laurie McBain and the Flowers in the Attic series and anything by Stephen King I could get my hands on. But my childhood was also peppered with books like the Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, and the poems of Robert Frost. The only book I remember actively disliking as a teen was Suffer the Children by John Saul. It was a blood-soaked mess which culminated, if I recall correctly, in a girl child walking across a field carrying a severed arm.
I say all of this in preface to my annotation of The Brothers Karamazov because the classics are not something that I’m inclined to pick up. They are the cruciferous vegetables of my reading. I know they are good for me, but I enjoy my contemporaries more with all their chocolate-y goodness. I will devour a Margaret Atwood in hours or a brief day or two. Anna Karenina took me almost a month of whittling away on it, an hour or two at a time.
I began reading The Brothers Karamazov of my own free will in December. (I’m out of graduate school so no one can make me read anything hahahaha!) It was the end of February when I finished. I completed and read other books while I was reading it but about five times a week, I spent an hour or two reading it and sometimes I was so absorbed, I would spend a bit longer. The Brothers Karamazov came onto my bucket list because I very much enjoyed The Brothers K by David James Duncan and I suspected Duncan had used the same structure and other parallels of the classic, but didn’t know what they were, since I had never read it.
The purpose of an annotation is supposed to be things you can steal from other authors that you can use in your own writing. But I have also used my annotations to help me become a more critical reader because I tend to be so happy-go-lucky about my reading. “Well, I can tell they tried very hard here, even if it didn’t work.”
The Brothers Karamazov is a huge sprawling work (between 650 and 800 pages depending on what translation you read) and I would say it contains everything but the kitchen sink, but since it also alludes to sinks at several points in time so I am forced to say The Brothers Karamazov contains everything. Dostoevsky began writing it in 1879 and as the last book he ever wrote, it appears to be the culmination of the extremes of his life—socialism, devout Christianity, poverty, prosperity, obscurity, acclaim, illness, health, imprisonment, and freedom. The story of the three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, and to a lesser extent their baseborn and not-acknowledged fourth brother, Smerdyakov, tackles Christianity, atheism, secular humanism, dysfunctional families, the role of gentry and serfdom, politics in monastic life, the hazards of romantic love, jealousy, power, greed, honor, philosophy, alcoholism, mental illness, and Russian police procedure in the 19th century. On top of this, it’s a great who-dun-it and a riveting old-school, bitch-slapping courtroom drama. We know from page one that Fydor Pavlovich is going to die but it isn’t until half-way through the book that he turns up dead.
I often amused myself while reading the book imagining Dostoevsky coming into an MFA workshop with this massive manuscript in its early stages. I imagined a 24-year-old “colleague” dressed in black picking through Dostoevsky’s pages and saying, “It’s a structural mess. I mean, so Ivan tells Alyosha this whole story about the Grand Inquisitor over dinner and I like, didn’t see the point? I mean, like, how does it move the story, like forward? And I don’t, like, really believe that he could have told this story in like what? 20 minutes? because it took me like an hour to read? So it, you know, seems really unbelievable and totally detracts from the STORY. I also, you know, had like a total issue with telling like, all the background characters’ stories as they like entered the drama? It makes like no sense? And I just don’t think the reader is going to CARE and that should all be like, totally cut.”
My hypothetical workshop participant is correct. Father Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor and a saint-like figure in the book, gives long sermons in dialogue, with no paragraph breaks, about his particular view of Christianity. Ivan tells his “poem” The Grand Inquisitor to Alyosha over dinner about how the church would put Jesus to death again if he came because while Jesus gives choice and freedom, the church gives constraint and certainty and man prefers the latter to the former. Ivan, suffering from what must have been meningitis (that’s my best-guess definition of “brain fever”) has a long talk with a hallucinatory devil on the eve of Dmitri’s trial for his father Fyodor’s murder. (There is a particularly hilarious line in their conversation where the devil is talking about an atheist who finds himself in an afterlife and refuses to accept it and the atheist’s punishment is to walk “quadrillion kilometres in the dark” to which the devil adds “we’ve adopted the metric system, you know.”) But these essays, asides, foils…they expand this book in a way that raises it above many, many of the books I’ve read in my 35+ years of reading. And while I am a cheerful reader, I am also an exhaustive one, and have read thousands of books in my life. (The only thing that interfered with my complete enjoyment of this novel was its anti-Semitism. I have the same problem when I read Hemingway.)
Dostoevsky identifies the most painful things about humanity with his characters, their dialogue and their interactions. Ivan tells Alyosha that only a human is capable of cruelty—an animal would never kill a baby in front of its mother just for the cruelty and the pain of it. An animal kills to eat or protect itself. It does not kill to inflict psychological damage. This Ivan says, is a uniquely human trait.
So what did I learn as a writer from finally reading The Brothers Karamazov? Write your passion. Write your dream. Don’t waste your time reading books like Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Listen to your own voice. Pay attention to the things you need to say. Don’t think small. Synthesize your life, your art, your morals, your religious views, the pain that has been imprinted on your body from living in this hard world. Recognize that the family is the world in a microcosm. Oh, and LIVE. Go to prison in Siberia. Come back a devout Christian. Live with epilepsy and probably bipolar-disorder. Struggle with God. Observe your nation. Read its history. Write it all down.