Laughter of the Devil: Re-reading Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov
I've had an eventful month. I haven't posted here for a while: having a broken computer really lends itself to getting quality reading done.
Last night I finished The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It's a remarkable book. I love it; I really do. Maxime Gorky said Fyodor proves in it that he is a sadist. Karamazov is not a cruel book - it is a funny book. Gorky missed the joke
A hard joke, a difficult and passionate joke, but still - Dostoyevsky is bullet-to-the-head humor. If it doesn't knock you down like it did Gorky, do you think you even have a soul in you?
Penguin translator David McDuff pinpoints the main characteristic of Brothers Karamazov: it is the work of the devil. He falls short: the real devil in Karamazov is Dostoyevsky. The outrageous humour of the Evil One himself dressed as the teacher and sage of Tzarist Russian peity and patriotism is not to be missed.
Brothers Karamazov also reads forward in time to Kafka, Nietzsche, Gide, Lawrence, Hemingway, Faulkner, providing a context and critique to the future. It is prophetic if you suppose the horrors of the future can only be endured by horrible mockery. Dostoyevsky is a nasty insect, and to read him is to shed a carapace made from the purest hysterics and mocking laughter. What remains is the Devil himself.
McDuff translates as 'crack-ups' the chapter where all the main characters go mad. It's as good a word choice as any. For Dostoyevsky, then, we all crack up when shame and guilt makes us act in a hateful way - and for him this crack up is the only thing that has the power to bring you to accept God's Will. That's how I read it: Dostoyevsky's Devil is the guide to God, and his frightening laughter lights the way.
Practically speaking, for those considering reading Karamazov, I recommend skipping these chapters as tedious:
- Book One, part three - 'Voluptuaries' tediously demonstrates the Karamazov vileness which part one describes in fewer words.
- The entire Public Procurator's speech is just a wasteland.
- The Chapters on the life of the Elder Zosima; they are merely background color to render the monks more ridiculous. Since they already are silly, it can be omitted.
For a first time reader I suggest you start at the moment the family visits the monastry, and then return to the long introductory chapters on Fyodor Pavlovich's life, which are less interesting material. I am re-reading these chapters now, for the fourth time, just for the pleasure of Alyosha's childhood and Fyodor Pavlovich's amusing life.
The most remarkable chapters in the piece, for which the greatest attention should be preserved, are the Onion, the Wedding at Cana, the Grand Inquisitor, the entire hilarious Crackups Section, "It's always interesting to speak with an intelligent man" (this requires the most precise attention, and the outrageously black and funny three talks between Ivan Fyodorovich and Schmerdyakov, and "For a moment the lie becomes truth", which is the only sublime chapter untainted by satanic hilarity.
I read Karamazov as a teen and in my mid-twenties. Reading it now at 34 years of age, I finally get the joke. It's a comedy of the sweetest and most sacred kind, and to be approached in a reverent way. I had little realized how profoundly it had influenced my own book, Savage Things. Now had I realized the effort it must have taken Dostoyevsky to utter his book - enmeshed in the absurdly uptight society of the time, he managed to utter a few free words. Compared to his, my own Savage Things exists in an existential void where the upmost freedom of choice is available to all characters, but like Gide's Michel, no guide or signpost as to what actions are right or proper to a free man.
As it happens, I am reading Chekhov's stories and plays pretty constantly this last month and the next, so many of these questions find original answers in the generation after Dostoyevsky. I cannot wait to read Bulgakov's Master and Margarita. Even now, reading Chekhov has cast an incredible light onto Isaac Babel in explanation. I love and take a lot of joy in Russian literature at the moment; they seem to me the natural inheritors of the Greek Enlightenment (6 century BCE) and French Enlightenment of the 17th century.