The Brothers Karamazov – Book I

Point of joy #1 (actually, hysterical laughter while reading):

“They thought I was gone, and here I am!” he shouted for all to hear (87).

“He” is Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov.  I’ll try to explain what’s so funny about this moment, as a way of summarizing what happens in the first two books of TBK.  I’ll start with Book I today and post Book II tomorrow.  Book I is only 30 pages or so, so give it your best try!  This summary really may help you, because everything’s presented in such condensed and obscure form – and feel free to correct me; I’ve probably gotten some of it wrong.

Book I

Fyodor is described on the first page of the novel (well, the “official” first page, after the “author’s note”) as “precisely the type of man who is not only worthless and depraved but muddleheaded as well” (p. 7).  So much for narrative objectivity.   What a way to introduce a character!  My memory of the elder Karamazov as not unlike Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum is thus affirmed.  The first few sections of Book 1 actually remind me quite a bit of that opening montage from The Royal Tenenbaums (TRT) – a highly condensed narrative elaboration of just what an abysmal failure of a human being and a father the central figure of the book has been and will be inevitably.

Right, so I have to mention my other favorite movie here too – before the novel proper starts, there’s this “Author’s Note.”  This, of course, is transparently not an author’s note, not something we’re supposed to regard as D’s actual authorial voice, at least I don’t think so.  More the fictionalized narrator (like Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous creations), who, much like the narrator of Demons, is quasi-objective, somewhat outside the frame the faction, but not really omniscient, and also not really limited, not really first person either.  What would a junior high English teacher make of this?  One of the things I love about these narrators is D’s total willingness to use them inconsistently, for different purposes in different places, whatever the mood demands.

But yeah, my other favorite movie – The Big Lebowski (TBL).  It’s not hard to see traces of this “author’s note” in that movie’s introduction.  TBL has its own problematic narrator, who sometimes does voiceover, but sometimes sits at the bar and talks to the dude.  I’ll let you judge the parallel for itself – here are three comparisons:

#1:

TBK: “Starting off on the biography of my hero, Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in some perplexity.  Namely, that while I do call Alexei Fyodorovich my hero, still, I myself know that he is by no means a great man…” (3)

TBL: “sometimes there’s a man–I won’t say a hee-ro, ’cause what’s a hee-ro?–but sometimes there’s a man.”

 

 #2:

TBK: “For not only is an odd man ‘not always’ a particular and isolated case, but, on the contrary, it sometimes happens that it is precisely he, perhaps, who bears within himself the heart of the whole, while other people of his epoch have all for some reason been torn away from it for a time by some kind of flooding wind” (3).

TBL: “there’s a man who, wal, he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there”

 

#3: 

TBK: “Well, that is the end of my introduction.  I quite agree that it is superfluous, but since it is already written, let it stand.  And now to business” )4)

TBL: “ Wal, I lost m’train of thought here.  But–aw hell, I done innerduced him enough.

That parallel probably ends there.  As always I don’t mean it as anything rigorous or scholarly defensible, just as the sort of amusing thought that jumped in my head while I read.

 

– So anyway –

 

“They thought I was gone, and here I am!” he shouted for all to hear.

 

How did the book get to this point?  Here’s a simple summary.

Fyodor has three sons by two mothers.  His oldest son Dmitri (often Mitya) was born to Fyodor and his first wife, Adelaida Ivanovna.  She had a stormy and dark temperament and soon died.  Upon her death, Fyodor promptly abandoned his son, leaving him in the care first of his servent Grigory, and then of his now-dead wife’s distant cousin, Pyotr Alexandrovich Miusov.  But then Miusov decided to return to Paris to be part of the liberal-goings-on of the day, and so left Dmitri in the care of another (unnamed) cousin, a “Moscow lady.”

Fyodor remarried, this time wedding a woman named Sofia Ivanovna.  Her natural family no longer around,  she had been under the care of a general’s widow.  The narrator explains that she exchanged a benefactress for a benefactor.  She gave Fyodor two children – Ivan and Alexei (often Alyosha).  She had frequent “screaming fits” and soon died as well.  Again Fyodor abandoned his children and left them to the servant Grigory.  When Sofia Ivanovna’s widow benefactress also died, she left money to each of them (1000 rubles), and left a larger chunk of inheritance to Yefim Petrovich Polenov, the town’s highest elected official.  This Yefim ended up taking some care of the two boys, especially Alyosha (the narrator stresses this: “I should like the reader to remember that from the very beginning.  If there was anyone to whom the brothers were indebted for their upbringing and education for the rest of their lives, it was to this Yefim Petrovich, a most generous and humane man, of a kind rarely found.”)

It’s unclear where and with whom exactly the three sons lived until they became adults, but by the time the story starts, they’re all in their 20’s, separated by about 3 years each, making Dmitri about 28, Ivan 25 and Alexei 21.  For various reasons, each son returns to the town where their father lives (again, really not so different from the premise of TRT).  Dmitri has returned to pursue a legal claim against his father (Chas and Royal have the same issue); Ivan is involved with some unspecified business involving Dmitri; Alexei has enrolled as a novice at the town’s nearby monastery (to which, for some reason, Fyodor has just donated 1000 rubles).  Miusov also lives in this town now.  There is a well-venerated elder at the monastery named Zosima (Alexei is in his charge).  Fyodor decides, for no clear reason, that the best way to sort out the legal squabbles between himself and Dmitri is to have the whole family, including Miusov (his ex-wife’s cousin) to see Zosima, who he thinks will be able to mediate.

Hopefully that will do for background.  I had to re-read some of the paragraphs several times to make sure I had a rough understanding.  I think there are still nuances I’ve probably missed.  It’s just so densely written, it’s hard to hold it all in your head while you read more, especially with these huge three-part polysyllabic Russian names.

Since this section is largely exposition, I don’t have that much more to say about it.  I find it very comical and efficient in its presentation: it’s hard to fight the feeling that D. is somehow poking fun at the Victorian-social-novel-with-enormous-family-cast genre.  That said, of course, this is in many ways a paradigm case of such a family novel, but it’s framed in such a way that it’s not.  As Frank points out, it doesn’t work the way that George Eliot novels, for example, work.  It’s not stretched out over a few years, and the characters don’t develop morally through the course of the text.  There is a narrator passing moral judgments, but they’re intermittently and inconsistently offered.  Well… that’s about all I’ve got for now.

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2 Responses to The Brothers Karamazov – Book I

  1. Nates says:

    The movie parallels worked better than I was expecting — especially the Tenenbaums.

  2. Josh says:

    I don’t blame you for being suspicious… Wait until you read the portrait of Fyodor’s servant Grigory at the start of book 3, and think about Pagoda.

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