At the start of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (to be written about later in this same space) the children listen to Benjamin Britten’s “A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” and the voiceover narrator describes the different instruments as they enter the piece. At the end of the movie, the same voiceover describes all the parts fused together in a fugue. I think D’s approach to TBK was the opposite – the fugue of the Ks’ visit to the monestary and its 10+ character chaotic sequence begins the action, and its paced, deliberate deconstruction comes at the end, in the form of a 100-page -long account of the trial of Dmitri.The action of the trial all happens in one long day, which means the whole novel really only considered 5 days, at least in any dramatic depth. We could imagine these five days as the five acts of a Shakespeare play. Act I: the Karamazovs’ visit to Zosima’s cell and the ensuing scandal, including Dmitri’s visit to Fyodor’s house later and his savage beating and near murder. Act II: Alyosha makes the rounds to the Kholokovs and the Snirygovs, and then finishes out his day listening to Ivan’s rebellion and the myth of the grand inquisitor. Act III: Dmitri’s futile search for 3000 rubles (which starts simultaneously to the action of act II, but then turns over onto the third day, the day on which Ivan leaves for Moscow, Alyosha mourns over the death of Zosima, and Dmitri almost murders Fyodor, follows Grushenka out of town on a spree, and is then arrested for the murder of his father and the theft of 3000 rubles. Act IV: it’s two months later now and it’s the eve of Dmitri’s trial. Alyosha reconciles Kolya with the dying Illushkya Snurygov, and Ivan finally learns the truth about Smerdyakov’s murder and framing of Dmitri, then his visit from the devil and Smerydakov’s suicide. Act V: the next day, the trial and conviction of Dmitri. These five acts are bookended by an introduction and an epilogue, plus some other ecphrases that don’t quite fit this dramatic unity – the life of Zosima, the earlier Smerdyakov-Ivan conversations, in a sense the myth of the grand inquisitor itself occurs in ecphrasis, like a sort of shield of Achilles or Odysseus’s tales of his travels told to king Alkinous.
I’m really struck by the structure of the book and thinking about it as a hybrid of drama, epic and novel feels right. It’s both hugely digressive and full of set-pieces, but also has an overall dramatic unity of time and pacing that seems to blend the best of all three of these genres.
As for the actual content of book 12, in a way it was underwhelming. Most of the main action of the book is recapitulated through the words of the witnesses called at the trial. Each character’s principal actions are re-constructed in a sort of review. What’s new here is the lawyers’ interpretations of those actions, allowing D to take a first stab at the interpretation of the book from within its narrative framing. Both lawyers’ interpretations, though, seem intentionally to miss the point: they’re both swept up in the narrative of parricide, and spend more time arguing about whether an act of parricide could ever be justified than in seeing that a true understanding of Dmitri’s and Smerdyakov’s character would have revealed the truth. In fact, it’s the defense attorney’s overreaching, including some gratuitous biblical citation that the prosecutor and the “peasants” of the jury correctly judge to be the out-of-context proof-texting of a city-dwelling unbeliever, that finally tips the scales towards the prosecution.
The novel’s real ending, though, comes in the epilogue, at Illushkya’s funeral. All the children who had earlier been met by Alyosha in the town, engaged in a stone fight, and then later convened around Illushkya’s sickbed, are present at the funeral too. The final moments of the book are now about the Karamazovs at all, but this group of children. As I reflect on reading the book, I guess I realize the significance of this secondary plot/cluster of characters. They revisit the struggles of Ivan and Dmitri, but from the disarmingly simple perspective of a cadre of pre-teen schoolboys. Alyosha has his finger bitten, he reconciles the children, he teaches them a lesson about that, and they eat pancakes. But the meaning that crystallizes around this secondary plot only comes from the bigger story surrounding it. At any event, Alyosha’s final speech is quite moving in its simplicity, and provides a perfect tone with the novel’s denouement. I remember something similar from Don Delillo’s Falling Man. Set against all the vagaries of 9/11, Mohammad Atta, etc. is a simple story about two neighbors, one of which plays their music too loudly, on a regular basis. After some time, the angry neighbor shows up to complain, there is an argument, and the angry neighbor punches the music-player.
The religious overtones of the story of the boys, the move through conflict, injury, death and then the shared meal at the end is easy to overlook because of its embeddedness within strum-und-drang of the Karamazov family. There’s something big to that, something about how the Karamazov story almost intentionally distracts from the simple story of Illuskhyka’s death, Kolya’s redemption and the reunification of this community… its overall power is much like that of Alyosha’s character in general, or Jesus’s as depicted by his kiss of the Grand Inquisitor at the end of Ivan’s story.
Anyway, that’s it for The Brothers Karamazov. I’ll write someone more about the experience of reading all of these novels, short stories and essays in the next few days.