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And so, I took Rosewater to heart, and after finishing Slaughterhouse over my winter break, I went to the library and took out the intimidatingly old and terribly thick translation of The Brothers Karamazov. I sat down on my bed at home and opened it, and thought to myself, "Let's read the first page, and see if I can make sense of it."
The first page, is in fact, a message from the author and it addresses the same question (more or less) that I was asking myself as I began to read:
"Starting out on the biography of my hero, Alexi Fyodorovich Karamazov, I find myself in some perplexity. Namely, that while I do call Alexi Fyodorovich my hero, still, I myself know that he is by no means a great man, so that I can foresee the inevitable questions, such as: What is notable about your Alexei Fyodorovich that you should choose him for your hero? What has he really done? To whom is he known, and for what? Why should I, the reader, spend my time studying the facts of his life?"
It is that last question-why anyone should want to spend time studying the facts of his life (and, on a side note, I recently read a Dave Barry column where he asks, "Has anyone actually finished The Brothers Karamazov?") that I am here to sell you on.
I can say now, even though I literally just finished it, with some degree of certainty, that The Brothers Karamazov is the most important book that I have ever read. It has very much changed me-and my perception of the world. I will go back to it, throughout my life, and reread many of its passages. I will forever remember-whether consciously or unconsciously-its characters, its moments, and its apparent meanings.
I am here to tell you, though, that you-yes you-are very much capable of reading The Brothers Karamazov. I was the one in high school who read the Cliff's Notes for The Scarlet Letter and for Dostoyevski's own Crime and Punishment. If you asked me then, and in fact if you asked me only a few months ago, if I thought I might ever read The Brothers Karamazov for pleasure, I would have laughed. And yet I did just exactly that, reading the first 100 pages from the library, and then going out and purchasing my own copy-because I knew after those first 100 pages that I could, and that I would, finish.
And now a short note on translation: the library book that I began with was, indeed, readable, but the book that I eventually bought was a new translation that came out in 1991. Critics praise this translation on the front and back covers; the New York Times writes, "One finally gets the musical whole of Dostoyevsky's original." And since I read the first 100 pages from an older translation, I can agree with the NYT that this translation is far superior. [And for those who plan on tackling this book, it's a pink and white copy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.]
And now on to the book itself. I would say that this book works on two levels: on one level it is a mystery/thriller/love story/drama (all on one level) that is exciting for its plot and its suspense. The other level, though, is the spiritual level-a level that justifies the presence of the seemingly (in retrospect) unimportant characters of Zossima the Elder and Ilyushenka, the poor little boy who gets sick after his father is publicly humiliated. These characters don't affect, really, the plot of the book-although they both play important roles. They are, though, there for very different reasons-and they are for me the most important characters in the book.
In conclusion, (and yet I feel like I could write so much more), read The Brothers Karamazov because we view the world constantly through a filter-a filter of consciousness-and this book will reshape and reconfigure your filter. It's like a spiritual tune-up. It will lead to deep introspection, it will comfort you, it will disturb you, and most of all it will better you. As the elder Zossima tells Alyosha, "you will bless life and cause others to bless it-which is the most important thing."
The radical, revolutionary brother Ivan is a prisoner of his intellect. His essay on "The Grand Inquisitor" is the second of his two-part assault on his brother Aleosha's belief in Christ. Dimity, the lover of women and eruptive speaker is a prisoner of his passion. Aleosha, who worships his spiritual mentor, Father Zosima is a prisoner of his faith, while Smerdyakov, the ill begotten son of Fyodor Karamazov and a street woman is a prisoner of his circumstances. Each brother is a unique and integral component of the human condition.
But a novel cannot work through symbolism and personification alone. Like Tolstoi's `War and Peace" this book is also a series of essays. The chapter in which Father Zosima discovers his faith on the evening before his is supposed fight a duel is an essay of courage and integrity that far outstrips any thing written by "macho" authors such as Hemingway and Camus. In this chapter, Zosima is a carousing young military officer who discovers his faith in God on the evening before he is to fight a duel. This puts Zosima in a quandary since his faith now prevents him from killing another human being but he still does not want to appear a coward. Zosima solves this problem by offering his opponent the first shot. When his opponent misses, Zosima declines to take his shot. Instead he throws away his pistol and asks "am I worth it?" Zosima has transcended his ego and followed his conscience while still preserving his honor. This brief, action packed chapter summarizes the complexity of spiritual evolution. Zosima's faith does not give him an easy way out or solve all of his problems. He must still deal with the consequences of his previous actions even after discovering God. Faith in his case is hardly a narcotic.
The Grand Inquisitor chapter on the other hand clearly separates the sort of faith experienced by Father Zosima from the more cynical manifestations of organized religion. In this chapter Ivan tells Aleosha a story about Christ returning to Earth during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Christ is arrested and brought before the Grand Inquisitor who clearly recognizes Him for who and what He is. Far from fearing or rejoicing in Christ's presence, the Grand Inquisitor threatens to try him for heresy and burn him. Since the Grand Inquisitor is primarily interested in the power and authority he derives from his position, the last thing he wants is a true believer let alone Christ himself to appear on the scene. The Grand Inquisitor tries to bate Christ into rebutting him, but Christ's silence frustrates him and eventually the Grand Inquisitor releases him.
From these brief descriptions, one can hopefully grasp the range of this work as a novel of ideas and a panoramic essay on the nature of faith and the human condition. In illuminating the struggles born by every human being in their physical and spiritual lives, Dostoevsky offers no easy solution. Dostoevsky's emphasis on the silent, invisible nature of courage and the folly of institutionalized belief make him the spiritual father of thinkers such as Nietze and Sartre. The ideas this book illuminates and questions it raises are universal and relevant to this day.