Thursday, June 11, 2009

Brothers Karamazov

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1879)
Shortly before Karamazov
(Image from Wikipedia)

When I was 18 and taking a freshman writing course under Morse Hamilton at Baylor University, I wrote a short story about a morose down-and-out fellow who lived underground in the basement of some abandoned building, felt himself alienated from society, and philosophized about life as he survived by gleaning forgotten change from the coin return boxes of vending machines.

It was a ridiculous story, but Morse liked it well enough and asked me if I'd read Notes from Underground, by Dostoyevsky.
"Who's Dostoyevsky?" I asked.

"Oh, just some Russian writer," replied Morse, smiling but giving me a peculiar look.
I got the book somehow and read it quickly. Immediately taken by Dostoyevsky's themes, I read everything by him that I could get my hands on . . . which wasn't much, admittedly. I was poor, and I depended on what I could find secondhand in the Baylor Bookstore. Morse made sure that I read The Brothers Karamazov.

A semester or two later, I was surprised in an existentialism class taught by Robert Baird to read an excerpt, "The Grand Inquisitor," from this novel, and I began to appreciate that one could legitimately read literature as philosophy, which meant reading primarily for ideas rather than for the story. Actually, that fit how I had read the novel even before my existentialism course, but the course reinforced my tendency to read stories for their intellectual depth, sometimes to the detriment of appreciating the story for itself.

Dostoyevsky can certainly be read for philosophical insights, for he self-consciously wrote novels of ideas, but I discovered over the years, as I looked back on my youthful reading of this greatest work of his, that I could recall nothing of the plot, and having recently finished re-reading Jane Austen's works, I've decided to return to Dostoyevsky and am currently re-reading Constance Garnett's translation of The Brothers Karamazov, which is probably the same copy that I read nearly 35 years ago, for the book that I have has heavily yellowed pages with what appears to be my occasional, somewhat random underlining.

Upon this re-reading, I've noticed something odd.

The narrator self-consciously puts himself forward as an individual who knows the Karamazov family, as well as other characters, and claims to be native to the same place in Russia as the Karamazovs. He still seems to be currently living there, too, for in speaking of the Karamazov family's reunion in their place of birth, he tells of the two brothers by the father's second wife (the first wife having borne a son as well) and says:
"The younger brother, Alexey, had been a year already among us, having been the first of the three to arrive."
In itself, this isn't odd, for a narrator can be a character reporting on what another character does, but consider this report on a reaction to the monks in the local monastery by one of the many other characters, Pyotr Alexandrovitch Miüsov:
"Oh, devil take them all! An outer show elaborated through centuries, and nothing but charlatanism and nonsense underneath," flashed through Miüsov's mind.
Notice the oddity? Our narrator, a character in the novel and telling us the story, is privy to another character's unspoken thoughts -- even thoughts that simply flash through that character's mind.

This is the sort of thing that passed unnoticed by me in my jejune reading at 19, so I've perhaps grown more subtle with age despite the daily loss of brain cells.

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At 6:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your subtle insights into another's mind seem to be missing in your comments on my tales.

Only JK seems to fathom the thoughts that flash through my mind, soon to vanish from my concousness.

JK, what am I thinking at this moment?


At 6:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whether it'll be cold fresh milk or iced sweet tea with supper.


At 7:56 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, I lack subtle insights into your mind because even though you're a Dostoyevskian character type (e.g., Raskolnikov?), you're not a Dostoyevskian character.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:06 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, Uncle Cran has his cold fresh milk in the morning. He crumbles cornbread into the tall glass with it and eats the resulting concoction with a great big tablespoon.

His iced tea is unsweetened, and he drinks it with a slice of lemon in the afternoon to cool off after a hot sweaty encounter with a bale of hay.

Supper is with a cold beer, which he sips up a straw through his nose so that he can always claim that alcohol never passes his lips.

Not that he wasn't thinking what you say he was . . . just that he'd never actually follow through on either of those things.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:13 AM, Blogger Charles Montgomery said...


I just finished (for my own pleasure)reviewing Kim Young-ha's "I Have the Right To Destroy Myself." A shorter version might eventually show up in my review section in 10 Asia Magazine. Iin any case, I noticed that narrator playing a similar trick - he reports the direct thoughts of a character he has yet to meet, about a character he has met.

Of course Kim tips this off early in his novel when the narrator describes himself as a God and an artist (perhaps different things?).

The review is here:

If cross-posting isn't a sin here?

Anyway, it is one of my favorite things to do, to try to spot clever narrator tricks. I read Pnin when I was a wee-sprout and the sudden recognition that the narrator was probably NOT Pnin's buddy was eye-opening.

At 10:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jeff, didn't you ever take a whiff of Cran's milk? That milk he "crumbles cornbread into?"

That my friend is buttermilk - a breakfast accoutremont.

As for nostrilizing a cold beer - uhm, Cran told me never to blogpost that because he'd told Linda Gaye that was on "doctor's orders." I only now take that chance because my own doctor advised me to do the same since I was nearing Cran's age and I wished to maintain my standings in the "AARP Bull-Dogging" record books.


At 11:22 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CM, crossposting is welcome. Let me help you with a proper link.

I have the code for that if you want it (though you surely already have it).

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:24 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

We'd best ease up on ol' Uncle Cran, JK, or he won't tell us another story.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 1:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All of which reminds me of another story............and as soon as I recover from hurt feelings, my friends will hear from me..


At 5:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Uncle Cran, did you know that your elliptical remark uses four ellipses (...) (...) (...) (...) and two periods (..)?

Possibly, just possibly, you're overpunctuating your sentences?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:26 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

All those ........... are accidental...........I forget to release my finger from the I ponder my next statement..........Im done!


At 7:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I see . . . it's your ponderous fingers. Always blaming someone or something other than yourself.

Well, even though you live on a pond-filled 'Ponderosa' and have little time for pounding away on the keyboard, you can surely proofread and edit before you click "send."

No excuses, Uncle Cran . . . and hurry up with that next story. You're over the deadline.

Jeffery Hodges

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