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.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.
"Oh, just some Russian writer," replied Morse, smiling but giving me a peculiar look.
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.