I have re-read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov after more than 30 years. I remember being almost spellbound by the novel when I first read it – it led me into The Idiot which I also found a revelation. A curious feature of my reading of both books is that, after such a time, the plots had faded almost entirely in my memory. I did remember a pervading sense of delirium yet a strong sense of realism in the writing. Obviously the impact was on me was emotional not narrative. Let’s face it the human condition seldom gets described accurately by popular culture and Hollywood – when we come across a quality portrayal the description sticks. Particular emotionally-charged passages I recall vividly as if I read them yesterday. One terrifying image that stuck is of a peasant beating a horse around its ‘gentle eyes’. Yet I had forgotten almost entirely about Fyodor Karamazov, his death and the prosecution of Dmitri which provides the bulk of the second half of the story.
In the chapter before that titled the ‘Grand Inquisitor’ Dostoyevsky exposits what, as far as I know, is one of the earliest versions of the ‘ticking bomb’ problem that I recall discussing on John Quiggin’s blog a few years ago. In the version I discussed the question was whether one should torture a terrorist who knew where a ticking bomb was concealed if the discovery of the bomb would prevent the deaths of millions. Dostoyevsky poses this problem much more dramatically. Should you torture to death a young innocent child if by so doing you could bring eternal happiness to all in the world? Our hero, Alyusha* Karamazov, thankfully says ‘no’! I thought I might have been the first to recognise this literary connection to a contemporary problem of ethics but Dostoyevsky’s argument, and its link to the ticking bomb issue, is, in fact, widely- known.
The Brothers Karamazov is not all gloom and pessimism and it does capture real life in all its complexity. I am intrigued by the initially peripheral figure Grushenka who is initially portrayed as a conniving slut but who gradually is revealed as a highly intelligent free spirit and ultimately as the ideal Russian woman. Indeed the whole novel is fascinating writing. Freud described it as the most ‘magnificent novel ever written’. In the absence of evidence to the contrary – and given my limited literary experience – I concur.
I was lucky enough to read this book in a beautiful Folio edition illustrated with wood engravings. It does make a difference reading an enjoyable novel that is so elegantly presented – hard cover, heavy high-quality paper and attractive non-miniscule fonts.
*Incidentally Alyusha was the name of Dostoyevsky’s young son who died aged 3 from epilepsy – a disease his father inflicted on him through his genes.