A Colossal Drama: The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky

Set design for The Brothers Karamazov for Jacques Copeau’s Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier by Louis Jouvet.

I found it a bit baffling at first that my reading experiences with  The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace have been equally sublime and edifying even though they are written in such different styles.  I couldn’t quite grasp the difference between these novelists until I read George Steiner’s essay Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in which he compares the narrative of Tolstoy’s novels to epic and Homer and Dostoevsky’s to tragedy and drama.  For my mind these are the perfect analogies to describe the uniqueness of these Russian greats:

…More, perhaps, than those of any novelist of comparable dimension, Dostoevsky’s sensibility, his modes of imagination, and his linguistic strategies were saturated by drama.  Dostoevsky’s relationship to the drama is analogous, in centrality and ramification, to Tolstoy’s relationship to the epic.  It characterized his particular genius as strongly as it contrasted it with Tolstoy’s.  Dostoevsky’s habit of miming his characters as he wrote—like Dickens’s—was the outward gesture of a dramatist’s temper.  His mastery of the tragic mood, his “tragic philosophy,” were the specific expressions of a sensibility which experience and transmuted its material dramatically.  This was true of Dostoevsky’s whole life, from adolescence and the theatrical performance recount in The House of the Dead to his deliberate and detailed use of Hamlet and Schiller’s Räuber to control the dynamics of The Brothers Karamazov.  Thomas Mann said of Dostoevsky’s novels that they are “colossal dramas, scenic in nearly their whole structure; in them an action which dislocates the depth of the human soul and which is often packed into a few days, is represented in surrealistic and feverish dialogue…” It was recognized early that these “colossal dramas” could be adapted to actual performance; the first dramatization of Crime and Punishment was produced in London in 1910.  And referring to the Karamazovs, Gide remarked that “of all imaginative creations and of all protagonists in history none had been claims to being presented on a stage.”

When we read Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, we are not just experiencing the events of a day in the life of this father, son, husband and king; but we are witnessing all of the character traits of the House of Atreus, good and bad, that have seeped into his blood and his soul.  We are also given a hint as to the nature of his son’s soul which has equally been affected by these familial ties.  Similarly, in The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky immediately launches us into a detailed account of the father, Fyodor, and his history of drunken and sexual debauchery.  And anytime one of his sons drinks excessively, seduces a woman, or is quick to anger Dostoevsky reminds us that this is a characteristic of a Karamazov.  I am not quite half way through the book yet, but I suspect that the inability of one or more of his sons to break from the father’s soul-destroying patterns will result in tragedy.

2 Comments

Filed under Classics, Essay, Russian Literature

Aspiring Epicureans: The Colour of Memory by Geoff Dyer

Epicurus writes about friendship:  (Sententiae Vaticanae LXXVIII-translation is my own)  “A man becomes especially noble in mind through wisdom and friendship. Of these the former is a mortal good, but the latter is immortal.” (ὁ γενναῖος περὶ σοφίαν καὶ φιλίαν μάλιστα γίγνεται, ὧν τὸ μέν ἐστι θνητὸν ἀγαθόν, τὸ δὲ ἀθάνατον).  Friendship was an important aspect of his Hellenistic philosophy which promoted the attainment of a happy, carefree life free from pain and fear of death.  In Athens Epicurus had a property called the Garden where his community of friends, which regularly included women, would gather, share common meals and discuss philosophy.

The narrator in Geoff Dyer’s novel The Colour of Memory has no steady job, no real prospects in life, and lives off the dole.  But what he does have is a steady, supportive group of friends: Freddie, Carlton, Steranko, Foomie and Belinda.  The book lacks a true plot, but instead is one description after another of the narrator and these rather well-read and interesting friends hanging out, going to pubs, listening to music, getting high and generally enjoying one another’s company.  Dyer even includes long descriptions of the card games that they play throughout the course of a long, boring winter’s day.  I like to think of them as aspiring, 20th century Epicureans:

On Christmas Eve Steranko invited everyone over to his house for a turkey dinner.  We all sat around the kitchen table which he had dismantled, hauled up the stairs and then re-assembled in his room.  A fire was burning in the grate and more wood was piled up on either side of the fireplace.  All the usual clutter of his room had been cleared away and thrown on his bed or shoved into corners: notebooks, sketch pads, paperback novels.  As always, the walls were covered with unfinished drawings; canvases were stacked up in a corner.  Apart from the fire the only light in the room was from candles on the table and on the mantelpiece.  He had even bought some cheap Christmas crackers.  Everyone had brought booze and grass and we were all drunk and stoned by the time Steranko emerged from the kitchen bearing the turkey ceremoniously before him like a crown on a cushion.

Freddie’s decision to move away from England and the close knit group is what brings about the shocking and unexpected ending of the story.

Since the group all live in the rough neighborhood of Brixton in London, they are constantly trying to avoid pain—that is the physical pain of a random beating or mugging.  The narrator is obsessed with his physical safety and does anything he can to avoid a fight, a mugging, or a burglary in his apartment.  He witnesses a man being beaten on the Tube, but neither he, nor anyone else on the train, steps in for fear of getting attacked himself.  When Freddie is badly attacked on the street his friend’s swollen and deformed head brings him to tears.

Where the narrator and his friends fall short of being true Epicureans is their tendency to engage in recreational substances to the point of hedonism.  I thought it especially astute for the narrator to recognize this flaw:

Waking up the next morning with the odd sensation of being surprised to be alive I threw recklessness to the wind and abandoned my spontaneity programme then and there.  I was fed up with the rigours of impulsive living anyway: I didn’t have the application for it.  I couldn’t cope with being stoned at eleven thirty in the morning and that kind of thing.  Spontaneity seemed constantly to tow regret in its wake.  Living for the moment was all very well, I decided, but you had to pick your moments carefully.

He doesn’t completely give up drinking and getting stoned, but he does back it off to the point where his activities don’t cause him excruciating pain and regret the next day.  I took a break from my epic summer reads to try something a bit shorter and easier to read.  Dyer’s book was a pleasant distraction for a few hours.

4 Comments

Filed under British Literature

Living in the Open: On Not Knowing Greek by Virginia Woolf

After reading Tolstoi’s Love Letters published by The Hogarth Press which collection Virginia Woolf is credited as co-translator although she didn’t know Russian, I reached for Woolf’s essays in which she discusses different cultures and the art of translation.  In “On Not Knowing Greek,” she argues that the Greeks conducted their lives outside, in the open air, and communicated with one another more succinctly and dramatically.  For the English, she argues, who are prone to living indoors, having discussions in the drawing room and writing massive novels filled with thousands of words, Greek literature and culture is something that can never be fully understood.

A people who judged as much as the Athenians did by ear, sitting out-of-doors at the play or listening to argument in the market-place, were far less apt than we are to break off sentences and appreciate them apart from the context.  For them there were no Beauties of Hardy, Beauties of Meredith, Sayings from George Eliot.  The writer had to think more of the whole and less of the detail.  Naturally, living in the open, it was not the lip or the eye that struck them, but the carriage of the body and the proportions of its parts.  Thus, when we quote and extract we do the Greeks more damage than we do the English.  There is a bareness and abruptness in their literature which grates upon a taste accustomed to the intricacy and finish of printed books.  We have to stretch our minds, to grasp a whole devoid of the prettiness of details or the emphasis of eloquence.  Accustomed to look directly and largely rather than minutely and aslant, it was safe for them to step into the thick of emotions which blind and bewilder an age like our own.

She begins the essay by asking why we should bother to learn Greek since the gap between our culture and theirs is so wide.  Her final sentence in the essay answers it perfectly and reminds me how grateful I am to know and study this beautiful language:

With the sound of the sea in their ears, vines, meadows, rivulets about them, they are even more aware than we are of a ruthless fate.  There is a sadness at the back of life which they do not attempt to mitigate.  Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its consolations, of our own age.

13 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

The Soul One Must Learn to Know: Tolstoi’s Love Letters

In 1923 The Hogarth Press published a translation of series of love letters that Tolstoi wrote to his first fiancé, Valeria Arsenev.   In the introduction to this collection of missives,  Paul Biryukov explains that, although Tolstoi didn’t mind having these letters published, his wife Sophia objected to having them read by other people until after she died.  Biryukov respectfully and gladly followed Sophia’s wishes.

The letters were written between 1856 and 1857 when Tolstoi was twenty-eight years old and engaged to the daughter of one of his neighbors.  There seems to have been a case of love at first sight between them and many parts of the letters show the author’s deep affection for Valeria.  In a letter dated Nov. 2nd, 1856 he writes:

I already love in you your beauty, but I am only beginning to love in you that which is eternal and ever precious—your heart, your soul.  Beauty one could get to know and fall in love with in one hour and cease to love it as speedily; but the soul one must learn to know.  Believe me, nothing on earth is given without labour, even love, the most beautiful and natural of feelings.  Forgive me this silly comparison: to love as the silly man does is to play a sonata without keeping time, without accents, always with the pedal down, with emotion, thereby giving neither oneself nor others true pleasure.  But in order to give oneself up to the emotion of music, one must first check oneself, labour, work, and, believe me, there is not a delight in life that can be had without work.   But the more difficult the labour and hardship, the higher the reward.  And there is a great work ahead of us—to understand one another and to preserve each other’s love and respect.

Tolstoi decides that he needs to put their love to the test, so he goes off to Petersburg for several months and hopes that, through their letters, they will get to know each other better.   In the same letter he writes:

I guard my feeling as a treasure, because it alone is capable of uniting us firmly in all our views of life, and without this there is no love. I expect our correspondence to do a great deal towards this.  We shall discuss calmly; I shall try to fathom each word of yours, and you will do the same, and I don’t doubt that we shall understand one another.  All the conditions are favourable, and there is feeling and honesty on both sides.  Argue with me, explain, teach me, seek explanations.

This separation is a calculated risk that ultimately fails in part, I think, because his personality is such that he cannot carry on a relationship merely through letters.  He fails miserably at discussing anything “calmly.”  When he doesn’t receive letters back from her he begs her to write and becomes an emotional mess.  He begins to get jealous because of a rumor of her flirting with another man.  In additional he is prone to lecturing her in his letters which she really doesn’t seem to appreciate, to say the least.  And finally he becomes cold and indifferent, or at least feigns these emotions,  because of his anger.  He repeatedly has to apologize for his bad behavior towards her in his letters.  It’s comforting, somehow,  to see that even a great genius like Tolstoi is not immune to Cupid’s arrows.  One of his last letters to her reads:  “You know my nasty, suspicious, changeable character, and God knows if there is anything that could alter it.  Perhaps, strong love which I have never felt and in which I do not believe.  Among all the women whom I have known, I loved and love you best of all, but all this is yet not enough.”

The book credits S.S. Koteliansky and Virginia Woolf as the translators; although she didn’t know Russian, Woolf spent a great deal of time working with the letters to make them accessible to an English speaking audience.  As a result of learning this about Woolf, not only have I been side tracked by reading her essays about Russian literature but I have also been thinking about what a translator’s job entails. Although she was not familiar with Tolstoi’s original language, Woolf’s work with this text justifies her credit as its co-translator.

6 Comments

Filed under Hogarth Press, Letters, Russian Literature

Frail Vessels: Concluding Thoughts on The Portrait of a Lady

In an essay that explains his process and literary technique in The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James writes:

The novel is of its very nature an “ado,” an ado about something, and the larger the form it takes the greater of course the ado.  Therefore, consciously, that was what one was in for—for positively organizing an ado about Isabel Archer.

One looked it well in the face, I seem to remember, this extravagance; and with the effect precisely of recognizing the charm of the problem.  Challenge any such problem with any intelligence, and you immediately see how full it is of substance; the wonder being, all the while, as we look at the world, how absolutely, how inordinately, the Isabel Archers, and even much smaller female fry, insist on mattering.  George Eliot has admirably noted it—‘In these frail vessels is borne onward through the ages the treasure of human affection.’

As I have made my way through the second part of this novel, I could not quite figure out what about Isabel’s story affected me so deeply.  But James’s own words about his heroine, and similar characters in Eliot’s novels, provided me with an answer—she insists on mattering.  Isabel is a charming, beautiful young woman whose inheritance from her uncle gives her what she wants more than anything in the world, freedom and choice.  It is no wonder that she rejects one suitor after another, since marriage, to her, would mean giving up her liberty.  I did feel immensely sorry for her suitors, especially Lord Warburton, who genuinely loved Isabel and had a difficult time putting aside his love.  But reading about Isabel march headlong into a series of choices that make her life wretched was even more painful.

The most brilliant piece of writing in the book is an occasion during which Isabel, late in the night, reflects on the horrible mistake she has made that puts her in the very cage which she was so desperately trying to avoid.  She is duped into making this mistake, but her loved ones try to make her see her error in judgment before she acts.  Unfortunately for Isabel she is naïve and trusts the wrong people.  Once she is plunged into an unhappy life she accepts it with a great deal of stoicism and refuses to do anything to make a better, or at least a more comfortable, existence for herself.  She views her solitude, her fear and her entrapment as a type of penance for her poor choices.  James, himself, acknowledges that Isabel’s inner dialogue is some of best writing in the story and he says about these lines, “Reduced to its essence, it is but the vigil of searching criticism; but it throws the action further forward than twenty ‘incidents’ might have done.”  Isabel’s thoughts during her vigil go on for several pages, but I offer here one of the best, and most chilling, passages:

It was not her fault—she had practiced no deception; she had only admired and believed.  She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of the multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end.  Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and where it served to deepen the feeling of failure.

James’s novel has shattered me and, despite the fact that there are several people in her life that love her and want to help her, I still came away with a negative view of the world.  I need to take a bit of a break from James’s novels and to think more about this one.  I have collections of his letters, diaries and essays that will keep me busy for a while.

5 Comments

Filed under Classics