Category Archives: Russian Literature

What is a Father?: Some Concluding Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

(Warning that this post may contain some spoilers for those who are completely unfamiliar with the plot of The Brothers Karamazov.)

In a letter dated March 16th, 1878 Dostoevsky describes to V.V. Mikhailov his preparations for writing The Brothers Karamazov (trans. by Michael A. Minihan for Mochulsky’s Biography):

In your letter, I was very interested in the fact that you love children, have lived a great deal with children, and even now spend time with them. Well, here is my request, dear Vladimir Vasilyevich: I have planned, and soon will begin a big novel in which, among other things, children will play a large part, especially young ones from 7 to 15 years, approximately. Many children will be introduced. I am studying and have studied them all my life, love them very much, and have some of my own. But the observations of a man such as yourself (I understand this) will be invaluable to me. And so write me what you yourself know about the children in Petersburg who have called you dear uncle and about the Yelisavetrad children and about what you know. Things that happen, their habits, answers, words and little sayings, traits of character, their relations to their families, faith, misdeeds, and innocence; nature and the teacher, the Latin language and so forth, and so forth—in a word what you yourself know.

Dostoeveky’s children theme is particularly important in the last part of his novel where he explores the relationships between father and son; Fyodor Karamazov’s rearing of his three sons stands in sharp contrast to the poor and destitute Staff Captain Snegiroyov who displays a great deal of love and affection for his little boy. During the trial that takes place in the final books of the novel, the defense attorney argues that patricide has not taken place because one has to actually be a father in order for this to be true. The attorney goes on to recount the heartbreaking neglect that all three Karamazov brothers suffered during childhood when, once their mothers died, they were cared for by their father’s servant. The local doctor takes pity on the eldest brother whom he sees barefoot, wearing tattered clothes and playing alone in the yard by giving him a pound of nuts. This simple act of kindness shown to him by a stranger stays with Dmitry Karamazov for his entire life. The saddest aspect of this whole tragedy is that no one is surprised that one of the Karamazov brothers could be angry and bitter enough to want to kill their degenerate, cruel and heartless old father. The defense attorney’s emotional and stunning rhetoric, I think, is comparable to the likes of Cicero: “Gentlemen of the jury, what is a father, a true father? What an august title, what an awesome concept is contained in the very word itself! I have indicated something of the nature of a true father and what he should be. In the present case with which we are so preoccupied and which is causing us so much heartache—in the present case, the father, the late Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, bore no resemblance whatsoever to that idealization of a father that we have been picturing in our minds. That is the trouble.” And further on in his speech he continues to describe the horrible childhood of the Karamazovs: “Did anyone ever teach him what life was all about, attend to his education, love him—even just a little—in his childhood? My client was left to God’s tender care, like an animal in the wild.”

But Dostoevsky does indeed provide us with a positive answer as to what a true father ought to be. At the beginning of the novel, Dmitry Karamazov gives the Staff Captain a horrible and humiliating beating at the local pub that his young son, Ilyusha, witnesses. The mutual devotion between father and son is a tender and severe contrast to anything we witness among the Karamozovs; Ilyusha quarrels with his friends at school in order to defend his father from local gossip and ridicule. And the Staff Captain spends time every day walking with his son, trying to quell his anger. The author fully displays that he has, in fact, as he said in his letter, done some intense research about a child’s innocence and “nature and the teacher” which he uses to demonstrate true paternal care and its resulting love and devotion.

Dostoevsky returns, at great length, to this father-son relationship at the end of the book when the small boy is very ill. The caring father is beside himself with grief and will do anything to make his child happy and healthy: “His father could not do enough for him—he even stopped drinking completely—he nearly went out of his mind from fear that his little boy was going to die, and often, especially after supporting him by his arm so that he could walk a few steps and then helping him back to bed, he would suddenly rush out into the hallway and, leaning his head against the wall in a dark corner, break down, convulsed by sobs, which he stifled so that Ilyuskenchka should not hear.” The Chapter “The Boys” which describes this doting father as well as Ilyusha’s school friends that visit to comfort him was my favorite in the novel.

The book ends, fittingly, with a heart wrenching yet hopeful scene in which Dostoevsky, once again, shows us what it means to be a good father to one’s son; Ilyushka’s dying request is that crumbs of bread be spread upon his grave so that sparrows will flock to him and keep him company in the afterlife. As the small coffin is being carried to the church by his friends, the Staff Captain unexpectedly stops the entire funeral procession: “‘The crust, we’ve forgotten the crust,’ he cried suddenly in a panic. But the boys immediately reminded him that he had already picked up the bread, and that it was now in his pocket. He took it out of his pocket for a moment and, having reassured himself, became calmer.”

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Zosima’s Rotting Corpse: More Thoughts on The Brothers Karamazov

I keep thinking about Alyosha’s test of faith in The Brothers Karamazov when his mentor, Father Zosima dies.  This monk is considered an elder in his monastery—the word staret is used for him in the Avsey translation—with special powers of healing, prophesy and spiritual guidance.  People flock from all around for the privilege of approaching this monk, similar in my mind to worshippers visiting the god Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi; they seek healing—-one woman brings her crippled daughter, they ask advice—-another woman questions whether or not she should hope that her son, a soldier, is still alive, and they look for spiritual guidance—a mother worries about the soul of her deceased child.  All of these people, some of the other monks included, who so highly praised Father Zosima during his life of service, are bitterly disappointed when, only a few hours after his death, his body begins to rot and putrefy in his coffin.  This entire episode displays Dostoevsky’s brilliance in creating a religious dilemma that shines a light on those who are truly spiritual versus those who are merely superstitious.

Those who believed in Father Zosima’s powers as a staret gather around the monastery expecting miracles to happen after his death but instead that get a rotting corpse.  They become angry and question his entire religious life as that of a highly respected elder.  Some of the other monks who were jealous of Zosima’s elevated status among them are secretly happy that the dead monk’s body is starting to stink.  Alyosha, too, was hoping for miracles and awe inspiring events to occur when his mentor died because this holy man truly deserved to recognized as a great religious leader.  But Alyosha’s anger is different than the other onlookers because his is one of indignation at the insults being thrown around about his dead mentor.  The decaying and fetid corpse is the perfect metaphor for Dostoevsky to deal with the darker sides of the human soul; in this central piece of the story, after lingering for many chapters on the extraordinary religious journey of this holy man, he uses the end of his physical life to expose the rot in the spirits of these so-called believers.  The very minute these worshippers are disappointed and don’t get what they want, their opinion of someone they revered turns bitter and ugly.

One of my favorite narrative techniques is when Dostoevsky uses the first person to address his audience and this is employed at great length to describe Alyosha’s spiritual turning point in the novel.  Dostoevsky feels a great need to explain that his hero’s crisis of faith and reaction to Zosima’s rotting body is very different from everyone else’s  This is Dostoevsky, I think, at the pinnacle of his writing:

You see, even though I stated earlier (all too hastily, perhaps) that I would not offer any explanations, excuses or justifications on behalf of my hero, nevertheless I realize that some clarification is called for in order to understand properly the story that is to follow.  Let me put it this way: it was not just a question of miracles.  It was by no means a case of frivolous expectation of the miraculous.  Alyosha needed miracles neither to confirm any particular convictions of his (that least of all) nor to bolster the triumph of any deep-seated, preconceived theory over other theories—not that either; in his case I was first and foremost a question of love and veneration of one individual person, that and nothing else—the person of his beloved starets, his mentor.  The point to bear in mind is that at that particular time and throughout the whole of the preceding year, all the love that he had borne in his pure young heart towards ‘all and sundry’ had appeared on occasion and particularly at times of spiritual crisis to be concentrated, however mistakenly, on one single individual, that is on his beloved starets, who was now dead.  In fact, this being had been an unquestionable paragon for him for so long that all his youthful energy and all his aspirations were channeled perforce towards that same paragon, on occasion even to the exclusion of ‘all and sundry.’

And Dostoevsky continues:

But again it was not miracles he needed; rather, some ‘supreme justice’ that he believed had been violated, and as a consequence of which violation his heart had been so cruelly and unexpectedly wounded.  Is it any wonder, therefore, that by the very nature of things Alyosha should expect this ‘justice’ to take the form of the instant miracle expected from the bodily remains of his beloved erstwhile teacher?  After all, this was just what everyone at the monastery thought and expected, even those whose intellect Ayosha venerated—Father Paisy, for instance—and hence Alyosha, untroubled by the least doubt, had begun to nurture the same dreams.  He had long since accepted in his heart, a year’s life at the monastery had accustomed him to such expectations.  But it was justice he yearned for, justice, and not just miracles!

What will Alyosha learn from this wounded heart and will he lower his expectations?  How will Alyosha apply all of these lessons outside of the monastery when his faith and his morals are truly tested?  Dostoevsky seems to be hinting that, unlike others, his hero will come out stronger and perhaps even get the justice he is seeking.

 

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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.

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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.

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For awhile you were my Aeneas: Poetry by Anna Akhmatova

Dmitry Bushen, 1914. Charcoal on paper.

I’ve been reading and so much enjoying the poetry of Anna Akhmatova all weekend and thought I would share a few of my favorites.  The edition I have is The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova from Zephyr Press and translated by Judith Hemschemeyer.  I highly recommend this edition because of the wonderful photographs and the introduction by Roberta Reeder.

The first I will share is one of many poems in which she uses classical themes.  From “Sweetbrier in Blossom” poem 11:

I abandoned your shores, Empress,
against my will.
—Aeneid Book 6

Don’t be afraid—I can still portray
What we resemble now.
You are a ghost—or a man passing through,
And for some reason I cherish your shade.

For awhile you were my Aeneas—
It was then I escaped by fire.
We know how to keep quiet about one another.
And you forgot my cursed house.

You forgot those hands stretched out to you
In horror and torment, through flame,
And the report of blasted dreams.

You don’t know for what you were forgiven…
Rome was created, flocks of flotillas sail on the sea,
And adulation sings the praises of victory.

1962 Komarovo

Her poems about Russia are full of disappointment and sadness as she witnesses the terror of Stalin and the siege of Leningrad.  She was tempted, like other artists and writers to flee her motherland, but was proud of the fact that she chose to stay.  From “The Wind of War” poem 4:

The birds of death are at the zenith,
Who will rescue Leningrad?

Be quiet—it is breathing,
It’s still living, it hears everything:

How at the bottom of the Baltic Sea
Its sons groan in their sleep,

How from its depths come cries: “Bread!”
That reach to the firmament…

But this solid earth is pitiless.
And staring from all the windows—death.

September 28, 1941
(On the airplane)

I have especially enjoyed Akhmatova’s poems about love.  It is no surprise that there are many on this theme;  she was married a few times and had many love affairs—the poet Osip Mandelstom was one of her lovers.  From her collection “Evening” the first poem is simply entitled “Love”:

Now, like a little snake, it curls into a ball,
Bewitching your heart,
Then for days it will coo like a dove
On the little white windowsill.

Or it will flash as bright frost,
Drowse like a gillyflower…
But surely and stealthily it will lead you away
From joy and from tranquility.

It knows how to sob so sweetly
In the prayer of a yearning violin,
And how fearful to divine it
In a still unfamiliar smile.

November 24, 1911
Tsarskoye Selo

Also from her collection “Evening” an untitled poem:

And when we had cursed each other,
Passionate, white hot,
We still didn’t understand
How small the earth can be for two people,
And that memory can torment savagely.
The anguish of the strong—a wasting disease!
And in the endless night the heart learns
To ask: Oh where is my departed lover?
And when, through waves of incense,
The choir thunders, exulting and threatening,
Those same eyes, inescapable,
Stare sternly and stubbornly into the soul.

1909

Have you read any Akhmatova?  What are your favorite poems of hers?

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