For the past month my almost-three-year-old son and I have shared a joke. In idle moments, sitting around the table or on the playroom floor, we’ll make eye contact and start to grin. Then one or the other of us will whisper quietly, “Stinking Lizaveta,” and we’ll laugh and say it again and again in happy singsong voices.
Stinking Lizaveta, if you don’t know, is a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. She is a short girl with a “completely idiotic” look fixed to her face and hair that “was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.” She’s not a wholesome character, and one very unwholesome thing happens to her, which makes it all the funnier to me that my son should take such joy in pronouncing her name. (Which really is a pleasure to say out loud. Try it. “Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”).
A couple nights ago I finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was riveted by long sections of the book but in the end I concluded that my taste in fiction leans more towards Tolstoy. In the last few years I’ve read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment; overall, Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life was more revelatory to me than Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.
There were places in The Brothers Karamazov that left me enthralled. Last month I wrote on The Millions about how the famed “Grand Inquisitor” chapter made me consider the similarities between the power I hold over my kids and the power religion holds over the faithful. Overall, though, the novel’s provocations about religion never fully grabbed me. I admired the fever with which Ivan Karamazov tries to convince his brother Alyosha that God does not exist (“It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket”), but for whatever unaccountable reasons, Ivan’s preoccupations landed like a relic in my own life.
Dmitri Karamazov did grab me, though. If you were to evaluate him just on his actions, he’s a fool, of course. He’s passionate and volatile and often acts immorally: He makes a craven offer to a desperate woman; He steals; He publically abuses a weak man, dragging him around the square by his beard. But Dmitri has integrity despite his licentiousness. At the turning point in the novel, he flies to his beloved and unattainable Grushenka and initiates an evening of unbridled revelry. When the party comes to a crashing stop he declares:
You see, gentlemen, you seem to be taking me for quite a different man from what I am. It is a noble man you are speaking with, a most noble person; above all — do not lose sight of this — a man who has done a world of mean things, but who always was and remained a most noble person.
I believed Dmitri’s claims that he is a noble person. I sympathized with the plight he’d gotten himself into and saw in his tragic position a reflection of the tragic position in which we all find ourselves from time to time: driven by emotion to places our rational selves would rather not go. And maybe I agree, too, with Dostoevsky, who might say that we lose something essential if we go too far in subjugating passion to reason or to social authority (like religion or bureaucracy).
There were other pleasures in The Brothers Karamazov. The courtroom drama at the end of the novel is so much better than anything Law and Order or John Grisham have ever produced that it demeans Dostoevsky to even mention them by comparison. In particular, the defense attorney’s closing argument is remarkable for its command of human psychology, as the hired gun from St. Petersburg shows that all the supposedly incriminating circumstances of the case can be understood differently if only you’re inclined to think that way.
(The closing argument also introduces an epistemological standard that I think I’m going to lean on more often and which might lead to a run on The Brothers Karamazov among global warming denialists. The defense attorney warns the jury to be skeptical in situations like the case at hand where, “the overwhelming totality of the facts is against the defendant, and at the same time there is not one fact that will stand up to criticism.”)
I’d be omitting one of the most rewarding parts of having read The Brothers Karamazov if I didn’t mention that it facilitated my introduction to a remarkable writer named Chris Huntington. Chris sent me an email after my first Brothers Karamazov essay was published in January. Since then we’ve exchanged several rounds of highly enjoyable correspondence about literature and raising kids and his life as a teacher in China. He shared an essay he’d written recently for The Rumpus on The Brothers Karamazov called “The Last Book I Loved” that left me breathless (as well as a funny cartoon of Lisa Simpson clutching a copy of the book). I would have linked to Chris’ essay much earlier in this post, but for the fact that after reading his there’s not much reason to return to reading mine.
In total, The Brothers Karamazov was not the profound reading experience that I’d hoped for when I started the book, but that’s probably too high a standard with which to begin any relationship. That said, I don’t consider the entire history of my involvement with The Brothers Karamazov to have been written. For, as the peerless defense attorney from St. Petersburg might note, there is one last thread that hasn’t been sewn up.
The six weeks I spent reading The Brothers Karamazov happened to coincide almost exactly with the time in his life when my son became aware of letters. He’s known how to sing the alphabet for a long time, but he’s only recently started to understand that letters are discrete things that populate his world in important ways. Now that he looks for them he finds them everywhere: Two “C”s on our license plate; a “J” on a cereal box; an “I” (“or maybe it’s an ‘F,’” he said to me this morning) on a Valentine that hangs on our fridge.
My son has a long way to go until he’s reading The Brothers Karamazov, but hopefully not so long that he forgets about Stinking Lizaveta before he gets there. I hope I’ll be near at hand, or only a phone call away, when he discovers that the funny name we used to whisper to each other is actually a very sad character in a great novel, and that the line between life and art is arbitrary, if it exists at all.