The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

This is a great book. That’s a generic thing to say, but in sincerity, in depth, in ambition, and in intelligence very little else I’ve read comes close to The Brothers Karamazov. This is a novel with that strange, intangible quality that makes you put it down occasionally, stare into space, and say ‘wow’.

Fierce is a good word for this novel. It’s also often funny, but you always take the characters seriously. There’s absurdity, but just enough to keep things entertaining without being ridiculous and never so much that you’re pulled out of the narrative. It’s like a friendly but drunk man is confessing his difficult life story: he might occasionally slur some words, and he makes you laugh at times, but you can tell that he feels every word is important. 

There are so many disparate elements floating around for the first four-hundred pages that it was difficult to imagine how they could ever coalesce, and there are slow moments even further on in the book. But everything, by the end, was tied together. Moments that could come across as saccharine are tinged with significance, as there’s such a strong moral centre that you buy them, sentimentality and all. The extreme natures of the characters are revealed as expressing the horrific depths that emotion can plunge us into. Their intensity reveals the consequences of suffering in daily life, and the difficulty in being good.

This is all also very entertaining to read about which is a hard thing to pull off, especially in a book this long. This thing is just fun. Imagine a soap written by one of the smartest people who ever lived and you’ve got the idea.

The Karamazov brothers are three of the most acutely drawn characters in existence, particularly Ivan, who is the crux of two of the best chapters — ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ and ‘The Devil’. But it’s hard not to love Alyosha, who is almost absurdly sensitive, but also clever, trusting, and wise. Dmitry is incredibly intense in every aspect, but honest and with a strange sense of honour that’s engaging to read about.

Ilyusha’s introduction in Book X, where Alyosha meets a group of schoolchildren who are throwing rocks at a classmate, was, however, the moment when I realised this was going to be a book I’ll be happy to revisit in the future.

I know I’ll get something new out of it every time I pick it up again, wherever I am in my life.

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.”

Occasionally funny, often disgusting, the novel Notes from Underground is the mournful wail of a man who has given up and is proud of it, a man who thinks you’re foolish for not succumbing to nihilism like he has. This is one of the most bitter, angry novels I’ve ever read. I’d heard the stereotype of Russian literature as depressing, but The Brothers Karamazov, Pushkin, or Tolstoy all seem absolutely joyful in comparison. I thought that almost two centuries later, the barrage of misery the protagonist endures and self-inflicts here might seem tame to a modern reader. Nope. This is still very, very powerful.

The narrator’s pain being almost entirely self-inflicted is a dominant theme. He was a bureaucrat, but an inheritance allowed him to retire. He does nothing but brood on those he perceived as wronging him. The results are both sad and funny, in a way that becomes so obviously self-inflicted that it feels like a farce. It takes the narrator dozens of attempts to bump a man of higher standing’s shoulder on his morning walk to work, for example. He has been plotting this bump as an act of revenge for years. The man’s crime? A long, long time ago he had ignored our protagonist at a pub. Shocking, I know.

The narrator has lived his whole life on a self-destructive path which is narcissistic and cowardly, but, thanks to his eloquent way of writing, understandable. He is a pitiful, self-disgusted man. He has isolated himself from the world, and lives in a cocoon of anger; he derides a society he sees as arrogant and foolish, but acts no better—worse, in fact—than those he considers scum. The only thing he has pride in is his intellect, the importance of which he clings to like a limpet. He only values what is inside his head, and rages at the world around him which he sees as ignoring his genius. The futility of pride in intelligence, which he uses for nothing but selfish brooding, becomes obvious to readers, as it helps no one, not even him.

Notes From Underground is dark, sad and quite moving. If you’re ever in the mood for a book which stomps on your brain and heart, give it a go.