Friday, August 31, 2012

the reader will see for himself that I have done all I can

I hasten to emphasise the fact that I am far from esteeming myself capable of reporting all that took place at the trial in full detail, or even in the actual order of events. I imagine that to mention everything with full explanation would fill a volume, even a very large one. And so I trust I may not be reproached, for confining myself to what struck me. I may have selected as of most interest what was of secondary importance, and may have omitted the most prominent and essential details. But I see I shall do better not to apologise. I will do my best and the reader will see for himself that I have done all I can. --Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

Dostoyevsky is doing pretty well, as it happens. He claims that he might not deliver a good courtroom scene, but the trial of Dmitri Karamazov is (so far) pretty gripping. The reader already knows most of the evidence and in fact already knows who the murderer of Fyodor Karamazov is. We're all just on tenterhooks waiting to find out what the superstar defense lawyer from Petersburg will do and what the verdict will be.

It occurred to me this morning that, while it’s become a commonplace to call Dostoyevsky’s novels messy and disorganized, The Brothers Karamazov actually has a pretty straightforward structure, one that I’ve used myself. There is essentially a single through-action: the murder of Fyodor Karamazov and the subsequent arrest and trial of Dmitri, his son. Dmitri is the obvious suspect for the crime; he’s a real train wreck of a human (just like his father), who has offended almost everyone in town (just like his father) and has publicly (and often) threatened to kill the old man. So Dostoyevsky builds a standard three-act structure:

1) He presents the Karamazov family, shows the tensions between father and sons, shows Dmitri falling apart, angry, drunk, in need of money and claiming that his father has swindled him, and then

2) Fyodor turns up dead with 3,000 rubles missing from his bedroom. Dmitri is arrested and the crime is investigated and it looks pretty certain that he’ll be found guilty, in

3) the trial.

I haven’t finished the book yet, but the trial isn’t going well for Dmitri and the evidence is pretty solid (except, of course…). So that’s the primary action of the narrative. It takes up maybe 500 pages of the 900-page novel. Maybe a bit more.

The other 400 pages are taken up by the internal narrative, the thematic book Dostoyevsky has written and interwoven into the crime novel. There is no actual development of this thematic story, no action. Nobody, I think, changes his mind about anything but the central question of man’s being able to find a moral compass in the absence of God is explored over and over from a variety of angles, with a variety of arguments using a variety of narrative techniques. Characters make claims about human behavior and argue those claims. Characters are shown acting out the possible repercussions of the question. Alexey Karamazov remains steadfast in his belief in God and in his morality. Ivan Karamazov argues that there is no God, or at least that religion exists to control humankind rather than to redeem it, and in the absence of God “all things are legal,” including murder and cannibalism. Morality is a social construct, then, and Ivan wavers regarding an ethical decision he must make. A counterargument to the nonexistence of God seems to be made several times: that the Devil is certainly, undeniably at work in the world. Though does the existence of the Devil automatically prove the existence of God? Even the Devil can’t answer that one.

Dostoyevsky’s imagined Devil gets a great scene and some wonderful dialogue. What is it about the character of Satan that so sparks the imagination of writers, I wonder? Satan is often the most charming, interesting character in novels which feature him. Think of Satan in Paradise Lost, or Wotan in The Master and Margarita. Examples abound, but I digress. I meant to say that it's the interweaving of this 400 pages of philosophy-without-plot that give the novel the appearance of being messy and disorganized. Modern writers would probably have created a secondary plot to investigate these themes, with its own through-action; another tactic would've been to give a secondary story arc to Dmitri himself, which would've taken up the middle of the book and made the third act plot possible. But I think, as I say, that Dostoyevsky is doing pretty well here with his philosophical digressions and anecdotes that lead nowhere except to more questions.

Anyway, I have about 150 pages yet to read, so I don’t know if Dostoyevsky will attempt to answer his thematic questions, or if he’ll just bravely ask them and hope he’s given the reader reason to think. I also don’t know how the trial will turn out, but I can’t wait to get back to it. The Brothers Karamazov turns out, not surprisingly, to be a pretty great novel. I have no idea why I abandoned it halfway through all those years ago.

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