by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Farrar, Strauss and Giroux
I am unqualified to “review” this book. Here are my thoughts.
I am Russian by heritage. My parents are immigrants, leaving the Soviet Union in the early 1930’s and living in Iran until after World War 2 whereupon they moved to Los Angeles. I was born here, living the full immigrant son experience: Parents who spoke Russian in the home, all of our friends were Russians, we went to Russian churches and ate quasi-“Russian” food. I learned Russian as a child, and can muddle my way through the language, that may be an overstatement.
As such, reading Dostoevsky feels like an obligation. So I read it in college, and now have re-read it for the second time. I will read it again, maybe even over the course of the rest of the year. Here are my comments and suggestions if you choose to read this book.
This book is not an easy read. It is long, meandering, full of characters who are called by different versions of their names. For instance, the youngest brother, Alexei, is referred to by seven different versions of his nickname: Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichick, Lyosha, Lysoshenka. This is not unusual, multiple characters are referred to by multiple versions of their names. Then, maybe even more difficult for non-Russian readers, sometimes characters are referred to by their full names, Agrafena Alexandrovna Svetlov and their nicknames, Grushenka, Grusha, Grushka. Again, these are used interchangeably, which turns out to be a lot of work.
There are multiple sub-plots, and their spacing is often marked by many chapters. Depending on your pace of reading this massive book, you may have to “remind” yourself of the connections. There is the “main” plot the love triangle-murder line. There is the religious plot with the monastery, father Zosima, Alexei, etc., the philosophical parallel with Alexei’s writing and the “fourth” son Smerdyakov’s conversation about that sub-plot, and the Ilyushenka sub-plot, and the legal-trial sub-plot. They are “connected” but not easily maintained. And this reveals that the book is not just a novel, a murder mystery, but more of a philosophical expose wrapped into the novel. If you are looking for an engaging “novel” experience beware that it exists, but the book is asking you to do more than figure out who did it, it is asking you to dialog with Dostoevsky about big ideas.
If you decide to read this masterpiece I have a few suggestions.
- Watch this video first:
- They also have follow up videos if you want to read alongside someone who might give some broader insight to the novel
- Read the right translation. The one I read and recommend is linked above and is the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. There is a whole world of criticism about translations that rivals that of the Bible translation world.
- Read it with someone else. I found I wanted to talk it through.
This book makes me want to explore these books: