Getting Reacquainted With The Brothers K
IT'S been years since I first read Dostoyevsky's ``The Brothers Karamazov.'' I'd always wanted to read it again, and I've finally accomplished this; I finished my second reading two days ago. Since I read it mainly during lunch periods, it took a while to get through the 940 or so pages. When I finally put it down, I said, ``That's not a book - that's an experience!'' My first reading took place in a large room with cool green walls, an arched, gray, Victorian ceiling replete with garlands and cherubs, and a red lamp. My husband and I read it aloud together in the long winter evenings.
I remember how I missed it after we finally put it aside. I was talking with a friend recently who is also a fan of ``The Brothers K,'' and she delighted me by saying spontaneously, ``I missed it so after I finished it!''
I missed the brothers themselves, who became living people to me. I missed impetuous, passionate Dmitri, so good at heart, so impossibly out of control of his life. He crashes through the book, a tornado of self-will, childlike at heart, believing in good, wanting it desperately, and bringing much evil to pass in his desperate attempts to possess it. Full of self-condemnation and guilt, he would present a completely hopeless picture were it not for that great, impulsive, though often misguided, heart.
I missed too, formidable, dignified, brilliant Ivan, who, though he rejected God, turned out in the end to have an active conscience. During his long conversation with his brother Alyosha, the novitiate, that ends in Ivan's famous Grand Inquisitor speech, Ivan - cool, intellectual Ivan - suddenly turns to Alyosha and says, ``Dear little brother, I don't want to corrupt you or turn you from your stronghold; perhaps I want to be healed by you.'' Then Dostoyevsky continues: ``Ivan smiled suddenly like a gentle little child. Alyosha had never seen such a smile on his face before.''
What a breakthrough, even if only for a moment!
Most of all I missed Alyosha, the youngest brother - such a startling contrast to the other two. Dostoyevsky says of his ``hero'': ``Alyosha was not a fanatic, and, in my opinion at least, was not even a mystic.... He was simply an early lover of humanity, and that he adopted the monastic life was simply because at that time it struck him, so to say, as the ideal escape for his soul struggling from the darkness of worldly wickedness to the light of love.'' Alyosha shows nothing but love and patience toward everyone - even his repulsive and dissolute father. He grieves silently over wickedness, but does not presume to judge or to reprimand.
MY more recent reading was on my own, a silent one, usually in the kitchen during lunch, or else by my ninth-floor window, which looks out on Manhattan's Upper West Side and a patch of the Hudson. During this reading, I was particularly struck by Zossima, Alyosha's mentor, his adored Elder. Perhaps it is especially because of him that I have decided to re-read the book yet again. When a woman asks this saintly man how she can get back her early faith in immortality, he replies:
``By the experience of active love. Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably.... If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbor, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.''
Later he adds more:
``I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you, for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding, as though on a stage. But active love is labor and fortitude, and for some people, too, perhaps a complete science.''
A novel of ideas, a novel about the search for God, a novel revealing a deep understanding of humanity, ``The Brothers Karamazov'' is almost devoid of color. I find I tend to visualize its scenes in black and white. The landscape is gray and bleak. The houses are often described as dirty - dirt seems to be indeed everywhere - a constant reminder of the impurity of the human condition.
Dostoyevsky's greatest masterpiece was written at the close of his difficult life, completed only two months before his death. What a blessing that he finished this towering contribution to the world's great literature!