I finally finished it a week or so ago. Here are a few reactions, certainly not intended as any sort of presumptuous "review" of a book almost universally acknowledged to be one of the great literary monuments, but simply a record of my immediate impressions. I'm not making an attempt to summarize the plot, either, as I assume most people reading this blog have either read the book or intend to read it, and if you do want a summary it's easy enough to find one. Suffice to say that it is the story of three, possibly four, sons of one rather wicked father and two, possibly three, mothers, and that one of the brothers is a rowdy hedonist (albeit with a strong sense of honor), one an intellectual with nihilist leanings, and one a Christian.
A friend who had recently re-read it said: "So many of the characters seemed just barely sane." Just now, wanting to quote him exactly, I searched for the email message, and turned up one from another friend saying almost the same thing: "I think about 90% of Doestoevsky's characters are insane." (The two remarks had fused in my mind into one: "Almost every character is just barely sane" was what I recalled.) Moreover, the first friend had followed his remark with "Fevered is the word I kept thinking." And the second friend had followed hers with "I'm not sure I could stand to be in the same room with them for very long."
Well, that makes three of us who are more or less of the same mind. I think hardly a page of Brothers passed without the phrase "just barely sane" coming into my mind. At the time of the discussions above I had just read Crime and Punishment, and had a similar reaction. In both cases my engagement with the narrative was hampered by the fact that the characters so often seemed opaque to me, their motivations obscure and their actions almost random (Raskolnikov's motives an exception, of course).
I liked and admired Brothers rather more than Crime. Part of the reason, I think--a relatively small but significant part--is a difference in translation. I had read the latter in the Constance Garnett translation, which was the standard for many years, and the former in the Peaver/Volokhonsky one which seems to be the current favorite, and seems to me more lively and vivid. I found myself at times in Crime and Punishment having to push myself forward, but that was not the case with The Brothers, though its sheer length and my limited time for reading made it a long haul.
One of the blurbs on the cover, from the New York Times, asserts of this translation that "One finally gets the musical whole of Dostoevsky's original." Well, I don't know about that, obviously, but I can say that if it's true then Dostoevsky is not a very musical writer. At least in English, he is not a writer to be read for his style. His prose is more energetic than beautiful, and in itself is somewhat on the plain side--I almost said "drab," but it's livelier than that. I found myself wishing, absurdly, that he had written in English. I took longer than I should have to finish Brothers--I began it sometime late last fall, was halfway through around Christmas, and then got distracted for some time, during which I read Wuthering Heights (a novel which shares a bit of Dostoevsky's madness), rather quickly and with more pleasure in the immediate act of reading. And I think the difference lay in the color and texture of Emily Bronte's English. It's not that she has an extraordinary style, the sort that makes the reader stop and take notice, but simply that it has a richness and a music which were characteristic of literary English at the time.
In short, there is a decided sense of foreignness in The Brothers Karamazov. And not only foreignness, but strangeness in a sort of absolute sense: it is, you might say, objectively strange. Is that Dostoevsky's own personal eccentricity, or is it something in the Russian soul at large? There must be something in the latter notion, because surely everyone who reads this book, whether his opinion be high or low, would agree that it is if nothing else very Russian.
It's been too long since I read a novel by any other Russian for me to make a comparison, but I don't think they are all as partly mad as Dostoevsky. Of Tolstoy I've only read Anna Karenina, and that was many years ago--around the same time as my first reading of The Brothers Karamazov, in fact--but I don't remember thinking that its people were crazy.
All this seems somewhat negative, I know, and perhaps it indicates a bit of frustration that I wanted to like it more than I did--I mean "like" in the immediate and almost sensual sense, of taking pleasure in the prose and being avid to follow the story. But these reservations and complaints are minor in relation to an overall enthusiasm: it is a great work, in every sense. It did, and does, fascinate me, and it continues to be very much on my mind. Much of its greatness lies in the sheer force of its ideas. Not many novels treat such powerful and elemental ideas with such profundity. Like Nietzche, and as far as I know like no one else of comparable genius, Dostoevsky understood what was at stake in the struggle between belief and unbelief that has characterized Christian civilization for the past couple of centuries. He understood that a post-Christian society would not be simply and innocently non-Christian, but something considerably darker.
I'm on a personal mission to read all the classics I've never read (or read long ago and have partly forgotten), which, given their number and my age, means that many of them will not get another reading. The Brothers Karamazov probably will. In fact, on finishing it I considered turning immediately back to page one. But I'm going to turn instead to Devils, known in earlier translations as The Possessed, also in the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, and which I also read in my early twenties and don't recall very clearly.
And then perhaps on to War and Peace. These Russians are really pretty fascinating.