The Modern Library Giant dust jacket for Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

The original Modern Library Giant dust jacket for Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

The Brothers Karamazov  (Братья Карамазовы)

  • Rank: #2
  • Author:  Fyodor Dostoevsky  (1821  –  1881)
  • Published:  1880
  • Publisher:  The Russian Messenger
  • Pages:  796  (Pevear / Volokhonsky)
  • First Line:  “Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, well known in his own day (and still remembered among mus) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago and I which I shall speak of in its proper place.”
  • Last Line:  ” ‘And eternally so, all our lives hand in hand!  Hurrah for Karamazov!’ Kolya cried once more ecstatically, and once more all the boys joined in his exclamation.”
  • ML Version:  #151  (five dust jackets – gift set, 1929, 1931, 1943, 1967); Giant #40 (three dust jackets – 1937, 1969, 1970); P7; Illustrated Acetate (two bindings); Illustrated Box; Gold Dust jacket (1992)
  • Film:  1958  (*** – dir. Richard Brooks), 1969  (*** – dir. Kirill Lavrov), others too numerous to mention
  • First Read:  January, 1996

The Novel:  I brought the book with me to London.  I knew I was going to have a long flight back on my own because the rest of the people I went with had left several days before me.  So I wanted something that would keep me reading and I wanted some good quiet time to read the book.  And I started it in Vienna before an all-night train ride through snowy Europe to Brussels (changed trains), back to London, and then on the flights back – direct to San Francisco and a commuter flight to Portland.  And I was hooked like almost never before.

It wasn’t just the way that Dostoevsky cut could right to the heart of faith (“In the realist, faith is not born from miracles, but miracles from faith.  Once the realist comes to believe, then, precisely because of his realism, he must also allow for miracles.”), the way he could get right to the core of man itself (“And the strange thing, the wonder would not be that God really exists, the wonder is that such a notion – the notion of the necessity of God – could creep into the head of such a wild and wicked animal as man.”), but in the very language itself (“He found her large, black, burning eyes beautiful and especially becoming to her pale, even somewhat pale yellow, oval face.  But in those eyes, as well as in the outline of her lovely lips, there was something that his brother might certainly fall terribly in love with, but that it was perhaps impossible to love for long.”) and the way he could nail the heart of human existence (“You hear a lot said about your education, yet some such beautiful, sacred memory, preserved from childhood, is perhaps the best education.  If a man stores up many such memories to take into life, then he is saved for his whole life.  And even if only one good memory remains with us in our hearts, that alone may serve some day for our salvation.”).

I have written in a lot of places that a particular book or film is too long.  In making that argument I offer myself up to the criticism that I don’t have the patience for length.  But that clearly isn’t the case.  It’s never about a flat number of pages (and never has been – aside from being immersed in Lord of the Rings since childhood, I have always counted Stephen King’s The Stand as one of my favorite books to read and re-read and the longer version is actually the better version).  A book can easily be too long at 300 pages (just as a film can be too long at 90 minutes) and can be far too short when over 1000 pages (or 3 hours).  It is not the sheer length that is the key.  It is what is done with the pages.  I read War and Peace and think it should be a few hundred pages shorter.  I feel the same about The Count of Monte Cristo.  I read Les Miserables and feel it should be only about 500 pages instead of nearly 1500.  But I would not sacrifice a single sentence of The Brothers Karamazov.  It uses every word properly, uses every page to not only perfectly tell its story, to not only get the core of every one of its characters, but to grapple with the very questions of human existence.  And to those who are daunted by its length, I tell you here and now that you are missing one of the pure works of literature ever placed on paper.

I don’t know what else to say about the book.  For if you haven’t read it, then I don’t know that I can convince you to read it.  And if you have read it, you certainly don’t need me to tell you what beautiful language it has (“But with each moment he felt clearly and almost tangibly something as firm and immovable as this heavenly vault descend into his soul.  Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind – now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages.  He fell to the earth a weak youth and rose up a fighter, steadfast for the rest of his life, and he knew it, and felt it suddenly, in that very moment of his ecstasy.”).  It is ironic, perhaps, that Dostoevsky should grapple so with the question of God in this book, the masterpiece that allowed him to die with some fulfillment (“I’d die happy if I could finish this final novel, for I would have expressed myself completely,” reads the quote from Dostoevsky on the back of my Bantam Classic copy.) and yet I would so reject his feelings about God.  Or perhaps it’s not ironic.  Perhaps my rejection of faith allows me some greater appreciation of what he does here, especially in the conversations between the brothers.  Just look at some of the arguments made in the book: “It’s not God that I do not accept, you understand, it is this world of God’s, created by God, that I do not accept and cannot agree to accept.” or “In my opinion, Christ’s love for people is in its kind a miracle impossible on earth.  True, he was God.  But we are not gods.”.  Then, of course, there is the great line about the nature of man: “I think that if the devil does not exist, and man has therefore created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”  Those are all lines spoken by Ivan in conversation with Alexei.  But perhaps for those who do believe, they would be more inclined to follow the line of Smerdyakov to Ivan: “God, sir, Providence itself, sir, it’s right here with us now, sir, only don’t look for it, you won’t find it.”

There is a story here, of course, a story of Fyodor, the father that doesn’t really love any of his sons, of the death of Fyodor and the examination of the brothers (Dmitri, the one tried for the murder, Ivan, the one who feels the blame for the murder is his to shoulder and Alexei, the mystic who deals with death and love and God in his own way) and the bastard one.  But the plot isn’t really the main point (we don’t discover the death until page 445).  It’s the characters who make the novel and we are given in depth looks at all of them.  And it is all of this together – the story, the characters, the philosophy, the questions, the language, that really make this the crown jewel of Russian literature.

note:  All the quotes come from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The Films:

The surprisingly solid 1958 film of The Brothers Karamazov.

The surprisingly solid 1958 film of The Brothers Karamazov.

1958 version:  It is not surprising that Hollywood could make a solid version of The Brothers Karamazov.  Like with Ulysses, much of the book could easily be excised from a film.  There are parts of the book that work well towards advancing a plot and there are other parts which can just be immediately ditched.  Not that it was ever going to be a great film.  Also like Ulysses, there is too much other stuff going on to lend itself to a great film adaptation.  But a good one?  Well, that was always within reach.  No, what’s surprising isn’t that a good film came out of this novel, even in Hollywood.  It’s that a good film came out of this when they made the decision to cast William Shatner as one of the stars.

Of course, Shatner (Bill the Whore, Veronica started calling him when he first started doing Priceline ads) didn’t carry the baggage then that he carries now.  In fact, this was his first feature film role, and though he plays the character that Dostoevsky built the novel around, he is far from the primary character in the film.  That role belongs to Brynner as Dmitri, and this is one of Brynner’s better performances.  It’s not nearly up to the bar he set with The King and I, but is lively and interesting and it embodies everything we would hope for from Dmitri Karamazov.  Then there is Shatner, always lurking in the background, always so pious and upright.  Shatner underplays the role in the same way that he would later overplay so many.  But that’s fine, because Brynner lives it up enough for two and he’s far from the liveliest role in the film.

The key role, of course, is that Fyodor.  And that is played with great liveliness by Lee J. Cobb (earning him an Oscar nomination).  Cobb lives it up (while alive) and he brings exactly the ring blend of audacity, slobishness, overbearingness and pride.  And there is Maria Schell, so lively and sexy as Grushenka (while Claire Bloom has the more tasking role – being so saintly and pretty as Katya).  Word is that Marilyn Monroe desperately wanted the role of Grushenka and was crushed when she didn’t get it.  Instead, they cast Schell, and she provides exactly what the film needs – Monroe would perhaps have been too sexy as Grushenka (and in the book, Grushenka is a brunette, so it’s amusing that the two blondes would face off over the role).

The film works for two reasons.  The first is that the cast is all well suited for their roles.  Even with the baggage that modern viewers might bring to Shatner, there is nothing wrong with any of the cast – they all fit their roles and they all give strong performances.  But the other reason is that Brooks finds the right way to cut the path through the philosophy (it’s not completely cut out – there are some interesting scenes where the existence of God is debated) and to keep to the story.  But if there is one thing that was done wrong, that keeps it from rising above the *** level is the ending.  Here, the decision was somehow made to do exactly what Hollywood does so often, by disregarding what makes things great.  They, inexplicably, give the novel a happy ending, with Ilyusha seeming to practically rise from his death bed and Dmitri and Grushenka escaping off into the night.  And yet, it’s not enough to blunt the other things that are done well.

Hollywood ruined a lot of great books through the years.  And they have had some great successes as well.  Now, this film isn’t going to remind anyone of The Grapes of Wrath or From Here to Eternity for a great adaptation.  But it is a strong adaptation with a very good cast (also good music, good costumes and sets that work well to create the atmosphere of a small muddy 19th Century Russian town) and it is worth watching.

The Russians adapt their own great works.

1969 version:  Great Russian literature just barely beating out great Soviet literature. This film, originally released in 1969, made it to the States in 1980 (though it might not have ever played L.A. as the old site didn’t list it).  In a year with a very, very strong Top 5 but a weak second 5, it originally snuck into 10th place before Airplane! was pushed to Adapted, just pushing out the Yugoslav film version of Master and Margarita, the great Soviet novel.  This film comes from the era when the Soviets decided to infuse their film industry with money and put out lavish, color, glorious film versions of their great novels.  The year before this was released, the Soviet War and Peace won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film and this film was nominated, though in the year where Z became the first film ever nominated for Picture and Foreign Film, it stood basically no chance of winning.

This isn’t a great film, isn’t even a very good one like War and Peace.  It is more on the level of Anna Karenina, the 1967 film version.  It is good, a very high *** and almost making it to ***.5.  It has very good art direction and costumes, it looks great and it does justice to the novel itself.  When Hollywood had tried their own version a decade before, it had clocked in at 145 minutes.  This one goes 232 and really gives you the depth of the characters.  Yes, it is nowhere near the length of War and Peace but it also didn’t need to be.  As I mentioned above, this novel is so full of philosophy and moral discourse that it is easy to cut a lot of that to focus on the plot and the characters in a film adaptation.  It is actually quite easy to make a solid film out of the novel and this film comes quite close to doing even more.

This film is well acted and as mentioned it looks really good.  The Soviets didn’t skimp on the budgets on these films and if they didn’t have Hollywood professionalism, they did have an authenticity that Hollywood couldn’t match.  Where this film can’t really match up to the original version is in the two key supporting performances.  The original film had a bombastic performance from Lee J. Cobb as the father and a sexy, uninhibited one from Maria Schell as Grushenka.  Those two performances are what really made the original film come to life.

If this film doesn’t have that spark of life (which is probably what keeps it from really making the leap into ***.5 and into my Foreign Film and Picture races), it is still a very solid version of the novel and one worth tracking down.  The trick though, is that you may get the same version I have seen twice now, the one with no English language subtitles, where you must rely on your knowledge of the novel to know what is going on.  So, go ahead, read the novel first.  You know you want to.