Imogen Robertson grew up in Darlington, studied Russian and German at the University of Cambridge and now lives in London. She directed for film, TV and radio before becoming a full-time author, and also writes and occasionally reviews poetry. Imogen won the Daily Telegraph's 'First thousand words of a novel' competition in 2007 with the opening of Instruments of Darkness, her first novel. Her second novel featuring the detective duo of Harriet Westerman and Gabriel Crowther, Anatomy of Murder, was published in April 2010, and the third in the series, Island of Bones, in April 2011. Here Imogen writes about Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov.
Imogen Robertson on Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Brothers Karamazov is not a book I read for pleasure. It's not a book I read because I want to write like Dostoyevsky; in fact if I was offered a magic charm, I would much rather write like Sarah Waters or Terry Prachett, thanks. But Norm asked for a piece about a book that is important to me, and Brothers Karamazov certainly fits the bill.
I studied Russian at university, and it was a truism around the department that students arrived fans of Tolstoy and left lovers of Dostoyevsky. I thought this was rubbish at first, because I loved Tolstoy and resented the implication that as I matured I'd come to prefer 'the other one'. I had been struggling through Crime and Punishment, and Notes from Underground and hating them. Too dark, too bitter, too claustrophobic. There was none of the surreal humour of Gogol, none of the glamour of Anna Karenina, none of the sheer sonic beauty of the poetry of Akhmatova, Block or Mandelstam. The continual atmosphere of hysteria in Dostoyevsky's work was exhausting, the intellectual arguments too dense and intense, and his characters were all mad, twisted, lost, grotesque and talked in paragraph after paragraph about the grubbiness of their own souls.
Then I started to get it. I began my Russian studies with only the vaguest of notions about the history or the people, but as I began to understand the background to the books, the characters came alive and I became engrossed. Their contradictions I began to see as honesty; their intensity as a desire to explore the fundamentals of what it is to be conscious and mortal. Does God exist? How do you believe in God when surrounded by the suffering of innocents? If there is no God, then is everything permitted? These are not polite intellectual discussions in the books. They are bloody battles, lessons learnt in face of extreme violence. The characters live and die by what they come to believe, and even then their conclusions are complex, contradictory, volatile. You don't get much of a 'to live like this is to live well' from Dostoyevsky. That is really, I think, what separates him from Tolstoy. The latter claimed to have found an answer; Dostoyevsky doesn't, but he does offer a thread of hope. His characters that survive, spiritually, are those who learn to accept. They must embrace the soil of Russia, and their own struggles with faith and love, but it's a continual battle, a long process. Peace comes in moments of insight, fleetingly.
So to Brothers itself. This isn't the forum for a plot summary, but the novel revolves around three brothers - you probably spotted the clue in the title. The eldest is Dimitri, sensual, passionate, who is arrested for the murder of their father midway through the novel. That father, Fyodor Pavlovich is, I think, one of the great creations of literature. He is vile, and delights in hurting and revolting those around him; he is also cunning, child-like, proud of his own moral decrepitude, yet flooded with self-loathing. A magnificent monster. The middle brother is Ivan, the intellectual, and the youngest is Alyosha who begins the novel as a novice, and is the light of faith and goodness by which the rest of the novel is seen. If this seems a cheap and easy characterization of the brothers, well it is, but the characters to a degree see themselves in this way, and each other, then find in the course of the narrative how much they are all three - sensualist, intellectual, believer. There is also the fourth son, the servant Smerdyakov, servant in the house of Fyodor Pavlovich who may be his child by the village idiot Stinking Lisaveta. He sees himself as the disciple of Ivan.
Brothers Karamozov is a family saga, a courtroom drama, a philosophy course, a love story, a story of lust, a book of faith. Rich reading then, and descending into the vortex of this incredibly complex, harrowing novel might be off-putting for some. If you haven't read it though, can I make this plea? Read Book 5, 'Pro and Contra', which contains Ivan's stunning rejection of God, and Book 11, where the influence of Ivan's philosophy is relentlessly followed through to its conclusions and Ivan himself gives way under the strain of his own beliefs. We all, I think, have certain books, passages that we remember reading for the first time. 'Pro and Contra' left me speechless. I've never read anything like it before or since. Don't miss out.
Brothers Karamazov is the last of Dostoyevsky's novels and the first I read while actually living in Russia. When I was there food was difficult to find, the supermarkets abandoned, and it seemed the street markets would one day have only onions, a week later only potatoes. Sometimes a pig's head on a car bonnet. It was very, very cold and the pavements so thick with ice we slithered and fell to class rather than walked, or travelled jammed so close in the trolley-bus that you could lift your feet of the floor and not fall down. And God! The murderous hassle of the bureaucracy. Russia's sense of itself had been shredded by the collapse of communism and though many revelled in the freedom to read what they wanted to and say what they wanted to without looking over their shoulders, there was also clearly a deep and fresh wound caused by the collapse of old certainties, and the Russians struggled to find firm ground on which to stand. Then the people. The old women who would stop you in the street to tuck your shirt in and scold you for chilling your ovaries. The neighbours who adopted us. The enormous feasts, barbecues in the forest, the vodka shots till we could hardly speak, then the singing. Stamping songs, songs to link arms to, and sentimental ballads where everyone would end up in tears. It was then I realized something else very important about Dostoyevsky and the social and intellectual background of his work; he wasn't writing heightened realism. Russia is just like that sometimes.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]