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Reading The Brothers Karamazov: Even a Toddler Knows a Funny Name When He Hears One

By posted at 12:00 pm on February 23, 2012 13

For the past month my almost-three-year-old son and I have shared a joke. In idle moments, sitting around the table or on the playroom floor, we’ll make eye contact and start to grin. Then one or the other of us will whisper quietly, “Stinking Lizaveta,” and we’ll laugh and say it again and again in happy singsong voices.

coverStinking Lizaveta, if you don’t know, is a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. She is a short girl with a “completely idiotic” look fixed to her face and hair that “was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.” She’s not a wholesome character, and one very unwholesome thing happens to her, which makes it all the funnier to me that my son should take such joy in pronouncing her name. (Which really is a pleasure to say out loud. Try it. “Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”).

A couple nights ago I finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was riveted by long sections of the book but in the end I concluded that my taste in fiction leans more towards Tolstoy. In the last few years I’ve read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment; overall, Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life was more revelatory to me than Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.

There were places in The Brothers Karamazov that left me enthralled. Last month I wrote on The Millions about how the famed “Grand Inquisitor” chapter made me consider the similarities between the power I hold over my kids and the power religion holds over the faithful. Overall, though, the novel’s provocations about religion never fully grabbed me. I admired the fever with which Ivan Karamazov tries to convince his brother Alyosha that God does not exist (“It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket”), but for whatever unaccountable reasons, Ivan’s preoccupations landed like a relic in my own life.

Dmitri Karamazov did grab me, though. If you were to evaluate him just on his actions, he’s a fool, of course. He’s passionate and volatile and often acts immorally: He makes a craven offer to a desperate woman; He steals; He publically abuses a weak man, dragging him around the square by his beard. But Dmitri has integrity despite his licentiousness. At the turning point in the novel, he flies to his beloved and unattainable Grushenka and initiates an evening of unbridled revelry. When the party comes to a crashing stop he declares:

You see, gentlemen, you seem to be taking me for quite a different man from what I am.  It is a noble man you are speaking with, a most noble person; above all — do not lose sight of this — a man who has done a world of mean things, but who always was and remained a most noble person.

I believed Dmitri’s claims that he is a noble person. I sympathized with the plight he’d gotten himself into and saw in his tragic position a reflection of the tragic position in which we all find ourselves from time to time: driven by emotion to places our rational selves would rather not go. And maybe I agree, too, with Dostoevsky, who might say that we lose something essential if we go too far in subjugating passion to reason or to social authority (like religion or bureaucracy).

There were other pleasures in The Brothers Karamazov. The courtroom drama at the end of the novel is so much better than anything Law and Order or John Grisham have ever produced that it demeans Dostoevsky to even mention them by comparison. In particular, the defense attorney’s closing argument is remarkable for its command of human psychology, as the hired gun from St. Petersburg shows that all the supposedly incriminating circumstances of the case can be understood differently if only you’re inclined to think that way.

(The closing argument also introduces an epistemological standard that I think I’m going to lean on more often and which might lead to a run on The Brothers Karamazov among global warming denialists. The defense attorney warns the jury to be skeptical in situations like the case at hand where, “the overwhelming totality of the facts is against the defendant, and at the same time there is not one fact that will stand up to criticism.”)

I’d be omitting one of the most rewarding parts of having read The Brothers Karamazov if I didn’t mention that it facilitated my introduction to a remarkable writer named Chris Huntington. Chris sent me an email after my first Brothers Karamazov essay was published in January. Since then we’ve exchanged several rounds of highly enjoyable correspondence about literature and raising kids and his life as a teacher in China. He shared an essay he’d written recently for The Rumpus on The Brothers Karamazov called “The Last Book I Loved” that left me breathless (as well as a funny cartoon of Lisa Simpson clutching a copy of the book). I would have linked to Chris’ essay much earlier in this post, but for the fact that after reading his there’s not much reason to return to reading mine.

In total, The Brothers Karamazov was not the profound reading experience that I’d hoped for when I started the book, but that’s probably too high a standard with which to begin any relationship. That said, I don’t consider the entire history of my involvement with The Brothers Karamazov to have been written. For, as the peerless defense attorney from St. Petersburg might note, there is one last thread that hasn’t been sewn up.

The six weeks I spent reading The Brothers Karamazov happened to coincide almost exactly with the time in his life when my son became aware of letters. He’s known how to sing the alphabet for a long time, but he’s only recently started to understand that letters are discrete things that populate his world in important ways. Now that he looks for them he finds them everywhere: Two “C”s on our license plate; a “J” on a cereal box; an “I” (“or maybe it’s an ‘F,’” he said to me this morning) on a Valentine that hangs on our fridge.

My son has a long way to go until he’s reading The Brothers Karamazov, but hopefully not so long that he forgets about Stinking Lizaveta before he gets there. I hope I’ll be near at hand, or only a phone call away, when he discovers that the funny name we used to whisper to each other is actually a very sad character in a great novel, and that the line between life and art is arbitrary, if it exists at all.





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13 Responses to “Reading The Brothers Karamazov: Even a Toddler Knows a Funny Name When He Hears One”

  1. Even Jay knows a funny name when he hears one | Growing Sideways
    at 12:27 pm on February 23, 2012

    […] morning I have an essay appearing on The Millions about the experience of reading The Brothers Karamazov.  The essay […]

  2. Chris Huntington
    at 6:00 pm on February 23, 2012

    I love this! But I’m disappointed that you’re falling away from the fold . . . I love Tolstoy, too, brother, but there are times when our everyday lives vibrate with something “manic” as you say– and then FD has it exactly right

    You’re reminding me of that scene in Slaughterhouse Five when Billy Pilgrim is in the mental hospital and meets the addled but earnest Eliot Rosewater. Rosewater tells him something like: “Writers need to make up some new lies or people won’t want to go on living / Everything we need to know is in one book, The Brothers Karamazov, but IT ISN’T ENOUGH ANYMORE.”

    Anyway, I love this piece (I hope you get that phone call someday) –and for my part, I would say that your essay on parenting and The Brothers Karamazov is far wiser than mine. I was nothing but happy and jealous when I read it.

  3. Jim
    at 6:42 pm on February 23, 2012

    Mr. Hartnett, I have enjoyed a number of your Millions’ pieces, including in particular the one last year (I think it was) on War and Peace. Then I clicked on Mr. Hunington’s piece and, wow, is it good!

    I have now read all the 19th century Russian classic novels on my to-be-read shelf other than The Brothers Karamazov (not that there were that many on it–maybe ten). I find myself enjoying Tolstoy (particularly Anna Karenina–with Middlemarch and In Search of Lost Time one of the three greatest novels I have read) more than the one work of Dostoevsky’s I’ve read (Crime and Punishment), pretty much for the reason you mention.

    By the way, if you ever read biography (I rarely do) and love Tolstoy, A.N. Wilson’s biography of him (published in the late 80s) is superb–well worth checking out if you haven’t read it.

  4. B.
    at 7:16 pm on February 23, 2012

    Red also Turgenev’s novels, particularly “Fathers and sons” and “The Nest of the Gentry”. All three, Turgeniev, Dostoevsky and Tolstoi, basically write about the same thing, they have the same themes, but each one’s temperament and character provides different expressions and perspectives.

  5. Kevin Hartnett
    at 7:43 pm on February 23, 2012

    Jim- our tastes would seem to run in the same direction. Middlemarch is #1 for me with W&P right behind it. I think I’m probably at least a decade away from working up the commitment to tackle In Search of Lost Time.

    And likewise, not a big biography reader but I will keep that A.N. Wilson book in mind. Thanks for the recommendation and thanks for reading!

  6. Matt
    at 12:52 am on February 24, 2012

    Nice essay!

    I don’t have any children or anything, but I DEFINITELY knew what you meant when you said that as great as Dostoevsky is, Tolstoy’s interest in the everday sort of wins out over the former’s manic, morbid intensity.

    TBK was my go-to pick for the “so what’s your favorite novel” question for years. It’s still up there, but after re-reading it about a year ago I realized that it was just a little bit too much of a soap opera. Tolstoy’s starting to take precedence, since he definitely has a little bit more of what Orwell called a “belly-to-earth” quality.

    George Steiner wrote a really eloquent book comparing the two along these lines way back in the 50’s. If you’re interested it might be fun to look into.

  7. Jack M
    at 7:29 am on February 24, 2012

    Dostoevsky tends to be a bit on the melodramatic side, but Tolstoy is the master.

  8. Nick Moran
    at 9:47 am on February 24, 2012

    Kevin, the beginning of this article was hysterical. I have vague childhood memories of a similar experience, on the opposite end, when I would follow my dad around his school on my off-days. He taught English — in particular Shakespeare — and I would run around yelling out “Mercuti-ooooo!” in the same way the Lost Boys always chanted “Rufi-ooooo!” in Hook.

    The warmness of that memory is almost enough for me to forgive you for liking Tolstoy better than Dostoevsky.

  9. Kevin Hartnett
    at 10:30 am on February 24, 2012

    Chris- That Slaughterhouse Five quote describes perfectly what I meant when I said that Ivan’s religious questioning was a relic to me. “It isn’t enough anymore.”

    Very funny, Nick! And gives me hope that my son will carry Stinking Lizaveta with him into adulthood if we keep her around long enough.

  10. Sunday Read: Kevin Hartnett Finds Pleasure in Dostoevsky’s Stinking Lizaveta | Books LIVE
    at 1:41 am on February 26, 2012

    […] Complete article: The Millions […]

  11. Shelley
    at 11:49 am on February 28, 2012

    I read Karamazov (my favorite novel) out loud to my daughter when she was in junior high. She died laughing every time Smerdyakov opened his mouth.

  12. Martin
    at 5:06 pm on March 14, 2012

    It’s funny in itself to think of anyone finding anything funny anywhere in Dostoevsky. Though he’s so serious he’s still an incredibly interesting writer. I can’t think of a writer who has so much pathos without ever coming over as schmaltzy. Even Dickens does.
    One of the many good points about this article is that it reminds us that if we look hard enough for humour we’ll find it, albeit in serious literature.
    I must now check to see if I can find humour in Edgar Allan Poe, Tales of Hoffmann, Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner or any of the Gothic(k) novels.
    Thanks for the laughs,

  13. Kevin Hartnett
    at 7:45 pm on March 14, 2012

    Thanks for the comment, Martin. I’d just add that I agree with what Shelley said, too- I thought Smerdyakov was very funny, particularly with the way he jerked Ivan around.

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