The Karamazov Readalong

As you may have seen already, my friend Liz Humphreys from the blog Leaping Life is going to host a The Brothers Karamazov readalong. Her timing is no coincidence, as 2021 marks the bicentenary of Dostoevsky’s birth. It’s the perfect opportunity for those of you who have been meaning to read Dostoevsky’s epic novel The Brothers Karamazov. She has invited me and our mutual friend Rebecca Bud to make some contributions to the readalong, which obviously we were more than happy to do!

Intimidating

The Brothers Karamazov is definitely one of those intimidating novels that are huge in every way. It tackles some of the biggest questions in life, such as the conflict between reason and faith. Of all the great Russian writers of the 19th century it was after all Dostoevsky who made us think and reflect the most. He didn’t shy away from subjects such as poverty and prostitution and has a habit of leading you into the darkest corners of the human mind.

A very short biography

Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, where his father was a doctor at a hospital for the poor. Perhaps it was there that his lifelong fascination with less fortunate people began. By the time Dostoevsky was 18 years old, both his parents had died. He and his brother moved to St Petersburg, a city that would become very important for his work and life. His first literary succes was a short novel called Poor Folk (1846), and it made him famous overnight. In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for treason and sentenced to death. He was already taken to the place of execution, when the tsar at the very last moment pardoned him and his fellow prisoners. He was sent to Siberia instead, and spent four years doing forced labour in chains. He wrote all his major novels (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov) after Siberia. He married twice (the second time happily), had 4 children (of which 2 died), and had to overcome a severe gambling addiction. As if all that was not enough he was always ill: he suffered from epilepsy, haemorrhoids and emphysema. The emphysema caused his death in 1881.

Politics

The Brothers Karamazov was written in the last two years of his life, and as such it should be seen as his life’s work. This was a time of great political turmoil in Russia. After the abolition of serfdom Russia had come to a crossroads and the country was divided. Dostoevsky was a convinced Slavophile, believing that Russia should stay true to itself in order to move forward. One of Dostoevsky’s motivations to write The Brothers Karamazov was to have an opportunity to explain his moral and political views. 

Death of his son Alyosha

The basic idea for the novel, which he had in his head for several years before he started writing, changed after the death of his 3 year old son Alyosha. Little Alyosha died from an epilepsy fit. Besides being struck with grief, Dostoevsky also felt immensely guilty, as clearly Alyosha had inherited the disease that killed him from his father. Dostoevsky went to the famous Optina Pustyn monastery, and there he talked to the equally famous Father Ambrose about the death of little Alyosha. He named on of the brothers in The Brothers Karamazov ‘Alyosha’ and gave Father Ambrose a part as Father Zosima. 

The quintessential novel

“Everything would be put in with an idea that would illuminate the whole.The very selection of facts will suggest how they are to be understood. And it ought to be interesting even for light reading, apart from its value as a work of reference. It would be, so to say, a presentation of the spiritual, moral, inner life of Russia. I want everyone to buy it, I want it to be a book that will be found on every table. It’s an immense undertaking” (from Demons, as quoted by Christofi, page 176 Dostoevsky in Love).

*****

I can highly recommend the biography Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi as an introduction to Dostoevsky and his work. Christofi takes you through Dostoevsky’s life with quotes from letters, excerpts of his novels and notes from his diaries. It’s as if we can hear Dostoevsky himself reminiscing about his life.

*****

As an introduction to the readalong the three of us have recorded a podcast, in which Liz explains all about the readalong. If you wish to take part, you can find more information on Liz’s blog. The readalong starts on the 27th of July.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

23 thoughts on “The Karamazov Readalong

  1. Elisabeth, thank you for a wonderful/informative post about Dostoevsky, “The Brothers Karamazov,” and “The Brothers Karamazov” read-along! As you note, that final Dostoevsky novel indeed wrestles with many of the big questions — while being a compelling and often highly entertaining read.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Elisabeth – This is a lucid, interesting, and informative post. The Christofi book
    sounds very interesting. I haven’t read Dostoevsky for a while. Your post makes me want to.

    Liked by 6 people

  3. Elisabeth, what a wonderful post on Dostoevsky. It so happens that I’m about to read The Karamazov Brothers. I’ve the Ignar Avesy translation, the one that the readalong will be using, so that’s perfect for me. And a great way to start reading!

    Liked by 5 people

  4. Thank you so much for this wonderful post, Elisabeth. It is always fabulous to have your insights on the greats of Russian literature, and particularly so in the lead up to the Readalong. A marvellous set-up for our forthcoming adventure! X

    Liked by 4 people

  5. Elizabeth, I think reading his books aloud would be helpful, even after you have read one. My brother-in-law gave some good advice on reading books like this one – he said he gives them 100 pages to capture his attention. This book is hard with all of the various names, informal names and nicknames meaning the same person, e.g. I hope it goes well. Keith

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I’m so excited to hear that you will be joining us on the #karamazovreadalong, Philip. I have the same translation. Elisabeth has been a wonderful guide when I read Eugene Onegin. I am looking forward to this adventure.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I think it would be a great idea to read this book aloud, Keith. I will attempt a few pages at least because when the words are said, they become more real to me.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Elisabeth – a wonderful post to start us on our journey. Frances will be reading along with us. I just ordered a paperback version for her because she wants to read it in book form like she did the first time she read BK. I am excited!!!

    Liked by 3 people

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