Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Brothers Karamazov + Fables of Aesop

1. "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I finished reading this book a few weeks ago, but I've put off reviewing
it until now.  It's not that I didn't like it - in fact I think it's a
fantastic novel.  The problem I has was deciding what to write about it.
Many great writers have cited this book as an influence, and you can
read what they've said about it elsewhere on the Web.  In this review I'm
hoping to keep it simple and brief.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is a wealthy landowner.  He's a "sensualist":
overindulgent, brash, hedonistic, and not ashamed of these qualities.
He's been married twice, has three legitimate sons, and we discover that
he may have an illegitimate son too.  Both wives died when they were
young, and Fyodor showed little interest in raising his sons.  He was
too busy having a good time, and preferred to leave the boys in the care
of his servants before shunting them off to get educated.

The three brothers are quite different from each other.  Dmitri is the
eldest, and like his father, he's a sensualist prone to letting his
emotions get out of control.  Ivan is the middle brother, and is the
"smart" one.  He's a brilliant student, intellectual and rational.
Alexei is the youngest, the spiritual one, and is the least like his
father: sensitive, considerate and modest.  He wants to become a monk.

The main action occurs at a rare point in time where the brothers are
living together in the same place, that is, near or where their father
lives.  In fact, they've been living apart so long that they barely know
each other.  When the father is found murdered, there's a lot of
evidence pointing to Dmitri as the killer.  For example, it was well
known that he was competing with his father for the affections of a
certain young woman, and that he was always short of cash.  He even
shows up at an official's place with blood on his hands!  He's soon
arrested and brought to trial.  While Dmitri is the formal accused, in
many ways all the brothers are on trial.  Each brother represents a key
aspect of the Russian nation in the late 19th Century.  In other words,
these aspects (Sensualism, Intellectualism and Spirituality) are on
trial too.  Fittingly, the case and trial have become well-known across
the land: the "Trial of the Century", you could say.

I won't go into much more detail with the plot, since it's a big book
and a lot happens.  Many topics are covered, including: morality, faith,
romance, rationality, money, pride, jealousy, opportunism and justice.
In short, the characters are fascinating and the plot is intriguing.

Like "Crime and Punishment" (which I read earlier this year), "The
Brothers Karamazov" is another epic page-turner by Dostoevsky.  There
are sections where characters are given space to express their
individual philosophies, and these might a bit deep for some readers.
But overall, these give the book substance.  It is definitely worthy of
its status as a classic.

2. "Fables of Aesop"

As you probably know, the structure of each of Aesop's fables is simple:
an entertaining short story, typically using animals as the characters,
that conveys some moral or lesson.  Examples include "The Tortoise and
the Hare", "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", "The Goose That Laid the Golden
Eggs" and "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing."

I decided to reread a collection of Aesop's fables as a terse contrast to
the epic nature of "The Brothers Karamazov".  Many of the insights stand
the test of time and are relevant today, but a handful of fables don't
sit that well in the modern era.  In particular, the generalities and
stereotypes regarding women and certain races are very politically
incorrect.  Despite this minor quibble, the fables are worth revisiting.