Why I stopped reading a classic

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky is a classic, or so I’ve heard. It’s one of those books so great and so worth reading that no one you talk to has actually read it.

A 700-page novel is something of a commitment, but I approached this one with an open mind and a daily subway commute. I’ve heard writers are supposed to paint with words, but if so, Dostoyevsky sure uses a lot of paint: five-page dialogues, chapter-length digressions, extensive and unhelpful discussions about religion, the narrator going back and forth in “by the way, I need to tell you about this” blurbs … and the list could go on.

All this in the midst of what could otherwise be a good story: a drunken, absentee father has three sons who aren’t exactly evil, but one of them ends up hating him so much that when the father is murdered, the son is accused of patricide. Sorry for the spoiler — I didn’t actually read that far — at page 200 out of 700 I was annoyed by the digressions, sick of being dragged again and again through the mud of human nature, and just plain tired of the verbosity.

Dare I say this about a classic? Yes. It was boring. Long and boring. Maybe if Dostoyevsky’s editor had studied fractions, he would have cut the length to 1/3 of the original. I really think a 200-page Brothers Karamazov would have been worth reading. After all, Lord of the Flies makes much the same point about human nature — but in a way that’s actually engaging — in a mere 180 pages. (Sorry, English majors, for the fits about my naivety that you’re having right now.)

It’s not that I mind long books. At over 1000 pages, The Lord of the Rings is a good read (mild understatement). And for something I’ve read more recently, My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok clocks in at 400 pages, but is a very engaging tale.

So yes, I stopped reading a classic a third of the way through. Actually, the final nail in the coffin for me was when I found out (thanks Wikipedia) that The Brothers Karamazov was a great influence for Sigmund Freud. This was Freud’s favourite book? Ugh. No wonder I wasn’t enjoying it.

So, Dostoyevsky, I don’t know how you’d say this in Russian, but in English we say that “brevity is the soul of wit”. Witty, Brothers Karamazov is not. But then again … maybe it’s shorter in the original Russian?

13 thoughts on “Why I stopped reading a classic

  1. Reading any translated novel is tough. And the Russian novels are particularly dense. Only the very best translators interpret the culture as well as the plot/characters/etc. Don’t fret because Dostoyevsky is tedious. Millions agree with you, myself included. When I reread “War And Peace”, I skip whole chapters of mind-numbing philosophy in order to get back to the action!

    • Thanks, that sounds like good pragmatic advice. :-)

      BTW, have we met? Are you the Hilary W who works at Oyster? In any case, welcome to our blog.

      • No…that would be my mother, Hilary! I told her about your blog when you posted about me. Shameless promotion, I know, but it’s the truth.

        Thanks for the tip on what not to read…I think I got it for free on my iPhone, though, so no harm done.

  2. Not my favorite Russian novel (as though I’ve read them all — ha!). I’m afraid I didn’t quite get it, even if I did plow through it all. Have your read Crime and Punishment? Great, even if dark.

  3. I agree with Eva, though I’d say it was my least favorite Russian novel yet and hope (for the Russians’ sake) it’s better in the original language–but it’s been the English speakers that, as you say, rave about it. I didn’t like the main character at all and didn’t get the most famous chapter at all. Yes, try Crime and Punishment but not when you’re borderline depressed. It will take you over the edge. But it’s at least interesting and stirring along the way. :) All that said, Russian novels just have a different aura about them, some to a lesser degree, some to a greater degree (The Idiot, for instance, which I quit reading early on)…which you either like, plow through, or get sick of.

  4. I love Crime & Punishment, too. I normally like all the psychological/philosophical stuff in Russian novels, but I haven’t read The Brothers K.

    I really enjoyed One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Dostoevsky.

    I stopped reading War & Peace (Tolstoy) about 2 chapters in because all the gossipy soap-opera characters just seemed really boring, and I found it next to impossible to remember who was who with all the different Russian titles referring to the same person. I might try again sometime.

    Sometimes Russian novels can be hard reading if the translation isn’t fantastic, I think. Probably doesn’t help the boredom…

    • Maybe I’ll try Crime and Punishment next time — I haven’t read it. Know what you mean about keeping everyone straight.

      BTW, I think One Day in the Life is by Solzhenitsyn, not by Dustoffyourjetski. I appreciated it, though Franci and I tried reading it out loud together, and somehow it got to be too much for out-loud reading. But it’s a manageable 160 pages!

  5. If you don’t read the whole thing (a highly commendable thing to do), you have to read the Grand Inquisitor – it’s towards the end of the book (I think) – it’s a parable-ish story that Ivan (Dostoyevsky) speaks to Alyosha.

  6. Chaim Potok has long been one of my favourite authors. Berwyn didn’t get far on Crime and Punishment. He was depressed by around page 2. Commenting on another post: we’ll pray for you, Franci! Love, Veronica.

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