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?