“I am big; it’s the pictures that got small”
In Considering the Lobster, David Foster Wallace observes that the “thing about Dostoevsky’s characters is that they are alive" (264). They are, in fact, larger than life, and Wallace goes on to bemoan the fact that so many “of the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight…in comparison to Gogol or Dostoevsky” (271). Like Norma Desmond, who feels the pictures have gotten small, Wallace sees contemporary novels lacking the heft of the classics, but he doesn’t seem to see a way out. Wallace can’t imagine a novelist today writing the way Dostoevsky does.
I understand his point – we’ve been taught that intrusive narrators are unsophisticated and that characters should be understated. Wallace comments that the writer of Serious Novels today “would be (and this is our own age’s truest vision of hell) laughed out of town" (273).
I wonder if this true. At present, novelists experiment with any number of genres. Is there really a divide a novelist can’t cross without being deemed ridiculous?
What is true about so many of the Serious Novels, and especially true of The Brothers Karamazov is, as Wallace states, the characters are alive, and better yet, these novels are driven by character rather than plot. The core plot of the Brothers K is not particularly complicated. The book is motored instead by characters who “live inside of us forever” (Wallace 264), and we don’t need to guess who’s speaking in the novel as each of these characters—Fyodor and his four sons: Alyosha, Dimitri, Ivan, and Smerdyakov, in addition to several other major characters--has been fully drawn and realized.
Where are characters like these in contemporary fiction? A writer now would probably feel s/he could only present characters like those of Dostoevsky ironically. While there's plenty of humor and ironic moments in the Brothers K, it is not an ironic novel. Dostoevsky presents this material seriously.
For instance, Dostoevsky doesn't ironize the goodness of Alyosha or Zosima, two characters who especially interested me, and Zosima's life story - one of the set pieces in the novel - is gripping. His death and rapidly stinking corpse, which confounds expectations (he's thought of as a saint, and--as such--his body would not undergo normal decay) is one of Dostoevsky's ironic touches. But its significance is profoundly serious. Does Zosima's corpse, which causes consternation and confusion, lessen his holiness? But, for all the narrative intrusion, we are not told. Dostoevky's narrator might offer lengthy introductions, but he does not judge.
I don't like everything about the novel. Despite my interest in religion and spirituality, I found the Grand Inquisitor section long, and this may have been due to my desire to get back to the characters. In a lesser novel, the section might have prompted more interest. I'm also still pondering the need for the Ilyusha subplot and its function in the novel.
Yet, quibbles aside, Dostoevsky bares his soul in this novel. He doesn't hide behind irony, which allows an author the ability to maintain distance and ambiguity. And perhaps it is irony that separates the great novels of the past from the many contemporary novels that lack equivalent passion, honesty, and heft.
Irrelevant aside: Although I had three (three!!) copies of this novel they were all paperbacks with yellowed paper and about a size 8 font. I wound up reading this novel - all 900 pages or so - on my computer. You've got to really like a novel to do that.