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April 13, 2005

Debra Winger Reads "Karamazov"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

One of my biggest cultural blindspots has been the fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Over the decades I've had a number of goes at his work, so I've at least been able to check some of the big books off my must-read list: "The Idiot," "Crime and Punishment," "Notes from Underground." But, generally speaking, his work washes over me, leaving me unmarked, bewildered, and mildly seasick.

I think it's the unceasing storminess of his universe that overwhelms me. (My limitation, of course. I have no beef with Dostoevsky's ranking as one of the greats.) The carrying-on lurches from one sweaty, wild-eyed, emotional extreme to the next, and the action seems to be nothing but variations on groveling, loathing, pleading, raging, exulting, manipulating, sputtering, fuming, and yearning. The bestial transforms into the saintly, and then back again.

I stare at Dostoevsky's fiction with near-complete incomprehension. His books portray a universe that's a total stranger to my own temperament: a churning, heaving place full of histrionic, religion-addled, epilepsy-plagued drunkards.

But I'm making my way through the ultimate Dostoevsky challenge right now -- "The Brothers Karamazov" -- and am having a pretty good time of it. My secret: I'm listening to an abridged audiobook of the novel. (I blogged here about the advantages of audiobooks, and about how abridgments may not always be bad things.)

dostoevsky.jpg A match made in heaven?

The version I'm listening to is read by the actress Debra Winger, and I'm finding her a great help even though in some ways Winger's a not-ideal reader. She doesn't have a lot of vocal technique, for example, or control. But she does have something I'm finding very handy: an instant and intuitive understanding of these (to my mind) bizarro bedbug/angel Russkies -- the emotional shifts and ploys, the venting followed by the shame and neediness. I'm reminded of how turbulent, mercurial, and sexy Winger's own emotions seemed in her early movies. Winger seems to know where Dostoevsky's people really live; she flares right up with them, then falls apart with them. That little rasp in her voice is helping me stay interested too.

What I'm starting to "get" -- finally -- about Dostoevsky is how shrewd and funny he was about his characters. He may have shared many of their manias, but he also looked at his people with amazement, and wanted to note down some of their behavior patterns and emotional patterns. So he was a great psychologist and sociologist after all. Hmm.

I blogged here about great artworks I don't get. Lots of visitors pitched in with entertaining lists and observations of their own.



posted by Michael at April 13, 2005


My sympathies, Michael. I feel the same way, Most people don't get through more than the Grand Inquisitor part, and Father Zosima is a memorable character, but it sure is rough going. My mother's friend Patricia Highsmith adored Dostoevsky, but she was pretty damn weird herself.
I tried the same experiment by buying an audio version of Siddhartha, to force myself through it. It's read by an actor named Barron Christian, who does narration for the Discovery Channel. And I must say it has helped me to fall asleep many times.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 13, 2005 10:30 PM

Even when I was young and read everything I had a difficult time with FD. I've read that he's essentially untranslatable, but it seems to me that it's not so much his reality you have to buy into, but his emotional baseline which, to ice people like me, demands a quality of hysteria that's foreign and inaccessible. Hard to say that it's just the Russki in him since one doesn't encounter the same difficulties in the other Russian giants. The prose is as formal and encompassing as any writer ever, but emotionally it often seems unbuttoned and sometimes willfully jujune.

You should look at the five volume life by Joseph Frank, to my mind one of the very greatest acts of biography ever committed, for clues.

Posted by: Mike Hill on April 13, 2005 11:43 PM

Dostoyevksy is one of my all-time favorites. I read The Brothers Karamazov for the first time when I was a senior in high school. Maybe that's the key -- starting Dostoyevsky at a young age made it easier to buy into the emotional baseline that Mike Hill mentions. Anyway, I second Mike's endorsement of the outstanding Joseph Frank biography; the last volume includes a magnificent reading of the Brothers Karamazov.

I read and loved your post about great works of art you don't get. The many mentions that Joyce received on the subsequent thread reminded me of Martin Amis's observations about Ulysses:

"What, nowadays, is the constituency of Ulysses? Who reads it? Who curls up with Ulysses? It is thoroughly studied, it is exhaustively unzipped and unseamed, it is much deconstructed. But who reads Ulysses for the hell of it? I know a poet who carries Ulysses around with him in his satchel. I know a novelist who briefly consults Ulysses each night upon retiring. I know an essayist who wittily featurs Ulysses on his toilet bookshelf. They read it -- but have they read it, in the readerly fashion, from beginning to end? For the truth is that Ulysses is not reader-friendly. Famously James Joyce is a writers' writer. Perhaps one could go further and say that James Joyce is a writer's writer. He is auto-friendly; he is James Joyce-friendly."

Posted by: Kate Marie on April 14, 2005 1:31 AM

I always enjoyed Dostoevsky. His 'juicyness' never put me off. That may be a consequence of my having grown up in a rather operatic home. But he also never struck me as a forbiddingly intellectual or in any way difficult writer. Without really thinking about it, I've always mentally paired him with Dickens: smart but quite accessible, if obsessively drawn to eccentrics.

Question: what do you think of Dickens?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 14, 2005 1:40 AM

That's interesting...I never would have paired Dostoyevsky with Dickens. However, Dickens I'ver read and reread since jr high and Dostoyevesky I've tried and failed to read many times.

Posted by: Deb on April 14, 2005 8:26 AM

"Perhaps one could go further and say that James Joyce is a writer's writer. He is auto-friendly; he is James Joyce-friendly."

Heh. I love this quote! It sounds like "Ulysses" is an act of intellectual masturbation.

I've tried once or twice to read Dostoevsky as well as Dickens. I never really got too far with either author. Was Dostoevsky serialized like Dickens was originally? I think if someone had handed me Dickens in serial form I would have adored him, but the hefty novels frequently intimidate me.

Posted by: lindsey on April 14, 2005 4:35 PM

I love Dickens and I've done the same mental pairing of Dickens and Dostoyevsky that you've done. Same tendency toward melodrama, same humor (though, alas, the humor in Dostoyevsky often gets lost in translation for me), same accessibility. Dostoyevsky seems to be a little more self-conscious about the "sentimentalist" tendencies of some of his characters (so it crops up in characters like old Karamazov). Dickens seems to write from a reformist impulse, while Dostoyevsky writes from a messianic one Extreme over-generalizing here, but I'm commenting on the fly . . .

Someone could probably do (probably already has done) a nice comparison between, say, Crime and Punishment and Great Expectations.

Posted by: Kate Marie on April 14, 2005 4:43 PM

I read all the major works by FD before finishing high school (something which in retrospect seems really bizzare). I was hungry for deep thoughts and religious doubt, and Brothers K. fit the bill exactly.

A decade later, I reread parts of Brothers K., finding the philosophy parts either boring or derivative. But Dostoevsky was great at adding suspense, and the trial scene (where each speech is a single chapter!) was absolutely beautiful. Of course, Nabokov lambasted Dostoevsky for this novel of ideas (a criticism I felt to be unjust).

Frankly I don't understand the obsession with murders and the morbid in his novels. Seemed awfully melodramatic.

A female friend of mine at college loved Dostoevsky too, but felt the female characters were flat, something I've tended over time to agree with. But the trial scene is great; reread it; I couldn't put it down. I enjoyed The Possessed and the Idiot for their suspense and plot and (in the latter case) the epilepsy theme.

Dostoesvsky's style is melodramatic and bombastic, but the discussions are lively and don't detract from the plot. I would argue that Dostoevsky is one of the few people who managed to pull off the novel of ideas successfully.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on April 14, 2005 4:51 PM

To answer Lindsey's question, yes, Dostoyevsky was originally serialized like Dickens.

Posted by: Kate Marie on April 14, 2005 8:15 PM

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