Sunday, 14 May 2023

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

1/ This is the first Chekhov play I’ve read, and it’s harder to read than Shakespeare or Ibsen—there are too many characters to keep track of, and too many things going on at the same time.

Here are my first impressions of Chekhov’s drama: 

- Chekhov’s characters frequently talk past each other, so there are always multiple threads in the same conversation. 

- As in his short stories, Chekhov writes about people suffering and feeling that they have wasted their lives, wasted their potential. However, in his short stories and novellas, he focuses on one thing (very often it’s a man and a woman and a reason for them to be unhappy) whereas in the play, there are many stories going on at the same time. 

- As in his short stories, he avoids overt drama. He and Ibsen are perhaps opposite—Ibsen is intense and depicts everything in a cold, brutal, uncompromising way, Chekhov leaves conflict and incident off-stage and depicts what appears to be ordinary life, suggesting a lot more underneath. 

In a way, Chekhov seems to write about “the moments between life”, or perhaps it’s better to say that life happens between the scenes that he depicts—for example, between Act 1 and Act 2, Andrey and Natasha have got married and had a baby, Andrey has got more debts and now works for the Council, Natasha has changed and slowly taken over the house, something has developed between Masha and Vershinin, Tuzenbakh has fallen for Irina—Chekhov throws us into a middle of a scene, then withholds all the changes and developments, and throws us into the middle of another scene some time later, forcing us to piece together the story. 

Later on, he doesn’t depict the two affairs, doesn’t depict the fire, doesn’t depict the quarrel, and doesn’t depict the duel. He leaves all the dramatic incidents off-stage. 

2/ I’ve noticed that many people, when praising Chekhov, talk about the range of his characters. It is true that he writes about different groups, different classes of people, but there are certain types that keep popping up in his works—such as the weak, ineffectual, spineless type, unable to stand up for himself or for anything, and Andrey in Three Sisters is that type. 

The scene of Andrey talking to Ferapont is so moving: 

“ANDREY: […] To be a member of the local District Council, when every night I dream that I am a professor of Moscow University, a famous scholar who is Russia’s pride! 

FERAPONT: I don’t really know… I don’t hear very well. 

ANDREY: If your hearing was all right, then perhaps I wouldn’t be talking to you. I need to talk to someone but my wife doesn’t understand me, and for some reason I’m afraid of my sisters, I’m afraid they’ll laugh at me or make me feel ashamed…” 

(Act 2) 

(translated by Peter Carson) 

Andrey and his sisters are all unhappy, all having wasted their potential, and they suffer in different ways. 

3/ I have said that people in Chekhov’s play talk past each other and don’t really listen, but it’s curious that in Act 2, Vershinin says several times that he hasn’t eaten since morning, but nobody cares. Even Masha doesn’t seem to notice. 

I read Three Sisters, then after a quick break with Chekhov’s letters, read the play again. Between the two readings, I talked to Himadri and he said this about Vershinin:  

“It would appear his wife (whom we never see) has some kind of mental condition. But the question remains unanswered: is his neglect of his family due to his wife making the home life so difficult? Or has she come to this state *because* he has neglected her?

He says he feels sorry for his daughters. So why isn’t he with them?” 

Masha gets bored with her simple, ridiculous husband and falls for a more intelligent man, but the one she’s in love with is probably a selfish, terrible man who neglects his own family. 

As I reread the play, I noticed Kulygin walking around looking for Masha and realising what’s going on, and it’s heartbreaking. Kulygin makes me think of Charles Bovary: both are boring, mediocre men, not particularly clever; both are betrayed, and suffer; and both don’t deserve to suffer that way.  

“KULYGIN […] Today the Army is leaving and everything will go back to what it was. Whatever they say there, Masha is a fine, honest woman, I love her very much, and I thank my destiny…” 

(Act 4) 

That is terribly sad. Kulygin is dim-witted, but he’s depicted with compassion and one can’t help feeling sorry for him. I especially love the scene where Masha breaks down, when saying farewell to Vershinin, and Kulygin, the kind Kulygin tries to distract the moment by putting on the moustache and beard he has confiscated from a boy at the school. 

4/ Instead of writing about Natasha, the villain of the play who slowly takes revenge on the family and ousts the sisters from their own house, I want to draw attention to a little moment when she shouts at Anfisa, the nyanya, and Olga does nothing. This kind of thing is depicted a few times in Chekhov—in “At Home”, for example—a good-natured but unhappy person is so wrapped up in her own problems that she does nothing when an injustice, a cruel act takes place before her eyes. 

In Three Sisters, a more cruel passivity is in the final Act, when Irina knows that there’s going to be a duel, that Tuzenbakh wants her to say something to him in the last moment, but she doesn’t—it’s heartbreaking. 

But it’s not just her or Masha: in the final Act, we see that Chebutykin, the army doctor, has also become cynical and indifferent. 

“MASHA: Everything has become muddled in my head… Anyway, I say they shouldn’t allow them. He could wound the Baron or even kill him. 

CHEBUTYKIN: The Baron is a good man, but one baron more or one baron less—what can it matter? Let it be! What can it matter!” 


Chekhov shows what suffering and failure do to a person. 

This is a great play, but a depressing play.  

Sunday, 7 May 2023

On the 1983 King Lear, starring Laurence Olivier

Yesterday I was feeling down all day, so I thought I might as well tear my heart to pieces watching King Lear, having for some time felt an overwhelming urge to revisit the play. I went for the 1983 version, directed by Michael Elliott and starring Laurence Olivier. 

It didn’t tear my heart to pieces. 

But let’s talk about the good things first. In many ways, it is good, and it’s got a brilliant cast, especially Robert Lindsay as Edmund and Diana Rigg as Regan. Not counting Ran and the Kozintsev film, I have hitherto seen three versions of King Lear onscreen, and Robert Lindsay is my favourite Edmund. In the 2016 version directed by Michael Buffong, which otherwise would be perfect, Fraser Ayres lacks the attractiveness of Edmund and terribly overacts. In the 1982 BBC version directed by Jonathan Miller, Michael Kitchen delivers a bland performance, overshadowed by Anton Lesser’s Edgar (which also says something about Anton Lesser’s brilliance, considering that there isn’t a lot to the role of Edgar). Robert Lindsay is just right—Machiavellian; attractive and magnetic despite his spiteful and treacherous nature; but also pathetic in the final scene. The final moment makes one realise that Edmund sets a trap against his brother and turns against his father not only because he, as a bastard, is legally entitled to nothing, but also because he’s never been loved. 

Diana Rigg is also great as Regan. Debbie Korley and Penelope Wilton are also excellent in the role, especially the latter’s girlish smile as she says “One side will mock the other; th’ other too”, which is unnerving, but in the 1983 version, Diana Rigg steals the scene whenever she appears. She is cold and cruel and mesmerising as Regan.

The rest of the cast are John Hurt as the Fool, Dorothy Tutin as Goneril, Anna Calder-Marshall as Cordelia…

There are many brilliant scenes, and with such a cast, this should be a great production of King Lear, but something is missing—and that I think is in the performance of Laurence Olivier. I’m not quite sure how to explain, as I’m not sure myself what is lacking. 

In the first half of the play, he’s quite good, and the scene in the storm is also good. But from the scene in the hovel with Edgar, till the end of the play, I think his performance lacks power. The scene of Lear putting his daughters on trial, in this production, leaves no impression—perhaps Laurence Olivier isn’t very good at playing madness. The scene of mad Lear meeting blind Gloucester also doesn’t work quite well—King Lear is a bleak, devastating play but there is comedy in it, and there are comic elements, albeit dark and twisted, in that scene—Don Warrington in the 2016 version and Michael Horden in the 1982 BBC version both capture well the funny aspect of the scene, I don’t think Laurence Olivier does. 

More importantly, there are two key moments in King Lear that always make me cry—Lear’s reunion with Cordelia and the final scene—but I didn’t cry watching the 1983 production, I wasn’t strongly moved. In the reunion scene, I think the problem is in the way Laurence Olivier says the line “If you have poison for me, I will drink it”—the scene is devastating because of that line, but his delivery for some reason doesn’t quite work. In the final scene, it should break your heart, it should rip you apart, it should leave you shattered—“Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life/ And thou no breath at all?”—but the 1983 production doesn’t quite do so, and I think it’s partly because of Laurence Olivier’s acting and partly because of the music playing over the scene. 

With such a brilliant cast, it’s disappointing. 

Do I think you should watch it? Yes, for Diana Rigg and Robert Lindsay. It is currently available and free on youtube. But I would recommend Don Warrington and Michael Horden for Lear. 

Thursday, 27 April 2023

On feeling close to Chekhov; 30 favourite stories

When I first read Chekhov, I was too young—I hadn’t lived. My rediscovery of Chekhov was two years ago, and now that I have loved and lost, now that I’m going through something never expected to happen, now that I must begin all over again and feel something akin to shame for doing so, I feel closer and closer to Chekhov. He is so good at discerning the subtlest emotional shades, at conveying the uncertainty and absurdity of life, at depicting the way people change and love doesn’t last. He writes about wasted lives, missed opportunities, and regrets, without descending into lachrymose wallowing or cynicism. 

I perhaps even feel closer to Chekhov now than to Jane Austen, because he writes about love and disappointment, sex, sexual desire, death, and the futility of life—which she doesn’t. On this blog, I have avoided identifying with characters and tried to write about literature with detachment, but reading is still a subjective thing, especially during a difficult time. 

It’s also interesting that at this time I’m turning to Chekhov rather than Tolstoy, my favourite writer of all time—why? 


I have just finished Volume 4 of Constance Garnett’s Chekhov but find it hard to write about him, so here’s a list of my 30 favourite Chekhov stories so far: 

  • “Three Years”
  • “The Party” or “The Name-Day Party” 
  • “The Lady with the Dog” 
  • “About Love” 
  • “An Anonymous Story” 
  • “Terror” 
  • “My Life” 
  • “In the Ravine” 
  • “Peasants” 
  • “Ionitch” or “Ionych” 
  • “A Woman’s Kingdom” 
  • “A Dreary Story” 
  • “The Bishop” 
  • “The Betrothed” or “The Bride” 
  • “Neighbours” 
  • “The Murder” 
  • “Ward No. 6” 
  • “The Steppe” 
  • “The Kiss” 
  • “Verochka” 
  • “Man in a Case” 
  • “The Teacher of Literature” 
  • “An Artist’s Story” or “The House with the Mezzanine” 
  • “Volodya” 
  • “Ariadne”
  • “Mire” 
  • “The Chemist’s Wife” 
  • “The Duel” 
  • “The New Villa” 
  • “The Darling” 

The list is not in order of merit or importance; some of the stories are grouped thematically.  

Monday, 17 April 2023

War and Peace (1966-1967), dir. Sergei Bondarchuk

What possessed me to watch the Russian War and Peace less than 4 months after the BBC adaptation from 1972?

Before commenting on Bondarchuk’s film, I should talk a bit about Tolstoy’s book. I have stolen and often used an image from Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) because it’s true—some writers, such as Jane Austen or Henry James, use small brushstrokes and delineate the subtlest things with great delicacy, whereas others, such as Melville or Dostoyevsky, paint with broad brushstrokes and vigour—Tolstoy encompasses the entire spectrum, capable of depicting both epic battle scenes, and the tiniest changes of facial expressions in a living room. Tolstoy’s works have both breadth and depth, scope and subtlety. 

The 2 adaptations have different approaches. If the 1972 TV series focuses on drama, on characters and the conflicts between them, the 1966-1967 Russian film (consisting of 4 parts and lasting more than 7 hours) focuses on the epic-ness of War and Peace

And as an epic, Bondarchuk’s film is spectacular. All the big scenes, ball scenes, battle scenes, scenes of Moscow burning… are breathtaking, especially when we remember that they couldn’t have used CGI the way Hollywood can today. War and Peace is the most expensive film made in the Soviet Union, and it must be one of the most visually impressive war films ever made. 

The trouble is that Bondarchuk and his co-screenwriter Vasily Solovyov only focus on War and Peace as an epic. Tolstoy’s book may be admired for its scope, for its picture of the entire Russian society, but I think it is loved for the individual characters. The characters in the Russian film are but shallow representations of Tolstoy’s creations: Bondarchuk and Solovyov simplify Pierre, cut down on his search for meaning, remove the Freemasons storyline and reduce the significance of Platon; fail to convey the depravity of Hélène and the frivolity of Lise; simplify Andrei and mostly concentrate on his love story with Natasha; reduce to background characters not only Sonya but also Marya and Nikolai, and get rid of that storyline; place Natasha in the centre, together with Pierre and Andrei, without the contrast with Marya; fail to convey the warmth of the Rostovs and the cold, hard love of the Bolkonskys, etc. 

The film, especially Part 1, is not engaging, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the actors—the blame lies with the screenwriters and director. Solovyov and Bondarchuk don’t seem to care about conflict, and sometimes they remove the sense of conflict from a scene. For example, in one scene, Captain Tushin is questioned by his superiors about why he left the guns behind, and he remains silent, not wanting to blame his soldiers to justify himself—in Tolstoy’s novel, there’s a real sense of conflict as Captain Tushin says nothing and may be punished, but fortunately after some time, Andrei, an outsider, decides to speak up and defend him—in the Russian film, the superiors ask one question, then we see Captain Tushin saying nothing, then Andrei defends him right away, there’s no sense of conflict.

That is just one example.

Quite often, Bondarchuk depicts a scene as in the book, but rips it out of context and makes it devoid of meaning. For example, there’s nothing wrong as such with the scene of Nikolai running away in a battle and confusedly thinking why others would be shooting at him, but the scene loses its significance because up to that point, Nikolai has been in the background, barely remembered as a character.   

The film mostly focuses on spectacle, with the exception of Part 2. Part 2, named “Natasha Rostova”, demonstrates what Solovyov and Bondarchuk could achieve if only they paid more attention to individual characters. I love Ludmila Savelyeva as Natasha—not just in comparison with the dreadful Morag Hood in the 1972 adaptation (its only flaw)—but I do think Ludmila Savelyeva has the charm, the innocence and gracefulness of Natasha. In the ball scene, I like the shot where Bondarchuk places Natasha next to a large mirror, so we can see at the same time what she is looking at and what is happening on her face. The entire scene is good, but that is a particularly excellent shot. 

I also love the folk dance scene, and the sequence with Anatole. Ludmila Savelyeva has the qualities of the character, and portrays well Natasha at different ages: a lively child at the beginning of the story; a young, charming, impressionable woman; and a more quiet, mature Natasha who has gone through great suffering. Perhaps next time I return to the book, it will be Ludmila Savelyeva that I see in my head as Natasha.

Unfortunately, all the characters are pale representations of Tolstoy’s creations, especially the “thinking characters” like Pierre and Andrei. The 1972 adaptation from the BBC demonstrates that it is possible to represent Tolstoy’s characters well on screen. 

Solovyov and Bondarchuk also remove Tolstoy’s theory of history and religious ideas, and get rid of the epilogue. But perhaps these changes were due to censors. 

As a national epic and war film, the 1966-1967 War and Peace is magnificent. But it doesn’t have the qualities that make Tolstoy’s book a monumental work of art. It is hollow. 

The film is available on youtube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Monday, 10 April 2023

Heartbreak and Chekhov

I’m going through one of the worst times—perhaps the hardest—of my life. Heartbreak.

So I turned to Chekhov.

At a time of heartache and dejection, Chekhov seems like a perfect companion, making one feel less lonely—there are others who also feel unhappy, who also struggle, who also find life hard and unfair—but his stories aren’t just bleak or cynical. I love the warmth, the compassion in Chekhov. And even though he doesn’t aim for moral instruction—as Tolstoy does—he still gets me to think about my life as he depicts, over and over again though in different ways, people wasting their lives and/or being unkind to others. 

I’ve just finished Volumes 1 and 2 of Constance Garnett’s 13 volumes. Volume 1 is good, especially “Three Years”, which I have read in the NYRB Peasants and Other Stories, but most of the stories feel relatively early, more like sketches. In Volume 2, most of the stories feel more substantial, and they are wonderful.

In “Mire”, a lieutenant comes to a Jewish woman named Susanna telling her to repay a debt to his cousin, as he (the lieutenant) needs the money in order to get married. The cousin and his wife wait all day only for him to return the next day, not only without money but also without the IOU, having been seduced by Susanna. Angry, the cousin himself goes to Susanna to get back his money, and also returns the following day. 

“Kryukov flopped on the sofa, thrust his head in the pillow, and shook with suppressed laughter. A minute later he got up, and looking at the surprised lieutenant, with his eyes full of tears from laughing, said:

“Close the door. Well . . . she is a fe-e-male, I beg to inform you!”

“Did you get the IOUs?”

Kryukov waved his hand and went off into a peal of laughter again.

“Well! she is a female!” he went on. “Merci for the acquaintance, my boy! She’s a devil in petticoats…”” 

It’s an excellent scene. 

“Of Susanna Moiseyevna and the IOUs they said nothing. Both of them felt, somehow, ashamed to speak of the incident aloud. Yet they remembered it and thought of it with pleasure, as of a curious farce, which life had unexpectedly and casually played upon them, and which it would be pleasant to recall in old age.” 

But it doesn’t end there. The lieutenant decides to leave, and the married cousin one day cannot resist the temptation to go to Susanna again. The final scene—the shock, the shame, the anger—is magnificent. 

In both “Excellent People” and “Neighbours”, Chekhov writes about strained brother-sister relationships. 

In “Excellent People”: 

“His sister had become a stranger to him. And he was a stranger to her.”

In “Neighbours”, the relationship between the brother and sister changes because she comes to live with a married man, despite the family’s disapproval. 

“It seemed to Pyotr Mihalitch that she had not changed in the least during the last week, except that she was a little paler. She looked calm and just as usual, as though she had come with her brother to visit Vlassitch. But Pyotr Mihalitch felt that some change had taken place in himself. Before, when she was living at home, he could have spoken to her about anything, and now he did not feel equal to asking her the simple question, “How do you like being here?” The question seemed awkward and unnecessary. Probably the same change had taken place in her. She was in no haste to turn the conversation to her mother, to her home, to her relations with Vlassitch; she did not defend herself, she did not say that free unions are better than marriages in the church; she was not agitated, and calmly brooded over the story of Olivier. . . . And why had they suddenly begun talking of Olivier?”

I love the subtlety in Chekhov. Pyotr Mihalitch sets off in anger to have a talk with his sister Zina and Vlassitch, but the meeting doesn’t happen as he has imagined in his head: 

“And Pyotr Mihalitch felt all the bitterness and horror of his position. He thought of his deserted home, the closed piano, and Zina’s bright little room into which no one went now; he thought there were no prints of little feet on the garden-paths, and that before tea no one went off, laughing gaily, to bathe. What he had clung to more and more from his childhood upwards, what he had loved thinking about when he used to sit in the stuffy class-room or the lecture theatre—brightness, purity, and joy, everything that filled the house with life and light, had gone never to return, had vanished, and was mixed up with a coarse, clumsy story of some battalion officer, a chivalrous lieutenant, a depraved woman and a grandfather who had shot himself. . . . And to begin to talk about his mother or to think that the past could ever return would mean not understanding what was clear.”

Chekhov’s writing about a brother and sister, but that could be true for everything: life changes, people change, and the past could never return.

Another story I love in Volume 2 is “At Home”, in which a young woman named Vera returns to an estate she has inherited: 

“The space, the lovely peace of the steppe, told her that happiness was near at hand, and perhaps was here already; thousands of people, in fact, would have said: “What happiness to be young, healthy, well-educated, to be living on one’s own estate!” And at the same time the endless plain, all alike, without one living soul, frightened her, and at moments it was clear to her that its peaceful green vastness would swallow up her life and reduce it to nothingness. She was very young, elegant, fond of life; she had finished her studies at an aristocratic boarding-school, had learnt three languages, had read a great deal, had travelled with her father—and could all this have been meant to lead to nothing but settling down in a remote country-house in the steppe, and wandering day after day from the garden into the fields and from the fields into the garden to while away the time, and then sitting at home listening to her grandfather’s breathing? But what could she do? Where could she go? She could find no answer, and as she was returning home she doubted whether she would be happy here, and thought that driving from the station was far more interesting than living here.” 

Chekhov writes with compassion, and gets one to sympathise with Vera’s loneliness and restlessness. But somehow, in a subtle way, he changes one’s perspective of Vera towards the end of the story, as she becomes so wrapped up in her own problems and in her passivity that she does nothing when her servants are treated badly. 

“At Home” pairs well with “The Princess”, the story about a princess who feels unhappy about her life but finds consolation in philanthropy, only to be told the painful truth that her charities help nobody but her own self-satisfaction: “There was nothing but the desire to amuse yourself with living puppets, nothing else. . . . A person who does not feel the difference between a human being and a lap-dog ought not to go in for philanthropy.” But Chekhov has no illusion about human nature—the honesty shocks her, but doesn’t transform her. 

In Volume 2, I also love “Expensive Lessons”, about a man who hires a Frenchwoman to teach him French and gets nothing out of his lessons, but who continues taking lessons and falls in love with her; and “The Chemist’s Wife”, a little sketch about an unhappy wife. 

Chekhov is such a wonderful writer. 

Thursday, 6 April 2023

Ranking Shakespeare

Now that I’ve read all of Shakespeare’s plays, why not do some rankings and annoy people with my choices? 

So here we go: 

My 5 favourite plays:



King Lear

Measure for Measure 

The Winter’s Tale 

My 15 favourite plays: 



King Lear

Measure for Measure 

The Winter’s Tale 


Henry IV, Part 1 

Henry IV, Part 2 

Twelfth Night 

The Merchant of Venice 

A Midsummer Night’s Dream 

The Tempest 

Richard II

Richard III 

Julius Caesar 

5 greatest male characters:

Macbeth in Macbeth 

Hamlet in Hamlet

Iago in Othello

Falstaff in Henry IV plays (not The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shylock in The Merchant of Venice 

5 favourite male characters:

Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet 

Falstaff in Henry IV plays (not The Merry Wives of Windsor

Barnardine in Measure for Measure 

Macduff in Macbeth 

The Fool in King Lear 

5 greatest female characters:

Lady Macbeth in Macbeth 

Rosalind in As You Like It

Cleopatra in Antony and Cleopatra 

Viola in Twelfth Night 

Isabella in Measure for Measure 

5 favourite female characters: 

Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing

Emilia in Othello 

Hermione in The Winter’s Tale

Rosalind in As You Like It  

Margaret in Henry VI Part 2, Henry VI Part 3, and Richard III (not Henry VI Part 1)

Favourite couple:

Beatrice and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing

Favourite non-speaking character: 

Crab the dog in The Two Gentlemen of Verona 

5 most evil characters: 

Iago in Othello 

Goneril in King Lear 

Regan in King Lear

Leontes in The Winter’s Tale 

Richard III in Richard III 

10 favourite Shakespeare productions and films: 

Macbeth (1979), dir. Trevor Nunn, with Ian McKellen as Macbeth and Judi Dench as Lady Macbeth 

King Lear (2016), dir. Michael Buffong, with Don Warrington as Lear 

The Winter’s Tale (1999), dir. Gregory Doran, with Antony Sher as Leontes 

The Merchant of Venice (1973), dir. John Sichel, with Laurence Olivier as Shylock 

Twelfth Night (1988), dir. Kenneth Branagh, with Frances Barber as Viola and Richard Briers as Malvolio 

Measure for Measure (1979), dir. Desmond Davis, with Kate Nelligan as Isabella 

The Taming of the Shrew (1976), dir. William Ball and Kirk Browning, with Marc Singer as Petruchio 

Ran (1985), dir. Akira Kurosawa 

Much Ado About Nothing (1993), dir. Kenneth Branagh 

Romeo and Juliet (1968), dir. Franco Zeffirelli 

10 favourite books about Shakespeare: 

Prefaces to Shakespeare by Tony Tanner

The Wheel of Fire by G. Wilson Knight 

The Crown of Life by G. Wilson Knight 

The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate

Soul of the Age by Jonathan Bate 

Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson 

Shakespeare by Anthony Burgess 

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James S. Shapiro (doubtful, see discussion below in the comments)


Now give me your lists. 

Saturday, 25 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: characters and characterisation

Spoiler alert: Again, if you haven’t read the book, you probably shouldn’t read this blog post, in which I will discuss significant plot points. Whilst The Brothers Karamazov is not only a murder mystery and not only read for the plot, I do think the mystery is part of the enjoyment of the first reading. 

1/ I think Ivan is the most interesting of the Karamazov brothers. Both Dmitry and Ivan are more interesting than Alyosha because they are souls in torment. But between the two elder brothers, Ivan fascinates me more because Dmitry is hot-headed and often driven by animal passion whereas Ivan is the thinking man—“in the Hamlet mould”, as Ignat Avsey puts it—he thinks, he tortures himself, and he sees the devil.

The two most thought-provoking sections in the novel both involve Ivan: his discussion with Alyosha about God (“Rebellion” and “The Grand Inquisitor”), and his talk with the devil. I am not religious, but the characters of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy ask serious questions and think deeply, and they get me to care about the things that torment them. 

I also find Ivan’s torment after old Fyodor’s murder more interesting than Dmitry’s, probably because he asks himself and raises questions for us about the nature of guilt and complicity. 

Why does Smerdyakov say that among the brothers, Ivan is most like his father? 

2/ Smerdyakov is another striking, vivid character. He’s full of contradictions—arrogant but servile, weak and seemingly cowardly but extremely sly, cunning, and manipulative—but he feels utterly real, at least within the world of the book.

Almost everyone in the novel, including old Fyodor and Dmitry, is deceived about his character, but the defence lawyer Fetyukovich seems to get right his arrogance, spite, and envy. The only thing he gets wrong is about the money—there is no indication that Smerdyakov has any interest in the money. 

The confrontations between Ivan and Smerdyakov are so good because Smerdyakov is Ivan’s alter-ego, his Hyde, and at the same time, Smerdyakov is like the devil himself—I don’t think it’s random that Dostoyevsky describes the room as unbearably hot—it’s hell. 

My friend Michael thinks:

“Smerdyakov’s obsession with Ivan is not overtly homosexual (there’s a similar relationship in the Devils that is far more overt), but I always felt that there was something in his obsession, his fawning desire for Ivan’s approval — and ultimately his killing for him, and his suicide at Ivan’s rejection — that seemed explicable as a kind of hidden or sublimated homosexual infatuation.”

As for the suicide, he thinks:

“There are multiple reasons, practical and existential. He committed the crime as a gift to Ivan, but Ivan rejects the gift and is going to turn him in. He also commits suicide because his nihilism is the ultimate dead end.

But there’s a heartbreak there too.

That’s what I think.”

Do I think it’s a kind of homosexual infatuation? I’m not sure. But I do think Smerdyakov has an obsession with Ivan, and there’s something in their final exchange—Smerdyakov provokes Ivan to kill him but he doesn’t, then: 

“‘Till tomorrow!’ shouted Ivan, and moved to go. 

 ‘Wait… show it to me once more.’ 

Ivan pulled out the banknotes and showed them to him. Smerdyakov looked at them for about ten seconds.

‘Well, off you go,’ he said waving him away. ‘Ivan Fyodorovich!’ he shouted after him suddenly. 

‘What do you want?’ Ivan, already on his way out, turned around.

‘Goodbye, sir!’ 

‘See you tomorrow!’ Ivan shouted again, and walked out of the house.” (P.4, B.11, ch.8) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey)

Smerdyakov clearly has made this decision then. 

3/ Himadri (Argumentative Old Git) thinks Alyosha is bland. In a way, he is, compared to the rest of the Karamazovs (including the one not officially named Karamazov). But I think Alyosha lightens up the book—which is filled with filth, sickness, and depravity—and the final chapter, the final speech from Alyosha makes me emotional. 

4/ Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov is also a striking character—I’ve written about him before. This speech from Starets Zosima is especially interesting: 

“‘… A man may be perfectly well aware that no one has offended him, that he has imagined it all and put about a lie just for the sake of it, blown it out of proportion so as to attract attention, deliberately picked on a word and made a mountain out of a molehill—he may very well realize all this, and yet be the very first to take offence, to the point of deriving enjoyment and pleasure from it, and so fall into a state of real animosity…’” (P.1, B.2, ch.2)

I’ve seen a lot of this online.  

5/ What about the female characters in The Brothers Karamazov? They’re all bonkers, as the male characters are.

I find it hard to write about Dostoyevsky’s characters as they are all insane, bizarre, unpredictable, and full of contradictions and tortured logic, and yet they’re so vivid, so utterly real within the distorted world of the book.

Among the female characters, I think I understand Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka—up to a point—but generally I understand them, understand their spite and jealousy, understand why Katerina Ivanovna clings to Dmitry despite her love for Ivan and hatred for Dmitry, understand why Grushenka mocks and refuses to kiss Katerina’s hand, understand why Katerina testifies the way she does at the trial then completely changes her mind a moment later, understand why Grushenka wants to seduce Alyosha for the fun of it but stops at once and changes her behaviour the moment she hears of Zosima’s death, and so on.  

The one I completely fail to understand is Lise, Mrs Khokhlakova’s fourteen-year-old daughter. 

“‘… And then suddenly Lise woke up this morning, flew into a rage at Yulia and, can you imagine, slapped her face. […] Then, barely an hour later, she was hugging Yulia and kissing her feet. And she sent me a message saying that she wasn’t going to come to my room and that she never wanted to see me again, and then, when I dragged myself over to her room, she threw her arms round me, kissing me and crying, and then just pushed me away without a word, so I was none the wiser…’” (P.4, B.11, ch.2) 

The final scene between Alyosha and Lise is even more bizarre and dramatic. Dostoyevsky’s characterisation is always exaggerated and dramatic—his characters are all insane and always on edge—there’s always lots of shouting, shrieking, laughing, crying, wailing, teeth clenching, fist thumping, eye flashing, face contorting—but there’s a lot of it in that scene between Lise and Alyosha. Too much. 

This is a character I don’t understand. Why does she tell Alyosha she loves him, then later calls him an errand boy not suited to be a husband? Why does she offer herself to Ivan? Why does she deliberately hurt her finger? 

I don’t get any of it.

But more importantly, why does Alyosha love her? What does he see in her? 

6/ I do think Dostoyevsky is a great writer—Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky focus on different aspects and reveal different truths about human nature. 

And yet I don’t think of Dostoyevsky when I think of male writers great at writing women. Is it because his female characters are all deranged? But his characters, male and female, all are. Do I think Katerina Ivanovna, Grushenka, and other female characters are less successful than Dmitry, Ivan, Smerdyakov…? Not necessarily. Is it that they’re all driven by spite and there’s nothing particularly feminine about them? 

Is it because I have different criteria when I think of female characters, favouring the ones who are realistic, complex, and life-like? Or is it because, when I talk about male writers great at writing women, I’m not just talking about good female characters, but also talking about a deep understanding of women and feminine sensibilities? 

I don’t think of Dickens as one of the male writers great at writing women either, even though I do like some of his female characters. 

Or perhaps I’m just overthinking, and there’s a difference between being able to write women (Dostoyevsky and Dickens are) and being exceptional at it (like Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Chekhov).  

Friday, 24 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: guilt

Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read the book, you probably shouldn’t read this blog post, in which I will discuss significant plot points. Whilst The Brothers Karamazov is not only a murder mystery and not only read for the plot, I do think the mystery is part of the enjoyment of the first reading. 

1/ There are different levels to the concept of guilt in The Brothers Karamazov. On the most basic level is the trial of Dmitry.

The chapters about the investigation and the trial are magnificent, especially the trial. There are many twists and turns. After all the witnesses are examined and cross-examined, we hear a speech from the prosecutor, who uses psychology to explain the case and convince the jury that Dmitry must be guilty. 

Then the defence attorney speaks: 

 “‘… Gentlemen of the jury, I am deliberately resorting to psychology myself in order to demonstrate that one can make of it anything one wants. It all depends on who is using it. Psychology lures even the most serious people into realms of fantasy, and quite without their realizing it. I am talking about an excess of psychology, gentlemen of the jury, in effect, a kind of abuse of psychology.’” (P.4, B.12, ch.10) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey) 

That is what Fetyukovich does. 

“‘… You see, gentlemen of the jury, since psychology is a two-edged sword, let me actually apply the other side of the blade and see whether I get the same results…’” (P.4, B.12, ch.11) 

In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky demonstrates that even when evidence seems overwhelming and everything seems to point at one man, things may not be as they seem; he demonstrates, through the prosecutor Ippolit Kyrillovich, how someone may completely misinterpret everything and come to the wrong conclusion through “abuse of psychology”; and through Fetyukovich, he shows how someone may also use psychology to look at the same people and the same evidence from a different perspective.

Throughout the whole novel but especially in these chapters, Dostoyevsky shows that he has the same quality I admire so much in Tolstoy and Shakespeare: presenting opposite points of view and arguing for different sides. 

2/ Dostoyevsky raises another interesting question about guilt: is Ivan guilty?

The confrontations between Ivan and Smerdyakov are some of the best chapters in the book—partly because Smerdyakov is so well-depicted, so vivid as a malicious, spiteful, and extremely cunning man, who knows how to manipulate everyone and hit their weakest spots; and partly because the struggle, the torment within Ivan is so interesting and thought-provoking.

See the conversation between Alyosha and Ivan before the trial:

“‘All I know is,’ Alyosha continued, still almost whispering, ‘it was not you who killed father.’

‘Not me! What do you mean “not me”?’ Ivan was thunderstruck. 

‘It was not you who killed father, not you!’ repeated Alyosha firmly. 

There was a long pause. 

‘I know perfectly well it wasn’t me! Are you raving mad?’” (P.4, B.11, ch.5) 

Why does Alyosha say that? It’s an electrifying moment. As it turns out, Ivan later doesn’t “know perfectly well” it wasn’t him.

Can Ivan say he’s not guilty if he chose to leave, knowing that some disaster would happen? Can he clearly claim he knew nothing? 

Is he guilty if he wants his father to die? 

3/ Fetyukovich, the defence lawyer, also raises interesting questions about the concept of parents and parents’ duties—parricide is seen as morally wrong, shocking, and more outrageous than most other murders, but should one look at it that way when Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov has never acted as a father? Do his children owe him anything if he has never done anything for them? 

I’m not condoning the murder, I’m talking about the case being seen as baser, more shocking because it’s patricide.

Three of old Fyodor’s sons want him dead. 


4/ Another level of guilt in The Brothers Karamazov is to do with religion, and this is where I fail. 

Starets Zosima says his brother believes “truly, each one of us is guilty of the sins of all other men” (P.2, B.6, ch.2)

The belief comes back to him before the duel: “each of us is truly guilty of the other’s sin, only people don’t want to acknowledge it, but if they were to acknowledge it—there’d be paradise on earth immediately.” (ibid.) 

And he thinks to himself: 

“‘surely that can’t be untrue? Truly, I am perhaps the guiltiest of the guilty, and the worst of men upon this earth!’” (ibid.) 

This is before his conversion—it is significant. 

In a section called “Can we sit in judgement over one’s fellow men? On keeping the faith to the end”, Zosima says: 

“If you are able to take upon yourself the crimes of the criminal standing before you, whom you are condemning in your heart, then do so immediately and endure the suffering for him, allowing the man himself to go free and unrebuked.” (P.2, B.6, ch.3) 

I guess “you” is the monks and other people in the monastery rather than everyone (is it?), but even then, it sounds nonsensical to me. 

“If men’s evil should arouse your indignation and cause you unbearable distress, even to the point of making you feel vindictive towards malefactors, fear this feeling more than anything; go at once and seek torments for yourself such as you ought to suffer were you yourself guilty of the crime. Take these torments upon yourself and endure them, and your heart will be appeased and you will understand that you too are guilty, for you could have been the one without sin and the guiding light unto the malefactors, and you were not…” (ibid.) 

This is the kind of teaching I cannot get behind. I refuse to accept it.

Oddly, Dmitry, knowing that he committed no murder and no robbery, says to Grushenka “It’s on account of the bairn that I must go to Siberia” (P.4, B.11, ch.1). Is that about shared guilt, or something else? 

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: children, innocence, and cruelty

I am, in many ways, not an ideal reader of Dostoyevsky. Firstly, I’m non-religious, indifferent to religion, and ignorant of theology. Secondly, I’m not much of a fan of novels of ideas. 

I started my blog post this way because I’m about to write about one of the things that puzzle me about The Brothers Karamazov.

Children, I’ve been told, are central to the meaning of The Brothers Karamazov. In “Rebellion”, one of the most important chapters of the novel, Ivan explains to Alyosha his struggle with God: 

“ ‘… Listen, if everyone has to suffer in order to bring about eternal harmony through that suffering, tell me, please, what have children to do with this? It’s quite incomprehensible that they too should have to suffer, that they too should have to pay for harmony by their suffering. […] And if the suffering of children is required to make up the total suffering necessary to attain the truth, then I say here and now that no truth is worth such a price. […] And that’s why I hasten to return my entry ticket. If I ever want to call myself an honest man, I have to hand it back as soon as possible. And that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I’m just, with the utmost respect, handing Him back my ticket.’” (P.2, B.5, ch.4) 

(translated by Ignat Avsey)

He could talk about all suffering, but limits it to children because they “have eaten nothing and are still completely innocent”. 

It is a powerful chapter, and has a stronger emotional impact on me than “The Grand Inquisitor” does.

Later, during the interrogation, Dmitry falls asleep out of exhaustion and has a dream about a crying bairn. He wakes up saying he had a good dream, and it clearly has a significant effect on him, as he later says many times to Grushenka “It’s on account of the bairn that I must go to Siberia” (P.4, B.11, ch.1).

The theme of childhood innocence and children’s suffering is clearly important in The Brothers Karamazov.

And yet, when I look at the children Dostoyevsky depicts, I see not innocence but something else.

There are two children on whom Dostoyevsky focuses in the novel: Ilyusha and Kolya. 

The first time we see children in the novel, it’s a group of schoolboys throwing rocks at each other and at Alyosha. One of the boys is Ilyusha, the 9-year-old son of the Staff Captain who’s humiliated by Dmitry in public. Like most of the adults in the book, he’s full of anger and hatred, and takes it out on Alyosha by throwing rocks at him and biting his finger to the bone. I get it, but it remains nevertheless disturbing that Ilyusha physical hurts someone who has never done anything to him, and stabs in the thigh with a penknife someone who, as we later learn, has been protective of him. 

Not only so, it turns out that once Ilyusha learns from Smerdyakov and hides a pin in some food and lures a dog to eat it, just to see what happens.

Is that innocence? 

Having heard the dog cry in pain, he tortures himself with remorse afterwards, but do the adults not also feel bad after hurting others? 

The other child who features in the novel is 13-year-old Kolya, the one who gets stabbed in the thigh. He’s a precocious child, calling himself a socialist, rejecting God and medicine, and having opinions about all sorts of subjects, but he’s also known in the neighbourhood as a “desperado” because of his reckless pranks and dangerous games.

Note the story he tells at Ilyusha’s house: 

“‘… So I turned to this idiot and I reply, “I was wondering what a goose thinks about.” He stares at me like a real idiot, “What a goose thinks about?” “Well,” I say, “you see that cart full of oats standing over there. There’s a bag with oats spilling out of it, and a goose is sticking its neck right under the wheel to peck at the grain—do you see?” “Yes, so what,” he says. “Well now,” I say, “if one was to push the cart forward just a smidgen, would the wheel decapitate the goose or not?” “Certainly,” he says, “certainly”, and he grins a wide toothy grin, fairly beaming. “Come on then, old chap,” I say, “let’s do it.” […] I gave the lad a wink, he jerked the reins, and—crack, the wheel chopped the goose’s neck in half!...” (P.4, B.10, ch.5) 

There is a cruel streak in Kolya. 

The two children we see in close-up in The Brothers Karamazov both have something cruel in them. The other children aren’t much lovelier either: the schoolboys bully and humiliate Ilyusha mercilessly (though they do come, thanks to Alyosha, to make up with Ilyusha during his illness).

The only children who do seem nice and innocent in the book are Kolya’s little neighbours Nastya and Kostya, but they’re in a short scene.

I probably miss the point entirely. What do you think?  

Sunday, 19 March 2023

The Brothers Karamazov: Katerina Ivanovna and Grushenka

It’s probably unwise to write about the characters whilst still reading the book, but I’m going to jot down some thoughts anyway. 

There are two women in the centre of The Brothers Karamazov, and in the centre of the conflicts of the Karamazov family: Katerina Ivanovna is engaged to Dmitry but loved by Ivan; and Agrafena Aleksandrovna, better known as Grushenka, is chased by both the father and Dmitry (she also wants to seduce Alyosha, but let’s ignore that for now).

The two women are different, though both are bonkers. How would you describe them? I think Katerina Ivanovna is more theatrical, and more like a masochist.

“‘… To put it simply, in a couple of words, I’ve already made up my mind, even if he does marry that… creature, whom I shall never be able to forgive, I shall never leave him! From now on I shall never, never leave him!’ she said, her voice quivering in barely concealed anguish. ‘What I mean to say is that I’m not going to chase after him, or irritate him constantly by my presence, or be a burden to him—oh no, I shall go and live in another town, no matter where, but all my life long I shall keep track of him whatever happens. And when he becomes unhappy with her, which he is bound to, then let him come to me, and he will find a friend, a sister… […] And let him see, as long as he lives, that I shall remain faithful to him till I die, and shall remain true to my word in spite of his infidelity and betrayal…’” (P.2, B.4, ch.5)

(translated by Ignat Avsey) 

Even Alyosha calls that theatre. 

Grushenka, in contrast, is a sadist and dominatrix. She has the men twisted around her fingers, and drives them all crazy.  

“People recounted with laughter how Mitya has got the local bumpkins drunk on champagne and had plied the village girls and women with sweets and Strasburg pies. They also laughed, especially in the tavern, at Mitya’s own candid and unsolicited admission (no one laughed in his face of course, for that would have been too dangerous) that, in return for the entire escapade, all that Grushenka had granted him was permission to kiss her foot, and that she had not allowed him to go any further.” (P.3, B.8, ch.5)

Dmitry feels nothing for Katerina Ivanovna despite her devotion and money, but he’s mad about Grushenka. 

But now I’ve realised, they aren’t so different after all.

This is what Grushenka says to Dmitry about the Polish officer who abandoned her: 

“‘Mitya, Mitya, I loved him, do you realize that!’ she began in whispers. ‘I loved him so much, all these five years, all that time! Was it him I loved, or merely my own spite?...’” (P.3, B.8, ch.8) 

Having met the officer again after 5 years, she realises she loves Dmitry: 

“’Will you forgive me for torturing you? I made you all suffer out of spite. I even drove that pathetic old man out of his mind through sheer spite… […] Don’t just stand there! Kiss me… harder, that’s better. Love me, love me more! From now on I’m your slave, torture me, do something to me… Oh, I really deserve to be tortured…’” (ibid.) 

About Katerina Ivanovna, Alyosha thinks: 

“And now, when Alyosha considered Mrs Khokhlakova’s direct and insistent assertion that Katerina Ivanovna, loved Ivan but that, as a result of a deep emotional crisis and a peculiar sense of gratitude, she continued in some kind of bizarre game perversely to delude and torture herself with a fanciful love for Dmitry, he was completely taken aback. […] Alyosha instinctively felt that a woman such as Katerina Ivanovna had an overwhelming need to dominate, but that she could only dominate someone like Dmitry and never someone like Ivan.” (P.2, B.4, ch.5)

In front of her, Ivan says to Alyosha that she “was constantly taking revenge on me for all the insults she suffered at the hands of Dmitry”, then leaves. But later on, when alone with Alyosha, he says: 

“‘… what you have to understand is that it will take her perhaps fifteen or twenty years to realize that she doesn’t love Dmitry at all, that she loves only me, whom she torments…’” (P.2, B.5, ch.3) 

The two women are similar after all: both are driven by spite, both deceive themselves and cling to someone who has treated them callously and cruelly, and both torment someone who loves them (that they themselves also love). 

But that’s not all. I’ve realised that almost all the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, except for Alyosha, are driven by spite: old Fyodor plays the buffoon and mocks everything out of spite; Dmitry and Ivan are both full of spite; the old Captain crumples up the money out of spite and out of shame, having shown too much pleasure upon seeing it; Rakitin takes Alyosha to Grushenka for money but also because of spite, and wants to see his downfall; Smerdyakov is full of spite and hatred for both his adoptive father, the old servant Grigory, and his biological father, old Fyodor; the townspeople flock to Zosima’s funeral out of curiosity and spite, and feel triumphant over his putrefaction and degradation; even the saintly Zosima’s spiteful when he’s young…  

I think it’s fair to say that Tolstoy and Chekhov have a wider range of characters and broader view of humanity than Dostoyevsky does. But spite is Dostoyevsky’s specialty—he is probably unsurpassed in his examination and understanding of spite, shame, humiliation, and irrationality.