IVP - Strangely Dim - My Summer Nemesis

July 14, 2009

My Summer Nemesis

Okay. Maybe The Brothers Karamazov isn't my nemesis per se, but this tome has been mocking me from my very tall bookshelf for at least six years. Every summer I take it down from its little perch and set it on top of the pile of books I hope to get through with all of the "extra time" summer inevitably provides for reading. And every year the summer draws to a close and The Brothers returns to its shelf unopened--except for three summers.

Each of the three years I tried to make good on my intention to read The Brothers, I made it a grand total of about fifty pages, at which point I invariably said to myself, I just can't give this the time it deserves. Grand justification, I think: it retains the bibliophile's piety while crediting the work with the appropriate amount of depth and complexity. I might have added, Really, I started reading it for the wrong reasons anyway.

There are lots of good reasons to read books--even long, foreign classics whose tonnage is comparable to that of a Sumo wrestler. Most of us know why we read--for education, for pleasure, for self-improvement or for vocational advancement. Self-torture is unlikely to make it into a list of reasons to read. In fact, if you're like me, you have a few shelves of books which you purchased in moments of enlightened clarity--books that you "should" read, books that you felt you "should want" to read. And so you bought them, and when you returned from that cloud of misty enlightenment you realized (maybe even after a few pages of dutiful reading) that you did not want to read those books at all. But maybe you would read them later. Or use them for reference. Or, perhaps their words would slip into your dreams by some form of literary osmosis as they lay stacked beside your bed.

When I think about The Brothers Karamazov, I invariably experience a wave of vague shame at my failure to make it to the end. Most other unread books have very little (if any) psychological effect on me. For whatever reason, this one has stuck with me, so this summer I decided to take it up again--largely due to the fact that a good friend had started reading the book, and I thought that I could count on that person to compare notes and progress with.

No such luck. She bailed on The Brothers and picked up Crime and Punishment instead. This made me curious to find out if Dostoevsky's tome has had this effect on others. I began to ask around to see if anyone else had finished the book. To date I know of one person who has, and he took it upon himself to read much of the Russian literary canon plus commentaries just for kicks and giggles. (Needless to say, pride prevents me from comparing notes with him.) Everyone else I've asked who started The Brothers at some point bailed on the project. One person even suggested that Russian literature is best read in winter. This leaves me in lonely straits.

But it does not leave me unresolved. I've started it, and this time I intend to finish it. In truth, this time around I've rather enjoyed the story. And anyway, maybe summer isn't complete without a summer dare. Since summer doesn't officially end until September 22, there is plenty of time to take this one up.

Posted by Christa Countryman at July 14, 2009 12:02 PM Bookmark and Share | TrackBack


i read it after you gave it to allen for his 30th birthday, though i suspect much of its meaning was lost on me. i have a similar relationship w/ the grapes of wrath -- i've never made it past chapter 7. something about the turtle crossing the highway...

Comment by: elaine at July 14, 2009 2:10 PM

Well, you are kind of inviting those of us who finished it to tell you. I did but it took me a lot of tries. I read it after reading Eugene Peterson's recommendation in his book Take & Read. Here is the link to read Peterson's comments.


The one thing I took away from it:

I love the story of Father Zossima. I have heard it said that it is easy to tell stories of villains but hard to tell stories of good people. Dostoevsky does the former (the Grand Inquisitor who uses religion for evil) but he is one of the best at doing the latter. Zossima is breath-taking. I have read the section about him aloud to friends (on long car rides) and I can't get through it without choking up.

You have Zossima to look forward to.

And I remembered my brother Markel saying, ‘Mother, my own dear blood, every one of us is answerable for everyone else, but we don’t know it; if we did, we would at once have heaven on earth!’ Might that not be true? I felt tears come to my eyes and I thought: ‘Perhaps I am really guilty before everyone; indeed, I must be guiltier and worse than everyone else in the world.’ And suddenly I saw my whole situation in its true light.[1]

‘But how can you possibly be responsible for everyone?’ people would say, laughing at me openly. ‘How could you be responsible for our acts, for instance?’[2]

“You may well not know it,” I would answer, “since the whole world has long been going on a different line, since we consider the veriest lies as truth and demand the same lies from others. Here I have for once in my life acted sincerely and, well, you all look upon me as a madman.”

No man on earth can judge a criminal until he understands that he himself is just as guilty as the man standing before him and that he may be more responsible than anyone else for the crime.[3]


[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (trans. A. R. MacAndrew; New York: Bantam Books, 1880, 1970, 1981), 359. Zossima's account begins on 344. (Book VI, chapter 2).

Other translation:
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (trans. Constance Garnett; Plain Label Books, 1933), 768. Zossima’s account begins on 735.

[2] Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, 362.

[3] Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, 388.

Comment by: Andy Rowell at July 14, 2009 2:47 PM

FYI. I am finding this page strangely slow to load.

Comment by: Andy Rowell at July 14, 2009 2:56 PM

I think Dostoevsky is a victim of his own rarefied status. David Foster Wallace has an essay on Dostoevsky in his book Consider the Lobster, which includes a lengthy footnote to this effect. Forthwith:

"The quickest way to kill an author's vitality for potential readers is to present that author ahead of time as 'great' or 'classic.' Because then for the [potential reader] the author becomes like medicine or vegetables, something the authorities have declared 'good for them' that they 'ought to like.' . . . It's like removing all the oxygen from a room before trying to start a fire."

Comment by: Jeff Reimer at July 14, 2009 3:39 PM

Elaine--this is Christa's post, not mine. I read BK when I was 29; there's a great conversation about turning 30 tucked somewhere in there. I posted it on my door on my birthday. Hence our giving it to Allen.

In other news . . . note to self:

* If you want comments on your blog, talk about a "great" "classic."

* The design of Strangely Dim needs to more clearly indicate the author of each post.

* Why *did* the turtle cross the highway?

Comment by: Dave at July 15, 2009 5:22 AM

What translation are you reading? That can make the entire difference. I've tried reading Russian literature with poor translations (unknowingly) and was frustrated by how frustrated I became!

I finished TBK this Spring. I read the Pevear/Volohonsky translation. It was superb. One of the best books I've read. I highly recommend reading with this translation. HIGHLY!

Comment by: KT Mackenzie at July 17, 2009 8:33 AM

KT: My previous attempts were with a B&N edition, but this time I've checked the Pevear/Volohonsky translation out from the library and I think it's the reason I haven't set it aside already. Definitely a better read!

Andy: I'll definitely pay more attention to Zossima. Thank you for the quote.

Jeff: Good reminder.

Thanks everyone for your responses and advice!

Comment by: Christa at July 17, 2009 9:33 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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