Dostoyevsky, Master of Momentum

I am reading The Brothers Karamazov, and haven’t done that for fifty years. Much has changed in Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece … book elves. They come when no one watches and change the story, insert new characters, relocate the setting and move all the words around. I don’t know who these little biblio-bugs are or who pays them; I do know they are always busy at their work. We have them to thank for allowing us to re-read old classics and enjoy them again, for the first time.

Reading fiction is perilous. You discover odd things about yourself; how your mind works, and what you care about. When I read TBK at twenty, I was pursuing existential questions … what to make of a world without God. I embraced the stupendous ironies of Ivan’s parable, “The Grand Inquisitor;” the big questions had all my attention. Ingmar Bergman films played in my head.

Last evening I read feverishly, as Dmitri squandered his roubles, rushing off to a fateful evening with his Grushenka, a woman he doesn’t much like but who dominates his imaginings. She can’t stand Dmitri, or thinks she can’t. In his mad pursuit of self-destruction, Dmitri has entered his father’s house and apparently killed Grigory, a kindly servant, the loving father his father isn’t. Dmitri is covered with the old man’s blood. Dostoyevsky has been annoyingly silent about Dmitri’s father, still recovering from a savage beating at Dmitri’s hands; we guess Dmitri has stolen his father’s money, but is he a parricide? Wouldn’t the narrator have mentioned that? Wouldn’t he have bothered to mention that he hadn’t?

In his madness, Dmitri rushes about spending as much as he can, waving a fistful of 100 rouble notes, careless to loss from paupers wandering the city streets, shop-owners happy to charge exorbitant fees, and gypsies, who cleaned him out once before. Dmitri plans to spend his three-thousand roubles until morning, and then put a bullet in his head. But first Dmitri must find Grushenka once more before he leaves this squalid and humiliating world.

Dostoyevsky is a genius of momentum. Dmitri is deranged and spends hardly a moment thinking of his father or the bloody beating he gave old Grigory. His seeks only to recreate the one moment when he impressed Grushenka with his wild, self-destructive spending. Dostoyevsky makes us think elsewhere, too, by forcing our attention onto Dmitri’s squandering. Roubles fly from his blood-splattered hands and unguarded pockets; some friends try to impede his excess, but Dmitri propels his miserable self toward fiscal suicide. Dostoyevsky counts assiduously the disappearing funds over several chapters; we sit on-edge as murder lurks off-stage behind a flimsy curtain.

“No,” something in me screams … “not fine chocolates for the filthy drunken peasant girls.” “Stop,” I squirm, “those Polish gents are cheating at cards, and you know it! Too much fine Champagne, and wasted on drunks who would be happy with rubbing alcohol. Don’t pay Andrei the driver 50 roubles; all he wants is 5. Look out for the owner of this tawdry hostelry; he picked your pocket once before when you were drunk and expects to do it again. No, stop, there goes 200, and another 50, and an unnecessary promise to pay 770 to the Polish card-sharks who cheated you.” Dostoyevsky has us following this “squanderfest” like a French Connection car chase. Each 100-rouble note flies off like the soul of a precious saint.

This is crazy. What do I care that an imaginary person spills his imaginary roubles all over the imaginary streets and shops and low dives of Old Russia. And yet I can’t help but be on edge at this waste of so much money, once the pride and substance of the Karamazovs, the object of lust and spite … and now nothing. If I were writing this story I would pay attention to the big-ticket items, murder and guilt, love’s passion and pride, real and imagined. And that’s why I am not Dostoyevsky. Like Kafka and Dickens, Dostoyevsky makes common things hallucinatory and hyper-real. Squandering funds is painful, we spend so much psychic energy on making, counting and keeping cash, and spending sparingly. Dostoyevsky kidnaps us into Dmitri’s impulsive frenzy, and we are helpless to resist.

Fiction is a game of postponement. If authors told all there is to tell from the beginning, there would be no story to unfold. Delay, change the subject, introduce irrelevancies and false tracks, and make those false tracks seem important, and, on the way back from the conclusion, more important than we would have guessed. The Vintage TBK covers 778 pages, my Kindle has gained three pounds holding TBK, and I haven’t found a place yet to stop for a breather.

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