Love’s Many Angles | Daily News


Love’s Many Angles

It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. We have reached the last day of Twenty-Eighteen. When the sun rises tomorrow, we will be stepping into a brand new year, and a brand new life, hopefully with a set of brand new resolutions. For some of us, that is. For me, there would not be that many changes in the list of resolutions I made last year, and on top of the list would be one resolution I have been making for the last ten years: Finish reading the ‘Brothers Karamazov’. I confess, it is the greatest book (other than the ‘English Patient’, and the ‘Ulysses’) I have taken so long to read, with the end seemingly an eternity away.

And yet, almost everyone worth knowing, from my father to Namel Weeramuni to Einstein and Vonnegut, has praised Dostoyevsky’s magnum opus to the skies and beyond. Vonnegut, in Slaughterhouse -Five, wrote that “…there is one other book, that can teach you everything you need to know about life. It’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.” Einstein considered ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ to be “the supreme summit of all literature” and said that he had learned more from Dostoevsky than any other thinker. Freud called ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ “the most magnificent novel ever written.”

The book was also hugely inspirational to a number of other influential philosophers of the 20th century, including Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and Camus, the last of whom declared that Dostoevsky, not Marx, was the great prophet for the 20th century. Hope you now have an idea as to why my New Year resolution number one in 2019 is to finish reading the ‘Brothers’. Lots of great people recommend it.

And yet, the book is much longer than the Pataranga Jataka, which, according to Martin Wickremasinghe in ‘Kaliyugaya’ is the longest tale ever told. In case you are not familiar with the text, be informed that the book is divided into “parts”, each part being further subdivided into about four “books”, and each book containing usually 8–10 chapters. Oh, and there’s a three chapter epilogue on top of that. Add to this the sheer length of the novel (my edition is 776 pages)and it is not surprising that each year I find myself reading only a handful of pages.

The fact that the book is a translation is no help at all, when at times you find yourself wondering if Dostoevsky really wrote such and such a line or if it is something the translator came up with, to keep the flow of the narrative. History has it that it was towards the end of the nineteenth century, that it became clear to readers in Europe and America that masterpieces of fiction on a huge scale had been produced during the last half century in Russia. And yet, the craze for Dostoevsky had come later. Anna Karenina had appeared first in France and was reviewed in England by Matthew Arnold, who saw what a great novel it was, though he objected that Anna behaved in a rather precipitate and un-English fashion: George Eliot would have organized her temptation and fall as perceptively but with more decorum.

It was Constance Garnett, the wife of a literary agent and man of letters, who brought out translations of all of Dostoevsky’s novels between 1912 and 1920, when his work was already well known on the Continent. Her knowledge of Russian was not particularly good and she was apt to leave out the bits she could not quite get the sense of, but she adored her work and her style had a natural animation and flow. She had already translated Turgenev, and her version of Dostoevsky remained the standard one until fairly recently, though there were more accurate renderings by David Magarshak and others.

Luckily, my version of the story is by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, both of whom, according to the ‘New Yorker’ are ‘unusually well qualified for such a task.’ Pevear has received fellowships for translation from several august bodies including the Guggenheim Foundation, and Larissa Volokhonsky was born in Leningrad and has wide experience of putting into English the new Russian orthodox theologians. They also have a clear idea of what the problems of Englishing Dostoevsky are: how to give some idea of the extraordinarily rich polyphony of voices, accents, undertones, and suggestions in the text; how to convey the novel’s marvelous construction, and at the same time it’s wholly “living” air of majestic dishevelment.

Truth be told, once you do get absorbed into the story, you feel the same kind of profound otherworldliness hours of meditation would bring you. And what is amazing is that, even if you are not into that kind of spiritual lightness the yoga gurus advertise, within the vast length of the ‘Brothers Karamazov’ you will find a page or two that will always suit your mood. For example, if you have been dealing with social media for way too long, so much so that instead of human faces, you just see emoticons and you find yourself momentarily nostalgic for complete words, complete sentences you will find what you want in the speeches of Dostoevsky’s characters: they speak passionately, and at length, about their hopes, fears, and passions. Reading the novel is like entering into the most fascinating, absorbing, juicy conversation you have ever had.

At the same time, if you wish to get away from trashy television shows (Hindi tele-dramas or ‘Keeping up with the Kardishans’) and you feel as though you are falling into an abyss of shallow art, there is plenty of hope that the ‘Brothers Karamazov’ would keep you from falling right in.

Even though I have yet to finish reading the book, it is clear from what I have read so far this last story the great Russian novelist ever wrote, encompassing all the energy and passion of a man’s last words is one of the best novels ever written in any language. It is amazing how, through the murder of perhaps one of the most despicable characters ever created, Fyodor Karamazov, the father of the Karamazov brothers, Dostoevsky focuses on the Really Big Questions in our lives. Do we have free will? Why do human beings have to suffer? Are there limits to human reason? Are we bound by moral laws? How do we achieve happiness? Chances are you will find the answers within the pages as well as many beautiful quotes: “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” and “I have a longing for life, and I go on living in spite of logic. Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky, I love some people, whom one loves you know sometimes without knowing why” are two of my favorites.

It was in my teens that I first heard of The ‘Brothers Karamazov’ from my father and in recent years from Namel Weeramuni – I owe them both for introducing me to this life changing book, though difficult to read the first time. And I believe in passing on the good word. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s hoping you will do so, next year.

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