Russian Passions

Dmitri didn’t do it; guilty anyway. That’s it in six words. I have to confess my tolerance for really long novels isn’t what it used to be. Blame it on being a child raised by television—every thirty minutes I’m ready for something new. I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov when I was in seminary. Seminarians are an odd breed, and many of them relished the deep, ponderous novels with profound things to say about humankind. The Brothers Karamazov is such a novel. When you’re a student, reading’s part of the job description. As a writer Dostoyevsky gets away with things that’d lead to you failing composition class these days. Speeches that stretch on for chapters, characters taking 100 pages to die, and children talking like adults. It’s a heady mix.

I’ll have to admit that I remembered very little of the story from my last reading. I knew Fyodor Karamazov got killed. I couldn’t remember by whom. All the buzz in seminary was about the famous Grand Inquisitor scene. That’s the part where the Grand Inquisitor interrogates Christ and finds him wanting in the eyes of the church. So daring. So deep! And so early in the book. As I made my way through many heavy-lidded pages, with some dismay I realized that after I’d read the high point of the book I still had 457 pages to go, none of which I remembered from my reading three decades ago. I don’t mean to disparage the classic—I noted and underline several passages as I read. The blame is entirely on me. Still, the endless gloom of personal guilt that hangs on every character, even Alexei—whom Dostoyevsky states outright is his hero—become overbearing at times. This is a nation battened down by Christianity.

Often I’ve expressed the idea that we force children to read great novels before they’re ready to do so, ruining the classics for them for life. I first read Moby-Dick in seminary and I’ve read it several times since. It seems nobody’s really ready for Melville before their twenties. What is the age for Dostoyevsky? I think I comprehended more this time through. There were ideas here that, had I more time, I would likely have enjoyed lingering over. If life were so kind as to allow us the leisure to digest huge books I have no doubt that we would all be wiser, if not more satisfied. Fyodor Karamazov is dead. Alexei is cheered by the school boys. This long journey has itself been the goal.

Literate Madmen

My experience of paternal parents growing up never led me to think Father’s Day was a holiday particularly worth celebrating. (Don’t panic—today’s not Father’s Day!) I do have an ironical sense of humor about the commemoration, though. So the other day when I clicked through one of Amazon’s many daily ads to my email account, I noticed it was for Father’s Day gifts. The first item listed was Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Probably based on my browsing history, I thought. But no, I’ve been looking at non-fiction lately and I bought my well-worn copy of Dostoyevsky before Amazon was a gigabyte in Jeff Bezos’ eye, back when I was in seminary. Then it dawned on me: this is perhaps the most famous patricide novel ever written. Had the Amazon advertisers really thought about what they were recommending? “Here, Dad. It’s a book about sons killing their father.” If marketing is driving America, it may be time to pull over at a rest stop for a coffee break. Or at least read the book first.


I don’t pay attention to when Father’s Day is. It comes somewhere in that complex of spring holidays that include Passover, Easter, Mother’s Day, and Memorial Day. When my father was alive I sent him a card. It was a card to a stranger, but as Episcopalians know, it’s the done thing. I loved him, but I didn’t know him. Not that I’ve been a parent that deserves a holiday dedicated to my skill either. I confess my fair share of parental failures. They play and replay in my head, in the way the Protestant brain can never quite clear itself of guilt. We, as people, I believe, generally try our best to be good parents. It can be difficult, though. Nothing really prepares you for it.

One of my brothers once told me that, after having a girlfriend with kids from a previous marriage, he better understood how our stepfather viewed us as inherited children. Although I always want to claim the victim role in that scenario (I was only ten, what could I do?, etc.) his insight has stayed with me. It can’t be easy to inherit someone else’s progeny. It’s tricky raising your own child—that new person you want never to experience your own disappointments in life. Even cynics can be sentimental. But then again, I’ve been plowing through The Brothers Karamazov again since January, frequently laying it aside for weeks at a time. It’s not the kind of book I’d give a father on the edge. It’s okay, I think I’m good to drive again. I just won’t pay any attention to the ads I see beside the road.