Monday, December 21, 2009

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: The digressive narrator

Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov, a land owner well known in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. For the present I will only say that this “landowner”—for so we used to call him, although he hardly spent a day of his life on his own estate—was a strange type, yet one pretty frequently to be met with, a type abject and vicious and at the same time senseless.

Thus begins The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. And already, we find the great author seeming to break a basic rule, not just of fiction, but of writing in general. The crucial first sentence of the all-important first paragraph of this gigundous book, which we are about to commit ourselves to for the next, I dunno, thirty months--this sentence is misleading. For after lending his name to launch the whole enterprise, Alexey Karamazov vanishes from the narrative, starting on word 4; he is not the subject of the opening chapter after all. This must be the quickest swerve into digression in all of literature. By the end of the first sentence we realize we are in the hands of a gossipy and somewhat easily distracted narrator. A local citizen, he's given to making sweeping pronouncements about people in general, and his nation, despite what seems to be the limited scope of his personal experience: "he was all his life one of the most senseless, fantastical fellows in the whole district. I repeat, it was not stupidity—the majority of these fantastical fellows are shrewd and intelligent enough—but just senselessness, and a peculiar national form of it."

So, fine. We have ourselves an unreliable narrator. Yet this unreliability serves an unusual function in the opening chapter--rather than increasing our suspicion of the "truth" of the story, it does the opposite. How? By rambling, speculating, passing and then ultimately withdrawing judgment, the narrator serves to open the reader's mind and heart to the story that will follow. We've talked before about how various authors (Melville, Chekhov) establish the story's boundaries in the first paragraph. If you're going to go "way out there" later in the story, you have to run out and touch that outer limit right away, even if you're not going to spend a lot of time there till later. This narrator signals that he's going to be talking about the entire nation of Russia, not only a single province or family; but more important, he'll be diving deep into the human heart and bringing up that most elusive of treasures, forgiveness.

In the early paragraphs of this chapter, he delightedly harps on Fyodor's haplessness, viciousness, and stupidity: "a worthless, puny weakling, as we all called him"; "he was, in fact, an ill-natured buffoon and nothing more." But, just as this narrator can't quite hold to a single train of thought, he also cannot maintain a clear-cut opinion for very long. This is partly because (like Gogol's narrator in "The Overcoat," on whom he is at least partly based), he admits that much of what he is telling us is based on rumor. He has heard at least a couple of different versions of certain events. But this admission leads us to trust this narrator more, rather than less, because of this remarkable statement at the end of the chapter:

Fyodor Pavlovitch was drunk when he heard of his wife's death, and the story is that he ran out into the street and began shouting with joy, raising his hands to Heaven: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace,” but others say he wept without restraint like a little child, so much so that people were sorry for him, in spite of the repulsion he inspired. It is quite possible that both versions were true, that he rejoiced at his release, and at the same time wept for her who released him. As a general rule, people, even the wicked, are much more na├»ve and simple-hearted than we suppose. And we ourselves are, too.

He admits to not knowing how Fyodor Pavlovitch reacted to his wife's death. But rather than throwing up his hands, as a contemporary ironist might have his narrator do, he decides that both could well be true at the same time--because human beings are complex. Even Fyodor, whom he's just said was "nothing more" than a buffoon, is indeed more than that, or at least was capable of being more. Just as we ourselves are.

The idea that all humans are capable of being better than we think we are is a critical thread in this novel, and in Dostoevsky's Christian faith. It's an exceedingly difficult notion to hold onto, which may be the reason this narrator is so digressive; he's falling into the trap of simplifying people and assuming the worst about them, but then he remembers and pulls himself out. As this first chapter signals, his struggle will be ours too. He has not only challenged us to remember the potential goodness of all the characters in the novel, but to become better people ourselves by remembering this. Here's one of the few cases in which it does seem possible that reading literature could lead to moral improvement. In his meandering way, this narrator makes the novel and the experience of reading it represent the author's best idea of what it means to human.

To sum up this week's lesson for writers: the "unreliable narrator" need not be just an intellectual game. Such a narrator can reveal the limits of factual truth in order to open readers to a deeper emotional experience than they might otherwise be prepared for.

This seems like a good a Christmas message as any to leave you with...Posting will likely be light or nonexistent till the new year. Have a happy and forgiving holiday.

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