Friday, January 29, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: What we write about when we write about money

This week's lesson from The Brothers Karamazov is to dare to write about a taboo subject: money. In the first 150 pages, BK has already tackled sadomasochism, religious doubt, religious excess, rape (of a mentally retarded woman by, who else, Fyodor), familial loathing, generalized shame, and prostitution. But this week, reading Dmitri's confession of his own shameful escapades to Alyosha, I kept noticing how focused the narrative is on money.

Dmitri is involved in, not just a love triangle, but a love pentagon, encompassing himself, the beautiful and virtuous Katerina Ivanovna, the earthy and unvirtuous Grushenka, his brother Ivan, and his ubiquitous father Fyodor. Pretty much all of the issues listed above factor into the pentagon. But the thread that sews it together is money. The three chapters titled "Confessions of a Passionate Heart" are, in some ways, a story of following the money, to wit, 4500 roubles. Katerina Ivanovna's father, a colonel, has apparently embezzled that sum from the government. Dmitri, who loathes Katerina for being beautiful and virtuous and ignoring him, offers to cover all but 500 of that sum, if Katerina will, you know, submit to him. She decides to do so, but, appalled by the extreme self-sacrifice of her offer, Dmitri knocks the payment down to 200 just to make her feel worse. Then he repents and gives her 5000. She later sends him the change, minus some transaction fee, when she comes into a large amount of money of her own. This indicates she's fallen in love with him, because she wants to save his soul and is now in the financial position to do so. He gets engaged to her, but meanwhile he's fallen in love with Grushenka, who has her own moneylending schemes going, and Fyodor wants Grushenka also, and Dmitri owes Fyodor money, and Ivan loves Katerina, and... Well, I followed it when I read it, but really don't want to untangle it all again right now.

The point is, I was really struck by all this accounting amid Dmitri's wailings and teeth-gnashings. And it occurred to me that I was struck because I really don't talk about money this directly in my own writing. Why not? I suppose I think it is too pedestrian, or too indecent, or both. They're grubby, aren't they, all those figures? And isn't money really just a proxy for other, more serious matters, namely power? Clearly money is a vector for power--sexual, personal, and political--in BK. But the money itself also matters to these characters because they are living on the edge. For various reasons, they all need cash, and they are well aware of exactly how much they (and others) need. They do not have the luxury of not crunching numbers. This is a different world than the one I usually portray.

So a challenge I would pose to myself, and writers like me, is to put money front and center in a story. Don't start out having the money represent anything else. It will come to do that on its own, by acting as a vector to stir up buried elements of the character's relationships. A lends B $4500. Go.

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