Saturday, March 13, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Creating a spiritual landscape

While we are on the subject of Russian literature, it's high time I got back to The Brothers Karamazov.

Last week we saw Dostoevsky shift from the philosophical / spiritual set piece of The Grand Inquisitor into full-on mystery-novel mode. The shift takes place via the consciousness of Ivan, the spiritually tormented intellectual. (Ivan is also my candidate for "author insert," even though Dostoevsky probably wished he were Alyosha.) Ivan's tendency to obsess about matters of good and evil is what leads him into Smerdyakov's trap. Smerdyakov knows Ivan can't resist a moral and spiritual puzzle; he also knows that he himself represents that very kind of puzzle to Ivan. So he lies in wait for him, and then explains how he just might have one of his epileptic fits after Ivan leaves town, at the very moment when Dmitri just might be coming to the house to do something really terrible to the brothers' father Fyodor.

Sure enough, Ivan leaves for Moscow, down Smerdyakov goes, and just as the plot is really heating up, we get...umpteen pages on the life of Father Zossima. This is Alyosha's spiritual mentor, here to represent the godly life well-led. What kind of crappy mystery novel is this?

Well, I remember reading in some book on writing craft (I really can't remember the guy's name; he was a screenwriter, I think) that you should "never take readers where they want to go." This is a method for creating suspense, and I suppose Dostoevsky succeeds in that, because I really didn't want to read about Father Zossima at this point--or possibly at any point. Still, as didactic as the section is so far (I haven't finished yet), it does convey several varieties of religious experience and ecstasy. So it seems to me that the larger purpose of this heavy-handed "meanwhile" is to further explore the spiritual landscape of Russia.

As Elif Batuman mentioned during her reading at Kepler's a few nights ago, Dostoevsky--in contrast to Tolstoy--doesn't spend a lot of time on conventional setting: if Tolstoy is movies, Dostoevsky is theater. That is certainly borne out by BK. While we gather that the story takes place in a small provincial town, Dostoevsky is far more concerned with what goes on in people's minds and hearts than with how their daily lives look from the outside. With BK he presents a sweeping portrait of Russia, but it is a spiritual landscape, filmed with a special kind of night-vision camera. Instead of racing over dunes and forests and mountain passes, like the camera in contemporary "epic" films, Dostoevsky swoops and dives from one soul into another--from Alyosha to Ivan to Smerdyakov to Zossima--and covers a territory just as vast.

So this week's nugget for fiction writers to mull over is an idea I've brought up before, in relation to characterization. Perhaps Dostoevsky's brand of show-don't-tell could be an antidote for our overly visual age. That same book on craft I mentioned earlier says that today's readers expect lots of visual detail, because we've been trained by movies and television in ways that readers from previous eras were not. But maybe writers can overdo the visual--or else feel compelled to focus on it, neglecting the wild terrain of the inner landscape.

An exercise: what would a spiritual portrait of your hometown look like?

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