Ivan and Misha

They lay quiet, looking up at the sky. “Which do you think is bigger,” Misha asked, “the Grand Canyon or the Milky Way?”

“Wrong question, Mishka. The point is not how big they are, it’s how small we are.”

“But together, you and me,” Misha had said, “we’re as big and grand as this canyon and all the stars put together.”

What a tender book this is. I’m not Russian, I’m not a twin, I’m not especially close to my brother, and I’m not homosexual. But Michael Alenyikov writes with such compassion and eloquence, that these two brothers and their father became instantly endearing to me. Through a series of separate-but-connected chapters we read of their lives; the way their father has brought them to America, sparing them the full story of their mother’s death, but fulfilling his promise to them. Now he is fragile, even dying, but he loves his sons and on this they can rely.

Ivan is manic depressive. When he’s “up” he’s in a frantic state, once not sleeping for nine days in a row, driving his taxis around New York, talking with his fares, calling his brother with hare-brained schemes or consolations depending on his mood.

Misha is the steadier one, in my opinion, of these twins. The bond between them is flawed but unbreakable. He will set aside everything when Ivan calls, ready to be there for Ivan’s needs which in many ways answer his own.

Ivan and Misha is a powerful look at America. At homosexuality. At family. It reads with a lyricism I would have thought impossible given such emotionally laden themes. It touched me quite deeply, especially when Alenyikov wrote of their father, or the way I felt that neither Russia nor America was their home.

Aren’t many of us ‘strangers in this land’?

Dr. Zhivago: Book Two

The Bolshevik by Kustodiev

I am a sucker for Russian novels, for snow and despair, and for tragic love stories. Anna (Karenina), Emma (Bovary), and now Larissa (Feodorovna), tell me how it didn’t work out for you, and I will feel sympathetic for your loss. I shouldn’t; it’s your own damn fault that you were married and chose to love another. But, I do. Because these things happen. In the midst of war, or the boredom of everyday lives, or utter isolation, it would be easy to be led astray. But how much harder to suffer the consequences.

Lara’s husband is fighting for freedom; after searching for him, assuming him dead, she is left alone to raise their daughter, Katenka. Yuri Zhivago was taken captive by the army to help the wounded. After he escapes, he is a fugitive. While living with Lara, they can neither return to their respective homes nor make a new one together. It is a hopeless situation, indicative to me of the hopelessness found in Russia during the October Revolution. Their joy together is brief and ultimately destined for despair.

“The closer this woman and her daughter became to him, the less he dared to think of them as family and the stricter was the control imposed on his thoughts by his duty to his own family and the pain of his broken faith…But the division in him was a sorrow and a torment, and he became accustomed to it only as one gets used to an unhealed and frequently reopened wound.” (p. 406)

But before that, their relationship is explained as this:

“Their love was great. Most people experience love without becoming aware of the extraordinary nature of this emotion. But to them–and this made them exceptional–the moments when passion visited their doomed human existence like a breath of eternity were moments of revelation, of continually new discoveries about themselves and life.” (p. 395)

How can it be both, a torment and a revelation? Perhaps in a similar way that the Bolsheviks are striving for their place in Russia…

A book of tremendous layers, political as well as social, it is always the story of Yuri and  Lara which most moves me. I can almost cry with her as

“she was shaken by her repressed sobs. She fought her tears as long as she could, but at times it was beyond her strength and they burst from her, pouring down her cheeks and onto her dress, her hands, and the coffin, to which she clung.

She neither spoke nor thought. Sequences of ideas, notions, insights, truths drifted and sailed freely through her mind, like clouds in the sky, as happened so often before during their nighttime conversations. It was such things that had brought them happiness and liberation in those days. A spontaneous mutual understanding, warm, instinctive, immediate.” (p. 501)

A mutual understanding which they were forced to forfeit because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Find more thoughts from Frances, Bookssnob, Marie, Jess, and Joan.

Dr. Zhivago: Book One

“In these days one longs so much to live honestly and productively! One wants so much to be part of the general inspiration! and then, amidst the joy that grips everyone, I meet your mysteriously mirthless gaze, wandering  no one knows where, in some far-off kingdom, in some far-off land. What wouldn’t I give for it not to be there, for it to be written on your face that you are pleased with your fate and need nothing from anyone. So that somebody close to you, your friend or husband (best if he were a military man), would take me by the hand and ask me not to worry about your lot and not to burden with you with my attention. And I would tear my hand free, swing, and…Ah, I’ve forgotten myself! Forgive me, please.” (p. 129)

Forget the Russian Revolution, the Bolsheviks and the aristocracy, the Ural Mountains and even the translations. What I love most about Dr. Zhivago is the love story. So slowly developing between Yuri and Larissa, their affair is tender and sweet, perhaps even more so for its backdrop of war.

I read Boris Pasternak’s novel several years ago, the cover of which I’ve pictured here. It was translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari, and lest I sound like I’m spitting in the eye of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, I loved it.
The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace translations by Peavear and Volokhonsky were outstanding. I read them both, and I enjoyed them both very much.
But somehow, their translation of Dr. Zhivago, to which the New York Review of Books declared “the English-speaking world is indebted” leaves me a bit surprised. There’s nothing wrong with it, of course. It just reads a bit like “bricks are falling out of one’s mouth” as a pastor I know described the American Standard translation of the Bible. It’s choppy somehow, and I had to read it very slowly so as not to get lost, while I practically breezed though the translation you see above. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me.
In any case, I love Russian novels. I love Dr. Zhivago, no matter who’s bringing it to me. And I look forward to discussing it in further detail the next time it comes around, which will be for Book Two on November 30, 2010. Read-along hosted by the lovely Frances.

(Find thoughts which amplify mine about the new translation from the Guardian here. In a nutshell: “Volokhonsky-Pevear are ruled by the principle of literal fidelity, Hayward-Harari by the imperatives of clarity, elegance and euphony.”)

The Brothers Karamazov: Part 4

April 29, 2010

Dear Mr. Dostoevsky,

What, are you kidding me?! I read almost 800 pages of dialogue, description, mystery and intrigue, and you leave me not knowing for certain who killed Fyodor Karamazov?!

Sure I have an idea, but that’s all it is: my supposition. Is there any conclusive proof? Are we to decide for ourselves who the murderer was? I’d always heard the three brothers planned and then killed their father. And, if we take the words of the Bible that if we so much as think ill of someone we have as good as murdered them, then this is true. But, I do not believe for a minute that Dmitri actually took the brass pestle and killed his father with it. Although, he was willing to suffer, and bear the accusation, as he said:

You can revive and resurrect the frozen heart in this convict, you can look after him for years, and finally bring up from the cave into the light a soul that is lofty now, a suffering consciousness, you can revive an angel resurrect a hero! And there are many of them, there are hundreds, and we’re all guilty for them! Why did I have a dream about a ‘wee one’ at such a moment? ‘Why is the wee one poor?’ It was a prophecy to me at that moment! It’s for the ‘wee one’ that I will go. Because everyone is guilty for everyone else. All people are ‘wee ones.’ And I’ll go for all of them, because there must be someone who will go for all of them. I didn’t kill father, but I must go. I accept! All of this came to me here…within these peeling walls…It’s impossible for a convict to be without God, even more impossible than for a non-convict! and then from the depths of the earth, we, the men underground, will start singing a tragic hymn to God, in whom there is joy! Hail to God and his joy! I love him!” (p. 591-592)

I admire how you made a debased character, the biggest scoundrel of all the Karamazov sons, to be the one who in the end finds redemption through his belief and acceptance. “I accept the torment of accusation and of my disgrace before all, I want to suffer and be purified by suffering! And perhaps I will be purified, eh, gentlemen? But hear me, all the same, for the last time: I am not guilty of my father’s blood. I accept punishment not because I killed him, but because I wanted to kill him, and might well have killed him…” (p. 509)

I was puzzled at first, Mr. Dostoevsky, why you ended your novel with the tale of Ilyushka’s death; here is a poor boy, another victim of circumstances, whose role with his father is in direct contrast with that of Dmitri and his father:

  • Ilyushka’s father loves him to pieces, grieves and cares for him beyond all measure; Fyodor cares not one whit about any of his three sons, letting Grigory bring them up the best his manservant can.
  • In Ilyushka’s case, it is the boy who dies; with the Karamazovs, it is the father.
  • Yet both sons, Ilyushka and Dmitri, are victims of circumstances beyond their control. Ilyushka cannot overcome his sickness, Dmitri cannot overrule his sentence; they both suffer willingly for what has been their lot in life.
  • Alyosha reminds us all at the end that something good can come from the innocent child’s death.

    Perhaps we will even become wicked later on, will even be unable to resist a bad action, will laugh at people’s tears and at those who say, as Kolya exclaimed today: ‘I want to suffer for all people’-perhaps we will scoff wickedly at such people. And yet, no matter how wicked we may be-and God preserve us from it-as soon as we remember how we buried Ilyusha, how we loved him in his last days, and how we’ve been talking just now, so much as friends, so together, by this stone, the most cruel and jeering man among us, if we should become so, will still not dare laugh within himself at how kind and good he was at this present moment! Moreover, perhaps just this memory alone will keep him from great evil, and he will think better of it and say: ‘Yes, I was kind, brave and honest then.’  (p. 775)

    I liked how you used this novel, Mr. Dostoevsky, to work through the grief you bore at your own son’s death, the questions you pondered about faith and God, and the way you wanted to leave a message to your Russian people. Through these instances, you have left messages for us, that fundamentally we are saved through our ability to love. Even when we may suffer terribly due to injustice or our own infallibility.



The Brothers Karamazov: Part 3

“Be so good, madame, as to listen for only half a minute, and I shall explain everything in two words,” Perkhotin answered firmly. “Today, at five o’clock in the afternoon, Mr. Karamazov (Dmitri) borrowed ten roubles from me as a friend, and I know for certain that he had no money, yet this same day, at nine o’clock, he walked into my rooms holding out for all to see a wad of hundred-rouble bills, approximately two or even three thousand roubles. His hands and face were all covered with blood, and it appeared as if he were mad. To my question as to where he got so much money, he replied with precision that he had just received it from you, and that you had loaned him the sum of three-thousand roubles to go, he said to the gold mines…”

Madame Khokhlakov’s face suddenly acquired a look of extraordinary and morbid excitement.

“Oh, God!” He’s murdered his old father!” she cried out, clasping her hands. “I gave him no money, none! Oh, run, run…! Not a word more! Save the old man, run to his father, run!” (p. 448)

If I accused Part 2 to be largely devoid of plot, Part 3 more than makes up for it. The pace is almost frenetic, as we go from the death of Alyosha’s cherished elder, Zosimov, to the death of the brothers’ father, Fyodor Pavlovich. Dmitri makes a mad dash to obtain money and catch up with his love, Grushenka. Breathlessly, we follow him as he leaves Katerina’s house, taking a brass pestle in his hand, and hides in the bushes outside of his father’s home certain that Grushenka is there. When he discovers she is not, he is overcome with hatred for his father.

Mitya watched from the side, and did not move. The whole of the old man’s profile, which he found so loathsome, the whole of his drooping Adam’s apple, his hooked nose, smiling in sweet expectation, his lips-all was brightly lit from the left by the slanting light of the lamp shining from the room. Terrible, furious anger suddenly boiled up in Mitya’s heart: “There he was his rival, his tormentor, the tormentor of his life!” it was a surge of that same sudden, vengeful, and furious anger of which he had spoken, as if in anticipation, to Alyosha during their conversation in the gazebo four days earlier, in response to Alyosha’s question. “How can you say you will kill father?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know,” he had said then. “Maybe I won’t kill him, and maybe I will. I’m afraid that his face at that moment will suddenly become hateful to me. I hate his Adam’s apple, his nose, his eyes, his shameless sneer. I feel a personal loathing. I’m afraid of that, I may not be able to help myself…”

The personal loathing was increasing unbearable. Mitya was beside himself, and suddenly he snatched the brass pestle from his pocket…”

.     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .     .      .     .     .    (p. 392-3)

What has Dmitri done? We know not, as we follow him blindly to the official Pyotr Ilyich Perkhotin’s, where he buys back the pistols he had given for ten roubles, and orders an extravagant basket of sweets, fruit, pate and champagne to follow his troika to where Grushenka has apparently met with her former lover, Kalganov. It’s like a soap opera in its drama, and the best mystery you’ve ever read, and yet the horror of it strikes my very heart.

Through Mitya we discover what it is to be on trial. When his clothes are stripped from him, for material evidence, he feels completely debased. When the questions come at him unceasingly, he must force himself to reveal his intentions no matter how private they may be. And, as a reader, I am completely unsure as to who actually did kill Fyodor. Was it Dmitri? He claims he did not. Was it Smerdykov? He was lying on the point of death after a night filled with seizures from his “falling sickness”. Was it another brother, or another villain whose goals we know little about?

The suspense is killing me. I know not whom to trust. Could it really be true that Mitya is innocent of killing his father?

“Write it down? You want to write it down? Well, write it down then, I consent, I give my full consent, gentlemen…Only, you see…Wait, wait, write it down like this: ‘Of violence-guilty; of inflicting a savage beating on a poor old man-guilty. And then, within himself, too, inside, in the bottom of his heart, he is guilty-but there’s no need to write that down,” he turned suddenly to the clerk, “that is my private life, gentlemen, that doesn’t concern you now, the bottom of my heart, I mean…But the murder of his old father-not guilty! It’s a wild idea! It’s an utterly wild idea…! I’ll prove it to you and you’ll be convinced immediately. You’ll laugh, gentlemen, you’ll roar with laughter at your own suspicion…!” (p. 460)

Which brings to mind this question, “If we’re not guilty of killing someone physically, are we guilty if we kill them in our hearts? (Matthew 5: 21-22)

Find other reviews here:





The Brothers Karamazov: Part 2

For the world says, “You have needs, therefore satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the noblest and richest men. Do not be afraid to satisfy them, but even increase them”–this is the current teaching of the world. And in this they see freedom. But what comes of this right to increase one’s needs? For the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide, for the poor, envy and murder, for they have been given rights, but have not yet been shown any way of satisfying their needs. (p. 313)

In the beginning of this section, we find that Dmitri has not only insulted his fiance, Katerina, but he has also insulted a certain captain named Snegiryov by dragging him out of an establishment with his whiskers. Snegiryov’s son, Ilyusha, bit Alexei’s finger to the bone in revenge, simply because Alexei was a Karamazov.

When Katerina learned of the embarrassment Snegiryov endured at the hand of Dmitri, she sent Alexei off with two hundred roubles to try to comfort the family. But, there was no way that Snegiryov, destitute as he and his family was, could accept it; he ground the crisp bills into the dirt with the heel of his boot after displaying incredible longing for them and what they could provide.

After this bit of plot, the rest of Part 2 consists mainly of thought-provoking ideas portrayed through Ivan as well as the elder, Zosimov. Ivan seems to be questioning everything.

“I must make an admission,” Ivan began. “I never could understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possible love. Perhaps if they weren’t so nigh…It’s still possible to love one’s neighbor abstractly, and even occasionally from a distance, but hardly ever up close.” (p. 236-7)

He also voices his great discontent with God in the chapter titled Rebellion:

And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket.”

“That is rebellion,” Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

“Rebellion? I don’t like hearing such a word from you,” Ivan said with feeling. (p. 245)

But, in Ivan’s “poem”, The Grand Inquisitor, he continues with his rebellion. He maintains that what man wants from God is miracles, yet what God wants is faith:

But you did not know that as soon as man rejects miracles, he will at once reject God as well, for man seeks not so much God as miracles. And since man cannot bear to be left without miracles, he will go and create new miracles for himself, his own miracles this time, and will bow down to the miracles of quacks or women’s magic, though he be rebellious, heretical and godless a hundred times over. You did not come down from the cross when they shouted to you, mocking and reviling you: “Come down from the cross and we will believe that it is you.” You did not come down because, again, you did not want to enslave man by a miracle and thirsted for faith that is free, not miraculous. You thirsted for love that is free, and not for the servile raptures of a slave before a power that has left him permanently terrified. But here, too, you overestimated mankind, for, of course, they are slaves though they were created rebels.” (p. 256)

Rather than faith, Ivan maintains that the stronger force is the Karamazov nature:

“There is a force that will endure everything,” said Ivan, this time with a cold smirk.

“What force?”

“The Karamazov force…the force of the Karamazov baseness.”

“To drown in depravity, to stifle your soul with corruption, is that it?”

“That, too, perhaps…only until my thirtieth year maybe I’ll escape it, and then…”

“How will you escape it? By means of what? With your thoughts, it’s impossible.”

“Again, in Karamazov fashion.” (p. 263)

Contrast this ideology with Zosimov’s last words, summarized for us by Alexei:

“Yet the Lord will save Russia, as he has saved her many times before. Salvation will come from the people, from their faith and their humility. Fathers and teachers, watch over the faith of the people-and this is no dream: all my life I have been struck by the true and gracious dignity in our great people. ” (p. 316)

When I compare this statement with Ivan’s, I find that the Karamazovs (in general) appear to refute Zosimov’s belief in Russia’s people. In fact, we are presented with this very disturbing fact in Part 2: if Fyodor Pavlovich should die, many people may benefit financially. Dmitri knows that his father has three thousand roubles sealed in a big envelope, tied with a ribbon and addressed to Grushenka (also known as Agrafena Alexandrovna).

“Besides, he considers that same three thousand, sir, as if it was his own, and he told me so himself: ‘My father,’ he said,’still owes me exactly three thousand.’ And on top of all that, Ivan Fyodorovich, consider also a certain pure truth, sir: It’s almost a sure thing, one must say, sir, that Agrafena Alexandrovna, if only she wants to, could definitely get him to marry her, I meant the master himself, Fyodor Pavolvich, sir, if only she wants to-well, and maybe she’ll want to sir…And she’s quite clever in her mind, sir. Why should she marry such a pauper as Dmitri Fyodorovich, sir? And so, taking that, now consider for yourself, Ivan Fyodorovich, that then there will be nothing at all left either for Dmitri Fyodorovich, that then there will be nothing at all left either for Dmitri Fyodorovich, or even for you , sir, along with your brother Alexei Fyodorovich, after your father’s death, not a rouble sir, because Agrafena Alexandrovna will marry him in order to get it all down in her name and transfer whatever capital there is to herself, sir. But if your father was to die now, while none of this has happened, sir, then each one of you would get a sure forty thousand all at once, even Dmitri Fyodorovich, whom he hates so much, because he hasn’t made his will, sir…” (p. 273)

Like the very voice of Satan, here Smerdyakov plants the seeds of doubt and greed into Ivan’s mind. If his father was to die, the three sons would greatly benefit; miracle, faith, or salvation be damned.

Find other posts on Part 2 here:








The Brothers Karamazov: Part 1

My copy of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is translated from Russian by Pevear and Volokhonsky. I bought it several years ago after my son gave me their translation of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. Both read like a dream.

Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a “cunning and obstinate buffoon”, has three sons. Dmitri, the eldest, was born of his first wife Adelaida Ivanovna Miusov. Ivan and Alexei were born of his second wife, Sofia Ivanovna, who died when Alexei was four. Their upbringing was largely left to the family servant, Grigory, as Fyodor Pavlovich was a drunkard and a fool, too intent on debauchery to act as father.

Alyosha (Alexei) chooses to join a monastery due in part to his great affection for the elder, Zosima. When an enormous disagreement over inheritance and property accounts arises between the eldest son Dmitri and his father, they seek Zosima’s wisdom and influence. At this meeting, however, Fyodor is unable to contain his foolishness; he lashes out at everybody and calls for Alyosha to come home. A strange occurence, however, which has not yet been explained, is that Zosima bows at Dmitri’s feet, touching his forehead to the floor.

But the whole scene, which had turned so ugly, was stopped in a most unexpected manner. The elder suddenly rose from his place. Alyosha, who had almost completely lost his head from fear for him and for all of them, had just time enough to support his arm. The elder stepped towards Dmitri Fyodorovich and, having come close to him, knelt before him. Alyosha thought for a moment that he had fallen from weakness, but it was something else. Kneeling in front of Dmitri Fyodorovich, the elder bowed down at his feet with a full, distinct, conscious bow, and even touched the floor with his forehead. Alyosha was so amazed that he failed to support him as he got to his feet. A weak smile barely glimmered on his lips.

“Forgive me! Forgive me, all of you!” he said, bowing on all sides to his guests.

Dmitri Fyodorovich stood dumbstruck for a few moments. Bowing at his feet-what was that?” (p. 74-75)

Dmitri is engaged to Katerina Ivanovna, who is a rich, aristocratic colonel’s daughter. But the woman he seems to love is Grushenka, the kept woman of an old shopkeeper, whom he calls the “queen of insolence” at the end of Part 1. Apparently, Dmitri and his father each want Grushenka for his own.

To compound the difficulties of this triangle, Katerina Ivanovna seems to truly love Dmitri, despite the fact that he has spent three thousand rubles she gave him. Katerina and Grushenka are sitting together when Alyosha comes as messenger for Dmitri, and Grushenka rudely scorns Katerina by not returning her kisses and slandering her abominably.

“Insolent!” Katerina Ivanovna said suddenly as if suddenly understanding something. She blushed all over and jumped up from her place. Grushenka, too, got up, without haste.

“So I’ll go right now and tell Mitya that you kissed my hand, and I didn’t kiss yours at all. How he’ll laugh!”

“You slut! Get out!” (p. 152)

What I love about this book so far:

  • the dramatic relationships between father and sons, men and women, the public and the monastery (remember the women crying out to the elder for his blessing, particularly the one who had lost her son? It broke my heart! Dostoeyvsky himself suffered terribly through the loss of his own three year old son.).
  • the elements of faith that Alyosha has, epitomized by this sentence; “But before going to sleep, he threw himself down on his knees and prayed for a long time. In his ardent prayer, he did not ask God to explain his confusion to him, but only thirsted for joyful tenderness, the same tenderness that always visited his soul after praising and glorifying God, of which his prayer before going to sleep usually consisted. This joy that visited him always drew after it a light and peaceful sleep.” (p. 158)
  • The way the tension is slowly building, layer after layer, with intricate detail.

Questions I’m pondering as I conclude Part 1:

  1. Why did the elder Zosimov bow at Fyodor Pavlovich’s feet at the monastery?
  2. Why does Alexei feel so drawn to both the elder and that way of life? Is it in reaction to his father’s dishonor, or a true calling?
  3. What terrible thing is Dmitri predicting as he tells his brother, Alexei, of the darkness in his heart?

“You know me by now: a scoundrel, an avowed scoundrel! But know that whatever I have done before or now or may do later—nothing, nothing can compare in baseness with the dishonor I am carrying, precisely now, precisely at this moment, here on my chest, here, right here, which is being enacted and carried out, and which it is fully in my power to stop, I can stop it or carry it out, make a note of that! And know, then, that I will carry it out and will not stop it. I just told you everything, but this I did not tell you, because even I am not so brazen! (p. 156)


If you have written a review for Part 1, please leave a comment below to direct us to your post so that I can add your link here. If you haven’t written a review, please feel free to leave a comment. What are your thoughts so far? Until we meet again to discuss Part 2 on Thursday, April 15, happy reading!

Find other reviews here:

    Frances at Nonsuch Book

    Sarah at What We Have Here Is a Failure To Communicate

    Nicole at bibliographing

     Eva at A Striped Armchair

    Nadia at A Bookish Way of Life

    Allie at A Literary Odyssey

            Becca at Bookstack

            Shelley at Book Clutter

[tweetmeme source=”bellezzamjs” only_single=false]