Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | September 10, 2008

A Quick Note Now That The Dos is Over

Boz Scaggs has a ditty on Silk Degrees (“It’s Over “) we used to run at full throttle ’bout exam season. Well… I’ve got it cranked up as I write this. The Boy is finished with The Dos.

I guess I’m not a literary connoisseur. I’m more like a sewer on the one hand, and a “con” on the other… as in “I’m gonna con people into thinking I have a real literary brain.”  I mean… there are parts to The Bro’s that were excellent. And then I had to read between them. I’m a driven man, so we managed this process through steady, brute force. But honestly, this isn’t the sort of thing that seized me and leaves a gaping hole in one’s life afterwards. “What will I fill this gaping hole in my life with now that The Bro’s are safely back… wherever they came from… the shelf somewhere?” Uh… Monday night football?

I’d like to blame my underwhelming experience on the difficulty of translating a Russian work into English, the difficulty of communicating a 19th century Russian aesthetic into an American 21st century, and the sheer volume of the volume. But in truth, the problem is me. I’m a simpleton. Yes, a friend told me that her now-Orthodox daughter loved it, and insisted you could substitute The Bro’s K for the Bible… but I guess I just don’t see it. Folks seem to make of it far more than I see. I mean what I found was just too much dialogue weighing this puppy down. Not many of us can manage Shakespeare’s Omlette /Hambone So-Lil’ -whatever, and if I may, I’m afraid the Dos falls as flat here as Sly Stallone’s “To be or what…..” version of Hamlett (by contrast of course the critics adored Mel Gibson’s “Lethal Hambone II” as superior to even Olivier’s rendition). Fact is, The Dos has characters that make Senator Biden look like the Fedex man. Even the kids talk on and on and on. I say “Where’s the clicker? Where’s the mute button?”

Now what amazed me were the number of folks who volunteered their own sufferings through this novel. Most quit. Boy Scout that I’m not, I stayed for the merit badge. I think the armed forces hand out those stripey things on a soldier’s service ribbon for this book. Probably covers two rows. But I loved the idea that the whole windbagging thing is due to the lengthy Russian winters… and no TV.  “Hey Nina…. gives me more Wudska.” “Not ’til you finish another 100 pages.” “Huh? Okay.” For my part, I kept seeing through the lengthy discourses of the trial a replay of the Woody Allen’s parody Perry Mason in “Bananas” where J. Edgar Hoover shows up in disguise, and of course the surprise confession resolves the case. Some movies don’t translate well in even a shorter period of time… and “Bananas” is no exception. Surely Dostoevsky suffers from imitation, and the reward for being a long lost archetype is parody…. or a review by The Thickheaded Dude.

But to continue, I should add that one mention of The Dos at Church brought out a whole number of folks in our Orthodox parish who simply add this book to their list of “Ooops!” for confession. I mean I heard quite a number confess, “I didn’t like the book… I must be the worst Orthodox convert ever!” And “I didn’t like ‘The Way of the Pilgrim” either! but I just can’t go back to being a Lutheran!!! Holy Theotokos save me!”  There was just a whole lot of crossing going on at the parish book club when this came up. And I’m gonna be busy tonight in the icon corner myself. Lord have mercy!

Anyway, let me say in closing this illiterate book note, that  I’m thinking it might translate much better to the screen. I’m thinking if you gave it an American ‘tude… say with Samuel L. Jackson, Wesley Snipes, and Tiger Woods playing the leads… this could be a big hit. Of course, a lead played by a dead guy would be a new twist… but after Heath Ledger as Batman… I don’t think we should be intimidated by death anymore.

So… if this is all I can say, why did I keep reading? I may be a glutton… but punishment is not my thing. No I kept reading because the story is still good; because I kept waiting for things that didn’t happen (sadly); and because The Dos nailed me as the imaginary Christian. I felt I had to stick with it… just to see if he could nail me again. Okay… maybe I’ll have to revisit the glutton for punishment bit. Would I recommend the book? Hmmmm. That’s a good question. I think one of the virtues that lies in completing this is you knock off one more of those Wayne’s World “I’m Not Worthy” as an Orthodox Christian bits. Okay. I’ve suffered. Enough already. And then you can move on to start quoting him like all the other psuedo-literatsi… ’cause trust me… 99% of the world out there has no idea what’s in this thing. I thought they were acrobats, and kept waiting for Don Ameche to show up… but he didn’t. And that my friends is a point of view worthy of a Karamozov…. or at least an Idiot.


  1. This is the most original review of Dostoyevsky I have ever seen. How refreshing!

    I’m gonna have to locate a copy and re-read it. I read it once, many years ago, and I think I liked it, but since I’ve forgotten most of it, well, that’s not a very big compliment to the author, I suppose, although it has more to do with me than him. Anyway, now I need to see if what you say is so.

  2. Refreshing… maybe. Accurate… not a chance! I’m sure I missed a lot. Couldn’t even re-find my favorite quotes. Now don’t get me wrong… it’s a good book, and I guess I’m just still not a good reader. But it’s just not one of those books that you complete in order to “get your life back”… if you know what I mean. It’s not gripping. And there is indeed some great dialog… all the Elder’s stuff… and the Grand Inquisitor is probably the best college-type coffee house BS session ever written… but so much of the rest is just hyper-attenuated. Even The Dos remarks that he had to not write all of it… ’cause it was over-kill.

    Now does he give an accurate picture of Russian culture? I think the book gives a good picture of a whole village. It’s a milieu in a cup. And it does that very well. Can’t speak to authenticity… but it conforms to type… and it certainly takes the sheen off unrealistic views of Holy Russia. Holy Russia seems to have three dimensional folks like the rest of the world… some of them even got off their flying glow coat shields to have flaws like the rest of us. Maybe… even all of them. And that seems to me a very high service to an Orthodox convert… to see with both eyes open.

    And I am absolutely convinced that the whole compression of events would make a wonderful film…. even without Hollywood exploitation. Indeed I’m surprised the BBC, PBS or Masterpiece Theater hasn’t tackled it. Seems far more readily approached than Nicholas Nickelby of some years back.

  3. Dear James,

    Two things:

    1. BK was, in the broad view of things, remarkably important for me in my journey to Orthodoxy. I struggled with the names–still do–but the sensitivity of observation, and depth of reflection, played a powerful role in my life. The description of Elder Zosima’s brother Markel and his experience, to cite but one example… I learned from BK, as a western Christian, that there was another way to configure the data, another way of seeing.

    2. The movie’s already been made. It starred Yul Brinner and William Shatner. I kid you not.

  4. Fr. – Thanks for your visit and comment. Thanks especially for sharing what I could not see… something of the wonder folks find here. I do not mean to be disrespectful… but simply am somewhat disappointed it wasn’t the linch pin for me that it has been for others. So I wonder that this divergence doesn’t reflect a on those of us who read it before becoming Orthodox… and those who read it afterwards… as in “I’m reading it because I’m supposed to”. I’d see this as the difference between chinking in the cotton between the wooden sides of the boat that makes it water-tight, and sailing a boat for the first time. One is the work that makes the other possible, but the other is sheer joy.

    I would agree that the insight into character… is quite deep and very psychological on a level consistent with and much beyond typical. It is a well-written and well-conceived story… but suffers from values in terms of the shift in manner of narrative voice and role of the narrator as I see it from 19th to 21st century. No real surprise here. It’s the same sense that differentiates our take on Dickens from the way Dickens gripped his readers at the time.

    I added the picture of the translation I read because it is really quite good. Won an award of some sort. And it includes a cheat sheet of names, nick names, etc. in the introduction, and this is very helpful.

    Yul Brenner and William Shatner… hoo boy: I guess it’s that old problem or remakes… where a bad version makes it harder for a good version to come to light.

  5. Maybe it’s just me, but I believe are taller since reading this. You might want to check – sometimes benefits of ascetic struggle are unnoticed by the participant. 🙂

  6. I also struggled to “get” BK. I’m glad I read it because I read/hear so many references to “The Grand Inquisitor”. but, other than that, it left me scratching my head.

  7. Deb: Thanks for the reassurance. I need it more than I should. I figured everyone else out there is loving it…

    Andrea Elizabeth: I like the idea. Unfortunately, there are struggles that go well… and those that do not. For me… trying to not morph into a grumpy old man is the struggle I don’t want to lose… among others! And not noticing the morphing is… uh… all too common… and much feared… and part of why I’m in this craziness.

  8. Guarding against grumpiness – I think that is a priority in deciding the strictness of one’s asceticism. Good point.

    And I haven’t made it through BK either. I’ve decided to give That Hideous Strength a try even though I lost my suspension of disbelief during Perelandra. I like the beginning so far!

  9. Very interesting, and honest, reflection on the reading of BK. My experience was different, but only for this book by The Dos. I just can’t get into Crime and Punishment, for example, and am even less enamored of Notes from Underground. I enjoyed the first book of The Idiot, but got bored and just can’t get back in gear with it.

    Part of it may be the translation. Supposedly, the translations of Russian classics by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are the best available – but I couldn’t get through their C&P and the BK I read was a Barnes & Noble classic translated by who knows.

    When I was in acting school rehearsing Uncle Vanya, I found a note by a famous old director to be very helpful. He said that Chekhov was like a symphony; his plays had musical ‘themes’ that would appear and reappear in different forms. Not sure if this is the exact same musical analogy for The Dos, but it gets at what some of our difficulties can be in approaching a text from a galaxy far, far away. Sometimes we are expecting something from a piece of art that isn’t the intention of the piece to provide. Sometimes we just need to understand a little about what the author, playwright, painter is trying to do for it to be unlocked – like understanding a little of the Orthodox theology of images when looking at icons.

    When I looked back at the prelude to my final foray into Orthodoxy, I noted that I was reading two books: The Bible (NIV) start to finish (got through Lamentations) and The BK. My perception of the Bible began to change, my approach to it, what I expected of it, what I expected had to be there. I think BK helped me to develop my ‘eye’ as they say in the visual arts, or, to develop my ‘ear’ in being able to appreciate music beyond Top 40 or a given genre.

    An American priest of Carpatho-Russian background once told me that many people think that to know a person you need ask them but one question: Do you like The Dos or Tolstoy? Everyone leans towards one or the other. My reply was that I am Tolstoy but wish I were The Dos. You should try some of Tolstoy’s short stories if you have never read them. Of course, I started with War & Peace, but I was 18 so what did I know…

  10. Thanks for your visit and comment. I appreciate the Chekhov comment, and lament not having a series of lectures to illuminate what is clearly “locked” to me in BK.

    Seriously… Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? Is that the choice? I mean, whatever happened to “So we meet at dawn… Pistols or Swords?” I found Tolstoy… even more impenetrable (we had to read Anna Karininananana in two weeks… one of which was a freshman year “beach week”… and the experience… was shall we say “less than optimal”). So The Dos would be my choice. At least his dialogue can expand the mind, and at least his writing ( or my translation ) seemed very up-to-date.

    But I think you are right that there is a change in us that causes us to read the Bible differently. I don’t know what starts it off… for me it came from an experience… not reading. The experience drove the reading… the desire for reading, and the “take away”.

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