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I read "The Brothers Karamazov," written in Russian by Fyodor Dostoevsky and published serially in The Russian Messenger over two years, 1879-1880. This was Dostoevsky's last novel, and he died just a few months after its publication. The version I read was translated into English by Constance Garnett.

It is an incredible book, deserving of its place, in my uninformed opinion, among the world's supreme literary achievements. Like other books widely hailed as great, such as "Moby Dick" or Shakespeare's plays, "The Brothers Karamazov" is boring at times. Dostoevsky does not shy away from veering off into extended tangents from the plot. It's nothing for him to spend 50 pages (the novel is 800-plus) entirely on a disquisition on God and man, the role of religion in Russia of the late 19th century and who knows what else. Several hundred pages could be cut from the book without losing one bit of the plot of the main story.

That story is of an impossibly difficult but wealthy father and his three sons — the Karamazovs — and the two women that all four of the men are involved with as friends, lovers, enemies or some combination of the three. The book includes a whole set of secondary characters, at least six or seven of whom are developed in more depth than the protagonists are in most novels. A couple of side plots (you can't call them sub-plots, since they seem to bear no relation, or almost none, to the main plot) are explored in such length and carry such emotional impact that they seem to be separate books, grafted onto the main one.

Apparently, Dostoevsky's method did involve pulling together various unfinished novels he'd been writing into a single book. He wrote fast, too, and because he was always short of money, he rushed his books into publication. Different sections of "The Brothers Karamazov" are told from different points of view, in a way that feels random and unplanned. All of this should result in a distracting mess of a novel, but instead the varying tones of the different sections complement each other and give the book a tremendously wide scope. Not just one family in one town is being considered, but the entire character of the Russian people and their relationship with God and connection to their country and each other. 

Also, "The Brothers Karamazov" is a crime story that concludes with a courtroom drama. Dostoevsky had an abiding interest in crime and punishment (also in evidence in his earlier novel, "Crime and Punishment,") perhaps because he was himself arrested as a young man, accused of dissident activities, sentenced to be shot and taken out to the execution grounds, pardoned at the last minute (apparently, the whole thing was a show from the start, meant to terrorize the prisoners) and sent to Siberia for four years, then into compulsory military service for six more years.

Regardless of the way his difficult life influenced his writings, Dostoevsky appreciated the dramatic potential of criminal investigations and courtroom face-offs. That potential is realized in extreme fashion in "The Brothers K.," with D. wringing every drop of tension and emotion from the murder investigation and trial that forms the frame for the book's second half. The first half? That is mostly spent in setting the scene for later chapters and introducing the very large cast of characters (each with two or three names), some of whom even prove important to the story Dostoevsky eventually claims to be telling.

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Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at will@poststar.com and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at

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