Books, Thoughts

A Modern Karamazov Story

Be near your brothers.  Not just one, but both of them.

The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky

Sometimes we wear our trauma in strange ways. The above quote is my email signature. It may not look like much; there are a dearth of better quotes in the novel. Anything from “The Grand Inquisitor” section, or Grushenka’s story about the onion or anything spoken by one of the 11-year-old “boys”. (Including my favorite: “It’s all so strange, Karamazov, such grief and then pancakes all of the sudden–how unnatural it all is in our religion!”)

But, out of all this memorable material in my 800-page copy of TBK, the quote opening this post means the most to me because it holds the key to my understanding of the book. Elder Zosima says this to Alexei Karamazov after meeting his colorful, contentious family. Be near your brothers. Not just one but both of them. The problem is that there is the possibility Alexei has more than two brothers.

His older brothers Dmitri & Ivan are his recognized kin, products of legitimate marriages. However, their father Fyodor is a man defined by his earthy appetites & his appreciation for the opposite sex. Another man, named Smerdyakov, is possibly Fyodor’s son as well. He was fathered on a local beggar woman who makes it a point to give birth in the Karamazov garden. The unspoken tension of Smerdyakov’s is he/isn’t he status underlines a good portion of the book. So when Elder Zosima says, “both of them”, Smerdyakov is implied by his absence, by his unrecognized status. (To paraphrase a great line from A Passage to India, absence is not non-existence, it relies on it’s opposite for definition.)

What also adds another layer to the quote is that Alexei is training to be a priest, a vocation that requires him to consider all men as brothers. Zosima’s statement could also mean that Alexei must “be near” both good & evil men, to learn from them, to aid them & comfort them. In either case, the essence of his advice is clear. Show no favoritism or harsh judgment. Give all beings equal consideration.

Which is why one of the great mysteries of the novel, to me, is why Dostoevsky never allows Alexei & Smerdyakov to interact in the novel. Smerdyakov has complicated relationships with Dmitri, Ivan, & Fyodor, but not Alexei. It bothers me for two reasons. First, because everyone, EVERYONE, in a Dostoevsky novel is connected, even in the smallest ways. Second, given Alexei’s training, how could he neglect someone who is his brother in a spiritual sense?

The question haunted me because, up until very recently, I also had a sister out there who I’d never met. I identified with the brothers & their wonderful Russian dysfunction completely. Ever since I finished the novel, I asked myself how different it would be if Alexei & Smerdyakov had ever crossed paths. By extension, I tried to imagine how my life would be different if I ever met my sister. The thought was a form of emotional torture that often left me anxious & upset.  The quote that meant so much to me reminded me that there were things still left to deal with.

As of yesterday, though, I can say that finding answers has become the choice instead of constructing scenarios. I finally met my sister who was eager to talk & who has wanted to meet me & my sisters for a long time. Our meeting yesterday was one of the scariest, hardest things I’ve had to do in my life. My new sister’s presence went from being a difficult reality to being real. And truly, I don’t look for things to get easier from here. There are still a lot of conversations to be had, questions to be answered. But, it’s a step forward & right now, that’s all that really matters to me.

For a long time, I was bitter & angry at what seemed like the randomness of family ties, how any stranger can turn up as a relative, the powerlessness of being unable to pick your family or the people you want to love. But I can recognize now that despite that frustration, it’s up to me to make the best of my part in the story & to take care of those within my reach. My sister is no longer at arm’s length. I know her name & her face; I’ve heard her laugh & call my father “Dad”. This is a whole new world of experience for both of us. We will face it together.

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1 thought on “A Modern Karamazov Story”

  1. Wow, Elizabeth. I can’t imagine how difficult and scary yesterday must have been for you. You are so brave. Who made the decision to reach out? Did all of your sisters go with you? I hope that this first step leads to a better relationship with all of your sisters.

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