The Brothers Karamazov - 10: Boys

Previously: Book IBook IIBook IIIBooks IV & VBook VI, Books VII–IX

Antonio Mancini - Il Malatino

What does it say about Dostoyevsky that, after the roller coaster of the last three parts, he switches gears and writes a whole section about - schoolboys?

Let me just say: any remaining reservations I had about his writing skills disappeared in this part.  I mean that seriously.  As with "The Russian Monk" (VI), this part left me very impressed.

Most of us who have ever thought of being writers know about the Character Arc.  We tend to think the Character Arc is a long journey (it is).  But the most difficult part is actually writing it.  It can become a laborious process, and in the middle of that process we writers tend to lose the subtlety of good writing that the rest of our novel may possess.  We usually sacrifice the subtlety because the Character Arc appears to us like the milestones of life - big, earth-shattering, and loudly delineated.  Plot twist: it doesn't have to be.

Dostoyevsky uses the conflict and dynamics between Ilyusha and the other schoolboys for two purposes.  One is to include social commentary, such as thirteen-year-old Kolya's rant against medicine (reminiscent of Bazarov from Fathers and Sons).  Kolya is very outspoken and claims to be a socialist, later admitting some of his ideas are copied verbatim from books he has read.  He argues with Alyosha only to realize he doesn't have any foundation to stand on.  The endnotes to the P&V edition suggest Dostoyevsky wrote Kolya this way as a critique of such perspectives, with the implication that those ideas are "schoolboyish."  Whether an effective argument or not, it's plausible enough in the insecure, confused, yet good-intentioned Kolya.

The second purpose of going "off-topic" in part 10 is the aforementioned Character Arc.  We see Alyosha again, but now he is not wearing his monastic attire.  He is acting as a mediator between the proud Kolya and Kolya's former friend Ilyusha, who has now fallen ill and fears that Kolya holds a grudge against him.  The fact that Alyosha has, for the time, left the Karamazov scandal behind him to come and help Ilyusha and his family is quite extraordinary.  This is the same Alyosha who was so intent on being the communicator in his own family; the same Aloysha who, in his own moral struggle, went to talk to Grushenka for Dmitri's sake.  And he is the one who felt confusion and grief over his personal loss that nobody else really understood.

He followed God's Will while living in the monastery.  Now he's found his calling, which is to have the heart of a monk while living within society, with all its flaws and suffering.  In answer to my question from book two, I think Alyosha will be all right.  If there's any justice by the end of this book - I think he'll be all right.

Hamlet Revisited

Over time, I have come to love a lot of things I used to dislike strongly - opera, Debussy, Moby-Dick, and poetry.  Perhaps Shakespeare will grow on me, too - perhaps.

Forbes-RobertsonAs I was reading Hamlet yesterday, I was aware of two things.  One, it was not painfully slow or cringeworthy like Romeo and Juliet.  Two, I actually cared about the characters. As long as they were "on screen," they were very much alive (terrible, terrible pun), and even now, I would be interesting in watching an adaptation, which usually indicates a good story.

The plot starts out with some exposition explaining that the king of Denmark has recently died and his brother Claudius is serving the office in his stead.  Part of this "office," according to Claudius, is marrying his brother's wife, Queen Gertrude.  (Wiki would have you think this is a Levirate marriage; however, since Hamlet is the son of Gertrude and the late king, this does not appear to qualify as such, by Old Testament standards.)  Hamlet is grief-stricken and angry at his mother for what he sees as her betrayal.  This is only worsened by a seeming visit from the ghost of his father, who says his death was no accident and urges him to take vengeance on Claudius, "the serpent that did sting thy father's life."

File-Hamlet, Prince of Demark Act I Scene IV
One of my biggest questions is whether the Ghost is real.  I have yet to read what others think about that, but it seems possible that Claudius's guilt could have been found out by Hamlet's intuition, much like how some detectives would extract a confession.  I also went back and re-read o's post on Ophelia, which reconfirms my feeling that more could have been said about her plotline.  Even Horatio is given little description of his own, while there is everything to indicate he is Hamlet's only friend and very emotionally attached.  Finally, I wonder which side of Hamlet is realer - his former, confident, lovestruck youthfulness, or his bitter, misogynistic, self-destructive "madness."  I will probably spend some time reading this Wiki article...

It's a dark story, but well worth it if you want to read a giant of English literature and culture.  I recommend reading it all the way through before you think of giving up on Shakespeare.   4 out of 5 stars.

The Men Who Knew Too Much (and Not Enough)

You invariably have some expectations when watching a thriller.  Though I haven't seen a lot of this genre, it's similar enough to mystery that I expect something.  I expect to be scared, and I expect to care about someone in the film.  To a degree, all three of these accomplished that.  Some more than others.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Wrong Man trailer 02
The Wrong Man (1956).  
Christopher Emmanuel "Manny" Balestrero (Henry Fonda) gets arrested for a series of crimes he did not commit.  5/5 stars.

The Wrong Man was the most interesting and worthwhile.  I'm biased in that I'm drawn towards any film with Kafkaesque qualities.  Henry Fonda's character is essentially Josef K. from The Trial, albeit a more sympathetic and family-man type of guy.  The plot is based on a true story, in which circumstantial evidence and other issues render the suspect, Balestrero, practically guilty until proven innocent.

There is something inherently frightening about "due process" going horribly wrong, affecting not just Balestrero but his wife Rose and two sons.  Hitchcock focuses a good deal on Rose, who becomes completely overwhelmed by her husband's suffering.  It is vaguely reminiscent of the psychological effects of the lengthy court case in Bleak House.  I wish that the film had depicted the aftermath of her story, instead of printing it on the screen, but probably that was for dramatic effect.

I certainly recommend The Wrong Man, especially to Kafka fans.  It's suitable for most ages (young children might find it boring).

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  Dr. and Mrs. McKenna (Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day) find their vacation turning into a nightmare after they meet four mysterious fellow travelers in Morocco.  3/5 stars.

The theme of female psychological reaction reappears in The Man Who Knew Too Much - however, it is worth emphasizing that this story is purely fictional.  Stewart as Ben McKenna gives an excellent performance (his best, out of his films I've seen) as a middle-class dad who suddenly has to go up against world-class assassins.  Day also is well cast as Jo McKenna and sings her signature song "Que Sera, Sera."

That said, I didn't care for the way these characters were written.  They leave their son in the care of total strangers, probably a 50s-ism that is nonetheless disturbing.  There is also a scene in which Ben makes his wife take a sedative, because he predicts she will become hysterical.  He doesn't suggest she take the pill; he refuses to tell her critical information unless she takes it.  Again, not necessarily unusual for the era, but not appropriate for very young/undiscerning viewers, either.

The plot is reasonably good and pretty suspenseful.  It centers heavily on the theme that familiar places and people may not be as safe as they appear.  Recommended, with the above reservations.

The Woman in Black (1989).  A young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, goes on a business trip to a house haunted by a bitter, mourning-clad specter (Pauline Moran).  1/5 stars.

Here we find a film that is definitely not for young viewers.  Everyone else will be either bored or rather "unsettled" (yes, that's me).  I've watched more disturbing or gory stories, but this was filmed in such a way as to get your imagination going, in a way that was not particularly rewarding.  The ending was gratuitously upsetting and abrupt, which was more irritating than anything else.

Plotwise, the story had potential and your typical Victorian characters - the eccentric elderly lady, worldly-wise older man, adventurous young man, and angelic young wife.  It seemed very much like a spin-off of Dracula, without Van Helsing or any of the redeeming qualities of that classic.  We have a female character who is kept in the dark, with slightly more understandable reasons, which still didn't convince me as being necessary.  I am not sure how the story would have gone if she had been aware of what was going on.  In any case, Kidd's family is here just used as another part of the plot's trainwreck.  That, to me, shows poor writing and too much reliance on shock value, even for a thriller.

Let me know what you think - have you seen any of these films?  Have you read the book The Woman in Black or seen the newer film starring Daniel Radcliffe?  I'd be interested to know if that one is any better.

Disclaimer: I don't own the images in this post; they are used here only for illustrative/educational purposes (fair use). 

Hello, Fall!

Summer is taking the calendar seriously this year - an overstay of dry weather for the greater Seattle area.  (The dictionary tells me "overstay" is not a noun.  I protest.)  Meanwhile, I am hoping for rain this week and looking for fall color anywhere it dares show its face.

Book Haul

Not long ago we made a trip down to Oregon and on the way back stopped in Portland.  You cannot visit Portland without going to Powell's City of Books.  Like last year, I came well prepared, with wishlist and books to sell (sorry Jane Austen).

It was a weekday; there were plenty of people, but not so many as on a weekend.  We were in and out of there within an hour.

What I love about Powell's:
1)  It's a REAL bookstore.  Rooms and rooms of books up to the ceilings.  You could potentially get lost.  They still have those noisy little stools on wheels, and you actually need them (for tall bookshelves made out of wood).  Powell's is the real deal.
2)   You will tend to find multiple editions and copies of books.  You can contrast/compare prices to your frugal heart's content.  Prices for used books are very reasonable, even compared to thrift stores'.

This may all sound like marketing, but honestly, Powell's is one of my favorite stores.  :)

Polar exploration is a continuing phase of mine, hence In the Land of White Death by Valerian Albanov.  This was a little-known, Russian expedition to the Arctic, which took place before Shackleton's second journey to Antarctica (1914).  The Heart of the Antarctic is about Shackleton's first expedition south (as a leader), on the Nimrod.  I really enjoyed South and am interested in learning how the Nimrod fared and influenced the Endurance trip.  Together, these polar books cost $8.

I "splurged" on these two.  There was a cheaper version of Gatsby, but you can't beat the original cover art (and even so, it was less than list price).  Still need to read it...  Then there's Memories of the Future, with its own pretty awesome title and cover.   It has been described as, essentially, Soviet-era Kafka.  I may end up hating it, but it sounds very intriguing.  According to Wiki, the author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky shared Kafka's trait of remaining largely unpublished in his own lifetime.  Wiki also claims "major influences on his style were Robert Louis Stevenson, G. K. Chesterton, Edgar Allan Poe, Nikolai Gogol, E. T. A. Hoffmann, and H. G. Wells."  So far so excellent.

Other Things

By now I should have finished BK, except that I really, really can't stand Dmitri.

While in Oregon, I read a bit of Melville.  If you haven't read "Bartleby, the Scrivener," you really must.  I still don't know what to think of it.  Wiki (again) makes references to Kafka, and I would agree, except that it is an inverted Kafkaesque tale, where the mystery is in the character and not his surroundings (or is it...?).

Currently I'm perusing a brief history of numbers and math, called Numbers and Infinity.  Stylistically, it's as dry as it sounds, and some of the information is dated.  However, the topic itself is interesting, especially where there is overlap with history and philosophy.

Speaking of overlap, I'm thinking about posting film reviews on this blog.  I don't want to go very far off topic, but usually I watch classic movies and movies related to literature/history.  Most recently:
  • Kafka (1991)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • Shackleton (2002)
  • The Woman in Black (1989)
The Kafka one is especially due for a review.  Shackleton is also worth talking about, and the other two, both thrillers, might make a good compare/contrast review.  Which one sounds interesting to you?

In "real life" news - I graduated from uni last month and anticipate starting work soon.  It should give me more time to read and blog (no more homework on evenings/weekends!).  My 2014 challenges remain sadly neglected; at this point I will be happy to finish BK by the end of the year.  That's the plan, anyways.