Every so often I come across this quote attributed to C.S. Lewis: “You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.” While I can relate to the first part of this quote, I’ve spent most of my life avoiding the second part: long books. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoy reading, so much so that I studied English and creative writing in undergrad and grad school respectively. But I’m a relatively careful reader—it takes me a long time to finish a book.
This year, however, I’ve dipped into Russian literature. In the spring I listened to Anna Karenina on audiobook to avoid the heft of the hundreds of pages that I was sure would overwhelm me. Yet, since January, I’ve also been working my way through the 700+ pages that is The Brothers Karamazov, moving my over-ambitious finish date of May to December. Though I’m not totally over my fear of big books, what I’ve been learning from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky is that the length of the novels allows their characters more room to grow and allows me more time to get to know the characters. Instead of walking into the comparably tiny home of a poem (where I’ve spent the majority of my studies), I’ve entered an enormous mansion of a story. The result of this experience has been a greater attentiveness to the inner life that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky masterfully unfold in the lives of their characters. Below are a few ways in which these novels are also reshaping my inner world.
01. Both authors allow their characters spiritual and emotional depth.
In Anna Karenina, I remember initially being a bit annoyed at having to be privy to Levin’s every emotional twinge, but I eventually realized that these moments of irritation, despair, and bliss were necessary to accessing his interior world. In following a character like Levin, I realized I am very much like him. Because Tolstoy didn’t shy away from revealing Levin’s melancholic temperament in its best and worst moments, I could better enter into his realization that life will never be the ideal he longs for, and yet life still matters:
I shall go on in the same way, losing my temper with Ivan the coachman, falling into angry discussions, expressing my opinions tactlessly . . . but my life now, my whole life apart from anything that can happen to me, every minute of it is no more meaningless, as it was before, but it has the positive meaning of goodness, which I have the power to put into it.
In The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most moving (and famous) scenes thus far has been a conversation between Ivan Karamazov, a professed atheist, and his younger brother, Alyosha, who believes in God. Ivan brings up the suffering of children to explain why he finds the idea of God unbearable: a God who would let a child suffer or who would have mercy on someone who tortured a child, he reasons, cannot be believed in. Whether or not the reader herself believes in God, the conversation reveals the inner lives of both brothers. It causes Alyosha to think more deeply about human suffering and gives Ivan an outlet for the thoughts that trouble him.
These characters must struggle with and learn more deeply about themselves in relation to the world and others—and so must all of us. This a reminder I need in the midst of difficult work weeks, where life so easily becomes a battle to be externally “productive,” to get things done. Russian literature has reminded me that the more important work is the work we do within.
02. Characters are allowed to bear responsibility for their actions.
Sometimes, in modern literature and TV, characters’ choices are presented as affecting no one but the characters who make that decision (and only for one chapter or episode). There is no sense that the characters are tied to a community of people, or that their choices have any ripple effect. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, however, show their characters in relationships with others, a more realistic view.
In Anna Karenina, Anna and Vronsky’s decision to enter into an affair causes deep pain in the lives of many, starting with Kitty, a young woman in love with Vronsky, who is ultimately snubbed by him. Because of her attraction to Vronsky, she refuses Levin’s first marriage proposal (which crushes Levin) and then takes months to recover her spirits from being let down by Vronsky. In choosing Vronsky over her husband and child, Anna must also experience the painful reality of being forever separated from her child because her former friends and family believe she will be a bad influence on his life. But Anna and Vronsky’s choice also has devastating effects on them both. The affair ultimately leads Vronsky to bodily harm and Anna to an untimely death brought on by the fear that Vronsky no longer loves her and that she is forever separated from her child and friends who now shun her.
Similarly, readers see the pain reckless behavior causes in The Brothers Karamazov, when the eldest Karamazov brother, Dmitri, and his father both fall in love with the same woman. The jealousy that springs up between them leads to both men going to extremes—Dmitri breaks off his relationship with the woman he is betrothed to, and Dmitri’s father establishes an elaborate system to keep his son out of his house. And ultimately it leads to a tragic death.
It’s hard to read about what happens to Anna and Vronsky or to Dmitri and his father. Yet, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky’s refusal to shy away from the consequences of actions serves readers better than stories that artificially smooth things over. Stories like this remind me that I live in relationship with other people and that my moods and actions have similar consequences. After reading these stories, I want to pay better attention to how my choices are affecting those around me.
03. As a reader, I’m invited to savor these stories.
Admittedly, sometimes I don’t really feel like savoring The Brothers K these days, especially when detailed discussions go on for pages and paragraph breaks are sparse. I take comfort in the fact that both books were released in serial, meaning that people would have read the book in newspaper installments. Anna Karenina appeared in serial over the course of four years, and The Brothers K over two. As I continue to move through the worlds of these books, I think this was a great idea: it gave readers time to pause, think, and discuss the novels with others.
In modern times, I have the whole of the books at my fingertips, but I am giving myself permission to spend time with both the exciting and not-so-exciting parts of these novels. These books are long for a reason—they weave a cast of many characters into complex stories with even more complex consequences, both good and bad. In a society where we are encouraged to “get to the point” as rapidly as we can in our communications, Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov give us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in a world that we must get to know before we can understand “the point.”
Though it is true the Russian novels I’ve encountered (and am still encountering) this year have been a challenge, I’m slowly coming to understand why people still read these classics. The books not only examine actions, but motivations for actions, temperaments, and characters’ inner worlds—parts of the story that are often more submerged in real-life relationships. These books put forth big questions that are just as applicable in the twenty-first century as they were in the nineteenth. As I’m reading, I’m finding myself grappling with the problem of suffering and what it means to be truly happy. The answers are just as layered as the characters I’m getting to know. These books will continue to change me as I continue to encounter them.