The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevskii

Man is a wolf to man, according to The Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov. He has no inclination to be good, but is weak and rebellious. He cannot escape from the compulsion of logic. He is doomed to self-destruct through the assertion of his will. His quest for harmony is futile, unless he submits to a strictly ordered paradise on earth. The necessary forces of “miracle, mystery and authority” must be enforced in this “spiritual kingdom,” in the words of The Grand Inquisitor. Man does not want his freedom. He must be made good.

Zosima, however, believes the opposite. He trusts in the potential of man, who does not have to live according to logic, according to principles that deny him any choice or freedom. Nor does he have to be destroyed by freedom, allowing it to become an all-devouring passion. Rather, he must nurture the good and the beautiful that exists within him. The hope for man consists in his capacity to love, to engage in active love. And through this love, the heart and the mind can live together harmoniously.

Dostoevskii saw his final novel, The Brothers Karamazov, as a response to The Grand Inquisitor’s negation of God, his answer lying in man living like Zosima, according to Christian Orthodoxy. The book, therefore, is the author’s hope for, and commitment to, humanity: his belief in the good and beauty that he was sure not only existed within man but would lead to his salvation. And though I do not agree with Dostoevskii’s conclusion – that the answer to man’s suffering lies in the Christian faith – it is nevertheless my book of a lifetime due to the sheer scope, rigour and passion of the author’s endeavour.

The Karamazov nature – sensual and innocent, emotional and intellectual, loving and contemptible – is representative of the contradictory nature of the Russian man, the three brothers coming to symbolize these different natures, which wrestle with one another for dominance throughout the novel’s course. Through their suffering, the brothers all seek harmony, which consists in their various attempts to reconcile these conflicting personalities, though none of them will attain this harmony unless they live with Christ in their hearts.

Dostoevskii does not believe that the ideal of Christ can be fully realized in any of them, this an impossible ideal, contradicting man’s essential nature, in a state of struggle and imperfection on earth. Human life consists in the struggle of good and evil, and this conflict is essential not just incidental. But through this struggle, it is possible for man to gain redemption on earth, which one of the brothers, Aliosha, does finally gain. Another brother’s life, Ivan’s, conversely ends in suicide.

Ivan lives his life according to logic and reason alone, unable to incorporate Christ into his soul, and though I do not believe the absence of Christ leads to his ultimate demise, the absence of love surely does. Ivan sees the suffering of innocent children as too high a price to pay for the attainment of any higher ideal. In his words, “They say without it [suffering] man could not live on this earth, for he would not understand the difference between good and evil. Why should one understand that damned difference… if that’s the price to be paid? All the knowledge in the world is not worth the child’s tearful prayers to Dear Father God.” Ivan, convinced of the power and cogency of his argument, lives by reason alone, denying any love in his heart. Zosima, on the other hand, believes that, “There is no sin in the whole world that God would not forgive the truly penitent. It is altogether beyond any man to commit such a sin as would exceed God’s infinite love… If you repent, you must love. And if you love, you are of God… Love gains everything, redeems everything.”

Though I find it hard to accept Zosima’s claim, that all can be forgiven and find redemption, by the end of the novel I realize I would rather live with hope in my heart than despair, with feeling rather than logic, with love rather than hate. The wonder and importance of Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov lies here, in its capacity to inspire faith in those who live by reason alone, to turn cold hearts warm.

Why I wrote The Distinguished Assassin

As a postgraduate student of Russian literature at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies in 1995, I will never forget my first encounter with Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, a staggering work that powerfully, and methodically, documents the vast network of forced labour camps that existed throughout the former Soviet Union. What is most striking about this work, as much as the quality and scope of its historical record, however, is its searing honesty, its attempt to get to the heart of man. What makes him do the things he does, and how does he behave in the most adverse of circumstances?

Solzhenitsyn, like any great writer, is hunting for big game, unafraid to ask such big questions, and the conclusions he reaches, though often unsettling, normally point to some fundamental truth. And one such conclusion he reached struck me, to the extent that I could not shake it from my mind. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various stages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.”

This statement became the starting point for The Distinguished Assassin, the story of a good man, who, when placed in extraordinary circumstances, commits evil, and is then forced to confront what he has done: he has destroyed a piece of his own heart. And what better setting than Stalin’s Russia, a place that, like Nazi Germany, heightened this truth, forcing its citizens to live and think according to a single prescribed ideology: Soviet Communism. Aleksei Klebnikov, the novel’s protagonist, cannot abide by this creed, which he, like some many Russians living under Stalin, saw to be a fabrication, a lie. The people are not living and working in perfect Communist harmony, he can see this, but rather are living in abject poverty and dread. Aleksei initially tries to point to this great deception through his teaching post at Moscow State, and yet any form of criticism of the way things are is not tolerated. He is subsequently removed from his teaching post, wrenched from his home, separated from his wife and young daughter, interrogated and tortured, then convicted of anti-Soviet activity and sentenced to twenty-five years hard labour. Put on a transport to Kolyma, worked close to death and forced to endure the suicide of his mother, who can no longer tolerate the hypocrisy and oppression all around her, he is then informed that his wife has made her bed with his nemesis, Vladimir Primakov, the MVD agent responsible for his arrest, exile and imprisonment. Thrown in isolation, Aleksei is left to rot. He emerges full of anger and hate: the line in his heart has shifted, to use Solzhenitsyn’s metaphor. He escapes from the prison camp having killed two men, a prison and a guard, then returns to Moscow, where he is confronted by his wife’s alleged betrayal. She was with his enemy after all. Thus, when offered a mission by the notorious thief-in-law, Ivan Bessonov, whom he’d befriended while in Kolyma – to assassinate six leading Communists, and therefore take revenge on those who have fed, profited from and sustained the Stalinist system – he takes it.

The hero of my novel, therefore, provided me with the precious opportunity to explore Solzhenitsyn’s conviction that every one of us is “at various stages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being, at times close to being a devil, at times to sainthood.” Aleksei is this, close to both, and yet he battles, as we all do, to ensure that the good side prevails, that he ends on the right side of the line which separates good from evil, which cuts through his heart, as it does our own.

The Distinguished Assassin

What constitutes a really great work of fiction?

We have all done it, set down eagerly to read a new book and come away disappointed after the first few pages. It is not easy to create a gripping tale, but when an author gets it right, the result is priceless. This got me thinking about the characteristics that are actually found in a really great book, one that keeps you on the edge of your comfortable seat and reduces your ability to do anything else with your day.

I would argue that the mark of a great novel is that it entertains you from the first page. It grabs hold of your imagination and reels you in with every word, not letting go until the last sentence. As a writer, this is not something that you can easily learn how to do, but is rather a skill that comes naturally, like being able to read people’s reactions in partypoker and seeing through their bluffs. When a writer is able to grab your attention, you will get that type of rush that is often quite hard to find.

A great work of fiction should also be able to surprise you. You don’t want to be reading something that is predictable and boring, as it will lose its entertainment value. So a good few twists and turns that will keep readers interested is ideal.

Also important in a good page-turner is the ability to talk about it with friends. First of all, it should give you something to talk about, such as interesting new ideas or a controversial event. The more it makes you want to talk about it, the better it is at capturing your attention. It is the books that we share with others that have truly made it into our minds.

The State of Modern Fiction

What the fuck is going on with modern fiction?! I’m dying to read that wonderful book, which has a bloody big heart, yet I cannot find it. Gifted writers I greatly admire like William Boyd are now forced to churn out books like Restless, an all-too-familiar spy thriller that will be forgotten in no time, written for a pay check and no more. I can hear William’s agent whispering in his ear, “Look, just give me something I can get on Richard & Judy, okay. The friggin chimps in Brazzaville Beach aren’t cutting it. The British public are not interested in Central Africa and its primate inhabitants. Give them something more familiar, Will, something they can relate to. Yes, another World War II spy yarn, that will sell. The market will lap it up. This will be your bestseller!”

And so writers of the quality of Boyd are forced to pen boring, mediocre fare – yes, commercially-driven fiction conceived for the market first and the committed reader second – the kind of unremarkable books which those of us who believe in, and have a passion for, literature have bought and read a hundred times but never come close to finishing. Hell, we don’t even get a third of the way through them. And why? Because they are unremarkable, are not alternative, do not inspire. We know these books well. We pluck them off the shelves of Waterstone’s and WH Smith with great anticipation, our hearts beating excitedly. We dive into them as soon as we get home, settling ourselves on the settee and reading the first few pages in a kind of frenzy, longing to be immediately lost in their fictional worlds, consumed by them. And yet they do not grip us, do not move us, and soon, we are easily distracted from their pages and are looking for something else to do, to occupy us.

Who’s at fault here? The bookseller, the publisher, the agent, the writer or the reader. Well, all of them, to the extent that they are all slaves to the market. Yes, the relentless commodification of modern fiction is a ghastly thing! Why, because it encourages mediocrity, books becoming as bland as DIY furniture – made to measure, functional, conceived to do a particular job. Make you laugh, make you cry, bish bash bosh, job done. Now, books sit beside rows of tinned tuna in supermarkets, nothing more than commercial goods to be consumed, easily digestible and not too taxing. Idiotic sales statements adorn their covers, publishers reassuring would be readers that, yes, don’t worry, it’s more of the fucking same! And so, “Jo Nesbo is the new Stieg Larsson!” and “If you loved the Twilight series, then you’ll love The Immortals even more.”

A new book today, if it has a chance of being published, must not possess a whiff of the alternative, the innovative, the cult. A few possessing these awkward, unwanted traits do, however, slip through the moronic, money-grabbing filters of agents, publishers and booksellers, thank God, such as Michel Houellebecq’s Les Particules Elementaires or Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, but they are rare indeed. Hell, these two were published over a decade ago! Perhaps the logic of agents and publishers is the very same as tabloid editors and media moguls. The public want the lowest common denominator, therefore give them this and they will not ask for more.

The majority of writers comply, because they have to: they have children to feed, mortgages to pay. And so they write safe, producing work that imitates others, written within a clear genre, which their agent can flog easily to the publisher, and which the bookseller can then peddle to the lazy reader, who’ll consume it like a bag of popcorn, mindlessly and effortlessly. Others, however, think fuck ’em and self-publish. The agent or publisher might be too damn lazy and disaffected to do the work, but they are not. They believe in what they’ve written, however challenging or idiosyncratic it is, and they’re sure that even if the mainstream will not appreciate their work a small niche will, and greatly. Notable self-published authors include James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf. These three, James, Marcel and Virginia, cared little for the majority, the consensus. They wrote not for the market, but for the love of writing, the beauty and truth it contained not the moolah it made. The same can hardly be said for James Patterson and Tom Clancy!

Zembla – It’s Me, Eddie, by Eduard Limonov

Zembla, No. 9, Winter 2005

The obscure book I’d like to tell you about is Eduard Limonov’s autobiographical work, It’s me, Eddie (or, in Russian, Eto ia – Edichka). Limonov was the enfant terrible of Russian letters in the late ’70s and ’80s, an identity he openly welcomed. His purposeful, vigorous and flamboyant assault both on Mother Russia’s sacrosanct literary canon and her moral consensus makes even Michel Houellebecq seem rather tame, even – would you believe – conservative.

His rebellious attitude was unequivocal: ‘I think vicious thoughts about the whole of my loathsome native Russian literature, which has been largely responsible for my life. Dull green bastards, Chekhov languishing in boredom, his eternal students, people who don’t know how to get themselves going, who vegetate through this life, they lurk in these pages like diaphanous husks…’ And though I might be a great admirer of Chekhov, I must confess, it is this spirit of fiery, precocious rebellion – Limonov’s desire to shake things up – which so fascinated me when I first picked up It’s me, Eddie.

Too much literature, it seems, is driven by compromise, earnestness and decency, and sometimes a figure like Limonov is needed to produce a book which (in the words of Kafka) acts as ‘an ice-ax to break the sea frozen within us’. Eddie is at the point of despair, living in a filthy, cheap room in a squalid New York hotel and working as a busboy in The Hilton, where he has to serve ‘grey-haired and middle-aged’ bureacrats in suits ‘who had arrived from the provinces for a trade convention’ and who command more respect and authority than a man of words, feelings and reflections (like a poet such as himself). He also despairs with his wife Elena, a ‘tear-stained’ , ‘provincial’ and ‘typical Russian, throwing herself headlong into the very thick of life without reflection’ who has succumbed to the ‘marijuana, underworld, jargon, cocaine, the constant “fuckin’ mother” after every word, the bars, the sex accessories of New York and America’. Here is a man who wears his loneliness and deprivation on his sleeve – he is perhaps a typical Russian anti-hero in this repect – and is not afraid to tell his readers exactly how he feels. Thus, one minute he tells them he aspires to ‘love selflessly … extraordinarily, powerfully’; the next he tells them, ‘Fuck you, you cocksucking bastards! You can all go straight to hell!’

Love and hate can co-exist for Limonov, and his writing is a powerful act of self-affirmation. He must be admired for this, for battling against accepted standards of taste. His staunch nationalism is perhaps less admirable, but Limonov is not so much a destructive political figure as a constructively rebellious literary one.