I don't do it very often. That is, I regularly scour through books I've read, walking with them again for a paragraph or a chapter, but re-reading from beginning to end? Not short stories or individual poems, but full-length books? It's a very occasional act, one that I think of with the same wistfulness that I think about traveling to Ghana or learning Arabic. "I should do that someday." I am serious, and I am fanciful. For me, re-reading something that has provoked me or culled my love is a wonderful idea that gets waylaid by my ominous knowledge that I will die before I read all the books I want to read. I have a long way to go, and switch-backing down a path I already passed stalls my journey, it feels. I have toyed with the idea of dedicating one of the twelve months to only re-read books, but there it remains: an idea.
But I'm making an exception right now. I read Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov my sophomore year of college, in a Russian literature class that my then-boyfriend and I took together. He had already been a lover of Tolstoy. In fact, one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me was to bring me to the great Russian writers. It changed my life. I'd been down with a few Tolstoy short stories before he and I were together, but there was one evening, in my lamplit dorm room in East Quad, when I sat on a floor and began reading the first chapter of Anna Karenina, and he looked down at me from the couch, where he was (notably) re-reading the same novel. He exclaimed: "Look at you! You're reading your first Tolstoy novel!" He was aglow: tender and thrilled for me. I felt the promise of what was coming next curling in my belly.
Thanks to him, I remember the beginning.
We read The Brothers Karamazov together, both for the first time, he at a quicker clip than I. (I remember trying to keep up, so that we could talk and talk and talk about what we'd read.) He finished when we were seated in the hushed reading room of the student union, and he felt compelled to run outside and scream into the sky a scream I heard, in muted fashion, as I continued to move through the final pages of the novel from my perch inside. I finished in the quiet of my own room, alone in my blankets. It was March. Another friend of ours became curious and soon joined us in the glow -- we got a postcard from him as he spent the summer in Peru, in which he told us of how he read the novel's last pages at Machu Picchu. "Tears, my friend," he wrote. "Tears."
It is an astonishing book. Like many people, I hesitate when asked what books are my favorite, but if I must, I name The Brothers Karamazov. It is a murder mystery with the simultaneous scope of the great existential and religious texts. It admits suffering and failure and error, and very much humor. It is a book of the sacred and profane, told to us by a mysterious, nearly-invisible, first-person narrator that understands how drama works as the verb that moves us between here and there. This is a book of the young and the old. And to think that my encounter with such a novel came in community! It was a shared experience, but right at the time in my life when the power of my choices and my possibilities were first plain to me. (See: the discussion of heroes here.) I wanted to re-think God. I wanted to believe in justice. I wanted to be a good writer. I wanted a great love. I wanted to live a good life. And then here comes The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky's last and greatest work, provoking me on every point. This was heady brew.
This is so. And yet, over the years, a reference to The Brothers Karamazov may slide by me. A character's name comes up blank. Somebody, a current reader, will enthusiastically raise a plot point, and I can only listen. I am forgetting things.
I'm making a pact, then, to read The Brothers Karamazov at least once every ten years. I'm stretching it a bit to clock in my current reading as being within a decade of the first, but I'm sticking with the round number all the same. The hope? I want to measure the book against my life. What resonates with me now, at 31, that I glanced over at age 20? I was only a year or two into my work in prisons when I read the novel; how will the law and incarceration scenes play to me now, after many more years? How will the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation from 2002 differ from the Andrew R. MacAndrew version from 1970 (which I first read)? What, really, is going on with the Grand Inquisitor, and Ivan kicking the devil under the table, and Zosima's body decaying? Is it as I remember it? What is changing? How is different? What is as it always has been? What does my memory, and mis-memory, reflect what I'm reaching for?
One bright measure: that friend who sent the postcard from Peru is re-reading the novel alongside me this season. We'll get to once again embed it into our conversations and connection -- but this time with a glass of whiskey that is now legal to us, and with about twelve years of friendship behind us. That in itself fills my heart.
- My interview with rock-star translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in The Millions.
- "Book Review: The Double"
- "White Nights and Dostoevsky's Underground Man"
- "The Russians Steal My Heart"
- "Oh, Those Intoxicating Russians"
- "Waiting with Baited Breath"*
* You know, it wasn't until I listed all these posts together here that I realized the sexual understones of the titles I tended to choose for them -- a tendency that has, it seemed, spanned years. That is hilarious.