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Forget COVID, it might be Dostoyevsky that pushes me over the edge

I’ve got to admit that I’m struggling. I know, I know – as Victoria enters its gazillionth week of lockdown I’m not the only one to feel overwhelmed. But my struggles are not due to the pressures of juggling work and home schooling, the absence of travel or the unavailability of toilet paper.

No, the source of my struggle is The Brothers Karamazov.

I decided to pick up Dostoyevsky’s classic after having finished some easy-reads and realising I was ready for a challenge. I remembered hearing that The Brothers Karamazov was Hillary Clinton’s favourite book and I enthusiastically put my faith in her literary tastes. A few pages in, I realised that while the book might be perfect for someone of Hillary’s intelligence, for a mere mortal is a bit of a nightmare.

Unfortunately, I am extremely reluctant to leave a book unfinished and so here I am, at page 547, only halfway through the bewildering tome. I’m bored, confused and struggling to remember the any names, of which each character seems to have multiple.

Unsure of whether to persevere, I put the question to Twitter – should I admit defeat?

Horrifyingly, the consensus was clear that I should continue. Apparently, The Brothers Karamazov is a lot of other people’s favourite book – not just those who had reached the intellectual heights of Hillary. It was hard to ignore the enthusiasm with which people wrote about it.

It made me think of the few books I have been unable to finish, and which seem to be universally adored. There was Jasper Jones, which I just couldn’t continue. Afterwards, I heard that it was aimed at Young Adults so perhaps I approached it with the wrong mindset (although there have been plenty of YA books I have loved).

I struggled with Alexis Wright’s award-winning Carpentaria and still regret that I gave up on it.

While I finished James Joyce’s Ulysses, to this day I’ve got no idea what it was about and I endured Atlas Shrugged out of pure spite – I got some joy out of how much I resented Ayn Rand’s outlook on life. Let’s call it a hate read.

Somehow, I find it much easier to not finish a book that I’m listening to via audiobook. I’ve only been using audiobooks for about a year, and I’ve already left a trail of rejected books behind me, which I have dumped after just a few minutes. They have included The Lesser Bohemians (too hard to understand), The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart (too whimsical) and …

Perhaps it’s easier to leave a book unfinished when it does not have a physical face staring back in criticism, and rejection.

Throughout The Brothers Karamazov, I’ve been continuing to fool myself that I’ll eventually get swept away with the story and start to enjoy it. Perhaps the language will click, and the characters will resonate … But if I’m honest, I know that books I have loved have gripped me almost immediately. By the second page of Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip, I was hooked. In The Choke, I was captivated by the landscape along the Murray that Sofie Laguna evoked by the first chapter. The language of Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice might have required a little adjustment in my thinking, but all it took was a few pages and the story carried me along.

But perhaps it’s not the worst thing in the world to fail to finish a book (or should that be, to successfully leave a book unfinished?).

Many people are quite happy to ditch a book they’re not that into. In a Goodreads list of unfinished books, some interesting titles appeared at or near the top.

JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy took the first spot, followed by Eat, Pray, Love, 50 Shades of Grey and The Book Thief. Some books I have thoroughly enjoyed were on the list, including Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (who on earth could leave this one without finding out what happened?) and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Many of the unfinished books were particularly long, including Anna Karenina, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Wolf Hall and The Time Traveler’s Wife.

But also on the list were the comparatively brief The Life of Pi, The Girl on the Train and The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

As much as such a list should make me feel better about leaving a book I’m struggling with unfinished, I’m going to continue with The Brothers Karamazov. It might be that I’ve come too far, or perhaps I’m trying to prove that while I might struggle to motivate myself to wear anything but hoodies, tracksuit pants and slippers for most of the year, I retain some level of motivation. Homeschooling might have defeated me, and I was never even going to try to bake sourdough bread, but I will finish The Brothers Karamazov.

This Post Has One Comment
  1. I’ve never read the Brother’s K but I have read Oliver Ready’s translation of Crime and Punishment and was so captivated that I felt a kind of grief when I finished reading it. With any Russian literature, it might be helpful to find a list of character names since there are at least 3 for each.
    I also wonder if it was the translation that was chosen that is partly to blame for you experience so far…

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