Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Hugo, Dickens, and Dostoyevsky

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Hello! I hope you are all well. I have reviewed three great books for today. Beforehand, I tried to read other books (like Moby Dick and The Red and the Black) but I couldn’t get through them, even though I’m sure they are also great books. Meanwhile:

Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo

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“[Javert’s] brow was not visible; it disappeared beneath his hat: his eyes were not visible, since they were lost under his eyebrows: his chin was not visible, for it was plunged in his cravat: his hands were not visible; they were drawn up in his sleeves: and his cane was not visible; he carried it under his coat. But when the occasion presented itself, there was suddenly seen to emerge from all this shadow, as from an ambuscade, a narrow and angular forehead, a baleful glance, a threatening chin, enormous hands, and a monstrous cudgel.”

I saw the musical first, then read the book. The book is better.

It’s also super-long, but somehow it’s still interesting. It’s about the French Revolution and focuses on a criminal named Jean Valjean who strives for redemption while being pursued by an inspector named Javert. It’s also about the lovers, Marius and Cosette, a feisty kid named Gavroche, and many others. It’s also about sewers.

The sewers are a digression. There are a lot of digressions in Les Mis that try to develop the writer’s ideas about the problems in France and how to solve them.

If the book just consisted of digressions, it would have been boring. Fortunately, there’s also a fascinating story with well-written scenes and vivid characters. Hugo wasn’t afraid to explore the highs and the lows of life. That means the reader can become super-involved with the story to the point that he or she doesn’t mind the digressions as much. Maybe that was just my experience, but maybe it will be yours, too.

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

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“We went downstairs, one behind another. Near the bottom, somebody fell, and rolled down. Somebody else said it was Copperfield. I was angry at that false report, until, finding myself on my back in the passage, I began to think there might be some foundation for it. A very foggy night, with great rings round the lamps in the streets! There was an indistinct talk of its being wet. I considered it frosty [….] A man, sitting in a pigeon-hole-place, looked out of the fog, and took money from somebody, inquiring if I was one of the gentlemen paid for, and appearing rather doubtful (as I remember in the glimpse I had of him) whether to take the money for me or not. Shortly afterwards, we were very high up in a very hot theatre, looking down into a large pit, that seemed to me to smoke; the people with whom it was crammed were so indistinct.”

This book is filled with surprises.

For one, I read Dickens when I was younger and found him uninteresting, but maybe I was too young to enjoy it, because this book was surprisingly-good.

David Copperfield is about David Copperfield. That’s it (I’m kidding). David Copperfield is a boy in Victorian England who endures hardships and grows up to become a famous writer. The story starts out detailing Copperfield’s hard upbringing. Later on, the scope widens to include the numerous subplots he becomes involved with. It is here where he meets notorious characters like Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep.

Dickens tries to tie everything together at the end, and partially succeeds. A lot of the book is truly impactful due to plot twists that work out amazingly. Other parts (including the very end) are super-contrived due to plot twists that don’t work.

Parts of the book made me think Dickens was anticipating the advent of cinema. He included the literary equivalents of jump-cuts and time-lapses, for instance (like in the passage I quoted). This made the book feel surprisingly modern.

Another surprise to me is that, while Dickens is sometimes thought of as a depressing writer, I didn’t find that to be the case. Yes, he occasionally writes about depressing topics, but the story’s outlook on life is much more hopeful than depressing. It’s like the difference between a story that recounts tragedies and is suffused with a sentiment of, “Everything is awful” and a story that recounts tragedies but whose spirit is more, “All is not lost, there can still be hope.” Maybe that is just the way I see it. I’d love to hear your thoughts about this if you have read Dickens.

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Hypnotic synchronized juggling routine / Boing Boing

“It’s God that’s worrying me. That’s the only thing that’s worrying me. What if He doesn’t exist? What if Rakitin’s right—that it’s an idea made up by men? Then if He doesn’t exist, man is the chief of the earth, of the universe. Magnificent! Only how is he going to be good without God? That’s the question. I always come back to that. For whom is man going to love then? To whom will he be thankful? To whom will he sing the hymn? Rakitin laughs. Rakitin says that one can love humanity without God. Well, only a sniveling idiot can maintain that.”

I found this book somewhat interesting and somewhat boring.

The idea of the main plot is interesting. A guy named Dmitri Karamazov is accused of murdering his father. His two other brothers, Ivan and Alyosha, are horrified, and chaos ensues.

The rest of the book is somewhat boring. It’s filled with all sorts of philosophical talk that sometimes seem relevant to the characters and sometimes don’t. I found the relevant philosophizing to be interesting, but not the irrelevant philosophizing.

Overall, while Dostoyevsky seemed keen on developing every nuance of every thought, he seemed to do it at the expense of telling an engaging story. Unlike in the case of Les Mis, I didn’t find that the remainder of The Brothers Karamazov could make the digressions worthwhile. In Les Mis, you could take out the digressions and still have a good experience. In Dostoyevsky, if you take out the philosophizing, you’re not left with much that’s actually interesting (other than the idea of the plot).

In Les Mis, the plot is interesting and the characters are interesting, because they have consistent and understandable motivations. In The Brothers Karamazov, the characters are unfathomable and inconsistent. That’s perfectly alright in the emotionally-fraught scenes where the characters themselves probably don’t understand themselves. However, this also happens in less-tense scenes. For instance, a lot of this book consists of the youngest brother, Alyosha, desperately wanting to see one of his other brothers, only for him to conveniently forget about them a second later when Dostoyevsky wants to develop other characters instead. After a scene of developing the character of Mrs. So-and-So, Alyosha would suddenly remember, “Oh yes! I desperately need to visit my brother! I can’t believe I forgot that!”

So in the end, I found that Dostoyevsky’s book has big philosophical digressions and unfathomable characters.

I will say that I found one part of the book interesting. It’s a subplot that stars a bunch of kids who act consistently and also philosophize. The only difference is that their philosophizing is relevant to their characters, and doesn’t bog the story down. If the rest of the book could have been like that, I would have loved it.

As it is, it’s great that Dostoyevsky explored his ideas about the future of Russia, but I was left wondering why he did so in story-form when the story itself doesn’t seem exciting enough to make all the philosophy worth it. Then again, these are just my thoughts in the 21st century. I would imagine that this book would have been very exciting to read when it was originally published. Also, I would imagine that this book is still very exciting for people to read in the 21st century. Maybe you’ll find it more engaging than I did. If you don’t, there’s always the juggling group called the Flying Karamazov Brothers.

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Keep healthy, keep safe, and keep reading!