By ROBERT EARLE
After Dostoevsky died and interest in The Brothers Karamazov waned, my loquacious Uncle Boris kept the tale going for a few years. After all, he was Dostoevsky’s source in the first place. Then Boris passed away and left me his properties in the boring provincial town of Skotoprigonyevsk, which he loved so much in his conservative, snoopy way, and that is how I became involved in the Karamazov saga. I call it a saga, for that’s what it is: a spiral of stories, including this one, about Katerina Ivanovna Verkhovtsev’s embrace of suffering in her effort to save Ivan Karamazov; about Ivan’s suffering; and, to a certain extent, about my own, because I came to love them both at the expense of a life of my own devices.
Immediately after his brother Dmitri was convicted for killing their father, Ivan succumbed to what Dr. Herzenstube called “brain fever.” Katerina Ivanovna tried to take him in, but he insisted on moving back to his father’s ramshackle dwelling, which he kept locked up just as old Karamazov used to, and he would let someone in only after he had finished imagining the various ways in which he would be murdered by the devil at the door. What would be best—hanging, drowning, a bullet . . . what about burning? Ivan sobbed so loudly sometimes that he could be heard on the street. Perversely, these episodes appeared to signify the moments when he was most in possession of his faculties: He understood the calamity of his family’s demise and was capable of repeating entire speeches that had been made during Dmitri’s trial. Uncle Boris told me that, one day, he passed the shuttered Karamazov residence, and there was Ivan at the gate, tears running down his cheeks, asking if Boris had heard what the prosecutor Ippolit Kirillovich had said in denouncing Dmitri. Of course Boris had been at the trial and knew exactly what had been said . . . or almost exactly, for Ivan trapped him in things he misremembered, or sequences he reversed, or little details he omitted. (“Valery, I felt such terrible shame,” Boris told me. “Here I had told Dostoevsky what had happened, and now Ivan was correcting me, and all the time he wept—oh, my, how he wept!—and insisted it was all his fault, no one’s fault but his own.”)
Finally, Ivan splashed kerosene throughout his father’s house. Within minutes, all of Skotoprigonyevsk was illuminated by a pillar of flame. And there was Ivan, staring at this mesmerizing tongue of fire, apparently repeating the hissing gibberish of what it was saying. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon,” he muttered. “Let the merchants weep and mourn for her . . . Alas, alas, her judgment is come.” He wasn’t laughing, but he was pleased—in torment but also full of delight. “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” he asked (Christ’s plea on the cross: “Father, Father, why have you forsaken me?”). And more sayings like this, a dialogue of despair between Ivan’s tortured mind and his twisted tongue. During those moments, he could have been a delinquent boy. He could have been a scheming arsonist taking sensual satisfaction in carrying out the task he’d been paid to accomplish; or a general— a Bonaparte, an Alexander—enthralled by the totality of the carnage he had inflicted. The experience was a tremendous jolt to him, and its practical impact was severe.
Skotoprigonyevsk is mostly wood, so the bucket brigade rushed out to wet down the adjacent properties. Then the police arrested Ivan and put him in the cell where he had last seen Dmitri. This was a stiff shock. He seemed to think that he had been brought there prior to his execution. Ivan’s mind became a microscopic litany of inscrutable trivialities. His reaction was the opposite of Dostoevsky’s description of when he himself faced a firing squad. Ivan didn’t attempt to transcend earthly power by deferring to it. He had no faith; that was long gone. He screamed at his jailers like a wild monkey. He threatened to burn them, too. He threw himself against the door of his cell to the point of requiring restraints.
When Katerina Ivanovna heard of this (everyone heard of everything in Skotoprigonyevsk) and tried to provide Ivan with a lawyer, he turned his face to the wall. He had no idea how to accept his detention. When he was taken before the district attorney—the same Nikolai Parfenovich who had interrogated Dmitri about Karamazov père’s death—he began berating the attorney for yet another intrusion into his family’s life.
“I owned that property! I wanted it burned! I enjoyed burning it!”
“Yes, yes, but do you realize that you endangered half of Skotoprigonyevsk?” Nikolai Parfenovich asked him.
Unfortunately, Ippolit Kirillovich the prosecutor entered the interro-gation room just then. “Why would a superior being, an Übermensch like Ivan Karamazov, concern himself with the safety of everyone else in the community?” he sneered.
“Why would an Untermensch be delegated with the responsibility of preserving the safety of everyone else in the community?” Ivan retorted.
“Is this the insolence you’ll display at your trial?” Ippolit Kirillovich asked.
Nikolai Parfenovich intervened. “There may be no need for a trial.”
“Oh, try me, try me!” Ivan said. “Send me to a penal colony in Siberia like Dmitri!”
“Is that what you want?” Ippolit Kirillovich asked.
“It would be better than this! I am in a straitjacket. I am in a cell. I am in your power. There’s no need for a trial. I’m guilty. Shoot me.”
Nikolai Parfenovich and Ippolit Kirillovich left Ivan bound up and alone for the balance of the night. There he had dreams in which he was soaked in kerosene and lit on fire, but his screaming was ignored, mistaken for a ploy to gain his jailer’s sympathy. The next morning, he was taken before a judge. District Attorney Nikolai Parfenovich explained his reasoning: No other person or property had been damaged—even Grigory and Marfa’s little house at the end of the garden had been saved—but Ivan was a danger to himself and others and ought to be committed to the ward at the local hospital, which, like many such wards around Russia in keeping with Chekhov’s famous story, was known as #6.
My analysis is this: Mad? Yes, intermittently. But dangerous? No, that hardly was the case. Ivan was not dangerous. It would be more just to call the police, the courts, and the state-run hospital—with its crowded, filthy Ward #6—dangerous. He lay there in his straitjacket, making a weak but real effort to adapt his universal quality of mind to the physical humiliation of being socially cancelled. It crushed him to realize he’d long had the terms of discourse all wrong. Existence wasn’t a question of God, the Devil, Christ, and the Grand Inquisitor. It was more a question of his father, his legal antagonists, and the power they derived from the apparatus of repression that was ultimately the czar’s throne.
Don’t take this as a moment of blinding revelation, Saul on the road to Damascus. Ivan lay there accumulating change within himself for weeks and then months. Some were kind to him in Ward #6, most not. He was spat upon. He saw food that was meant for him eaten by others. He developed bedsores. His muscles atrophied. At times, he felt as though he were surrounded by the dancing images of his ridiculous father, too lacking in talent to be truly despicable. But if you know a place like Skotoprigonyevsk, you know that a greedy buffoon, by virtue of his money, would be more highly regarded than a philosopher like Ivan. The other inmates took the murdered father’s side.
Katerina Ivanovna made things worse when she visited him. Here was another prideful figure reappearing, determined to rescue Ivan from what the others in Ward #6 considered the inescapable condition of humankind. She insisted that his restraints—heavy canvas cuffs lashing his wrists and ankles to the four posts of his bed—be removed. She brought a private doctor, Kondratieff, not Herzenstube.
“Who has left this man untreated this way?” Kondratieff demanded.
One of the inmates, a fellow called Old Pitch for the dark cast of his face, shot back, “Who treats anyone in any other way?”
Kondratieff smoothed salve onto Ivan’s limbs. Then he turned Ivan over and examined the ghastly bedsores on his back and buttocks, aggravated by urine-soaked undergarments and bedbugs. Katerina Ivanovna couldn’t tolerate the sight and ran out of the building. Kondratieff cut away flaps of necrotic skin, which another inmate, the accountant Yeltsin, tried to pocket.
“Don’t touch that, you fool—it’s infected!” Kondratieff snapped.
Quickly, Yeltsin popped his gleanings into his mouth.
No sooner had Kondratieff left than a bulldog of a guard with short, powerful arms tied Ivan down again and the hospital’s physician, Chaevsky, appeared. Chaevsky declared that Kondratieff’s salves and bandages were the worst thing imaginable under the circumstances. Ivan told him to remove it all, then. Chaevsky complied and had him restrained facedown, so that his inflamed, weeping back could be exposed to the air. That night, his wounds were poked and prodded. Every little fingertip was an agony, delighting several of his fellow prisoners. Was he more like a spinet piano or an organ? Did you get a deeper sound out of him here or there? What was all that gasping and groaning about? Didn’t he know others were trying to sleep?
I find this bestiality difficult to confront. What matters more: his pain or that which caused his pain? For instance, there is the vileness of human nature. And that is compounded by the general hideousness of the Russian czarist state, something to which the average Russian actually clung. How dare Katerina Ivanovna appear with the intention of relieving Ivan’s suffering? The others wouldn’t have it.
The next day, he was all but dead. Katerina Ivanovna and Kondratieff were told they could not see him. So Katerina Ivanovna brought the lawyer Smolensky to the hospital. Smolensky succeed in cornering the jelly-eyed hospital administrator. The district attorney, Nikolai Parfenovich, was summoned. Everyone crowded in the administrator’s airless little office, with its drawn drapes and cigar stink. Dr. Chaevsky had tried to leave the grounds but was spotted and brought in, too. He declared all this an outrage.
“He is my patient! How dare Kondratieff treat him?”
“I am obliged by oath to treat the sick, and so are you, sir,” Dr. Kondratieff retorted.
“He’s not sick—he’s mad.”
“Are bedsores madness? Are shackle burns madness? His skin is yellow! What have you been feeding him?”
“I am not a cook!”
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” the administrator pleaded in his pitiful little voice, his eyes oozing this way and that. “He is here under court order as a danger to society. We do the best we can.”
“What danger can he be? He can hardly move!” Katerina Ivanovna said.
“Only because he’s shackled to his bed,” Dr. Chaevsky retorted.
“Unshackle him and bring him to me,” Katerina Ivanovna said. “I will show you he poses no danger.”
She wouldn’t give up. She ordered Smolensky to prepare a suit against the hospital and the court itself. Nikolai Parfenovich got his back up. Sue the court! How could anyone sue the court? But he feared her wealth, and he feared Smolensky, too, who was well known for undertaking any legal action that would bring him a handsome payment.
The upshot was that they all went to Ward #6, and there was no need to put Ivan to any test. Katerina Ivanovna clearly was right: How could a man who could not move, shackled or not, be violent? Within a few hours, Nikolai Parfenovich had petitioned the court to lift its detention order, the court had understood the urgency of Nikolai Parfenovich’s request, and Katerina Ivanovna brought Ivan to her house on Main Street, not far from Cath- edral Square.
Ivan’s physical convalescence was lengthy and uncertain. For quite some time, he did not regard it as important. He needed to eat but lacked interest. He needed to move but found it pointless. He remained a fairly young man with a basically sound constitution, however. That is what kept him alive.
He remarked to Katerina Ivanovna once, “It’s as though every pain and insult that went into me has to come back out. It’s almost like extracting arrows.”
She said, “A day will come when they’ll all be gone.”
He didn’t believe her, and she knew it, and he knew she knew it. They both were aware of the attractive-repulsive bond that united them. He had loved her, and she had loved him, yet she had betrayed Dmitri in court, leading to his conviction. No matter how clearly Ivan understood the compelling facticité of the letter she had produced, underscoring Dmitri’s intentions if not confirming his actions—I give you my word of honor, I will go to my father and smash his head in—he wondered: Why hadn’t she simply destroyed it?
“Doleo ergo sum,” he said. “I suffer, therefore I am.”
She knew that he also wanted her to suffer, which she certainly did. Appearances and gossip notwithstanding, she installed this infamous wretch in her home, instructed Smolensky to put his finances in order, and established, in effect, a luxurious hospital for one patient, with excellent food; a lovely garden; a chess table by the window in the study; a billiard table; a piano (which she played soothingly); and endless quantities of illustrated magazines and books that featured sedative articles about the animals of Africa, the civilizations of India and South America, and the exoticisms of the Near East, the Orient, and the peoples who dwelled in the snowy wastes of the Arctic Circle.
When a person has been broken as Ivan was broken, however, mending seems to take forever. Furthermore, the tension of gratitude, affection, resentment, and guilt that defined their relationship impeded his progress. Katerina Ivanovna loved him desperately, but it was a self-defeating kind of love, a love that incapacitated him (and her, too), a love that fell far short of amor vincit omnia and consolidated him in his solitude.
He had to have company, and so Katerina Ivanovna struck upon the idea of inviting young women to call upon her and, when the occasion presented itself, say hello to Ivan. Some speculated that these girls were a form of tortured penance on Katerina Ivanovna’s part. Imagine it this way: Ivan finds true love in one of these flowers and puts her in his lapel and strolls off, relieving Katerina Ivanovna of responsibility for having helped ruin his life. But, please—life is not so simple, nor was Katerina Ivanovna. She only was hoping that a girl of seventeen or eighteen might help draw Ivan out of himself. Skotoprigonyevsk isn’t all fat, warty babushkas. You certainly can find a girl there—if not the equal of the majestic and tragic Katerina Ivanovna, with her mound of red hair, wild blue eyes, sculptural neck, and wonderful carriage—who will enchant you with her pansy face and soft, white hands. Such a girl will make a man smile. That’s all Katerina Ivanovna wanted from them.
He didn’t smile, though—not for several years. He tended to keep his handsome, foxlike face scrunched up in a scowl, peer intently at whatever confronted him (girl, elephant, or Mayan ruins), and, when addressed, say something like, “I don’t know the answer to that question. I’m stumped.” He was stumped if you asked him the name of a tree or if the weather was likely to improve or what ingredients were in the soup. “Leeks? Scallions? Is that watercress? I don’t know. I’m stumped.”
He rested a lot. This consisted of being arranged comfortably (with plenty of lambswool blankets, his favorite Darjeeling tea, the illustrated books and magazines, and a view out the window into the garden—or actually sitting in the garden, by the fountain) and then idling within that comfort and never being exposed to the following categories of human disruption: journalists, monks, priests, lawyers, military officers, administrative officials, fathers who might talk about their sons, sons who might talk about their fathers, any variant of brothers (full, half, or step), and, of course, any writer vaguely suggestive of Dostoevsky, so celebrated for exploiting the Karamazov disaster.
For the first three years after the events recounted in Dostoevsky’s book, Ivan was subject to hallucinations, sweats, an inability to concentrate, and that persistent propensity to begin weeping without apparent cause. Of course, he was off-kilter long before the fire (about which he never spoke) and his sojourn in Ward #6. For instance, when his younger brother Alexei had communicated the fact that he planned to go to Siberia with Dmitri’s beloved Grushenka to join the prisoner in exile, Ivan demonstrated his twisted brilliance with a terse quote from Catullus: “Vale atque vale, frater.” That’s all he said.
Katerina Ivanovna didn’t know what the phrase meant but remembered it, and when we began to see one another, I explained, “Catullus was bidding adieu to the mute ashes of his dead brother. The phrase means ‘Hail and farewell, brother. Goodbye forever.’”
Katerina Ivanovna found evidence of Ivan’s immense erudition and not-quite-extinguished intelligence in this poignant phrase. Personally, I was taken with the fact that she carried the phrase around and wanted it explained. Then she really stopped me.
“What did Catullus’s brother die of?”
What an interesting question! For two thousand years, I’ll bet, no one ever asked it. Catullus was an emotional exhibitionist—that was his whole point. Who cared about the brother? The brother was dead! Ashes! But Katerina Ivanovna thought there might be a clue about Ivan’s malaise in his having cited Catullus at that critical moment of bidding adieu to his brother himself.
“No one has any idea,” I said. “He just died. All we have left of him is this phrase.”
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
I assured her that, yes, the phrase was beautiful. She needed that kind of friendship from me. She doubted her judgment and didn’t know whom to trust or what people thought of her, which may partially account for the fact that she allowed her pretty young geese to visit her—who would they be to criticize her for her multiple sins? Or perhaps she felt that their presence would whiten her a bit . . . Or possibly (I must add this) she hoped they would admire her sacrifices.
She was moral, you see, but also quite proud. Katerina Ivanovna became defined by the Karamazovs, I don’t dispute that, but she was who she was long before she ever met them. This is the problem with books (as my Uncle Boris might have said). One could write another one about Katerina Ivanovna up to age eighteen, just when Dostoevsky took her up, but no one has, and I won’t, either. I’ll limit myself to asking: Who doesn’t want to be appreciated for her virtues as well as her vices? Yes, she had been subjugated first by Dmitri and then by Ivan—love blinds, they say, and they are right—but she had what the English call “a good mind.” Perhaps, with that good mind, she was interested in me thinking well of her, or perhaps she thought well enough of my own “good mind” to wonder if I could help her with Ivan.
“Now that you’re here and settled in Boris’s house, Valery, what if you sat with Ivan and spoke English with him?”
“Does he speak English?” I asked, wary of this request. After all, I was twenty-one and only just testing the waters of Skotoprigonyevsk as a man, not a boy, wondering if it wouldn’t be better to live the retired life of Uncle Boris than that of my somewhat unnerving itinerant father, the exalted diplomat. So far, the jury remained out on that question, despite my good memories of the place. Twice I’d visited Uncle Boris as a boy and luxuriated in the dreaminess of Skotoprigonyevsk’s summers. I’d had my first serious encounters with spiders, trout, Pushkin, and Tolstoy there, the possibility that I was actually a Russian first presenting itself to me in their poetry and prose. And then there were the mushrooms glistening in drawn butter, mushrooms by themselves and in salads and something I adored beyond words: mushroom pies, the taupe meat of these exquisite fungi resting lightly on savory crusts beneath the slightest sprinkling of grated cheese and crumbled toast . . . followed by pickles and the cold jolt of vodka Uncle Boris made me drink when I was ten years old. “We won’t be able to get any beer into you,” he’d say, “but you’re just the right size for my vodka.” “His” vodka, precious product of “his” distillery that employed “his” potatoes and “his” special stream water and even “his” glass bottles—long-necked and faintly dimpled—was wonderful, the best. So, at the time, and during a visit a few years later, when I was twelve, Skotoprigonyevsk’s moldering buildings—with their perpetually weeping thatched roofs— and its twisting, trash-strewn streets and alleyways didn’t affect me negatively. From my bedroom in Boris’s house, I could look beyond it all to silvery- green seas of pine and fir forests. With the windows wide open, I could smell them, too. Their scent was as intoxicating as his vodka.
“He only speaks a little English, as far as I can tell,” Katerina Ivanovna said, “but he’s good with languages, and he doesn’t see many men, and you’re fluent. You could teach him. It might draw him out.”
I worried that learning a new language—and English is such an exercise in the inexplicable—would disorient Ivan still further, but not so. Not being a journalist, monk, brother, son (my father died before Uncle Boris, accounting, in part, for my flight to Skotoprigonyevsk, looking for a “home”), or any of those other problematic things, I entered Katerina Ivanovna’s pristine hospital— with its autumnal yellow walls, its carpeted tranquility, its marble-topped mahogany tables and spotless windows looking out upon the flagstone walkways of her immaculate garden—and there met her solitary patient, the beautifully dressed, handsome, apprehensive, sorrowful Ivan Karamazov.
He was a thin man with inquisitive eyebrows, smears of premature gray at his temples, and a fine, straight nose. Might he not have been Russian? He might not have been, just by his looks. Might he have been, instead of lonely and lost, a man of action and purpose? Despite his vagueness and lapses in attention, he somehow suggested such an inner self. I often ask about men, “What would he be if he were a weapon?” Ivan would have been a rapier. (If you’re curious as to how I envision myself: it’s as a bow and arrow. But I won’t go into that.)
From the start, I felt that Ivan and Katerina Ivanovna were beyond me, but I was a searcher at the time, too, and didn’t regard my inferiority as a bad thing. After all, who wants to believe that one defines the outer limits of what it is to be human? Someone must be smarter, more determined, shrewder, and even more flawed than oneself. If I woke up one fine day and saw Hamlet in the mirror, wouldn’t I shriek and stab myself, my further existence pointless? No doubt. Didn’t Hamlet effectively do the same? Was Ivan Hamlet’s equal? It’s a valid question. Then Katerina Ivanovna—she would excel Anna Karenina, in my opinion. Let’s put her on a plane with Antigone or Dido, a very unhappy place to be.
Although I was only twenty-one at the time, I was a bit like a book to him. I had lived with my father the ambassador in Paris for two years, Rome for three years, London for almost five, and Washington for precisely one, and Ivan seemed to enjoy paging through me and indulging in the freshness of a youth’s impressions “abroad.” Actually, I learned more about myself answering his questions than I had hitherto learned by living my life in what non-writers dubiously call “reality.”
Growing up abroad as the son of a diplomat, one can adapt to different countries with chameleon-like cowardice, or one can rigidly remain who one is, a kind of caricature of a culture, almost paralyzed by the endless humiliation inflicted by other boys—French, English, American—circling and poking fun. But there was no way to deny my origins. Like certain tunics and samovars, I am Russian. Like waist-deep snowfalls, I am Russian. And I was not celebrated for this fact. Who behaved worst toward me? The English, of course. I don’t know why there was never an English Dostoevsky who anatomized their cruelty. Probably because they never—not one of them—ever believed in God. Who has less grasp of the morality of existence, feels its mystical throb less power-fully, and bewails cosmic loneliness less miserably than the English? That’s no doubt why Shakespeare made Hamlet a Danish prince. If he’d been an Englishman, the play would have been a comedy of bed-swapping incest and delight.
Of course I didn’t go on this way with Ivan, partly because my personal opinions weren’t what he sought to know and partly because Katerina Ivanovna was often with us, and I hardly would have revealed to her what had been done to me abroad. Let them think I was what I appeared to be: a polite young man who had inherited substantial property in Skotoprigonyevsk, and let them judge me by what I had to offer Ivan that piqued Ivan’s interest, initially the English language.
He was incredibly quick picking it up, because he knew Latin, French, and German well. Most importantly, he had a biting need to find a way out of the nihilism into which his religious obsessions had led him. He wanted out of monastic Russia (his brother Alexei’s vocation), Slavic Russia (his father’s vocation), military Russia (his brother Dmitri’s vocation), and bureaucratic Russia—especially his personal bête noire, the courts!—which was the underpinning of that colossal beast: czarist Russia, Russia the self-subjugated, feudal wreck; Russia the autocratic, repressive ruin. He needed something new. That’s what was stirring in him. And young and innocent though I was (after all, nothing had happened in my life that approached what had happened in his), I wakened him.
Relatively early on, he confessed, “You see, I made a mistake. I ought never have come back to Skotoprigonyevsk. I ought never have taken the idea of my family seriously. I ought never have tried to encapsulate my experience in religious idealism or dissect it with logic. I kept thinking and thinking until I was my own worst enemy. I let this insidious, wretched way of being destroy me.”
Well, we will set aside the fact that I was hearing Ivan condemn exactly the domestic life I was considering for myself and keep the focus on him a moment longer: Despite the self-critical nature of his comment, Katerina was thrilled. The lightning-struck, blackened, and dead figure of Ivan Karamazov was sprouting new shoots! I remember her pressing her fragrant cheek (the smell of lilacs, always lilacs) against mine when we bid adieu that after-noon. “You have him expressing himself again!” she whispered into my ear, actually touching it with her lips and generating a sensation that almost buckled my knees.
Ah, but again, what thoughts he was expressing! In a few phrases, he was pushing all of Russia off the table, sweeping it away like so many teacups, water glasses, plates, and clattering silverware.
Shortly thereafter, he looked up from the chessboard and asked me, in a way that you ask things only when you have gotten rather good at a new language, which is to say briefly and to-the-point, “You say you know England best of all. What is it like?”
He didn’t want the florid drivel of geographers and historians—“England is an island twenty miles off the Eurasian continent, first settled in Paleolithic times but taking its name from Germanic tribes called Angles in the fifth or sixth century”—or stale news that it’s rainy and that the beer tastes as though someone else already has drunk it. No illustrated magazine palaver, either.
I therefore heard myself saying, “It’s more like what Friedrich Engels says than what most of the English would tell you. Here’s my opinion: England is like a once-beautiful tooth that has suffered extensive decay. Caries is the word—deep pockets of blackened, ragged corrosion. You see its blight in every city. The mills do that.” I quoted him some Blake:
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
“The people live badly?” Ivan asked.
“The ‘people’ are worn-out, ill-clothed, and badly housed. They choke on fog-trapped coal dust and the gaseous emissions of furnaces. Except for their filth, they are white-skinned. Engels puts this one way, Dickens another.”
“By ‘Engels,’ you mean Engels the German?”
“Yes, Engels the German.”
My father, then accredited to the Court of St. James’s, had taken pity on me at school and periodically invited me to accompany him on his rounds. He didn’t leave word at the embassy where we were going when we went to see Engels (a total of five times, each of which I related to a fascinated Ivan and a somewhat disconcerted Katerina Ivanovna), and we walked, so that not even the coachman could spill the beans. The immensely handsome and prepossessing Friedrich Engels, friend of the downtrodden, wasn’t poor, and he wasn’t shy. He foresaw, along with Marx, an end to the tyranny of the capitalist classes. Gradually, this historical endpoint in exploitation would usher in a true era of democracy wherein the workers would own their means of production and their products the same way farmers own their fields and their cabbages. Of course, anachronistic Russia was not where this would happen, but England and Germany and, no doubt, France.
“You say Russia absolutely cannot be a place where things would change?” my father asked Engels, his hands clasped over his gold-buttoned gray vest as he leaned back on the rear legs of his chair.
“Heavens, no,” Engels said. “We pinpoint the fulcrum of revolt on the crucial mass of workers, and you’re too backward and scattered. But have no fear, Russia is a crown that floats upon an invisible body. What’s real there isn’t ‘Russia’ at all. It’s rancid autocratic imperialism. The only hope is that the historic peasant communes—your mir—slowly evolve into self-governing satellites of the decaying metropole.”
“You have spent time in Russia?”
Engels boomed with laughter. “Dreadfully sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but I wouldn’t bother.”
Ivan enjoyed hearing me recall this sort of exchange, even though I personally felt a degree of retrospective apprehension: Should my father have had such conversations? The man fascinated me, but I didn’t know if I could match his exploits and worried that I was being surreptitiously educated in how to exceed them, which could mean trouble. I needed a mother to boost my confidence. My mother died when I was two, however.
“This is what I should examine!” Ivan exclaimed. “Political economy. Socialism. Revolution. I studied the natural sciences in university, and I ought to examine their relations to the human sciences.”
Katerina Ivanovna cautiously suggested, “I would rather you went back to grammar, syntax, and etymologies.”
Although Ivan knew he was a fit subject for being patronized, this irked him. They had a spat, something of a competition as to who could lay deepest claim to feeling aggrieved by the cultural muck in which they had long lived. “Perhaps that’s because you’ve never heard of Marx and Engels?”
“Of course I’ve heard of Marx and Engels!” Katerina Ivanovna protested. “And Herzen and Bakunin—anarchists . . . assassins! They killed the czar!” She disliked the czar, but blowing him up with a bomb? Wheeling toward me, she demanded, “Is that what Engels wanted?”
I was glad I didn’t have to say yes. Quite frequently, I had to remind myself that Ivan and Katerina actually knew quite a bit about what the ghost of Hamlet’s father called “murder most foul.” They seemed to be well-educated, cultured people who had nothing to do with such acts, but they weren’t. Katerina Ivanovna, no less than Ivan, had explored the pits of human depravity: Ivan’s father had ended up with his head bashed in, and she knew all about it.
“No, Engels saw all this evolving in a more or less natural way,” I said. “Hegel plus Darwin—that’s how my father put it. And the older Engels got, the more scientific and less sanguine.”
“No one can be ‘scientific’ about the future,” Katerina Ivanovna said sharply.
I liked being scolded by her and the way she wouldn’t give in to Dostoevsky’s description of her as an “institute girl,” one who knew about manners and emotions, not history and facts. She was strong; she was enduring; she was full of remorse and sought redemption, real redemption. And even though she directed these emotions toward Ivan, she at least let me have a look at them. You don’t have to guess: Part of my initial attraction to her house was the pretty girls who called there. It wasn’t long, however, before Katerina Ivanovna surpassed them in my heart. Sacrifice and passion have always gone hand-in-hand with me. That’s why I found her so moving, and her censure didn’t stop me. To the contrary, it spurred me on. Furthermore, I could see that Ivan, whom I also idolized, was far more interested in what I was saying about Engels than in anything I’d ever said to him before.
“‘Don’t take it from me,’ Engels would say to my father. ‘Think about Robert Owen insisting mankind is the product of his environment: change the environment and you change the man!’ ‘But what you and Owen are saying puts the full burden of human existence on man’s reason and fallibility,’ my father objected. ‘My dear ambassador, it’s always been that way,’ Engels returned, wiping his large nose with an enormous blue handkerchief, ‘but only recently have we begun to notice. What’s being built faster in this country, steel mills or Cambridge University? Steel mills! And what are the privileged graduates of Cambridge University intent on building? More steel mills! For every new church erected in this country, there are one hundred and fifteen new industrial installations. Tell your czar that! Tell him the same is happening in Germany! Tell him men here look across their lathes at other men making the world; they don’t look up at charlatans in pulpits giving the credit to God! Tell them the English tore their king out by the roots and planted a parliament in its place, but now they’re going to put their spades into the parliament and slice off its shallow roots and take control themselves. Oh, sleepy, sleepy Russia, wake up!’”
The effect of such remarks on Ivan was electric. He wanted to know more about capitalism, materialism, communism, and the bits and pieces I’d picked up from Engels teasing my father that Russia was almost blessed to be so misplaced in the modern world, a watch that told no time, a waterwheel that hurled no water. Ivan’s mind was no such watch or waterwheel. It had begun to spin again and recover the force of what it had always been: a dynamo, powerful and energetic.
This frightened Katerina Ivanovna, and, yes, it frightened me, too. My father was just playing, if you will, but Engels wasn’t, and I always knew that. He didn’t call for war per se, but he foresaw an upheaval that would transform the world, and this prospect may well have been what drove me into imagining myself in early retirement in Skotoprigonyevsk. Yet, at the same time, I derived satisfaction from inveigling myself into Katerina Ivanovna’s difficult connection with Ivan. I found myself bound up in them and had to be with them every afternoon. Whatever I was on the verge of becoming depended on them, although I couldn’t entertain the fantasy that increasingly obsessed me—possessing Katerina Ivanovna, who didn’t want me—unless I simultaneously advanced the recovery of the man she did want but could not have. By this point, Ivan was past resenting her betrayal of Dmitri, you see, but he also was past the sorry drama when they, Katerina Ivanovna and Ivan, fell deeply in love. . . . He couldn’t be pulled back. . . . He had to be pushed forward.
I shall put it this way: Once upon a time, Ivan Karamazov’s mental heavens took the form of an inverted teacup, and that teacup was God. Everything that occurred began and ended and went around and around, the whole porridge of existence, or, as it’s phrased in the Bible, rather sententiously, the alpha and omega—all God! But then, Ivan (among others throughout the 19th century, of course) raised a little hammer and gave God’s teacup a tap, and the teacup shattered and fell out of the sky, and so the old heavens were gone, and the new heavens were way, way out there, and no one knew what they were, really. What was that hammer, you ask? It’s simple. You can find it right there in Dostoevsky’s book: The hammer was Ivan’s assertion that God cannot be just, or justified, if innocent children are made to suffer. Knowing this to be true, one’s dialogue with God is over, kaput, finis, and God becomes more like what he’s always been (if he’s been anything), i.e., the Devil, Satan, a fiend, a torturer, a kind of Herod the Great, who was said to want all the children killed to retain his crown without them. And that drove Ivan mad. Yet now, as he slowly mended, he began to draw the conclusion that because God had become the Devil, something else would have to take His place, and that was Man himself, just as Engels, Marx, Owen, and many others said, offering my father and me—and through us, Ivan—a teacup of human history full of blood but potentially full of brains, willpower, and self-responsibility.
So we formed, as the French put it, a ménage à trois. Not the three-in-a-bed kind—the three-in-a-single-spirit kind, pleasurably attached to one another through love, sympathy, ambition, and need. I found this sensation exquisite, while ruefully recognizing that it was ruining my fantasy of living quietly in the bosom of the Motherland, a Russian among Russians, protected from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” for once and for all.
Ivan looked at me one afternoon (when we were alone) and said, “I like what you tell me about England and Engels because I find it so humiliating, given where I’ve come from.” He was speaking about his lamentable father and the source of the old man’s power: The man had no shame. “Of course I wished him dead! I didn’t want him to ever have existed. I didn’t want him to have seduced my mother. I didn’t want to think she’d let him have her. I didn’t want to think I’d sprung from his filthy loins. How dare he quote Schiller at me? How dare he taunt and torment Dmitri? What was he but the force that made Alexei become his loving, self-denying opposite? He deserved to be dead! More than that, he deserved never to have lived!”
If Ivan had told the court this, what would have been Dmitri’s fate? Could it have made the court say, “Well, all right, the old bastard ought to have his head bashed in. Best thing for him. Divvy up his property and move on”?
But you can’t derive justice from the commonsensical truth, can you?
“Did you hate your father?” Ivan asked me.
I said I didn’t.
He wanted to know why not.
I said, “I liked the way he poked into the illusions and deceptions of things even if he only wanted to know about them, not really change them, which certainly was his failing.”
“Meaning that he could walk away from Engels and believe that the Russia he represented as ambassador was beneath contempt and yet sleep soundly at night?”
“I think he could sleep soundly at night precisely because he had pushed through to such thoughts.”
“But wasn’t he making you a misfit for the future, exposing you to such a critique?”
He had me pinned, and it hurt. All I could do was downplay his insight, commenting that when Czar Alexander II was blown up, I took the news as though it were a report from a Punch and Judy show. It was an adolescent thing to say, but I’d been an adolescent at the time.
“I tell you again: I haven’t given politics enough consideration,” Ivan said. “I ought to turn my mind to it.” He sat in his solitary, sumptuous hospital and brooded about such things. There were times when he would try to lose himself in the leaves of a larch or he would count the number of sips it took him to finish a cup of tea. Of late, he’d been making lists of Latin cognates in English—not writing them down, just holding them in his mind—but then came this consideration of what he called “politics.” At last he told me I was wrong about the czar and Punch and Judy. And he felt he had to remonstrate with me about the effect I suggested my father had had on me. “The way you put it renders you more of a cynic, which is—to revert to the Greek— more of a dog than a man. A barking, yapping dog. You owe yourself more than that, my friend.”
Katerina Ivanovna came in and joined the conversation. “That’s a harsh thing to say, Ivan. I think you should apologize.”
“I’m just so bored,” Ivan said. He looked at her searchingly, as if asking her for yet more assistance. (I thought to myself, You idiot, she’s already enslaved herself for you. What more do you want?) “Why don’t we leave this place?”
“Ivan, you mustn’t excite yourself,” Katrina Ivanovna cautioned him.
Would he pay later if he did excite himself—I mean later in the night—beset by demons that wracked his soul? He clearly didn’t care. We seemed
to have reached some kind of significant afternoon when the silence settled all around us, and we were disposed to prick it and deflate it and let the noise in, suffering the growls and shrieks and catcalls of the painful past.
I made as if to leave, though I didn’t want to. I’d rather Ivan got up and went. I’d rather find myself in Katerina Ivanovna’s drawing room, alone with her and her ruffled white blouse and black skirt that draped within a centimeter of the floor, concealing her fine black shoes and whatever her legs looked like.
“No, stay, Valery,” Katerina Ivanovna urged me. “You are a part of us now.”
For me, this was a painfully exhilarating statement. I took it to mean we were a moral complicity no surgeon could dissect.
Ivan bypassed it, however, and began to give a speech focused on himself. Some sense of life had been restored to him, and he was drawing on it. “I realize why you worry about me, but I can’t stay here. I’m a laughingstock in all of Russia. What could I do to change that? Rewrite Dostoevsky? Say it was all lies, fiction? It wasn’t. But I tell you both: I want to do something. I know I’ll always be running away, but why can’t I do something while I’m running?”
The plaintiveness of this speech wasn’t, I thought, especially encouraging. I heard more self-pity than passion. Did Ivan Karamazov have it in him to do something?
“Run where?” Katerina asked Ivan, softly.
“Berlin, I should think,” Ivan said, speaking the way a man would speak if the man, who had been frozen for a decade, suddenly thawed. “Engels was right: They’re advanced in Germany intellectually and industrially. I could learn a great deal there. In fact, I already have learned a great deal.” He gestured toward the books and journals he kept on the desk by the window. These weren’t society entertainments. He’d given those up a long time ago. Along with Marx and Engels, he had Belinsky and Bakunin and Hegel and Proudhon. I’d seen this stuff accumulating: the scriptures of the hoary, bewhiskered socioeconomic theorists of the nineteenth century. He was reading in English, too: J. S. Mill, Jeremy Bentham, and Adam Smith. Often you don’t like to think of another man working so hard; the effect is to make you feel left behind. But I couldn’t have it both ways: want there to be someone who exceeded me, like Ivan or Hamlet, and want, at the same time, to salt his tail. Ivan squared me up with a look that made me queasy. “Do you know of a man named Wilhelm Liebknecht?”
I said I did not.
“He’s a German I should like to meet, for instance. Leading socialist. Look,” he continued with a flip of the hand, “we erase God, and finally we think about what there really is to think about: science and human affairs, and in human affairs, won’t Germany, so far ahead of us, play the tune to which we will all dance, whether we know the steps or not?”
Katerina Ivanovna had been observing him in his labors at the desk where he would deposit himself at ten in the morning and remain until lunch at two. She’d been asking herself if this could be the intimation of brain fever again . . . and asking me, too. I had said his brain was dry enough to be tinder, and his efforts were hot enough to set it on flames. She didn’t like that answer at all.
Now she asked Ivan, “Do you want to study in Germany?”
He dismissed the idea. “No, I’m too old for that. Think, not study. Act, find a role, become Ivan Karamazov instead of having been Ivan Karamazov trapped in someone else’s book.”
Katerina Ivanovna realized, from his tone of voice, that she couldn’t stop him. She turned to me. “Valery, would you come with us? You will, won’t you? You can’t stay here. How could you? It isn’t enough for you.”
Her words pierced me; evidently she’d reached the same conclusion about me as Ivan had reached about himself. I had to move on. How could I plead that I was better suited to settling into Skotoprigonyevsk and marrying one of her pansy-faced princesses?
“To Berlin?” I said stupidly, agonized by the thought that I was in the dark beyond the footlights and would always be there, staring up at Ivan and Katerina commanding the heights of the stage.
“Well, it would have to be Berlin, wouldn’t it?” Ivan asked, ruling Russia out just the way Engels had ruled it out. “We couldn’t take on anything less if we hope to make this work.”
Ah, but nothing ever worked, I thought, though I found myself unable to say so. I’d fallen into a pit, the maw of their consuming love.
Katerina leaned across the tea table to take my hand. It was as though she were pulling me along, but in truth she seemed to be thinking and feeling exactly what I was thinking and feeling. That’s what sealed my fate. I couldn’t possibly let her go off to Germany alone with Ivan and face the prospect of failure: finding no redemption, none; life a confusing nothingness, an embarrassment of uncertainty about how you translated a pile of books into relations and actions and consequences.
“We must do this in order to finish the job of putting ourselves back together,” she said to me, referring, more overtly than ever before, to the rationale for our triangular relationship. “What if we called it a holiday?”
“I don’t want it to be a holiday,” Ivan interjected.
“But to lighten the burden,” she said.
“The burden of what?” he asked.
“Ivan, how can you ask that?” she scolded him, a terrible realism in her voice, warning him not to disrupt the play, not to force Punch and Judy to come out and show themselves for who they really were.
He didn’t like this, but he saw that it was better not to remonstrate any further. Katerina Ivanovna needed a soothing code word for her commitment, a word in which there was no suffering. To have the courage to risk discovering that we were beyond redemption, all three of us, but especially Ivan, we must pretend that as this play came to an end, another would begin.
Robert Earle is the author of two published novels, The Man Clothed in Linen and The Way Home, a novella, Thank you, No. We’re Well, dozens of short stories, a nonfiction book about a year he spent in Iraq, Nights in the Pink Motel, and a nonfiction book about North American interdependence, Identities in North America.