Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1880. Read in Russian. Glossy's rating: 4/10.
This book is a soap opera interspersed with earnest discussions about morals and God. The amount of scandal, drama and heartbreak per hour of narrative in it is highly unrealistic. The characters overact wildly, scowling, blushing and crying hysterically at every opportunity. The style is plain and functional, the prose easy to follow but artless.
I didn't see anything in Dostoyevsky's moral and theological speculations that most readers wouldn't have thought of by themselves, but he obviously meant well with it all. I'm sure that lots of people have improved their behavior after reading this book, not because the author gave them any new intellectual reasons to be better men, but simply by following the example of his characters, the same way that kids who listen to gangster rap act like brats to their parents afterwards.
Alyosha, the protagonist, is almost saintly, and nearly everyone in the book, even the villains, treats him with affection. I don't think that's unrealistic. People despise weakness, but revere kindness. These two things are sometimes hard to tell apart even in one's own motivations, but some people really are kind, and even the most rotten souls feel bad about taking advantage of genuine kindness.
Why isn't everyone kind then? Well, obviously, humans have always competed with each other for limited resources. I've known some pretty unselfish people, but none as kind as Alyosha Karamazov.
Father Zosima, Alyosha's spiritual guide, talks at length here about his vision of an ideal society. I was surprised to learn that there were no masters, servants or kulaks in it. The latter were specifically condemned. Dostoyevsky hated socialists, atheists and revolutionaries, but apparently shared their ideal of a classless, non-exploitative society, which almost was achieved for a while in the USSR, after the original revolutionaries were shot and jailed in the late 1930s.
Speaking of social class, the language of the peasants and servants in this book sounds more rural and downscale to a modern Russian speaker's ear than any kind of Russian that exists today. That's to be expected. What's surprising is that even the language of the narrator and of the gentry sounds a bit rustic by modern standards. Not as bad as modern low-end accents, but slightly shifted in their direction from current proper Russian.
At one point Dmitry Karamazov, a retired officer of noble (i.e. landowning) class asks a provincial government official if he had ever stolen anything in his life "from someone else's pocket. I'm not talking about government funds, everyone steals that, and you of course too". Real theft, the kind that's abhorrent to Dmitry, is from real people.
Another observation: it's implied here that Odessa is in southern Russia. It's now one of the Ukraine's largest cities. Yet Siberia wasn't Russia to Dostoyevsky at all. He describes a man returning from there as coming back to Russia.
Through father Zosima Dostoyevsky predicted that the atheist revolutionaries would be defeated, though there's no sign here that he imagined that they would win at first.
At one point Zosima, a monk, says that the most important thing for a man to do is to refuse to lie to himself. It's ironic that this is exactly why I can't believe in God - my ancestors' version, Zosima's version or any other. I know that faith is good for individuals and society, but I can't convince myself that it's not a lie, that it's not a bunch of wishful thinking. The people who wrote the Genesis story about forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil could not have known any atheists, but atheism does act a lot like their fruit. One can't unknow its terrible truth, and one is forever less innocent for knowing it.