The Joy Menu #23: Knowability
Your author contemplates a literary patrimony packed into the pages of Dostoevsky’s longest novel (his father’s favorite).
Once a decade, my father read Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. He also read Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and others. But The Brothers Karamazov held a special place in his bibliophile heart.
In fact, he was reading the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation for the second (or perhaps third) time when the tumor in his brain—or the swelling around it—cancelled whatever neural pathway allowed him to see, understand, and process the written word.
Because I visited him every month or six weeks—flying from Vegas to Cleveland to stay on the guestroom pullout couch, eat ice cream and watch BritBox period pieces and detective series with him and my mother, and to drive with them the hour each way to see my niece and nephew and watch my parents’ addition being built alongside my sister and her husband's house in the countryside—I’d seen him reading it a number of times.
Wherever he lived, he had a comfortable chair with a pile of books next to it. Sometimes that pile went halfway up toward the ceiling. It was never short; never less than a dozen to-be-read or in-progress books.
In the Ohio flat, the pile was small: the Dostoevsky, a book about dying, and a friend’s PhD dissertation (if he knew you and you wrote a dissertation, he read it).
And then one visit, the pile was gone.
“Did you finish The Brothers Karamazov, dad?” I asked him when I noticed.
He was sitting on his usual chair, but not reading. Just sitting, staring into the middle distance.
“Not this time, no,” he said, and shrugged—not exactly sad; resigned, maybe. Like someone who wanted Coke but ended up with Pepsi.
“How come?” I asked.
“Doesn’t work anymore. The words aren’t there—just a jumble instead,” he explained.
My mother, knitting on the couch next to us, added some more context. How he’d looked up from his book one morning with a startled laugh, how sudden it had been, how impenetrable.
“You're sure it’s not just a bad translation?” I said, hoping to neutralize the hard pit that had formed in my stomach. We all laughed.
He explained, or tried to explain, what it felt like to not be able to process language. To proceed with the familiar, natural task, and not see it anymore, to have a brain—the same old brain—that didn’t know how to make sense of written language any longer.
I heard him. Hugged him. We made jokes. We tried to continue laughing.
After a time, I asked: “Can I read it?”
He stood and retrieved the book from the bookshelf above the TV, handing it to me.
He had made it to page 246. I kept the bookmark there.
When I was in college, I wrote one excellent poem (I wrote hundreds, but this was the one I was most proud of—am proud of even now). It depicts my father’s essence as I saw it in 2002. It depicts my father’s essence as I still choose to see it today:
My father sits in his briefs,
a lion on the creased leather chair,
swallowing air in wide yawns,
a thick beard pressed against his chest;
he grumbles over the hum of the TV,
strokes the sleeping dog's head.
My father's got the family feet, long and flat,
and they are spread out today
like a family crest
while his hairy stomach moves up
and then down.
Content with the rhythm
he sits, wanting only this.
To say I became a writer because of my father is to simplify a complicated combination of nature, nurture, taste, talent, and truth. But to say I became a writer in study of my father—his being, his accent, his movements, his tastes; his innate knowability, his asbolute unknowability—is an essential fact.
Today, I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov. Surprisingly, it’s a pleasant novel: chatty, colloquial, sweet. At least in the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation (it wasn’t the translation, after all).
It’s also a novel about fatherhood, and about one flawed father’s relationship to his three very different sons. Not anything like the way I’ve been writing about my own father, but not without some echoes of those themes, confusions, and contradictions that light up any patrimonial narrative (the inexplicable love, the enduring connection, the fundamental strangeness of a relationship based on something as flimsy, and foundational, as birth).
I don’t have to wonder why my father read this book so often. He wasn’t a self-conscious or analytical reader. He enjoyed it, and I can just enjoy it the way he did—page after strange and wonderful page.
Perhaps that’s the way I can continue to enjoy him—my memories of the man, my recordings of his voice, the letters I have in his hand, the wonderings I carry about things I can no longer ask or could never have known.
It seems to be the way this art comes to me. Itself a patrimony. Itself a topic of self exploration, self explanation, self search, selfish conceit.
Of knowability and unknowability—which seem more and more, these days, to be one and the same thing.
Happy birthday to my little brother—two days ago today (shared with Abe Lincoln). I’ll be sending him our father’s copy of The Brothers Karamazov once I finish reading it. Perhaps we’ll send it back and forth every decade and keep the tradition going.
One way of living onward…
Toward creative joy,