On March 13, 2020, five days after the first confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iowa, Anna Barker texted UNESCO City of Literature director John Kenyon, with her trademark triple-exclamatory enthusiasm: “Call me call me call me!!! I have an AMAZING quarantine book idea!!!”
Barker, a professor of Russian literature at the University of Iowa with a broad and deep humanist streak, had devised the idea of a large-group reading of The Decameron by Renaissance poet Boccaccio. (The Decameron is an alternately bawdy and tragic anthology of stories written during, and narrated by survivors of, the Black Death.) Participants would read one tale each day, and convene over Facebook for discussion and Barker’s explication and curated supplemental material.
The “100 Days of Decameron,” sponsored by the UNESCO City of Literature, was a success, peaking at 311 members — not to be sneezed at for a late medieval text running 1,072 pages in the Penguin Classics edition. Through the rest of 2020 and into 2021, other online readthroughs led by Barker have followed, so far including Paradise Lost, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the entirety of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the Facebook group for which acquired nearly a thousand members from 28 countries, from Iowa City to Canada and Mexico, the United Kingdom and Australia, Malaysia and Pakistan, Brazil and several countries in Europe.
Starting Sept. 1, Barker and the City of Literature will follow up War and Peace with a reading of that other vast masterpiece of 19th-century Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1879). The “100 Days of The Brothers Karamazov” Facebook group is set to be a lively place this fall; the reading hasn’t started, yet the group has already been joined 460 times. Sales of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation in advance of the reading also led Amazon to run out of its stock of copies for the rest of the month. This reading has the potential to be the largest and most ambitious yet.
The online reading is complemented by a new exhibition in the University of Iowa Main Library Gallery curated by Barker (and coordinated by Sara J. Pinkham). “From Revolutionary Outcast to a Man of God: Dostoevsky at 200” explores the entirety of Dostoevsky’s life and literary career in anticipation of his 200th birthday this November. The exhibition opened Aug. 16 and runs through Dec. 17.
Dostoevsky’s life is fascinating, even independent of his literary output. Barker observes that “there is no other writer whose life is as catastrophically tragic as Dostoevsky, who was sentenced to death by firing squad and spent four years in Siberia, but there is also no other writer whose life is as transcendently luminous as Dostoevsky. The man who was sent to Siberia by [Tsar] Nicholas I became the spiritual advisor to his son’s children and became the prophetic conscience of the nation.”
Taking the astounding arc of Dostoevsky’s life as its spine, the exhibition is divided into four chronological sections: “Rebel,” “Convict,” “Gambler” and “Prophet.” These cover, respectively: Dostoevsky’s youthful literary forays and utopian-socialist radicalism; his sentencing to four years of hard labor in Siberia on the basis of that radicalism; his eventual reabsorption into Russian life and subsequent devastating gambling addiction; and, despite all of this, the consummation of his probing intellectual life and literary genius in the string of five so-called “prophetic” novels which concluded his career. Of these last novels, Crime and Punishment is the most widely read and The Brothers Karamazov is the dizzying crowning achievement.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously said of War and Peace that “there are no dark corners in Tolstoy’s universe” (The Hedgehog and the Fox, 1953). Dostoevsky’s universe, in contrast, consists almost entirely of dark corners, both material and psychological: the tenements and hovels of the Karamazovs’ provincial town and the yearning, suffering, hateful or saintly characters that inhabit them. A great deal of Dostoevsky’s success as an artist is in the sheer drama (critics often think of Dostoevsky as dramatizing the form of the novel, of Tolstoy as rendering it epic) by which he embodies mental circuitries, patterns of thought and feeling, which we recognize in our own selves in less (hopefully less!) extreme form.
The plot of The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps familiar. The jacket copy of the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation calls it a “murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and an exploration of erotic rivalry in a series of triangular love affairs involving […] Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov and his three sons.” Through these brothers — Dmitri, the sentimental party animal; Ivan, the atheist misanthrope; and saintly Alyosha — Dostoevsky navigates debates about free will, morality and the relationship of each to the existence of God.
For Barker, a chief theme of Dostoevsky’s work is “what happens when a human being is overtaken by an idea.” Many of Dostoevsky’s characters, like Ivan Karamazov or Pyotr Verkhovensky in Demons, fall victim to corrosive intellectual infatuations, usually related to Russian nihilist philosophical trends of the 1860s. These ideas, which lure ambitious young minds with their apparent totalizing force and their ability to find an answer for everything, result in the subsuming of the authentic human personality to an artificial system; they make of their victims husks, shells of selves, arid cynics.
A famous and terrifying passage in The Brothers Karamazov called “The Grand Inquisitor” poses the possibility that free will, and all the searching and uncertainty it entails, may ultimately prove too exhausting for most of us, and that we might cast off the burden of our humanity in relief and supplant it with the diktat of an unquestioned authority — perhaps one who maintains his power through the enforcement of a totalized intellectual system. Thus The Brothers Karamazov is a powerful antidote to false earthly certainty: sound medicine for any age but especially one of architectonic political upheavals.
A great many other events will be held this fall to commemorate Dostoevsky’s bicentennial. Besides the exhibition and the Facebook reading, Barker will also teach a month-long course on The Brothers Karamazov for the UI Senior College, starting Sept. 1. (This is in addition to her university course, held in the exhibition space and open to registration by all.) FilmScene will screen a series of four Dostoevsky adaptations between Oct. 17 and 24, from Luchino Visconti’s classic adaptation of “White Nights” (Le Notti Bianche, 1957) to The Double (2013) starring Jesse Eisenberg.
In October, in conjunction with the Iowa City Book Festival, Riverside Theatre will stage The Grand Inquisitor, Marie-Hélène Estienne’s adaptation of the chapter from The Brothers Karamazov. On Oct. 7, Father Ignatius of St. Raphael Orthodox Church in Iowa City will deliver a lecture on Dostoevsky and Orthodox Christianity, and on Oct. 12 UI International Programs WorldCanvass will host an event in the exhibition space dedicated to all things Dostoevsky, organized by UI International Programs communications director Joan Kjaer. On Oct. 14, Professor Nathan Platte of the UI School of Music will lecture on two opera adaptations of Dostoevsky. A birthday party for Dostoevsky, featuring Russian birthday hymns performed by the St. Raphael choir, will be held Nov. 11. More events may be in the works.
These varied celebrations of humanistic striving will, of course, be held as our community and the globe continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. While discussing the completed reading of War and Peace, Barker reflected that “to have this book going through so many permutations of what it means to be a human being had a therapeutic effect” for those reading it.
“I hope this sense of an intellectual community that sticks together in spite of unprecedented human dislocation will continue with our reading of Brothers Karamazov,” Barker said. “We were not meant to suffer apart, we were meant to suffer together.”
Nicholas Dolan recently moved back to Iowa City, where he is beginning a teacher training program with the university. His favorite Dostoevsky characters are Nastasya Filipovna of The Idiot and Kirillov of Demons. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 298.