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A hidden dialogue between author and narrator

November 23, 2011

The Brothers Karamazov has an introduction (“От автора,” or from the author) that’s just a couple pages long, which no one makes much of except that half a century ago Avrahm Yarmolinsky called it “brief and lame.” Lewis Bagby, drawing quite a bit on Gerard Genette, finds it a remarkable combination of every type of introduction (241, see also 231). More than that, Bagby makes the whole thing into a dramatic dialogue between the implied author and the narrator-chronicler. He’s wonderful about making these distinctions clear:

“From the Author,” therefore, rings with a triple referent. First, it is in truth of fact the real author, Dostoevsky, who pens it. Second, it is presented through the mediacy of his author-persona, who shares the verbal field with, third, the narrator-chronicler, Alyosha’s “biographer.” The first is the historical person; the second an artifact of the narrative situation; and the third the creation of the first. These latter two appear together in the introduction with their own distinct voices and experiential positions. (235)

I’ll skip the “filioque”-style argument that came to mind when I read the third was “the creation of the first” but not also the second.

Dostoevskii in an 1847 portrait

Bagby actually parcels out which sentences are spoken by the implied author and which by the narrator-chronicler, including one that he contends they speak in unison during a transition from one speaker to the other, even as they mean different things by the same words (238). He’s quick to concede (239) that the lines could be divided differently, the virtual characters understood differently (for Bagby, the implied author is something of a mentor for the fictional novice writer who has supposedly set out to write a two-volume work focusing on Alesha Karamazov). Taking the introduction as a concealed dialogue makes sense since “dramatized introductions were quite common in Dostoevsky’s time and some of his most cherished texts used them, e.g., Hugo’s Dernier jour d’un condamné” (237n15). Since it’s not an actual dialogue and the implied author’s and narrator-chronicler’s supposed lines aren’t marked as direct or indirect speech, the introduction can be classified under free indirect speech (a.k.a. style indirect libre, erlebte Rede, double-voicing, etc.), which Bagby also discusses in depth, quoting among others Dorrit Cohn and Roy Pascal (233-35).

See Lewis Bagby, “‘Brief and Lame’: The Introduction to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov,” Slavic and East European Journal 55.2 (2011): 229-44.

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