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Sunday Read: Kevin Hartnett Finds Pleasure in Dostoevsky’s Stinking Lizaveta

The Brothers KaramazovIn an essay for The Millions, Kevin Hartnett reflects on the small pleasures brought to him by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

While Hartnett claims to prefer the milder works of Tolstoy to Dostoevsky’s “taste for the manic edges of experience”, he describes being grabbed, in particular by the character of Dmitri Karamazov with whom he was able to sympathise. The bulk of the essay, though, focuses on an entirely different character, that of “Stinking Lizaveta”, a homeless woman whose role in the book is minor.

Hartnett describes how his 3-year-old son also derives pleasure from saying the characters name out loud (“Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”), which is a reminder of the ability of humour to, at least sometimes, transcend language and generation gaps:

For the past month my almost-three-year-old son and I have shared a joke. In idle moments, sitting around the table or on the playroom floor, we’ll make eye contact and start to grin. Then one or the other of us will whisper quietly, “Stinking Lizaveta,” and we’ll laugh and say it again and again in happy singsong voices.

Stinking Lizaveta, if you don’t know, is a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. She is a short girl with a “completely idiotic” look fixed to her face and hair that “was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.” She’s not a wholesome character, and one very unwholesome thing happens to her, which makes it all the funnier to me that my son should take such joy in pronouncing her name. (Which really is a pleasure to say out loud. Try it. “Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”).

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Image courtesy RT

 

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