As you may recall, I’m reading The Brothers Karamzov, and I have been for some time. (It’s not that I don’t have time to read, but I feel a little guilty taking the time to read, which is sort of funny, because I was an English major, so once-upon-a-time, reading was my job.) Anyway, be that as it may, I’m slowly working my way through Bros. Karmazov, and I’d like to talk about Alyosha. I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately. He’s one of the most appealing characters in literature (to me), and I’ve been pondering this fact, and thinking about other characters of his type that I’ve also been drawn to over the years. Alyosha was named after Dostoyevsky’s own son, who died as a child, and I can’t help but think that the character is a sort of embodiment of the man Dostoyevsky might have hoped his son would become. He’s handsome, kind, good but not preachy, thoughtful, sympathetic. But I don’t find him cloyingly good, because, strangely, despite all of his ridiculously good qualities, he’s a very real and human character. He’s full of wonder, he’s often confused, his mood shifts from one sentence to the next, as we’ve all felt our own do. He’s part of the drama, obviously, he’s one of the brothers Karamzov, so he’s a major character, but he’s aside from the drama. Most of his struggles are internal – they’re philosophical or spiritual. He has faith, but he’s constantly questing and questioning, swayed by his cynical brothers, but very strong within himself. He reminds me of Gareth, from Once and Future King, who was one of my favorite characters when I was little. Like Alyosha, Gareth grows up in what we would today call a dysfunctional family. His father is at war, his mother rivals Alyosha’s father for evilness, and his brothers are caught up in the brutality around them. But Gareth is different. He has a sort of natural gentleness, “Gareth was a generous boy. He hated the idea of strength against weakness. It made his heart swell, as if he were going to suffocate.” In one scene, the four brothers attempt to catch a unicorn, but they kill it, and then, faced with the reality of butchering it, they’re sick, covered in sweat and blood and punctured intestines, and by the time they get the head home to their mother, there’s nothing left but a grisly, unrecognizable lump of flesh. This scene was so powerful to me when I first read it! And it made me love Gareth, who begged his brother not to kill the unicorn, and who lies crying in the heather once it’s killed, staring into the sky and imagining himself plummeting off the earth, and catching onto the clouds to stop his fall. And like Alyosha, as the story goes on, Gareth does not become as embroiled in the violent family turmoil. I love these characters, and I’m sure there are others (Kostya Levin from Anna Karenina comes to mind, but I’ve already talked about him!) Their stories become the most interesting, because they question not just the morality of the people around them, but the morality that drives the plot itself. In real life, I’m always impressed by people who can transcend their upbringing to question the world around them, and form their own values and ideals. It kills me that an author can create a character who stands in for himself (in these instances) in questioning the values of the world that he’s created. It’s brilliant, really, because it doesn’t feel like a moral judgement, coming from these characters, it feels like a difficult but natural peeling away of layers of accepted corruption and violence. In both cases, you can feel the force of the author’s affection for the character, and the depth of his sympathy for their confusion. Can you think of other characters like this? Atticus Finch, maybe? Or Herbert Pocket? Hamlet, even?
Sorry to go on and on as though this is some sort of addled, half-baked essay for a second-rate online literature course! I’ve just been thinking about it a lot lately. But I’ve been cooking, too, so let me tell you about this stew! It’s loosely based on an old recipe I found for French lamb stew, called Navarin, I believe. The original stew similarly contains turnips, potatoes, carrots and peas simmered in white wine and thyme. And I substituted white beans for lamb. I think it turned out very nice! Warm and sustaining, but not too heavy. And I made these cornmeal cheddar drop biscuits to go with it. They’re extremely quick and easy to make, and crispy outside, soft inside, and comforting.
Here’s Family Tree, by Belle and Sebastian
2 T olive oil
2 shallots, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1 heaping t dried, or 2 t fresh thyme
2 medium-sized potatoes, cut into 1/3 inch dice
2 medium-sized turnips cut into 1/3 inch dice
3 medium-sized carrots, cut into 1/3 inch dice
1 cup white wine
2 T tomato paste
1/2 t mustard powder
1 can small white beans, rinsed and drained
vegetable broth or water
1/2 cup petit peas, fresh or frozen
2 T butter
1 t balsamic
salt, plenty of freshly ground pepper
Warm the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the shallot and bay leaves, and cook till the shallot starts to brown, about a minute. Add the garlic and thyme, cook for another half a minute. Add the potatoes, turnips and carrots, and stir and cook for a few minutes, till they start to brown. Stir in the white wine, mustard powder and tomato paste. Cook for about ten minutes, until the wine is reduced and syrupy.
Add the white beans, stir and cook for a minute or two, and then add enough broth or water to cover by about half an inch. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer partially covered until the potatoes and turnips are as soft as you like them – 25 – 35 minutes (or more if you like them very mushy!). Stir in the peas, and cook till tender.
Add the butter and balsamic, and season with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper.
CORNMEAL CHEDDAR BISCUITS
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup corn meal
1 t baking powder
1 t salt
1 t oregano
lots of black pepper
4 T butter
1 cup buttermilk or milk soured with 1 t lemon
1 – 1 1/2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese
Preheat the oven to 400. In a large bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, oregano and pepper. Cut the butter in in small pieces, and mix to make a coarse and crumbly texture.
Make a well in the center, and add the eggs and milk. Beat well till thick and smoothish. Stir in the grated cheese, and set the batter aside for about half an hour.
Preheat the oven to 400.
Drop the batter by heaping tablespoonfuls on a lightly buttered baking sheet. I could fit seven. Cook for 20 – 25 minutes until they start to brown on the edges.
Let cool slightly, and … eat!