Vintage Russian Trash-Talk and Backhanded Complements from The Brothers Karamazov

There’s an old, and quite sexist, quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “If we encounter a woman of rare intellect, we should ask her what book she reads”. And on that note, if I’m in a situation that requires the doling out of some quality, razor-sharp insults – having recently finished The Brothers Karamazov (1880) will definitely work in my favour (or I could just throw the book at whoever’s being lippy – it’s a pretty hefty text and my copy’s a hardback).

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s final novel, chronicles the tumultuous family rivalry between the Karamazov’s – and ultimately the murder of their father (also called Fyodor). It usually features on any must-read classics lists quite rightly, for being both: a dense philosophical pondering on morality and Russian culture, as well as a timeless story filled with drama worthy of the Jeremy Kyle Show (Fyodor spends a lot of his time trying to seduce his eldest son Dimitri’s love interest – he’s a bit of a shit-lord).

But what Brothers Karamazov doesn’t get enough credit for, is the incredible extent of sarcasm, bitchiness and witty put-downs it has scattered throughout it’s 800-something pages. Here are a few of my personal favourite moments where some hash insults and delightful vintage trash-talk enhanced the dialogue tenfold:

[Rakitin to Alyosha] “Your brother Ivan declared once that I was a ‘liberal booby with no talents whatsoever’”

[Dimitri, on why he doesn’t suspect Smerdyakov of Fyodor’s murder] “Because Smerdyakov is a man of the most abject character and a coward. He’s not only a coward, he’s the epitome of all the cowardice in the world walking on two legs. He has the heart of a chicken”

“He’s a puling chicken – sickly, epileptic, weak-minded – a child of eight could thrash him”

[a middle aged market woman at Koyla] “You impudent young monkey. You want a whipping, that’s what you want, you saucy young jackanapes!” 

[Ivan to Smerdyakov – this may be my favourite apology in literature ever] “Yes I am sorry I didn’t punch you in the face…I couldn’t have taken you to the lock up just then. Who would’ve believed me and what charge could I bring against you? But the punch in the face – oh, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it. Though blows are forbidden, I should have pounded your ugly face to jelly” 

[Smerdyakov on Grigory] “He is not a man, I assure you, but an obstinate mule”

[Dimitri on Smerdyakov again] “I don’t want to say more of the stinking son of that Stinking Lizaveta” 

[the narrator on the look Mitya’s sporting to his court hearing] “But Mitya made a most unfavourable impression on me. He looked an awful dandy in a brand-new frock-coat”

[Mitya, on hearing about Smerdyakov’s death] “He was a dog and died like a dog”

Koyla’s insults (a thirteen year old character who needs his own section cause he’s the 19th century Russian equivalent of Holden Caulfield)

[A back-handed complement on Ilusha’s mother]’“….I think she is awfully nice and pathetic”

[on Germans] “…sausage-makers, grovelling before authority” 

[Describing an incident where he inadvertently killed some farmers goose at the market and had to to the equivalent of small claims court] “I looked at him, he was a stupid, moon-faced fellow of twenty” …. “we all went off to the justice’s, they bought the goose too. The fellow was crying in a great funk, simply blubbering like a woman”

[to Kartashov (another child – this one’s pretty harsh)] “I beg you most earnestly, Kartashov, not to interrupt again with your idiotic remarks, especially when one is not talking to you and doesn’t care to know whether you exist or not” 

[talking to a doctor (bit of context, Koyla thinks ‘medicines a fraud’)] “Don’t be afraid, apothecary, ….” “And you know apothecary…” (what a little wise arse)

Versatile Insults You Could Easily Pepper into a Debate

  • Flunkey
  • Viper
  • Serpent
  • Trivial
  • Frightfully Stupid
  • Awfully Stupid
  • Snivelling Idiot
  • Mother’s Darling
  • Wanton Woman
  • Blockhead
  • A Repulsive Mug
  • Sheepishly Sentimental
  • Buffoon
  • Rogue
  • A Soft, city-bred rogue
  • A Mountebank
  • A Bernard (I have no idea why this is an insult, but Mitya repeatedly throws this one out there. Maybe Dostoevsky knew someone called Bernard who was just the worst – or maybe he’s referring to the dog breed)
  • ‘Wisp of Tow’ (apparently referring to someone acting cowardly. It’s quite a layered and intelligent insult for a group of schoolboys, it’s impressive really. They must’ve had a sophisticated-type pow-wow to come up with it)

‘There is a gentlemen, rather the worse for wear…’

[That cover image is Vincent Price in the film adaption of The Mask of the Red Death. Yes, he really does look like a massive weirdo in that costume – like the person who is ruining your otherwise rocking Halloween party]

In life, there are countless moments of varying significance that, for whatever reason, manage to get themselves forever lost to ol’ father time. For me personally, the absent memory of how that mysterious dalmatian ended up on top of me the night drinking Yahtzee was invented is the first thing that springs to my mind.

It’s usually a rather mundane reality that naturally not every single moment in history was recorded, and that memory is incapable of preserving every lived minute in pristine condition. Yet when it concerns a figure like Edgar Allan Poe – who never really needed any additional assistance coming across enigmatic – this commonplace phenomena becomes ten-fold more enthralling.

Poe’s unexplained disappearance and his subsequent mysterious death four days after he was found, is one of those historical subjects that gets me a little bit excited – as a fan of both some Poe trivia and a good mystery. Plus it makes me wonder whether fellow crime writer Agatha Christie ever thought of Poe during her own eleven day disappearance in 1926.

On 7 October  1849, at Washington College Hospital – in a cell-room normally reserved for drunks; the gorgeous 19th century equivalent of Robert Smith allegedly whispered ‘Lord help my poor soul’ before dying at age 40 – ten days before he was to marry what would have his second wife, fellow widow Elmira Royster Shelton.

Officially Poe death was documented as ‘congestion of the brain’, however an autopsy was never conducted, and as his doctor had denied all visitors, only one account exists of the state Poe was in leading up to his death.

During Poe’s four days of hospitalisation he was in a complete state of delirium, incapable of accounting what had happened since he was last seen on 27 September leaving Richmond, Virginia for an editing job in Philadelphia.

Poe had been found 3 October outside a tavern and polling location (it was during an election), by a printer named Joseph Walker who recognised the famous poet. Poe gave Walker the name of an acquaintance, Dr. Joseph E. Snodgrass, and Walker got in contact with Snodgrass asking for help,

Dear Sir, 

There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, he is in need of immediate assistance.

Yours, in haste,
JOS. W. WALKER
To Dr. J.E. Snodgrass.

What’s particularly intriguing though, is that Poe was found dressed in clothes that were not his, yet still in possession of a sword cane he had nicked from a friend of his called Dr John Carter, who Poe had visited the night before he left Richmond (to be fair if any of my friends owned an actual sword cane I would “accidentally” leave their house with it too. I would so “accidentally” conceal it under my jacket somehow).

There are numerous theories that attempt to give an explanation on what precisely caused Poe’s death – such as rabies, carbon monoxide poisoning, alcoholism, a brain tumour. Or more sinister explanations such as murder, or being victim of ‘cooping’ – a type of voter fraud where gangs would kidnap victims and force them to repeatedly vote in various disguises.

What’s annoys me the most though about this never to be solved riddle is that a medium in the 1860s claimed Poe’s ghost wrote poetry through her – if you could communicate with Poe’s ghost, WHY DIDN’T YOU ASK HIM TO EXPLAIN HIS DEATH SO THAT IT ISN’T A TOPIC OF DEBATE 169 YEARS AFTER IT HAPPENED?????

Wrongdoings and Getting Judged for Them

I remember my first run-in with an authority figure that wasn’t one of my parents. I was seven, and I had to sit on the step for saying some cheeky rhyme with the word ‘bum’ in it, in front of the new preps. Rather than taking my punishment with a quiet dignity, I cried the entire time I was on the step – I wasn’t the most rebellious of youth.

Each person’s own unique and ongoing relationship to the rules they’re told to abide by, is fascinating and not always fair.  Regardless of whether you choose to challenge or comply with moral or societal restrictions, the influence rules have in sculpting who we are, is immeasurable. And sometimes, you’ll fight the law and the law wins.

So if you’re in the mood to ponder the judicial process, here are a few bits of writing which are thankfully much shorter reads than Crime and Punishment (just don’t read Crime and Punishment I proper struggled)

The Trial (Franz Kakfa, 1925)

Like Kafka’s other stories, The Trial is often considered particularly chilling because it’s said to foreshadow life under Nazi occupation – an era which Kakfa never lived to see.

Originally written in 1915 and published posthumously, The Trial tells the story of Josef K. who wakes up one morning told he has been charged for a crime which is never revealed to him by a mysterious bureaucratic system.

Josef K. hopelessly fights his case even though he doesn’t know what exactly he is being charged with, to a powerful yet invisible, system that’s structure is unknown.

Twelve Angry Men (Reginald Rose, 1957)

A short American screenplay which, as you’re promised, has twelve men in it that are sometimes arguing (it never escalates into a street fight though which is a bit of a let down).

Set in a sequestered jury room, the jurors need to reach a unanimous verdict on the 19 year old defendant accused of killing his father. If found guilty he’ll be sentenced to death.

In short, the play is the jurors arguing into the night, attempting to determine whether there is a reasonable doubt. It’s also meant to make you think about how much personal prejudices can be put aside to ensure they don’t ‘obscure the truth’.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Oscar Wilde, 1898)

Written after his release, this powerful poem describes a hanging Wilde witnessed during his two year prison sentence of a Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge who had murdered his wife in a jealous rage for suspected infidelity.

A statement against capital punishment, Wilde humanise’s Wooldridge by detailing his movements as he walks toward the scaffold. He attempts to capture the pain of witnessing a fellow man die ‘a death of shame’; his underlying point being that we are all sinful yet not all of us are forced to die this way. Repeatedly the poem describes the ‘wisful eyes’ of Wooldridge on this fateful day, and comes back to this one poignant verse,

‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!’

Inferno (Dante Alighieri, 1472)

I have two favourite parts of this classic epic poem/brochure of what to except if you’ve been a bit of a wrongin during your life,

  1. That God seems to be a fan of handing out very specific ironic punishments
  2. People who were unable to commit to the church because it was before their time-period are still sent to the first circle of hell for not believing in God. That’s a bit of a dick move.

The first of three poems (I have only read this one though, cause I thought it would be juicy), Inferno is about Dante getting himself lost in the forest and the ghost of Virgil needing to lead him through the nine circles of hell to get back onto his path.

Death in Poe’s Short Stories

I’m a disgrace. A year has officially passed since I started this blog and I haven’t dedicated a single post to gorgeous lord of the goths Edgar Allan Poe yet, what is that about? What am I actually doing?

So lets amend that shit right now, and look at Poe’s explorations of death, and the range of ways death has come (or nearly come) to characters in Poe’s short stories.

I have noticed that the moral of a fair percentage of Poe’s work seems to be, Victorian mansions are creepy as fuck and you will definitely get yourself killed in one.

The Fall of the House of Usher (1839)

In this, an unnamed narrator receives a letter from an eccentric childhood acquaintance, Roderick Usher, asking for his company, as his sister, Madeline is dying of a rare illness. They are all living together is this decrepit old mansion and Madeline soon dies.

Because her illness was rare, Roderick wants her quickly buried to avoid her body being the subject of scientific examination. So they place her in the family tomb located in the basement of the house.

Over the next few days, both the narrator and Roderick keep hearing these terrible noises, and the narrator starts thinking that the house has an evil aura to it. Then one night (of course its night and of course there’s a storm) they both finally realise that they’ve accidentally encapsulated Madeline while she was still alive, and Madeline then walks in looking really pissed off, ‘blood on her white robes and the evidence of some bitter struggle upon every portion of her emaciated frame’.

She attacks and kills Roderick, because she thinks he’d done it on purpose, and the unnamed narrator runs off into the night questioning his decision to respond to that letter.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1842)

Set during the Spanish Inquisition, the narrator has been sentenced to death and is having a big ponder while he’s sitting in this dungeon. He then wakes up, tied to a rack while pendulum, ‘like a razor’, slowly descends.

The Masque of the Red Death (1842)

Look if you’re a royal, and you’re currently avoiding thinking about a plague that’s ravaging your people, maybe don’t have a big mad house party to celebrate how un-plaguey your palace is. Because if you do the red death himself will gatecrash and freak everybody out.

The Tell Tale Heart (1843)

My favourite part of this short story is the reason why the narrator wants to kills the old man in the first place. Its because he doesn’t like the old man’s glass eye – bit of an over reaction there, maybe just put some shades on him instead?

I’m sure you’re all familiar with this story: a man commits a murder with meticulous detail, then dobs on himself because his conscious can still hear the old man’s heart beating under the floor boards.

‘Dissemble no more! I admit the deed – tear up the planks here! – it’s the beating of his hideous heart’

The Premature Burial (1844)

‘The boundaries which divide Life and Death are at best shadowy and vague.’

I love this story because its the biggest anti-climax. The premise is that the narrator has a terrible phobia of being buried alive as he suffers from a condition called catalepsy – which induces day long trances that make it appear as though he is dead.

One day he wakes up confined in a wooden space, he thinks that its finally happened and he shits himself. But it turns out that he’s just fallen asleep in the wooden berth of a boat and its all fine.

The Cask of Amontillado (1846)

This one is quite an intense revenge plan.

What happens is, the narrator is once again shitty with something a friend of his called Fortunato has done, so he puts an end to this madness by luring Fortunato while he’s drunk down to his family’s catacombs in the attic, under the guise that he has a wine that could pass for Amontillado (a type of sherry).

The narrator chains Fortunato in the catacombs and walls up the entrance.

My Massive Crush on Lisbeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Avid readers usually have that one book which got them hooked on reading in the first place. For a lot of people around about my age it tends to be Harry Potter, but for me it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

I was 17 at the time, and up until that point I wasn’t a big reader. The only books I read in High School were the assigned ones for English class.

I can’t remember what it was exactly that drew me to these books, and sometimes I wonder if I would still love them  just as much if I re-read them now. But at the time I adored them, and I would talk about how brilliant the main character Lisbeth was to anyone who would listen to me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first time I stayed up all night reading, the first time I’d carry a book around wherever I went, and I will always love it for sparking my relationship with reading for fun.

In hindsight though I think most of its charm was due to the crush I had on Lisbeth, given I’d lose interest really fast in every part she wasn’t in. Its funny thinking about it now – I would fantasise about her, yet it still hadn’t hit me that I might be a lesbian. I just loved reading about this strong female character, who had lived through some harsh shit but refused to be a victim and if necessary could kick some ass.

Thank you Stieg Larrson, you’re pretty much responsible for my ever-expanding bookshelf.

Miss Marple Conspiracy Theory

Ok so this is a confession but I’m quite tragic and a hundred years old, and the only crime show I’ve ever taken a genuine interest in is the BBC adaptions of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple (but only the ones where Geraldine Mcewan played Miss Marple, those other old ladies couldn’t hold a candle to Geraldine!!).

She’s just so adorable, look at her! She can handle this shit! Unlike Poirot who’s probably just slacking off in the corner combing his precious little moustache. Poirot smells! He’s probably just planning on blaming the butler for everything again because he looks a bit shifty.

Anyway, I’ve read a few of the Miss Marple books but I watched the show first. I remember watching it for the first time at my grandparents house: I would have been twelve and it was the adaption of Body In The Library. This was before I was aware that I was a lesbian, and I remember at the time being super excited that a lesbian couple had done it (which is a really strange/concerning thing to be excited about).

The things I loved about Miss Marple were that the plot-twist was never obvious, the murderer would always go to these great lengths to create a seemingly perfect alibi, and the brain of Jane Marple in general.

But there’s one thing which raises doubts for me.

The bulk of the time in the stories Miss Marple just happens to be visiting the village. And so often she’s attending a party then suddenly a murder happens.

I’m starting to think that maybe she has done some of these murders because she gets a high from using her brilliant mind to pin it on somebody else? And maybe nobody ever suspects her even though she’s been present at so many murders, because she’s just so cute?

Jane! How could you? I trusted you!