Home

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars…”

28 Comments

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by David McDuff

My re-read of Dostoevsky’s great novel seems in some ways to have taken me a disproportionate amount of time; at 656 pages, it’s considerably shorter than “War and Peace” and yet has taken me several weeks to read. I’m not sure why; I absolutely *love* the book and *love* Dostoevsky, yet I’ve found myself having to pause between chapters just to catch my breath and absorb the brilliance of it. Whether I can convey that brilliance is another matter; trying to corral my thoughts is often difficult when it’s a big and important book I’ve read, but I shall share my feelings anyway.

An apt cover image, as Raskolnikov is described as being good-looking – which he certainly isn’t in some of the adaptations I’ve seen about…

The plot of the book is pretty well-known and appears fairly simplistic: Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student, murders a money-lender and her sister with an axe. His motives are perhaps unclear; does he undertake the act for money, or because he considers himself a Napoleon, someone apart from the ordinary run of the mill person, who is above the law and normal morality? However, he’s pursued by a dogged detective and more importantly, by his conscience, and the reader follows his emotional and spiritual journey to its final resolution.

Into this premise, Dostoyevsky introduces a rich tapestry of characters and a deep exploration of humanity and its motivations. Raskolnikov’s mother and his sister Dunya make an early appearance; the Marmeladov family, including Sonya the daughter, are pivotal to the story; then there is Raskolnikov’s friend Razumikhin, a solid and reliable, if slightly over-excitable fellow student. More sinister is Svidrigailov, a lecherous sensualist from the Raskolnikov family past, who may or may not have been responsible for the death of his wife Marfa Petrovna. Also on the nasty side is Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin, a rather stuffy man in pursuit of Dunya as a wife, so that he can have a poor and grateful woman attending to his every whim. And then there is the remarkable Porfiry Petrovich, the detective in charge of investigating the murder; an unsettling and unpredictable character, there’s most definitely a touch of the Columbo about him.

Have you ever watched a moth near a candle-flame? Well, that’s the way he’ll be with me, hovering, circling around me like a moth at a lighted candle; he’ll lose his taste for freedom, he’ll start to think, get tangled in his thoughts, ensnare himself all round as though in some net or other, worry himself to death!

All of these characters are on journeys of their own and bring their own issues to the story as a counterpoint to what is happening to Raskolnikov. And the whole structure gives Dostoevsky the opportunity to explore sophisticated moral issues: is the life of a nasty old money-lender worth anything when the money she grasps and hoards could help those in extreme poverty? Is it morally wrong for someone to take the decision as to who should live and who should die? Is Sonya any less of a person for having to prostitute herself to try and feed her family? Are the nihilistic philosophies circulating St. Petersburg helpful or damaging? And is the only route to redemption through suffering?

That’s just a snapshot of the kind of issues Dostoevsky’s looking at in “Crime and Punishment”, which might seem off putting. However, no-one can discuss a moral quandary in such an entertaining and absorbing way as Dosty does. His subjects are serious and yet his book is filled with those wonderful characters, humour, philosophy, tragedy and pathos, as well as a particularly clear-eyed view of the lot of many Russians of his time. In particular, he seems to have quite a sophisticated understanding of the difficulties women faced; Sonya, because of her particular caste, has no option but to become a prostitute; Dunya’s only way out of poverty is a suitable marriage, and she is vulnerable to lechers like Svidrigailov – the latter attempts to compromise her reputation on more than one occasion, and the last time he does is a critical point in the book.

In fact, the book is not just about one crime – it’s actually littered with them. Svidrigailov’s behaviour towards Marfa Petrovna and Dunya is vile; the plight of Marmeladov and the evils of drink are a constant theme; Sonya’s being reduced to prostitution to avoid starvation is equally criminal; and Dunya’s constant harassment is yet another aspect of the messed up structure of Russian society. Money and poverty seem to be at the root of everything, and there are scenes of the suffering of animals and children which would slot comfortably into a Dickens novel; Dostoevsky seems to have share a sense of outrage with the latter over the plight of the vulnerable.

The blood that’s on everyone’s hands …that flows and has always flowed through the world like a waterfall, that is poured like champagne and for the sake of which men are crowned in the Capitol and then called the benefactors of mankind. Well just take a look and see what’s really what! I wanted to do good to people and I’d have done hundreds, thousands of good deeds, instead of this one stupid action, which wasn’t even stupid, really, but just clumsy…

Central to the book, though, is Raskolnikov’s battle: not only with Porfiry Petrovich, but more importantly with himself. Although it’s sometimes surprising how much of the book is *not* about Raskolnikov – there are whole sequences in which he doesn’t appear or is on the sidelines – we always return to his dilemma. He seems often in a state of feverishness, trance, illness; and it’s often unclear how much his alienation from society in general has contributed to the actions he took. There is regular reference to an article he’s had published where he argued that a Napoleon among men is not bound by the same restrictions as others and is allowed to act in ways that ordinary men cannot; and whether his illness has pushed him into taking the actions he does is perhaps ambiguous. The murder becomes almost incidental – it is Raskolnikov’s mental and spiritual state which takes centre stage. The journey into his soul and his psyche is a dark one, but there is redemption in the end.

A Genius

Despite having taken so long to read “Crime and Punishment”, I finished the last hundred pages or so in a breathless burst of reading which had a really strong emotional impact on me. I first read the book decades ago and I have to say that I most definitely got more out of this time round. For a start, I appreciate the structure his work more deeply; there’s a staginess about Dostoevsky’s books which is very appealing, as the events unfold almost as a series of set pieces. There’s a surprising amount of dark humour and the slapstick quality of a manic black comedy as Raskolnikov staggers from one dramatic situation to another, the pressures on him from outside and within gradually building up.

I also saw parallels with Dostoevsky’s other work which I wouldn’t have picked up back then, as C&P was my first read of his work. In particular, there is a strong bond between Raskolnikov and the Underground Man from “Notes from the Underground”, not least in the constant reference both of them make to their spite. One particular section, where Raskolnikov is venting his spleen to Sonya about the awfulness of his life and how he crawled away to his dark little room like a spider, could have been lifted straight from “Notes…” and there were many other parts which resonated in the same way.

‘Sonya, I have a spiteful heart, take note of that: that may explain a lot of things. I came here because I’m full of spite. There are some that would not have. But I’m a coward and…. a villain!’

Lest this should all sound too dark and gloomy – let’s face it, deep arguments about the value of a single life are not for everyone – I should say that though the book is complex I found it eminently readable and absolutely gripping. Even in the depths of despair and depravity, there is an exuberance about Dostoevsky’s characters which makes you love them and want to follow them. The chapters towards the end of the book which dealt with the final fate of Svidrigailov were completely involving and moving, and I felt were some of Dostoevsky’s best writing.

My version of “Crime and Punishment” is the Penguin Classics edition translated by David McDuff (who also translated “The Brothers Karamazov” which I read in 2013) and I found it to be an excellent rendition. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was struggling with a different rendering but this one was perfect for me and it ‘sounds’ like I expect a Dostoevsky book to read. McDuff also provides excellent notes and introduction, and he perceptively opines in the latter that critical reaction to “Crime and Punishment” says as much about the commentator as the book itself. Certainly, a quick look online reveals any number of theories about this work, but for my money it’s a brilliant, multi-layered novel which tells a gripping story while providing social comment, exploring morality and shining a strong light on the Russian society of the time. I imagine I’ll be thinking about the issues “Crime and Punishment” raises for some time and I’m so glad I chose to revisit this book with this particular translation.

Advertisements

Reading – an update… plus that T-word again….

36 Comments

You might have notice a slight thinning out of reviews recently, and I confess that I’ve slightly been in the doldrums with regards to reading.  Partly I put this down to busyness at work, the change of seasons, the first cold of the winter (and it was a stinker) and tired eyes! But I did approach a revisit to “Crime and Punishment” via the lovely OWC hardback with great anticipation, and was a bit fed up when it went pear-shaped…

I knew I already had two copies of C&P – the original ancient Penguin I read decades ago, translated by David Magarshack, and a more recent Penguin rendered by David McDuff, of which I’d heard good things. I picked up the latter specifically for a re-read, but I couldn’t resist starting the lovely Oxford version, translated by Nicholas Slater Pasternak, and I did indeed get several chapters in…

However, for some reason I found myself struggling to engage. I’m still not sure why, but I ended up putting this version down and picking up the McDuff, and I’m currently sailing through that and absolutely loving it. It obviously has nothing to do with the physical book, because the Oxford is lovely with clear type and nice big white pages; the McDuff Penguin is a larger format and also quite readable but probably less so than the Oxford.

It’s hard to put my finger exactly on why I wasn’t gelling with the Oxford, but the best I can say is that it read too smoothly. I expect to anticipate a kind of nervous energy in Dostoevsky, and I didn’t feel that here. McDuff also translated the version of Brothers Karamazov I read, and I found that version resonated with me too. So obviously, as I’m continuing with the version that speaks to me I shall keep on reading the Penguin McDuff – though having two sets of notes and supporting material to refer to is quite a bonus!

I confess I’m a little disappointed that the Oxford version didn’t work for me, though it will no doubt be ideal for other readers. And I’m keen to read one of these lovely books, so maybe I should step out of Russia for a read soon, and try to read one of Austen’s great works during the centenary year of her death.

“Sense and Sensibility” is one of her titles I know I haven’t read – so perhaps that should be a near-future read. Onward and upward! :))))

Happiness is…

10 Comments

finding a copy of the David McDuff translation of “Crime and Punishment” in a charity shop for 95p….

….. particularly when you’ve been putting off sending for a copy for ages!!

%d bloggers like this: