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

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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.

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

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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! :))))

Am I a superficial reader?

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Perhaps a frivolous sounding heading for a post, and I don’t think things are entirely superficial on the Ramblings as I do like to read books of substance (balanced with lighter works!) However, the thought occurred to me when I was taking such pleasure recently in some lovely new volumes which had arrived, in the form of the Oxford Classics hardbacks. I’m currently contemplating making my way through the beautiful copy of “Crime and Punishment”, a book I’ve been meaning to revisit for a long time, and indeed I have at least one copy already. Yet it takes the arrival of a shiny new version to make me pick it up again – and I think this is a tendency I’ve noticed before.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been seduced by the new – Alma Classics, for example, often produce glossy new versions of books I already own, and it will frequently be those versions I read, not the ones I already have. And you’ll have noticed that I brought home a very pretty new copy of “Middlemarch” recently, despite already owning one.

So is this superficial? Well, I’m not so sure. Back when I first started seriously reading, I had less money for books and less access to them than I had now, so I would often settle for whichever copy I could get hold of. If it was a second-hand copy, perhaps a little pre-loved, it really didn’t matter as long as I could read it. My eyes were better then, I was younger and reading voraciously anything I could get hold of, and although I loved a beautiful book, I mainly wanted to get at the content.

However, I read differently now I think. For a start, my eyesight has most definitely gone downhill! I don’t have the hours in the day I used to have to read, I struggle holding awkward or fragile books, and I perhaps appreciate a book as an aesthetic object a lot more nowadays. Plus there is the complication that many of my original volumes have deteriorated over the 30 years or so since I got them and I do find that’s starting to detract a little from the reading experience.

So no – on balance, I don’t think I *am* a superficial reader. Even if nowadays I like to read an attractive edition with bigger pages and type, at the end of the day it’s what’s in the book that matters the most. Certainly, “Crime and Punishment” is proving an immersive experience, whichever copy I’m reading (more of that in a later post…) – so bring on the pretty books and let’s have our stories of substance housed in lovely containers! :))))

Books. Tomes. Publications. Texts. And a marvellous festive treat from @BL_Publishing !

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It’s the usual story on the Ramblings: despite my best intentions, books *will* keep finding their way into the house… In fairness, I have bought very few of them, and I *have* piled on the floor in one of the Offspring’s ex-bedrooms at least 100 volumes to be sold or donated or passed on to friends. So the house rafters will hopefully survive for a little longer, and in the meantime I thought I should share some book pictures – because, let’s face it, we all get vicarious pleasure from seeing other people’s book hauls!

First up, the charity shops. I should just avoid them, I suppose, but *do* pop in every week – and mostly I’m good, reminding myself that I have plenty to read at home.

However, the previous weekend I couldn’t resist another Allingham (I kind of think I might have read this once, but I can’t remember) – it sounds good and was terribly cheap! The Capote short stories is a book I haven’t come across in my second-hand book searching, and I blame Ali – she’s reviewed Capote’s short stories glowingly, and although I’ve read his longer works I haven’t read this, so I had to pick it up.

The rather large volume that is “Middlemarch” is a Bookcrossing book – they have a little selection in my local Nero, and since I always have a coffee there on a Saturday I always check the books out. I have a very old and gnarled Penguin of the book, but the type is so small that it’s off-putting – so I figured this might spur me on to read it. It’s in almost new condition with decent size type and lovely white pages (as opposed to the brown and crispy ones of my old book) so that’s a bonus!

However, the bestest find (so to speak) of recent weeks is this lovely!! I’ve written about Anthony Berkeley’s works before on the blog – I love his Golden Age fictions, as he brings such a twist to the format, and in particular the British Library Crime Classics reprint of “The Poisoned Chocolates Case” was a really outstanding addition to their range. It seems the BL are not the only ones going in for classic crime reprints (although I would say they are leading the field), as this is a Collins reprint which seems to be part of a series of ‘Detective Club’ reissues. A lovely hardback in a dustjacket, for £2 not to be sneezed at. I can see myself picking this one up very soon!

Then there are the review books…. gulp. As you can see, a few have been making their way into the Ramblings – some rather substantial and imposing ones amongst them, particularly from the lovely OUP. The hardback Russians are calling to me, particularly “Crime and Punishment”, which is long overdue a re-read. Then there’s another edition of the quirky and entertaining Stella Benson from Mike Barker.

As for the Christmas paper… well, you’ve probably picked up on social media and the like that the British Library have a rather special volume planned as their Christmas Crime Classic this year, and this is what popped through my door, beautifully wrapped.

Early Christmas present – has to be good! This will be the 50th British Library Crime Classic, and it’s being released in a hardback with special extra material. Inside, it looks rather like this:

Isn’t it beautiful? The story itself sounds wonderful enough, but the book comes with an exclusive essay on the history of Christmas crime fiction, as well as an introduction, all by the marvellous Martin Edwards. And the book itself is beautifully produced, with the usual gorgeous cover image, plus a ribbon bookmark (I *love* books with a built in bookmark). What a treat! Part of me wants to devour it straight away, and part of me wants to wait until Christmas – what torture. Thank you, British Library!

So – some fascinating incoming books, I feel, and yet more difficult decisions to be made about what to read next. At least there’s not much risk of me running out of things to read…. 😉

The Vexations of Varying Translations

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Yes, yes, I know I do tend to ramble on about the vagaries of different translations of some of my favourite books; but at the risk of being a bore, this came back into to my mind recently thanks, oddly enough, to OH’s film-watching tendencies!

OH is a real movie buff (proper films, as I would call them, not modern blockbusters that look like computer games…) and he was watching a film called “The Gambler” from 1974, starring James Caan. It seems to loosely draw on Dostoevsky’s book of that name (which is one of my favourite of the great Russian’s works), and in fact the author himself features in a university teaching session Caan’s hosting. OH was intrigued by a quotation given, apparently from “Notes from Underground”, which was rendered as:

Reason only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, encompasses everything. Desire is life.

He asked me about it and to be honest, I was a little dubious as it didn’t ring any immediate bells and sounded perhaps a bit too straightforward to me for Dosty. The credits gave the version as being the Signet edition, translation by one Andrew MacAndrew and despite the fact that I own several editions of “Notes..” already (as you can see from above) I felt compelled to send for this one. I also dug about in my current versions and came up with some fascinating variations!

The MacAndrew version

The MacAndrew version:

Reason is only reason, and it only satisfies man’s rational requirements. Desire, on the other hand, is the manifestation of life itself – of all of life – and it encompasses everything from reason down to scratching oneself.

A David Magarshack translated collection

David Magarshack:

But reason is only reason, and it can only satisfy the reasoning ability of man, whereas volition is a manifestation of the whole of life, I mean of the whole of human life, including reason with all its concomitant head-scratchings.

Two lots of Zinovieff and Hughes

Kyrill Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes:

You see gentlemen, rational judgement is a good thing – there can be no argument about that – but rational judgement is just rational judgement and satisfies nothing but man’s rational faculties, while desire is the manifestation of the whole of life, that is of the whole of human life including rational judgement and all the head-scratching.

Hugh Aplin version from Hesperus

Hugh Aplin:

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a good thing, that is indisputable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man’s reasoning capacity, while desire is a manifestation of the whole of life, that is, the whole of human life, with both reason and all its funny itches too.

******

Well – that gave me plenty of food for thought and after cogitating for a while I concluded the following before my head started hurting too much:

1. The movie obviously took MacAndrew and truncated him to suit the script.

2. Even the split of sentences is not consistent in translation as some extracts I’ve given have to be longer because some of the translators run the previous sentence into this one (or else it’s not split in the original but some translators split it).

3. I’ve read Magarshack’s translations in the past with no problem, but I don’t fancy his rendering here…

4. I quite like Aplin’s funny itches, although what strikes me is that each translator has interpreted the itching and its cause and location rather individually!

So – basically I’m just going to have to live with the fact that pretty much every translated rendering of a book is going to be very different and I’ll just have to choose the one which speaks to me the most and get on with it. And I now have four versions of “Notes from Underground” which is possibly a little excessive…

Not exactly your regular travelogue….

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Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Kyril FitzLyon

As we head on into January of the new year, a month I always find a little bleak, I’ve been happy to spend some time with one of my favourite authors – Fyodor Dostoevsky. Alma Classics have released one of his lesser-known works, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and were kind enough to provide a copy for review. The book is translated by Kyril FitzLyon, who also provides an excellent introduction, and as he points out this is one of Dostoevsky’s works that’s been unaccountably overlooked.

winter-notes

FD’s work is usually divided into two halves; those written before his conviction, death sentence, appearance in front of a firing squad, last-minute reprieve and exile in Siberia; and those written after it. Obviously the experiences dividing these two parts of his life were ones which affected him profoundly, and although his later career is usually reckoned to begin with “Notes from Underground” (1864), the first book to outline his mature thoughts and beliefs. However, “Winter Impressions….” was published a year earlier and contains many of the themes which would inform his later great novels.

In June 1862, Dostoevsky travelled to Western Europe for the first time, visiting Berlin, Paris, London, Florence, Milan and Vienna amongst others. The trop was supposedly for him to consult Western doctors concerning his epilepsy. However, it sounds as if this might have been a bit of a front, as in fact FD spent much of his time studying the Europeans peoples, their beliefs and their customs. Western ideas were starting to creep into Russian, and Dostoevsky was concerned about the effect these were having on his homeland and its people.

Oh when, my God, will I learn to be orderly?…

Rest assured, this is no light travelogue with amusing anecdotes about the various nations that Dostoevsky passed through on his travels; instead he takes us to the heart of the human condition, relating his experiences and sharing his thoughts on the differences between his home country and Europe. In his usual digressive, rather rambling style, FD tells us of being observed by police spies on a train; encounters with the masses partying in the London streets to celebrate receiving their weekly pay; and his thoughts on the peoples of various nations. He clearly thinks very little of the French as a nation, preferring instead his time spent in London. Although the latter city has the same great divide between rich and poor as Paris, London is more honest about the situation, not trying to hide away and deny its poor like the French capital does. He also doesn’t mince his words when it comes to religion; as a strong believer in Russian Orthodoxy, he’s no fan of the Catholic and Anglican faiths. Whilst acknowledging the ills of Russia, including the dreadful condition of the serfs (who had only just been emancipated), he is angered by the West’s refusal to admit that their poor are slaves as well.

… before long (the French bourgeois) will take to quoting texts to defend the slave trade like American from the southern states of the USA.

Despite his unhappiness about the poverty he sees, Dostoevsky is much more taken with London than the other cities he visits, providing a wonderfully vivid paragraph describing it:

…what an overwhelming spectacle it presents, painted on a vast canvas. Even superficially, how different it is to Paris! The immense town, forever bustling by night and by day, as vast as an ocean, the screech and howl of machinery, the railways built above the houses (and soon to be built under them) the daring of enterprise, the apparent disorder, which in actual fact is the highest form of bourgeois order, the polluted Thames, the coal-saturated air, the magnificent squares and parks, the town’s terrifying districts such as Whitechapel with its half-naked, savage and hungry population, the City with its millions and its world-wide trade, the Crystal Palace, the World Exhibition…

But despite being impressed by the city, he is saddened by the sight of women of the street selling their own daughter for money. In fact, FD spends much of the book discussing the possibility of humans really being free, and whether a brotherhood of man is actually possible; certainly, he feels strongly that the French revolution has achieved nothing, and the people of that country come in for some of his strongest criticism.

dostoyevsky

“Winter Notes…” is obviously not a perfect book; there is a sense that some of the countries have been very much ignored, and apparently this was because Dostoevsky travelled about so much in a short time that he barely had time to take in some of the places he went to. Nevertheless, it’s possible to see the early formation of some of the ideas he would develop more fully in his later great novels; and also to have visions of this erratic but brilliant man whizzing round Europe on a train, observing all, finding much food for thought and coming back to Russia even more convinced of its superiority. Alma have done us a great favour by bringing out such a lovely new edition of “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions” and if you fancy reading him, this is a very good way to get an introduction in to some of Dostoevsky’s beliefs and thoughts!

(Review copy kindly provided by Alma Classics, for which many thanks!)

Reading updates – plus a very special arrival!

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You might have noticed the sparsity of reviews on the Ramblings lately, as I am still in the depths of Dostoevsky’s “The Adolescent” although reaching the end – it’s a fascinating and neglected book, and I’m looking forward to covering it for the next “Shiny New Books”.

I took a little detour back into Soviet sci-fi earlier in the week with Kirill Bulychev, and the fascinating introduction by Vladimir Gakov ran through the history of Russian science fiction writing and highlighted a book I’d often thought of reading. “Aelita” is probably best known as a pioneering 1920s Soviet film, featuring striking and beautiful sets and costumes by the Constructivist artist Aleksandra Ekster, but Alexei Tolstoy’s novel came first, in 1923. A quick search online revealed that the book was mainly available in a fairly ugly modern edition – until I popped onto Abe and found mention of a Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow version. I own a few books from this publisher, and the listing mentioned a fairly good dustjacket; the cost was more than I would usually pay, but I took a deep breath and sent for it, and I’m *so* glad I did!

aelita cover

As you can see, the small but remarkably well-preserved hardback has a really beautiful cover and it’s in better condition than I expected. The inside is equally lovely too – here’s the title page:

aelita title page

And here’s the first page of the book:

aelita opening

So I’m happy that this was money well spent, and I’d rather have an old and lovely version of a book than a new but modern and dull one – and hopefully this will get to the top of the reading pile soon!

As for any more new arrivals – only one this week! In the Oxfam I spotted this:

riverside villas

If I remember correctly (and that’s always debatable nowadays!) the only Amis I’ve read so far is his poetry, and I liked the sound of this (and also the chapter I read over lunch in Nero) – so this may be a bit of suitable light relief after being absorbed in Fyodor for so long!

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