Friday, 10 April 2009

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Read: September 2007

Ah, that most capricious of customers: the classic. The very idea can conjure up the image of dark alleyways, men in top hats and overcoats, enticingly dusty smells and dark oil painting covers. There are some which you pick up and can’t believe you never read them before. The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein and Catch-22 are three classics I received in such rapturous delight. For these wonderful books, the word classic barely does them justice. They are so much more than just a word, they are whole, complete works of fiction to which I will always be drawn.

And then there are the others, the ones you read and know you are reading a classic which thousands of people have loved, and you can tell its crammed with really great ideas, but for you it doesn’t quite do it. Sadly for me, Crime and Punishment found its way into the latter of these two categories. It tells the story of Rodion Romanych, a young student with a Napoleon complex who has fallen on hard times but dreams of a glorious future, both for himself and his fellow mankind. Feeling wronged by misfortune his thoughts begin to turn towards the good he could do were he in possession of the requisite finances. He writes essays on morality and justice, arguing that it is just for a man of genius to transgress moral law if it will ultimately benefit humanity. He posits that the test of this genius is the ability to transgress moral laws and not feel guilty, to be wholly focused on the grander scale. To this end he begins to plot the perfect crime, the murder and robbery of a horrible old pawnbroker, universally hated by all. So begins Crime and Punishment, a book of great scope and plot and a powerful study of a psychology in turmoil. It is an investigation into the grand ideas so prevalent across nineteenth century society: the social implications of rampant capitalism, the crossover between morality and legality, and the growth of psychology as a means of explaining mans actions.

Crime and Punishment
unfolds slowly as the author lays out his message through the intermeshing of the various characters. Dostoyevsky has been described as an author for whom an idea is always rooted in human skin, that no idea is removed from its very intimate human bondage. That is never more prevalent than here, where much of the story is told in miniature tales, single chapter stories in which supporting characters appear to share their story, then leave almost as quickly as they arrived. This method of telling the story is incredibly seductive, it draws you into a world you feel is almost boundless and encourages you to involve yourself within it.

All the while I was aware I was reading a really great novel. But I was bored. The whole premise of Crime and Punishment has been done better elsewhere. Take Albert Camus’ The Outsider, or Kafka’s The Trial if you are interested in the psychology of crime and the nature of punishment. There are some startlingly good characters here, each with a really fascinating story to tell and the chapters in which they espouse their tales are brilliant examples of secondary characterisation. But then there are long, long passages in Raskolnikov’s life in which we trudge around like his shadow in the sludgy snow and wait for something of interest to take place. All the while growing cold and tired. A third could be cut from it just like that. There are no superfluous plot lines but there are many flabby periods when I just wanted to get back into something interesting.

Although Raskolnikov develops into a rounded and really powerful character and his mentality is intriguing at times, there is something about his ‘woe is me’ attitude which really gets on my nerves. Like the snivelling little creatures that populate many of Gogol’s short stories and Dostoyevsky’s own Notes from Underground I found the most powerful impression he engendered was not sympathy but disgust. Pathetic disgust for a man who expects the world to unfurl before him without any effort. And even though this impression was diluted as the novel progressed to the point where he had become partially interesting his is still a story of unmentionable blandness. Perhaps this is the point, but it doesn’t make for great reading.

Another problem, as with many works of Russian literature, lies in the translation. Even with an award winning translation such as this one, much of the lyricism is lost so we are left with the story and ideas Dostoyevsky intended, but without the expressive and poetic prose in which it was originally written. And although I noticed a slight difference between this translation and another by Sidney Monas, it was not enough to change the essential chunkiness of any Russian translation. It is in the language that I believe a real classic is borne and I believe this language would have kept me enthralled through the long journeys in Raskolnikov’s mind, but shorn of much poetry I found it a struggle to finish.

I suspect I may re-read Crime and Punishment in the future and wonder how I could ever have written such drivel about a great work. For when that day comes, I shall just say sorry.

6.5 out of 10

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