Dostoevsky: Crime & Punishment

December 3, 2013

My copy tells me it’s a little over twenty years since I last read this; I’ve been re-reading it ready for my Russian literature group meeting. It’s as brilliant a novel as it was before, possibly the best nineteenth century one for me, just a little bit ahead of War & Peace, or Anna Kerenina.

The translation, by the Pevear and Volokhonsky duo, is excellent, helping the pace of the story along effortlessly most of the time, apart from a couple of infelicities when American slang and colloquialisms jar a little… The more I read of literature in other languages, the more I find myself thinking about the difficulties of translation, and the importance a good translation has in making or breaking one’s enjoyment of a text. There’s a certain amount of controversy about Pevear and Volokhonsky’s work and methods, but I feel that they have brought greater accessibility to Russian classics for non-Russian readers, replacing some of the rather clunky and dated translations that are getting on for a century old.

So, what’s so wonderful about the novel? Dostoevsky‘s portrayal of the dark and seamy side of Petersburg life, and the dire poverty, is really effective and convincing: he knows the places and takes the reader there. His characters are fully created and developed: Raskolnikov obviously, but his friend Razumikhin shines through, and the sinister and mysterious Svidrigailov too. They seem psychologically plausible and convincing. The central idea behind Raskolnikov’s crime, which Dostoevsky is exploring throughout, is fascinating: the idea that there is a certain type of person, a Napoleon type, who can transcend normal laws and restraints and commit any kind of act or crime, who is permitted to do so by the force of their personality, who maybe even has to do so because of who they are. Raskolnikov dares to imagine that he is one such, and the entire novel is his discovery that he is not, and attempting to come to terms with the belated consequences of that discovery.

Dostoevsky is masterful in the way he takes us inside the mind of a killer: we follow thoughts, feelings, rational and irrational; we sense his paranoia, we see his attempts at self-delusion. And this is compounded by the relationship, the interplay between Raskolnikov and the detective/ interrogator who is on his tail, who plays mind games with him: does he know the truth or not? And he waits for the killer’s mental state to reach the point where he must confess, suffer and accept the consequences of his Napoleonic strivings…

We come to like the killer, we want him to be saved, we want him to begin a new life with the woman who has saved him, and who will wait for him, and Dostoevsky creates this strong desire in the reader before he creates it in the mind of Raskolnikov himself…

When I reflect on the time Dostoevsky was writing – mid 1860s – a time when psychology was in its infancy as a science, when Freud’s precursors were making their discoveries and writing up their research, what he succeeds in doing with his characters and their interactions seems nothing short of astonishing: he seems years ahead of other writers who eventually came to explore the inner and darker recesses of the human mind.

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