Posts Tagged ‘Crime & Punishment’

Catriona Kelly: Russian Literature

December 18, 2013

You may have noted from earlier posts that I belong to a Russian literature reading group. So far, I’ve had a very scattergun approach to what I’ve read, but I’ve now been motivated to try and develop my knowledge and understanding a bit more systematically, and to do some background reading on the subject. Our group leader recommended Catriona Kelly‘s book, in the ‘Brief Insight’ series, among some others.

I had never really realised how relatively recently literature as we know it had developed in Russia – from about the eighteenth century onwards – or how much Pushkin, who wrote in the early nineteenth, is their equivalent of our Shakespeare, in terms of veneration, at least. It had occurred to me that there was very little writing by women, at least that I’d come across in my personal reading. Then I thought about the fact that American literature is also very ‘new’ compared to ours, where we can go back to the fourteenth century in terms of what is recognisable to the lay reader as English, and much earlier in the realms of Anglo-Saxon literature.

It had certainly become clear to me over the years that Russians wrote and thought quite  differently from the English; this is surely explained, among other things, by the vastness of the land, the extremes of the climate and the fact that they have no democratic experience compared with many Western nations. And that’s without the mental gymnastics intellectuals had to engage in during the Soviet era. Russians’ experiences and society seemed to me to be much more communal/ collective compared with our greater development of individualism. Their writers were inclined to explore and wrestle with big ideas, and spiritual (for want of a better word) themes. This contrast is particularly clear if you look at the kind of things Russian and English authors were writing in the nineteenth century. I haven’t come across the English equivalent of War & Peace or Crime & Punishment, for instance, or the Russian equivalent of Persuasion or Villette.

Kelly’s book is a curious kettle of fish, really: if you know a little about the subject already, then you will make some sense of it, but if you were new to Russian literature, then I’m not so sure. She adopts a thematic approach, which makes sense, but links everything to Pushkin and changing approaches to him over time, which I’m less convinced by. There are plenty of illustrations and examples, but I was frustrated by the lack of detail in the end; a book on Russian literature, even an introductory one, which doesn’t really say very much about War & Peace? Anna Kerenina? most of Dostoevsky’s novels? I ended up feeling a little wiser, but not much, really I could have saved the eyeball time and the money and stuck to the reference books I had already…

However, I am glad to be re-discovering Russian classics that I’d read years ago and almost forgotten, and some that I haven’t met before.

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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