Reading Crime and Punishment (1866)

What more is there to say about Fyodor Dostoevsky’s monstrous and towering epic Crime and Punishment? The book has been devoured by critics, beloved by Russians, along with readers the world over, and even belittled, the enigmatic Nabokov once claiming that its author was a bad writer. For my part, I have to admit to a bit of negligence on matters concerning Russian Literature. I grew up reading Tolkien and Piers Anthony, through to a Shelley-Stoker-Wilde phase, and on to the origins of the novel, standardized in the Richardson-Fielding-Defoe/Haywood-Manley-Behn triumvirates — all before tackling the notorious Condition of England novels, next to an intensive Moby Dick study, in line with plenty of other American works, and on to the modernists Joyce and Woolf and so on and so forth, upon even more on top of all that to be perfectly honest.

Obviously enough, my reading comes off as narrowly focused, the language predominately English, constituting primarily canonical English Classics. Throughout the years, books such as Crime and Punishment and Lolita (1955) were like alien outliers to me, for reasons that are difficult to pinpoint. I know that they require translating, which is a minor detail to consider; I’ve read Madame Bovary (1856) and The Phantom of the Opera (1910), well-aware that certain aspects of the texts have been lost in translation. So really, what is it about the Russian novel that has kept me at bay?

Upon first hearing the title many years ago, I thought Crime and Punishment was some kind of a Tom Clancy thriller. Imagine my surprise when I learned how the book was, in fact, written in Russian, and that it wasn’t even contemporary. I searched for videos about it and discovered a short summary as to why I should read it, the black and white animation drawing me in because of its noir-ish quality, and it made me think more about my particular point of view.

I believe there’s something about the notion of something being “Russian” that has always thrown up connotations and imageries that’ve had me, in essence, perpetually blind as to what I’ve been missing. When I think of Russia and the Russians, I think of a great and gigantic land mass on the other side of the globe, and I think of Stalin; I think of World War II, and of the horrors of Chernobyl; I think of Vladimir Putin, and the out-dated theories of Lenin; I think of the Tunguska Event, and the entrancing Siberian Tiger; and I think of those wonderful fur caps that keep your ears snug and yes, I think of delicious Russian Vodka. But it’s the Cold War and the KGB that stands out to me the most, in spite of their relevance as elements of the past, the annals of communism drawing to mind the terrible paths America once traversed in battling the threat of that form of government. Being mired in such permanence of thought, imagine how I felt, then, when I began reading the initiating chapters of Crime and Punishment.

I was presented immediately with notions of squalor flourishing amid the streets of St. Petersburg, which was odd since any net search will provide lustrous pictures of that remarkable city. The protagonist Raskolnikov is struggling with debt and many of the people around him appear to subsist on loaves of “black bread” and water. When I arrived to the Marmeladov predicament, I faced the magnitude of Dostoevsky’s prose tactics:

Block of text from Crime and Punishment (1866), courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

On the internet, most impressively, Dostoevsky’s paragraphs can often fill entire screen displays.

(Blogger use of humor: After reading beyond this point, I decided that maybe Dostoevsky didn’t use enough ellipses.)

Sonya in the “Dying Marmeladov’s Room” by Dementy Shmarinov (1907–99).

I learned about the “yellow ticket” and how it connected Sonya to a registry for prostitutes, and how people prayed to “the ikon” as an extension of their affiliation to Greek Orthodox Christianity. I found that Raskolnikov had been a law school student forced to drop out, and unfortunately I could relate to the way he’d been trying to avoid his landlord. I caught on to the character development when I found him donating what little money he had, only to struggle with urges to take it back. Again I found him riding the gray line, on the one hand trying to defend a drunken woman on a bench, only later to observe him wrestling with the notion of carrying “IT” out, in reference to what everyone knows as his intention to snuff out a miserly pawnbroker.

Raskolnikov anxiously awaits to enact his horrible deed, Book I, Chapter VII.

Arriving to the first of four dream sequences, I caught a glimpse of the brutality of the day and age, the severe beating of an animal amid raucous onlookers, where the nihilistic characteristic of the text begins to show its true colors. Dostoevsky takes his time, reiterating the nastiness, as he tends to reiterate many of the concepts he explores, which may serve well to explain why his work is considered “literature” and not just some hastily contrived genre plot.

As a person living close to the San Francisco Bay Area, I couldn’t keep myself from the images that came unexpectedly to mind as I made it through the first seven chapters. The novel is yet another one of those text which exemplifies the world of people struggling, trying to live, trying to survive — and I’m forced to consider the current epidemic of homelessness in California, just as perverse and disgusting as it’s ever been in relation to the history of the world.

In Los Angeles, homelessness has increased by 16%, courtesy of CNN.

My reading wavered slightly as I was drawn to consider the situation as it stands, why it is that people still have to suffer on such scales; but then I was intrigued when Dostoevsky humanized his novel’s nihilistic traits when he described the downtrodden in terms of statistical data:

“A certain percentage, they tell us, must every year go…that way…to the devil, I suppose, so that the rest may remain chaste, and not be interfered with. A percentage! What splendid words they have; they are so scientific, so consolatory…. Once you’ve said ‘percentage’ there’s nothing more to worry about. If we had any other word… maybe we might feel more uneasy…”

Decades and decades have passed since the construction of this mystifying narrative, and life is as deplorable for millions as anyone can imagine. My ventures throughout the world of literature seemed plagued by this recurring phenomenon of depicted destitution. From Gulliver’s encounter with economic disparity to the harrowing trials of Mary Barton, from the nightmare world of Oliver Twist to the skid row violence of the Jago. Great literature, for some reason, draws forth suffering and the awful plights of humanity, where humanity itself comes off as ever persistent in its endeavor to remain inhumane.

For as long as the dilemma has plagued the earth, the problem of gross income disparity and squalor among the masses seems to be the one aspect of humankind that no scholarly institution wants to scrutinize scientifically — and I mean in serious terms of problem solving. Of course it gets documented and governmental bodies beat around the bush with ideas, how to throw money at the crises as they increase. And clearly it all makes for great literary material, yet with the ongoing and expanding growth of tent cities in America, rendering our landscapes to emulate the kinds of sights we might imagine among the torrid lands of India, the problem seems to bear a semblance to the problem of gun control — it keeps rearing its ugly head, yet not a thing is ever done to combat the problem, so that the atrocities can never happen again.

Where slums are embedded into the landscape, tied to the distant past, lasting long into the future, America follows suit, courtesy of Eco-Business.

One segment of Dostoevsky’s text states something along the lines of the inevitable nature of reality, that certain groups must suffer, but seriously, is this still a viable way to view the matter? Look at all the monumental tasks we’ve accomplished as human beings, but still we can’t figure out how to assist our fellows on the most fundamental levels of existence? Something is, and has been, forever — amiss.

The lower depths: The Flophouse, 1889. V. Makovskii. Istoriia russkogo
iskusstva, ed. E. Grabar (Moscow, 1964), vol. 9. pt. 1, 341.

Of course we love our genre novels, the mystery killer on the loose, the lovers blind and struggling until they finally connect, the tropes that drive paranormal writers into their horror movie deals. Reading novels like Crime and Punishment by contrast makes it difficult to avoid falling into the trap of distinguishing standard plot writing from works of literary merit. If we compare the phenomenon to great art, then surely we can understand how Caravaggio’s works are simply intense paintings, not to be compared with the novice attempts of some student painting fruit during their first few weeks of art school. Dostoevsky tells it like it is, such that the material etches itself into the brain, far from the possibilities of being forgotten.

Caravaggio’s “David and Goliath” (1599) next to anonymous bowl of fruit, for comparison.

The perception of all art is, indeed, subjective, but if we consider that a writer might’ve written a screenplay over the course of a week for a television movie, compared to the months and months that it took to construct a novel like Crime and Punishment, then the difference is in the level of time and effort invested in any given work. Dostoevsky’s novel is a fascinating character study that ventures through the toughest of concepts to pin down, the morality of any given act, yet its participation in the examination of the human condition on even larger scales must be, at least, a portion of the reason why life hasn’t passed for me, before I had the chance to indulge in its magnificence, even as the work stands, most deservedly, among one of the greatest books ever to have been written.

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