Friday, February 4, 2011

The Reading List: Crime and Punishment

A Note on the Text

I read the 1964 Norton Critical Edition of Crime and Punishment, because that’s the copy I happened to grab for $1.25 at a used book sale. The preface begins like so:
Our aims in choosing an English version of Crime and Punishment were to find a translation which represents accurately, in contemporary English, Dostoevsky’s nineteenth-century Russian original; which is couched in the style corresponding, in today’s English, to Dostoevsky’s text; which distorts neither through modernization nor Victorianisms; and which is readable in its own right, instead of sounding like a translation.
What, now? First of all, I find the word “find” a little puzzling. Perhaps I’m na├»ve to think that a major critical edition would involve actually commissioning a new translation, but “finding” a good translation makes it sound like they just toddled down to the library to see what was there. But no, they have a list of criteria that they used to select from among the existing translations. Let’s take a look! (1) it should be literal (“represents accurately”) but (2) not literal (“readable in its own right, instead of sounding like a translation”). It must not distort the original by (3) using period English (“Victorianisms”) or by (4) using modern English (“modernization”) (although it should, however, (5) use modern English (“today’s English”)).

You can see that these guys had a very difficult job! They must have been tied up in theoretical knots trying to apply this scrap-heap of moderation in all things! Except, let’s face it: probably Norton had an option on a certain translation or the editor had a favorite translation, and very little “finding” was actually done.

Crime and Karamazov

So by whatever means, we end up with Dostoevsky as channeled by Jessie Coulson, in 1953, and since I don’t know Russian I will never really know whether it’s Dostoevsky or Coulson who is the turgid one. My difficulties with The Brothers Karamazov, the very first book in this project – I read it from August 2007 to January 2008 – point a circumstantial finger at Dostoevsky, but I know the rules of evidence and am trying not to let the defendant’s prior record prejudice the proceedings.

Having said that, Crime shares quite a bit in common with Brothers. Both are saturated with Dostoevsky’s psychological insights, which are often quite acute; with his theories of moral philosophy, which are (reasonably enough) quite 19th-Century in their preoccupations; and with his enthusiasm for redemption through suffering, which is a common enough concept but one I’ve always frankly found a bit odd.

Like Brothers, Crime and Punishment doesn’t really get moving until the halfway point. Or, perhaps it would be kinder to say it picks up a lot of momentum as the plot develops! And I’m not being as glib as I sound, either; although I read the first half out of mere duty, during the second half I was sufficiently engrossed that I would have finished the book even if you gentle readers weren’t watching.

Then too, for as much as Dostoevsky is often a keen observer of what makes people tick, his characters in Crime and Punishment, as in The Brothers Karamazov, spend an awful lot of time in weirdly extreme psychological states. They are forever falling into emotionally-induced fevers or fits, or wandering through the streets at night with no memory of how they came to be where they are. I don’t really recognize this kind of behavior from my own life-experience, which makes it hard to emotionally identify with Dostoevsky’s characters.

The Plot – in which section SPOILERS will abound!

Crime and Punishment is a sociological novel set in the bustling city of St. Petersburg, but for all that it also has a bit of a parlor-room feel to it. There are only a handful of significant characters, and they are constantly bumping into each other over the course of the plot in a string of coincidences that would make Charles Dickens blush.

Here’s the barest possible summary: a depressed college boy, Raskolnikov, kills a pawnbroker and then feels funny about it.

There are naturally a number of subplots. The protagonist has a complicated relationship with a family that has been forced into poverty and degradation by the father’s alcoholism, and ends up more or less attached to the eldest daughter, a prostitute with an air of saintly innocence. His mother and sister come to town so that the latter can make a somewhat mercenary marriage that Raskolnikov disapproves of. A sort of proto-detective suspects Raskolnikov of the murder, but is unable to produce much in the way of evidence. But to a certain extent, this is all window-dressing, stuff that happens to mark time while Raskolnikov feels funny about what he did.

The Meaning, as far as I could tell – which section also contains thinly veiled spoilers!

And “funny” – peculiar funny, not ha-ha funny – is how he feels. He is not remorseful, at least not at a conscious level. The knowledge of his crime, however, makes it impossible for him to resume normal relationships with the people around him, even if they do not suspect him. Now philosophically – for we are told that Dostoevsky always wrote philosophically – there is a problem with the notion that taking life will cause an irrevocable break between the murderer and society. That problem is, it’s not true. Murderers generally get caught, or occasionally don’t; what they are not generally known for is confessing their murder due to a sense of acute alienation. But perhaps real-life murderers find other routes to redemption through suffering.

Raskolnikov kills, we gradually learn, out of a conviction that he is someone special, a “Napoleon” to whom ordinary laws of human conduct need not apply. Think of the frat boys in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rope,” except wild-eyed and poor. Nietzsche notwithstanding, this kind of thinking hardly needs a staunch rebuttal, and to the extent that Dostoevsky works at skewering the Napoleon concept he is essentially making a strong stand against psychopathology. This is not exactly going out on a limb.

Good and Evil Bad

For my money, the two most memorable moments in C&P are, first, the frank confession of Marmeladov (the alcoholic) of his inability to keep himself from destroying his loved ones. It is as stark a picture of the destructive force of addiction as I have seen. The other is the pursuit of Raskalnikov by Porfiry, the proto-detective who, lacking physical evidence, cordially messes with his suspect’s mind in an attempt to trick him into spilling the beans.

So sure, there is much that is interesting and even compelling about Crime and Punishment. Still, I finished the book a bit puzzled about what elevates it to the status of a classic. The psychology of crime has been more accurately and more entertainingly thought through in an entire genre of crime and detective fiction in the nearly 150 years since Fyodor Mikhailovich put down his pen. The philosophical issues addressed in the book seem pretty antique, and if there is magic in the Russian prose it clearly doesn’t always translate well.

So, why are we still reading this book? Perhaps one of you learned gentle readers can school me on this point. Have at.


Michael5000 said...

Um, milfs I guess? But really, this is pretty off-topic.

lauren b said...

I've been looking forward to your thoughts on this! (C&P, not milfs.)

Crime and Punishment is another of those books I haven't read in 20 years. Your review inspires me to read it again. I always admired the unabashed spirituality in his writing, the way he at times bats away tawdry concerns of plot and character and dedicates whole chapters to arcane philosophical debates. It's at once rigorous and self-indulgent.

And his obsession with suffering: he wrote in order to convince himself that suffering was inherently meaningful, revelatory. I'm not sure whether he succeeded.

"The knowledge of his crime makes it impossible for him to resume normal relationships..." "Raskol" means "schism," sorry if you already knew that. Dostoyevsky couldn't resist meaning-laden names like this (cf. Prince Myshkin, "Mousie"), which for me always brings a leavening, almost whimsical element to the turgid stories. Not sure if he meant it that way.

Re: translation. Dostoyevsky's prose is unspeakably dense, recondite, and elegant, which makes even the most straightforward passages sound harrowing or transcendent. And I do mean unspeakable: he uses participles and other constructions that no one ever uses in contemporary spoken Russian (and that few used in his day). In order to decipher a single sentence you have to locate the participle, figure out its aspect, find its object--which might turn out to be another participle buried in a clause a few lines back. And all at once you find it's five in the morning and you've only got through a page and a half of text.

I'm plowing through B. Karamazov now, and won't look at your review of same until after I've done.

Thanks for sharing your progress and views.

Michael5000 said...

Well done, Lauren B, and thank you! That was a much more productive contribution than Anonymous up there.

Michael5000 said...

Sez here that F.D. was at one point actually lined up for a firing squad before his sentence was commuted to a prison term in Siberia. I guess that would give a fellow a new perspective on redemption through suffering, or at the very least on suffering.

mrs.5000 said...

OK, I'm officially embarked (six pages in) on rereading this, and unless any kind readers argue persuasively otherwise I'm also going with the Jessie Coulson translation.

And what I like, already, and remember liking in past readings of Dostoevsky, is the close-up slow-motion trainwreck of mental machinery. Right on the first page, you get, "He was not really afraid of any landlady..." then a very long sentence about how he is actually avoiding her. And the next paragraph is, in its entirety, "This time, however, he reached the street feeling astonished at the intensity of his fear of his landlady." So to me that's like hearing a very long screech followed by a thump, but Raskolnikov himself is apparently oblivious. I'm not sure if Dostoevsky's characters are "realistic" but they're certainly compelling. This might not be a accurate look at the psychology of crime and its aftermath, but then, say, I don't know that Ulysses gives us a completely believable account of a day in Dublin. And I don't much care.

Jenners said...

After my experiences with the Brothers K, nothing -- sort of being threatened with actual physical violence against me or my loved ones -- would induce me to read Dostoyesky again. (And, fortunately, that seems extremely unlikely to happen.)

Michael5000 said...

Mrs.: To spoil a little, a similar item I liked but at a larger scale is how Rasky is enraged that his sister's suitor has the philosophy that a man should marry below his station out of charity; but we learn that he was once engaged to his landlady's sickly daughter on the exact same principle. The parallel is never explicitly drawn, it just sits there waiting to be noticed.

Jenners: If you don't read Crime and Punishment, I'm coming after you with a meathook.

Elaine said...

I always suspected there was repressed violence in people who keep Teddy Bears around.

Michael5000 said...

I'm just trying to motivate.