BOOK | FICTION | LITERATURE
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT
by Fyodor Dostoevsky
RATING: ★ ★ ★
Posing myself as a Fyodor Dostoevsky fanboy for just about all my adult life.
Why is this a crime?
Because, in all honesty, I never really read Dostoevsky…until recently.
Well, I did pass my eyes over all the words of his NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND (some editions translate it as LETTERS FROM THE UNDERWORLD) back in my early twenties.
But as an early twenty-something, I didn’t stand a chance with Dostoevsky seeing that research has proven at that age brains aren’t yet fully developed. For all intents and purposes, according to science, someone in their early to mid twenties is still an adolescent. Which, in retrospect, explains many things about my life. And which begs the question, how can someone without a fully developed prefrontal cortex truly appreciate or fully comprehend something as complex and nuanced as Dostoevsky’s writing?
As I’ve come to find out, even with a fully developed prefrontal cortex Dostoevsky is still rather overwhelming and abstruse.
Unlike Franz Kafka, who I also first read in my early twenties, I never went back to Dostoevsky over the years. I don’t know why. Perhaps my adolescent twenty-something self did understand more of what he read than I now give him credit for. But over the years, I did revisit Kafka’s work – often – and his writing has been, and continues to be, what I consider a foundational pillar of my intellectual being (for better or worse). There are other writers, too, whom I consider foundational to my being. Writers such as Vonnegut, Hemingway, Kerouac, Camus (yes, all the stereotypical white male authors one would expect a stereotypical white male dude like me would admire), among others.
But even though I never went back to Dostoevsky, and even though I am quite sure my twenty-something adolescent self had no clue what the NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND was about, all throughout the years in my mind I regarded him to be just as fundamental to my core as the writers whom I just listed.
Again, I do not know why. Probably because, like I already confessed, I was just a poser who enjoyed thinking that he knew what the hell Dostoevsky was about.
In my defense, I don’t think I ever made a public spectacle of myself with any obnoxious proclamations of deep knowledge of his writings; nor did I ever engage in any self-righteous debates or arguments with someone who did know and understand Dostoevsky’s works.
No, I believe my fanboy-dom was not a public lie, it was more a self lie. Somehow, somewhere deep down in my subconsciousness I came to believe that Dostoevsky was important to me when in fact he wasn’t.
Only the idea of Dostoevsky was important to me.
That is my crime.
So what, then, is my punishment?
I feel tremendous guilt. For, after a lifetime of self-deception in believing that Dostoevsky’s work was deeply meaningful to me, I find that after rereading NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND (twice now) and finally reading CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, perhaps Dostoevsky’s most acclaimed work, I really do not enjoy his writing as much as I thought I did…or should.
What is wrong with me?
And in addition to my punishment of guilt, I fear I am about to feel the wrath from Dostoevsky’s worldwide, extremely devoted fan base (which includes amongst its global army none other than Pope Francis! I’m doomed…) for what I’m about to write.
Before I get into it, I’ll confess that I am quite certain any faults I find with Dostoevsky’s works are more than likely due to my lacking intellect than with him lacking any skill as a writer. (Hopefully that confession will subdue the wrath somewhat…but I doubt it.)
I’ll start out by saying that I truly enjoyed reading NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND, at least much more than I did CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. In fact, to me they are very similar in content and in feel — psychologically tormented, self-righteous, megalomaniac protagonists disillusioned by societal norms fall in love with young ladies of ill repute and take it upon themselves to attempt to reform the young ladies but in the end its the young ladies who reform the psychologically tormented, self-righteous, megalomaniac protagonists.
Okay, I admit that is a very superficial synopsis of both stories. And I also admit that it’s debatable whether the NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND protagonist was actually reformed at the end (but we do know he felt remorse for his behavior toward the young lady of ill repute and regretted denying her love).
That being said, it seems to me that NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND is what would be left of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT if CRIME AND PUNISHMENT had only been properly edited.
Now, I have no idea what the editing process was for the book; however, I do know that Dostoevsky was in debt for much of his writing life (due in part to an unfortunate gambling addiction and taking on the responsibility of caring for his brother’s family) and in an effort to make a quick buck he would whip out his books as fast as possible. Is this the cause for the book’s excessive use of words? Who’s to say?
However I will say CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is too long, much longer than it needs to be.
The beginning starts out great, though. The protagonist Raskolinkov is faced with a crime he feels compelled to commit: rid the world of an evil person through murder, steal her money and use the money to better himself, thereby bettering the world. He justifies his warped philosophical outlook on community service by comparing it to the actions of men like Napoleon. He believes that great men are not bound by societal norms, such as regarding murder as a crime. Had Napoleon not killed to meet his goals, he never would have been able to conquer Europe, assume the title of emperor, and implement the liberal reforms as he had. Raskolinkov believed that, like the Great Men of History, his act of murder would be justified by the great acts he would eventually perform.
Ends do justify the means.
The writing used to set this scene and to take us within the turmoil of Raskolinkov’s psychological debate within himself as he worked up the courage to commit the crime was both beautiful and genius.
It’s after this initial burst of beauty and genius that things get convoluted and overly expanded. It’s as if in the first one hundred pages or so Dostoevsky was channeled by Camus and displayed his exquisite tendency for existential starkness, and then for the next 350 pages he channeled Balzac and displayed his unfortunate tendency for excessive adornment.
In addition to being overly psychological and rambling, the book has too many characters, each overly psychological and rambling who, naturally, make the book even longer than it should be.
In my view, if Dostoevsky would have focused mostly on Raskolnikov and his psychological torment as a result of the crime he committed, as well as the trials and tribulations of his relationship with Sonia, the young lady of ill repute, then we would have a much better, less cluttered, far leaner book.
Instead we have to listen to the ramblings of ridiculous characters such as Porfiry, the story’s ridiculous detective — of course in a book dealing with murder there is a requirement for a detective but this guy has way too much dialogue, with too much of it not making much sense at all.
And he was strange, like he was trying to be Sherlock Holmes…but while performing as a circus clown.
I could go on listing characters who I believe could have been axed but I think my point has been made:
The book needs a good thrashing with a red pencil.
And what was with all the names? Do Russians really call a person by three different names all within the same block of narrative? If so, no wonder they seem so smart.
Speaking of names, I really like the name Raskolnikov. I have a habit of naming my pets after writers I like, but I think I’ll change up my convention a bit and name my next pet after him. Of course the pet would have his complete name: Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (which it seems in the book can be used in any order, or even each as a stand alone, if desired). But I would just call him “Raskol.” As in, “Here Raskol! Raskol! Bad Raskol!
Get it? Raskol, as in rascal?
Aside from its need for a trim, perhaps the biggest beef I have with the book is the ending.
Oh my God! We go through 400 pages or so of the back and forth and back and forth and back and forth of Raskolinkov’s psychological dilemma only to find out in that last few pages of this painfully dense tome that, through the love and dedication of Sonia, the young lady of ill repute, Raskolinkov, the psychologically tormented, self-righteous, megalomaniac protagonist, magically finds God and repents his sin. And we are led to believe that after he completes the seven years he has remaining on his Siberian sentence, he and his young lady of ill repute (formerly) will live happily ever after.
I about threw the book through the window after finishing it.
Look, I’ve nothing against finding God or for repenting one’s sins, but after putting me through over 450 pages of psychological madness, don’t give me some cheesy deus ex machina plot device at the book’s end.
I mean, come on.
That really hurt.
Okay, that’s enough. I’m already guilty in this article of what I accuse Dostoevsky of in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT:
Too many words.
So, to recap…
I committed the egregious crime of being a Dostoevsky poser and for fooling myself into thinking that he was important to my self development. My punishment for this crime is a lifetime of guilt for my foolish youthful false love since I now know, after having actually read his work, that he really isn’t all that I thought he was.
But there still must be a way for me to pay off my debt to society, right? There must be a way for me to reform myself so I can once again hold Dostoevsky in high regard?
Considering that I already confessed that any fault I find with Dostoevsky is probably due to my failings and not his, perhaps what I need to do is give him another chance. More specifically, I need to give CRIME AND PUNISHMENT another chance since I already said I enjoyed NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND and I’m already halfway through THE GAMBLER.
Maybe part of my problem with CRIME AND PUNISHMENT is not so much with Dostoevsky as it is with the translator. The edition I read was translated by Constance Garnett. From what I’ve discovered through a quick search is that the translation by the duo of Pevear and Volokhonsky is the way to go when it comes to reading Russian literature in English.
Maybe, after giving it some time and letting the book sink into my psyche for a while, I will revisit it again, this time reading Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation.
Maybe (hopefully) their version comes with significantly less words.
★ = Unreadable
★ ★ = Poor Read
★ ★ ★ = Average Read
★ ★ ★ ★ = Outstanding Read
★ ★ ★ ★ ★ = Exceptional Read