Monday, 27 May 2013

The Classics Club - Crime and Punishment, by F. Dostoyevsky

I read Crime and Punishment by F. Dostoyevsky in a readalong organised by  Unputdownables over a period of three months.  This is, in my opinion, the best way to read such a chunk of classic Russian literature - in a rythme that is manageable, with lots of individual perspectives heard on a plot written in a remarkable style and taking place in an era and a society that are mostly foreign to us.  

And yes, Dickens writes about similar circumstances but I find his writing style more "understandable".  Also, the British reality is perhaps nearer my vision of past history in Europe.  In any case, the fact that several people read this at the same time, with different translations (also a great way to learn different aspects of life depending on the translator's sources) and different annotations shedding light to background information, really proved helpful and made such a great book easy to read as well.

(Another fun part of a readalong is that, inevitably, the stop point each week will usually be at a bent in the story that one cannot abide with! How many times I had to force myself not to think about reading the next part, just to see what the last scene would reveal...)

Russia, mid-19th century. Our main hero, Raskolnikov, is evidence of a desperate society. He's estanged from his family and the little money he receives he almost immediately spends. He's also estranged from the rest of the world, and feels he's not suited to work. This is a problem -- he can not go on living like this and a solution will have to be found as soon as possible. 
The first part of the novel also serves as an introduction to the Russia of that era.  Raskolnikov is not at ease with himself, that is clear – but then I read about Dostoyefsky’s life and his experience of being in an execution camp, and witnessing a fellow inmate go mad — he was never the same afterwards, with bouts of epilepsy. Given the stark living conditions at the time, I can well imagine Raskolnikov having witnessed similar situations and having “taken” the decision to abstain from everything. 

The novel is full of descriptions of poverty and addiction that are heart-breaking, and I applaud Dostoyefsky for remaining true and not presenting everyday life through a coloured lens. We have to remember how lucky we are and how bad things can be (even to this day). Continuing on this, I’m also surprised to see how much things have not changed: while the standard of living has certainly improved since those days, I can still see a lot of people forgetting their problems/sorrows in drinking, and how people still get married for money. This lack of human contact, warmth, family closeness and support is evident even today around me. (Haven’t we learned anything from the past?)
The novel is also full of interesting little tidbits: the yellow ticket (yellow identity card for prostitutes), the reference to “a nigger in a plantation” (how did poverty-stricken 19th century Russians know what was happening in the US of that time?)

In any case, Raskolnikov decides that the solution to his financial problems will be the death of his landlady Alyona Ivanovna, who is also his money lender.  He has a dream sequence that I thought would make clear the incorrectness of the scheme.  But no, Raskolnikov has created a world of fallacy around him. I always thought that his conscience was eminent in him - yet, he turns out to think of himself above all others! All his theories about why he’s poor, why he’s not studying, why he’s drawn away from society, slowly give way to a very calculating person who gets away with murder (pun intended...) but then – he pretends to be a victim of fate... a very disagreeable character indeed! 

The deed done (with an extra dead body, just because), Raskolnikov is slightly “redeeming” himself and becomes disconnected with the world around him. He gives away some of the money and hides the rest - his disdain is evident for having wanted the money in the first place and committed the crime.  But he also wants to find out if he can really get away with it - with murder!

Raskolnikov almost immediately blurs out his confession. Of course people will not believe him! But I was intrigued that he went back to the house of the murders and, upon seeing that everything was being made up, he was puzzled: 
“he somehow fancied that he would find everything as he left it, perhaps the corpses in the same places on the floor”
So, is he disappointed that his actions did not have a lasting effect? The murders have completely changed his life but apparently not everyone else’s – what a let down...
Enter the two women in Raskolnikov's life:  Sonya, a daughter who has to sell herself so that there is money on the table.  It was very interesting to see Sonya's character developping: in stark contast to Raskolnikov, she may be facing similar dire situations, but she managed to emerge full of grace. And Dunya, his sister, who when faced with an attacker, has every “moral right” to kill him when she could – she is in self-defense. But she just did not have it in her to carry through with it. And this is what distinguishes her from her brother. One can have all the arguments needed for killing, but at the end of the day the importance is whether one can go through with killing another human being. No Napoleonean aspirations, no desire to “clean up” society of scoundrels will ever justify pulling the trigger and kill according to Dunya. Not so for Raskolnikov, who is still living in his dream world, where he looks down on everyone else. A little social remark perhaps by Dostoyefsky — women in full control, while the lead man only knows how to faint?

Dostoyefsky gives  us a superb insight into his views and his implication with the philosophical movements of the time.  When Raskolnikov writes an article on crime, we are introduced to the concept of Nihilism: actions are morally sound if they lead to the greatest possible “happiness” (Raskolnikov’s reasoning of the murder).
The rationalising of the act however gets worse:  from the logic of commiting the murder to help society get rid of Alyona Ivanovna – because she was a parasite, Raskolnikov now says he just wanted a dare – no ulterior motive, just a dare to prove he’s superhuman! We are left with a dangling question of whether or not justice will be served...

This complicated story of Raskolnikov and his entourage, with the question of whether or not he will confess, will remain so until literally the last sentence.  Never has a chunk of literature kept me interested and devouring the pages like this one.  An excellent work of fiction with little gems of serious research, philosophy and psychology.  Well done Dostoyefsky!

I’m glad I’m not the only one from the readalong group who did not like the Epilogue. I felt cheated – such a great complicated story, just to be “fixed” with simplicity. So I will regard the novel until chapter 6. 

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