Saturday, 28 April 2012

Crime, Punishment and Occasional Bewilderment

Well, cross that one off the bucket list. Finally. Last night I finished reading Crime and Punishment. It's taken a while, and I had to read two other books in the middle of it for a rest. It's not that Dostoyevsky's prose is denser and less accessible than that of any other 19th Century author – what really got me were the names. Allow me to explain.

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The crime in question is committed by the splendidly alliterative Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikoff (this is not a spoiler – the dramatis personae lists him as 'Student and Murderer'). Raskolnikoff kills an old moneylender and her sister in what initially appears to be a fairly amateurish robbery, and Dostoyevsky charts his consequent mental disintegration amidst a colourful cast of people with irritatingly similar names.

Perhaps I just haven't read enough Russian literature, but I found it difficult to keep track of Peter Petrovitch, Porphyrius Petrovitch and Elia Petrovitch (none of whom are related). The fact that some characters are known by as many as three different names or diminutives - I'm looking at you, Eudoxia/Dounia/Dounetchka - doesn't help either.

Once these minor hurdles are negotiated, C&P reveals itself as an intensely harrowing and human account of Raskolnikoff's encroaching insanity, and of the disastrous effects it has on his doting sister and mother. The crime takes place early in the narrative and is foreseen in a way that calls to mind the 'murderee' in Martin Amis' London Fields. The official 'punishment' is more or less an epilogue - Raskolnikoff's restless mind provides more punishment than any Siberian labour camp.

Eventually it emerges that Raskolnikoff isn't being driven mad purely by remorse or fear of capture. The student committed his crime to test an academic hypothesis, to see if he could join Napoleon amid the ranks of the übermenschen, to see if he could reject society's conventions and act purely in his own interests, even to the point of murder. Clearly, Raskolnikoff is not that kind of person, and he becomes increasingly exasperated by his own weakness and the fact that, in trying and failing to be like Napoleon, he has ruined himself.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
With a beard like that, who needs happiness?
To me, this was the most interesting aspect of C&P and yet it seemed like an underdeveloped sub-plot. Amid the misery and suffering which Dostoyevsky does so well, I would have liked to see more of this Borgesian idea of taking an intellectual curiosity to its monstrous extreme.

Other plot strands include alcoholic fathers, consumptive widows, misogynistic fiancées, starving children and the ubiquitous tart-with-a-heart, who follows the doomed Raskolnikoff almost literally to the ends of the earth. These threads are drawn together with breathtaking skill, although you might find yourself leafing backwards once in a while to remind yourself who on earth all these people are.

On the plus side Dostoyevsky's dialogue is remarkably accessible to the modern reader, particularly Raskolnikoff's feverish internal ruminations. His emotional turmoil is conveyed without apparent effort and the reader's empathy for the murderer is truly poignant. I've never murdered anyone, but now I know exactly what it feels like.

In short, C&P is a horrifying romp through a Dickensian carnival of human misery. There is, mercifully, a glimmer of redemption at the end of the trans-Siberian tunnel, but this certainly isn't a book for the faint-hearted.