Review of “Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It says a lot about this Russian classic that the front matter in the book doesn’t say when it was originally published. I looked it up on Wikipedia; it was published (in Russian) as a series in 1866. This English translation was published in 1992. That is important because, as I’ve learned from other translations, the translators are the real authors of this novel. I will address this divided authorship below.

There were very few typos and grammatical errors, so hats off to Richard Paver and Larissa Volokhonsky. Since they have apparently won international acclaim for their translations, I have to assume that this is as close as an English translation can get to the intent of the author. Nevertheless, when I refer to the “author” below, I am necessarily including them in my comments.

This is a psychological thriller. The author gets into the head of the protagonist, not through a few well-chosen phrases and thoughts, but by using an omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter, we finally are convinced that Raskolnikov is obsessed by his crime, even if it requires the entire book (580 pages). The details about his life and who he encounters are excruciatingly rich. Despite this, I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel written more than 150 years ago, in another language. The story is conveyed (painfully) as a timeless examination of why some people commit heinous and stupid crimes. No thought goes unexplored in this quest for the very essence of Raskolnikov’s inner being, his interpretation of the meaning (or lack thereof) of life.

There is a hint as to why the story unfolds so circuitously in its original publication as a series of chapters. The author simply forgot. It is repetitive and the style changes inconsistently. Sometimes, the other characters are the center of the action, their thoughts shared as easily as the protagonist’s (thanks to an omniscient narrator who jumps between heads within a paragraph). Then, Dostoevsky seems to remember what he’s trying to do and returns to the central theme. Finally, confirming my skepticism about unnecessarily long novels, he wraps the whole story up with an epilogue. All the loose ends are ties up neatly in a bow, just as Tolstoy did with “War and Peace.” Maybe that’s the defining characteristic of Russian authors–ramble forever then, coming to their senses, they write a quick summary.

This would have been a good novel if it were half as long. There is simply too much repetition, and too many distracting, unimportant side stories that added nothing to the plot. However, despite being a barbarian (I didn’t study literature in college), I appreciate the frank look into the conditions in Czarist Russia that inevitably led to the Communist revolution and civil war (between the white and red communists). The plight of everyone except the wealthy was deplorable. Got it!

I would like to add that sometimes dialogue can be too realistic. This novel is a good example of that literary trap. Very few of the characters could complete a sentence, from beginning to end, without a few “well,” “ahem,” “sir,” and too many other realistic, but horribly distracting, interruptions before they (failed to) make their point. Whether intentional or not, the author conveys the fallibility of oral communication between people, even when they truly want to talk openly. This failure to communicate makes sense for Raskolnikov, who had plenty to hide, but less so for the other characters.

Tolstoy published War and Peace serially, but he chose a different approach, using multiple points of view for his characters. That novel is much easier to read, despite being more than twice as long, and it was published at about the same time (1869). So, I’m not opposed to Russian literature, just poorly written novels…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: