Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
|Scenes from Crime and Punishment|
by Viktor Semenovich Vilner (1971).
I've been meaning to re-read Crime and Punishment (Преступлéние и наказáние) for years: it was the first novel by Dostoyevsky I'd read and it seemed like everyone had read it (I seem to think it may have been on an A' Level syllabus at some point). Fact is, I didn't like it when I read it but I did however go on to read more of Dostoyevsky's works and loved them, so the plan was to revisit this, yet it sat for almost a decade without being re-read. Finally though, yes, I've re-read it and do seem to like it a little more the second time around.
It was first published in 1866 and immediately follows Dostoyevsky's much shorter Notes from Underground and it is almost as dark though there is some hope of redemption to it. It tells the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a law student living in absolute poverty in St. Petersburg. He is, at the beginning of the novel, very much on the edge, though on the edge of what we are uncertain. He is forced to pawn some of his possessions to the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna, and, whilst seeing all the poverty and degradation that surrounds him, he hears someone say that Alyona Ivanovna would be better of dead, as though she was a canker; the very cancer that pervades society and causes the ill. He agonises over this proposition, and plans to murder her; his decision making out of desperation is so realistic, it's actually sickening to read. Dostoyevsky continues to build the tension masterfully until the deed is done: Raskolnikov murders Ivanovna. He is caught in the act by her sister Lizaveta and so he murders her too.
What follows is the agonies of the soul: he covers his tracks just about, then has a nervous breakdown, falling into unconsciousness. He recovers, somewhat, and slowly but surely guilt and the fact he took two lives eats away at him. It is a psychological novel, a novel about the self or soul, something Virginia Woolf would later express her admiration for in The Russian Point of View:
The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Out of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.
It's a difficult book to read because Dostoyevsky's descriptions of Raskolnikov's anxiety and desperate struggle to justify his crime are so vivid. It is, as Woolf writers, a "seething whirlpool", I felt almost dizzy reading it at times. Unpleasant as it is, it's one of the greatest novels of the 19th Century portraying the effects of crime on the perpetrator, exploring ideas of punishment and redemption, and, like Notes from Underground, nihilism; an individual alienated from society and those closest to him. It's a masterpiece: reading it is to be in the presence of greatness, but, Lord, I do not like reading it. It is too good.