I read Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment when I was in the ninth grade, and I loved it. Heaven knows what I understood of it. Generations later, I have tried to read again all those novels that I devoured then – Karamazov, Demons, Idiots – and I could get nowhere. I found Dostoyevsky’s style repellant and impenetrable, with the exception of Notes from Underground, which has always been a favorite. Maybe it was the translation.
I am more than half through the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of this novel, and I am amazed at the novelty of the book, its outrageous inventiveness. The phrase I find myself coming back to is avant garde. It seems so, even now, after 140 years – fresh, challenging, bizarre, and direct. Compared to this, Dostoyevksy’s contemporary ‘realists’ such as Dickens (whom he loved), Turgenev (whom he loathed) and Flaubert (I don’t know what opinions of each other they entertained, but Flaubert and Turgenev were fast friends) seem almost pedestrian. The point of view shifts, the mood varies wildly, the characters often seem to speak to the reader directly, and there is no sense of a cool, omniscient consciousness directing the action. More like real life?
The novel observes a lot of the conventions of 19th century realism: the place and person names obscured with a hyphen as if to protect the identities of the real people; the fully realized portraits of the city, its classes, and the grit of everyday life – but it seems profoundly stagey, literally as if a play, not a novel, which makes it seem unrealistic at the same time. Characters enter, declaim, moan, howl, rave, and exit. So much of the action takes place in crowded rooms. People are forever making decisions, talking, arguing, and falling into reverie on stairs, going up and going down.
Unusual also is the recounting of dreams: they are utterly credible, in a way that I associate with writing of the 20th century only. Earlier writers tend towards romantic notions of what the dormant mind produces – Raskolnikov’s are completely believable, especially the first in which he imagines following a man, a man who knows his crime, a man who stops, turns, and waves to him from across the street, saying nothing.
Finally, Dostoyevsky gets the jump on all the existentialist notions that would become trite in generations to come. Listen to this deliciously funny, dark, exchange as Raskolnikov and Svidrigailov discuss the afterlife and eternity:
“We keep imagining eternity as an idea that cannot be grasped, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, imagine suddenly that there will be one little room there, something like a village bathhouse, covered with soot, with spiders in all the corners, and that’s the whole of eternity. I sometimes fancy something of the sort.”
“But surely, surely you can imagine something more just and comforting than that!” Raskolnikov cried out with painful feeling.
“More just? Who knows, perhaps that is just- and, you know, if I had my way, it’s certainly how I would do it!” Svidrigailov answered, smiling vaguely.
How many episodes of the Twilight Zone, how many adolescent rock lyrics, what pile of scripts and plays start with notions like this?
With the climate of political extremism being what it is these days, I think I just might get myself a copy of The Demons next.