“Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”
I have been meaning to write a review of Dostoevsky's masterful Crime and Punishment for ages but kept putting it off for mainly two reasons: 1) procrastination. 2) my ineptitude at tackling such a complex novel. Now over two years have gone by and still I find myself in the exact same situation, struggling to come up with anything that might constitute a half-decent review that would do this novel justice. Then it dawned on me: I've been going about this all wrong. For the sake of posterity, this quintessential Russian classic has mesmerized readers for generations, firmly establishing its status as one of the greatest novels ever written. Thus, it would be an exercise in futility for me to attempt any sort of critical analysis that might shed some light on a particular aspect of the text that has yet to be recognized, since, an interminable amount of scholarly research has already been expended in that area. I could elaborate on the many ideas and various plots found in this thematically rich novel but that would be redundant as well. Therefore, it seems prudent to not focus on writing an elaborate essay but rather, present a less 'formal' review; one that is more delegated towards personal opinion. I can handle that.
First off, Crime and Punishment stands as one of the best novels I have ever read. Insert any number of superlatives here that typically follow such praise bestowed upon a literary work: powerful, brilliant, mind-blowing, beautiful, a work of genius! Indeed, all of these labels of approbation would apply. Second, as far as psychological character studies go, it is difficult to top Dostoevsky here. I have always found anti-heroes to be far more compelling; ones who battle their own personal demons, present an ethical conundrum, undergo an internal struggle as a means to rationalize their immoral behavior. The protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (those Russian names sure are long and difficult to pronounce), is fascinating in this regard because even though he is despicable for having committed multiple murders (not a spoiler, the plot is well known), Dostoevsky manages to create sympathy towards him with great skill; or at least, make the reader question Raskolnikov's morality by exploring his troubled consciousness. As a rationalist, he attempts to justify murder but is driven to delirium, paranoia, even madness. His psychological turmoil is conveyed with such a striking intensity that is often exhausting on the part of the reader because the story is told primarily from Raskolnikov's point of view; thus, given direct access to his mind, we as readers, are placed in his shoes -- his suffering becomes our own. Raskolnikov struggles with the unspeakable evil of his crimes and there are plenty of religious ideas bouncing around but salvation does not come easy for him.
On a final note, this brings us to the epilogue, which in turn, tends to be quite divisive amongst readers. Some will argue that it feels incongruous with the rest of the novel because of the dramatic shift in tone from nihilistic despair to hopeful optimism, emphasized by the ostensibly preposterous 'love conquers all' scenario. However, taking a closer look at the epilogue, I do not believe Dostoevsky's intentions were to show romantic love as the primary source for Raskolnikov's redemption, but more-so, the losing of himself in another person. Maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic and perhaps it does sound cheesy, but that does not make it any less true, at least from my own philosophical outlook. Prior to this pivotal moment, Raskolnikov was trapped within his own existential crisis, a prisoner of his own mind, living in a perpetual state of limbo. Lonely and depressed, he murders to release all of the frustration, inner strife and self-hatred plaguing his mind. This ennui and passivity is finally transformed into action. The pawnbroker just happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Love can be inspiring, a powerful motivator and for the lucky ones, a reason to live. It's human nature to love and want to be loved.
My initial apprehension in reading Crime and Punishment was largely based on the fact that it is a Russian text and I had a lot of difficulty deciding which translation would be most preferable. Rest assured, I do not harbor any xenophobic tendencies but there is no denying my predilection towards English-written literary works. I did a lot of snooping around the Internet, even posted on message boards asking others who were more familiar with the works of Dostoevsky, which versions they preferred -- all in the attempt to figure out which translations were considered the most 'accurate' in terms of keeping the original authorial voice intact. Unfortunately, I was unable to discover any general consensus on the issue. The most common response to my question was that it all came down to personal preference. Nonetheless, two big names did stand out though (well, technically three): Constance Garnett vs. the duo of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Garnett was one of the first translators of Russian texts into English while Pevear and Volokhonsky have gained international fame for their more recent translations. After much debate, I finally chose to go with the latter. As someone who is not fluent in Russian, I have no idea whether or not their version holds sway over the others. Translations are a fickle business; they can never be perfect. Every language has its own unique linguistics with various syntax, semantics, phonetics, speech patterns etc. I'm no linguistics expert but reading Shakespeare in Chinese will obviously be interpreted completely different; the stresses in the lines in disarray; many of the subtle nuances in the language lost or non-existent. Furthermore, the translator always brings a certain level of bias towards any given text, even on a subconscious level. Their interpretation of the author's meaning may be slightly altered by their own personal views or perspectives on various issues; perhaps certain words or phrases of one language don't exist in the other, so they have to decide on the most viable substitutions. Once again, bias.
Regardless of all these complications, I still think Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky did an excellent job with their translation of Crime and Punishment because as far as I can tell, the emotional nuances were not compromised. The protagonist's agony and mental distress is palpable; the intense feeling of dread and hopelessness conveyed with unflagging fervor. For those who might be intimidated by the great Russian writers like Dostoevsky, cast aside your fears and take the plunge. Like myself, you might happen to discover a whole new world of literature to explore. The Russians can be a temperamental bunch, that's for sure. But if you like your novels dark and brooding, full of penetrating existentialist and religious discourse, look no further than the Mr. Dostoevsky to deliver the goods. Crime and Punishment would be a perfect place to start.
This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.