What I Just Read – Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is too famous for you not to have heard of it.  Philistines.  It should also be noted that I’m about to begin graduate work on Russian history.

The only word I could think of when asked how I was doing with this book was “slogging”.  You might notice that the last book review I wrote was in February and that it is now June.  That is a good indicator of how much trouble I had reading Crime and Punishment.  Every time I would pick up the book and begin reading I would almost immediately feel exhausted, and when contemplating the choice between playing a game I was thoroughly bored with or picking up C&P, I would usually opt for the game.  This is certainly not my first run in with “classic” literature, or Russian literature, and I have dealt with a number of both groupings that have entertained me, as well as a number that have similarly felt more like work than leisure, but given the praise for this novel I was not expecting it to be so tough to work through.

I would say that the trouble sprang from a variety of problems I had with the book.  For one, I’m not sure that even the best English translation of a Russian work loses something, as every one I’ve read always feels slightly off and a bit stiff in its wording.  And while the 19th Century style of hinting at the scandalous (cursing, sex, etc.) rather than state it explicitly led most classic authors to be more subtle and force their readers to think about what they were reading more, but when you cannot engage in the story this deeper analysis leads less to the previously mentioned feeling of exhaustion.  This was definitely exacerbated by Dostoevsky’s method of having all of his characters go off onto long speeches, usually either on social philosophy or some sort of banal, rambling story about nothing at all meant to indicate the characters state of mind.  In addition, the characters are all exceptionally tough to like, even when they are relatable.  The women are for the most part shrill, needy and prone to hyperbolic emotional fits, while the men are either manic, nervous pricks or stuffy, argumentative bores.  I was never especially engaged in the social, moral and dramatic tensions in story because I couldn’t give half a damn if any of the characters lived or died.

This is not to say that I didn’t appreciate what Dostoevsky was attempting.  The poverty, suicide, drunkenness, madness, instability, misery and so on found in his St. Petersberg are very effective criticisms of the Imperial Russian world and the Victorian European city as a whole, and the various ideologues that show up as the embodiments of their philosophies taken to the extreme do an excellent job of picking out the flaws in the world views that held sway (and in some cases still do).  Dostoevsky understands human nature and works very hard to point out to the reader that no abstract idea can hold up perfectly in the real world.  Rationalist philosophy confuses the young to believe themselves the next Napoleon, so gifted by destiny that they can murder and steal without concern, while Marxist ideas of overturning the social structures of the bourgeoisie lead the zealots to demand that their wives take lovers.

In general, I felt that Crime and Punishment felt like a book to be read in an English course.  It has a few very effective moments and some incredible insights into philosophy and humanity, but reading it will leave you feeling burnt out and apathetic to the characters.

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