We have a bookish curiosity in the house, a paperback Bantam “gift edition” of Constance Garnett’s translation of Crime and Punishment (1866). There it is on the left, atop the recent U.S. Penguin edition of Oliver Ready’s awesome new translation.
The gift is from the Schering Corporation, “makers of ETRAFON®.” It is a premium given to doctors by pharmaceutical salesmen. Please pause for a moment to remember the vanished world of the 1970s, when pharma reps gave doctors not golf junkets or cash bribes, but a classic novel that “contains some clinical descriptions of an interesting and highly complex cluster of symptoms.”
And the novel features exactly that, along with a lot else. I read Garnett’s version a long time ago, and reading Ready's version this time I found that I remembered a lot but had completely forgotten anything not directly connected to the central plot – the law student Raskolnikov’s murder, apparently for theoretical reasons, of a hideous old pawnbroker and, by inevitable accident, her innocent idiot daughter; his pursuit by a bumbling, or clever, or both, police detective; his salvation by a hooker with a heart of gold, a device that has not aged well and is not much better in Dostoevsky’s hands.
I wonder how many readers have come at Crime and Punishment as a mystery novel or crime novel without worrying much – perhaps skimming – the more sentimental or digressive or peculiar parts. It’s a terrific crime novel. The murder, the psychology of the killer – so much more complex than anything Poe ever tried – and the police interrogations, all terrifically effective stuff. And memorable.
But this is the part of the novel that is reinforced, that is frequently mentioned by other writers in all sorts of contexts. Maybe I am remembering them, not Dostoevsky. I did not remember the chapter (V.1) that is full of mockery of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, nor the nightmarish breakdown of the prostitute’s mother, nor the “Svidrigailov in Nighttown” chapter. Crazy scenes, big, wild scenes, uniquely Dostoevskian. Dostoevsky’s many tics would drive me nuts, then a great scene would blast the annoyances away.
Tics meaning, for example and especially, the incessant shrieking and howling, and the constant stage directing of speech and facial expressions:
‘Brother! What are you doing to your mother?’ she whispered, eyes burning with indignation.
He gave her a heavy look.
‘Callous, spiteful egoist!’ shrieked Dunya. (IV.3, 293)
That’s from maybe the worst two-page stretch in the novel, as far as “whispered hotly” and “said, rather strangely” and “said suddenly” goes, the sort of thing that is pounded out of fiction writers today as simultaneously too detailed and too vague. Or maybe this is the best stretch, since it contains this, which I love:
He seemed to smile, though a smile was the last thing it seemed. (292)
Once bad writing is pushed far enough, it is no longer bad but inspired, audacious, even, that “highly complex cluster of symptoms” we call art.
Page numbers refer to Oliver Ready’s translation, the first new one in a long time. It is energetic and zingy compared to Garnett. It is great fun.
The post’s title is from VI.7, 487.