Monday, August 8, 2016

Fear of aesthetics is the first sign of weakness! - notes on Crime and Punishment

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.


  1. Raskolnikov + amitriptyline = no book.

    I remember when I read C&P: the unevenness drove me crazy. I hated the way Svidrigailov went on and on and on. I've read a lot more Dostoyevsky since then. I wonder how the book would seem to me now. The Chernyshevsky mockery is sore tempting, I tell you.

  2. If you do read the novel, go for Ready's version. It is something else. Dostoevsky for our time. I hope he does more.

    I think, after reading all of that other Dostoevsky, C&P would look quite different, certainly of a piece with the rest of his work, although it is stripped down, even efficient, compared to the big novels that followed.

    Maybe I'll write about the Chernyshevsky stuff. I don't know. I have no idea what I'm doing next.

  3. Dostoevsky is still influencing popular culture:

  4. He seemed to smile, though a smile was the last thing it seemed.

    That's a great example of a sentence that works better in the original but is had to translate in a way that doesn't make it sound demented. The Russian is: "Он как будто улыбнулся, но как будто это была и не улыбка." There are two very Russian idioms here: как будто [kak budto], either 'as if/as though' or 'apparently/seemingly,' and и [i] 'and' in a position where it doesn't mean 'and' but more a shading of 'as well.' So we get "He kak budto smiled, but kak budto it was i not a smile," which you might render "It was as if he smiled, but it was as if it also wasn't a smile," or "He seemed to smile, but at the same time it didn't seem like a smile," or even "His apparent smile might not have been a smile at all."

    In general, Dostoevsky's style is easy to mock but works a lot better than you'd expect. It's certainly not the crystalline prose of Pushkin or Chekhov, but it suits the stories he tells.

    1. (Er, that should be "hard to translate." And me a copyeditor!)

  5. Easy to mock, and fun to mock, and necessary to mock, so I can get it out of the way here. Some of suits, some of it none of us would miss.

    The page from which that lovely, demented line comes is one of the worst:
    "shouted... asked in alarm... shouted... looked with mistrust and amazement... said, rather strangely... seemed to smile... added, just like that... shrieked... asked, rather strangely... his vague reply... his pale face betrayed a keen resolve..." Etc. Hoo boy.

    Dostoevsky would have made an extraordinary film director, assuming he didn't drive his actors off the set.

  6. A lot of interesting ideas regarding C&P float around the interwebs.

    One of them being that Sonia Marmaladova is a submissive masochist (and so is her father); both of them enjoy humiliation and punishment.

    Rodion Raskolnikov begins the novel as a Nietzschean Overman wannabe, he ends up being the lowest thing to a true Nietzschean: a Christian, a member of the "religion of slaves". Submissive to a submissive streetwalker's instructions to "Go to the cross-roads, bow down to the people, kiss the earth, for you have sinned against it too, and say aloud to the whole world, 'I am a murderer.'" (A depiction of that compliance is how Tezuka Osamu, the god of manga, finished his own adaption of C&P).

    Raskolnikov's spirit is broken to a large extent by the sadistic way in which Porfiry Petrovich mentally tortures him during their conversations to get him to confess (think of the conversation between sadistic Hans Landa and Perrier La Padite to get the poor farmer to confess for another example of the continued influence of C&P in popular culture).

  7. Dostoevsky''s novels practically beg for these kinds of psychological interpretations. Any help in stabilizing these weird shifting characters is welcome.

    The Nietszche parallels are so strange - the horse, especially the horse.

    The manga version looks fascinating.

  8. My one and only reading of C & P was in that Bantam edition, but not the pharmacological premium edition. I like the Ryder self-portrait cover - I think it works well on this novel. I read some of Ready's translation in the store and thought it was pretty good, but HATE the cover; the cartoon image and "The Shining"-level quantities of red blood are quite unattractive and not especially appropriate.

  9. I like the back cover, with the grotesque horse abuse scene, more than the front.

    1. I don't believe I ever turned the book over to look at the back... next time I see it I will.

  10. If I write about the dream sequences tomorrow, I'll put up the back cover.

  11. I think Etrafon could replace Natashya’s soup and in general obviate the need for books.

    Uses (internet site)
    This medication is used to treat depression occurring with other mental/mood disorders (such as anxiety, agitation, schizophrenia). This medication is a combination of a tricyclic antidepressant (amitriptyline) and an antipsychotic medication (perphenazine). Together, they restore the balance of certain natural chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin). This medication helps you to have a better mood and sense of well-being, think more clearly, and feel less nervous, so that you can take part in everyday life.

    Utopian ideation could well be mitigated. We notice the fugue state in which Roskolnikov wanders the streets and his omens. ‘Oh here I am, that’s good, very good, this is meant’.

    I like the stage directions in the writing in that it emphasizes the auto observation of the feverish mind. ‘Ha ha, we’re all fools of course’. Yes, yes I see I am bound to write more, much more. (he mutters wryly, half to himself, but still aware that out of the corner of his eye he can see very little and even that is confused)

    1. Dr Etrafon Etrafonovich Etrafonnikov endorses the Raskolnikov treatment.

  12. Dostoevsky is acting out the scene for me - every gesture, every line reading. On the one hand, he should trust me more, on the other hand, what a performance.