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Unimportant Musings

Where an amateur attempts at divining somewhat passable insights.

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War and Peace: Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear, Leo Tolstoy
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Review: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear

Did Fyodor Dostoevsky know what fame and glory, to raise his status even more long after his death, awaited him when he began writing? My curiosity extends also to other authors in the same ballpark. Even if he had only an inkling, that still had to have provoked from him no small amount of dread. Very little can be said about Crime and Punishment that hasn't already been better said. Opinions have been exhausted, their points repeated, whole books written, feathers ruffled, epiphanies begotten, minds changed, and school assignments given. It's enough to give anyone mental constipation. But you can only stare blankly at your blinking text cursor for so long before you're waking up in the morning and thinking it's a good idea to go around axing faces and sundries, so here's the rub: C&P is 11-star material. Anything else to that singular thought, which has launched yet more of the same but frenzied and wordier, is extraneous. The first sentence, in which our shifty-eyed antihero leaves his apartment building in a state of "[indecision]" towards some unnamed bridge, aroused my curiosity; the crime, Dostoevsky's description of which is as engaging and breathtaking as it is horrifying and even comical, secured my attention. If Dostoevsky were an airline pilot, don't expect the seat belt sign to go off anytime soon.

C&P wastes no time from the first page in acquainting us with its protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, a former university student, unemployed, and dirt-poor. To scrape by, he has no choice but to pawn off his belongings to Alyona Ivanovna, a terror of an old lady in the money-lending business who charges exorbitant rates and whose stinginess would outrage even Plyushkin. Abusing her sister is her favorite pastime. That she hasn't keeled over yet, preferably of both a violent heart attack and brain aneurysm, causes no end to all but everyone's vexation. A few pages ahead, Raskolnikov overhears two drunks lamenting just such a fact, and engaging in a philosophical back-and-forth about how, say, wouldn't it do society a world of good if this human paraquat were to be, say, bumped off, which our axe-murderer-to-be, having wrestled with exactly the same question, takes as enough encouragement to do what he has long decided must be done. Two dead bodies later, Raskolnikov has a Gob moment, and the rest of the book follows him amid a lot of hand-wringing, multiple changes of heart, several near-escape experiences, or, basically, the darndest things he says and does. It's no small surprise, with the way Raskolnikov is often so intensely interested in hearing more about the murders whenever they're brought up, and then so blatantly indifferent (guy literally turns his back and stares at walls) when the topic has moved on to something else, that his friends don't sniff out his culpability sooner.

Dostoevsky meant for C&P to be, according to his letter to his editor, "a psychological account of a crime," which is even reused almost as a nudge-wink in the book when Raskolnikov, explaining an article he wrote, says it examines "the psychological state of the criminal throughout the course of the crime." The premise alone is enough to get anyone's imagination tingling, but Dostoevsky's masterful execution took the book to new heights and cemented it, and himself, as one of the all-time literary greats. For his purposes, it doesn't nearly suffice that you hop gently into the deep end of the pool, but that you're romanced into taking a helicopter ride the pilot promises will take a scenic route around the world, over the bluest oceans, whitest mountains, and greenest forests, but is actually on the fast track to Belize to there eject you unawares into the Great Blue Hole. Any other definition of Dostoevskian immersion falls short. Raskolnikov's mindscape—before, during, and after the crime—is a place of frenetic energy and non-stop activity, electric with paranoia and anxiety. My hands itched at times for stress balls to squeeze. What tickled me pink was how much talk he talked ("he decided that in his own personal case... reason and will would remain with him inalienably throughout the fulfillment of what he had plotted", the very same reason and will that had deserted and doomed lesser criminals of the past), but how much walk he ended up bungling. Anyone with a healthy sense of humor can't not at least snort when, upon realizing he had forgotten to lock the door during the whole bloody affair, exposing the scene for those outside who may have cared to drop by, Raskolnikov flew in a panicky rush towards the door and hooked it. '"But no, again that's not it! I must go, go... " He unhooked the door, opened it[.]' It almost reads like a comedy skit.

The best part of C&P is Raskolnikov's nebulous motivation, which by Dostoevsky's design is constantly shifting and morphing, like that water wiggler toy you never could get a firm handle on to save your life. Crimes are committed usually because money talks, and at first, poverty seemed like the no-brainer driver of his actions. But wait, there's more! Raskolnikov has the unconventional, to put it lightly, belief that nature has neatly separated us into two categories, the first consisting of sheeple who color inside the lines, the other of "people proper" (no secret here who he lumps himself with) whose special extraordinariness grants them carte blanche to smear willy-nilly outside those lines, to "step over certain obstacles," provided (what are we, savages?) it has some benefit to society. If you're the next Newton, Einstein, or who-have-you, disposing of anyone who hinders your discoveries is perfectly permissible, and your conscience need not even be burdened afterwards. Great men, "the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Muhammads, the Napoleons, and so forth," have allowed themselves the same dubious privilege, but that power too can be accessed by anyone "a tiny bit off the beaten track," "a tiny bit capable of saying something new," at which train of thought Voldemorts of the world must be nodding vigorously. It's the sort of radical thinking that made such a ruckus back in Dostoevsky's time. C&P stands well enough on its own quality, but when juxtaposed with its historical context, the book takes on a rad importance. The Russian past, beyond the world wars, is peppered with hush-hush meetings, little uprisings, failed revolutions, fake-out executions, and transformative exiles, through all of which Dostoevsky lived. Possibly based on the author himself, who in his younger years held similar extremist views that offended his later, much more conservative sensibilities, Raskolnikov is a flashing neon sign for deterring those who would flock towards big ideas and there set up shop, only to later discover like some Daesh volunteers that those ideas are better off fantasized about than realized. Greatness is a siren song few can resist. What chance does a schmuck like Raskolnikov have? His supermen theory is obviously quackery, but Dostoevsky could've replaced it with any other one of equal logic (say, blowing yourself up on a bus for orgiastic fun with virgins) and the end result would be more or less the same.

Characters besides Raskolnikov have no less stage presence. Noble and loyal Razumkhin is the best friend Raskolnikov, after his unthinking abuses and ungratefulness, doesn't deserve. The aforesaid Alyona Ivanovich is so vile as to almost convince you Raskolnikov isn't overreacting when her head and his axe strike up a short-lived acquaintance. At one end, there is strong and fierce Dunya, a welcome face to call out her brother on his shit; mousy and hopeful Pulcheria, whose blind maternal love is simultaneously annoying, familiar, and endearing; and haughty and despicable Luzhin, who Villefort himself would gladly shank in public. At the other, pitiful and pathetic Marmeladov, Dostoevsky's poster child against drinking, made me proper sheepish to have drunk so much last week with friends from work; imposing and downtrodden Katerina, at her lowest, about made me plotz; and selfless and caring Sonya, abrim with self-sacrifice, held up a mirror to me that made me wince. Both groups, all memorably distinctive and soon overlapping in unexpected and cool ways, tell stories just as good and gripping as Raskolnikov's. More characters come and go, but it's shrewd and show-stopping Porfiry Petrovich the investigator whose impression lingers the longest. No normal detective, this one isn't content to arrest people even if his desk had mountains of smoking guns incriminating them, but much prefers that they confess their guilt, fully and willingly. It's no spoiler, I think, that Porfiry is already well-aware from very early on of who's guilty, which adds incredible tension to any scene he shares with Raskolnikov. His pointed innuendos, so-called hypotheses, and knowing looks put Colonel Landa's to shame. All the while, Raskolnikov is besides himself with fear, paranoia, nerves, and fury, providing readers with ample amusement. Missing signs for my sides will be found taped and stapled on power poles and trees because of his hysterical thoughts. "Strike directly, then; don't play cat and mouse with me. It's not polite, Porfiry Petrovich[!]"

It's no head-scratcher by the time you're done with C&P why it's so near and dear to many people's hearts. In 550 pages, Dostoevsky managed to say more than most writers could in double that number. From poverty to pride, ethics to evil, addiction to ambiguity, he dissected a gamut of themes. Armchair psychology doesn't qualify me to make the judgment that, in Raskolnikov's character, he grasped the human condition like no other, given my own paper-thin understanding of it and, more unfortunately, still much too narrow a reading experience. Well, that's what other reviewers and experts are so handy for. But if I did grok all that makes us meat sacks tick, and read all the things, there would still be a nagging suspicion nibbling at the edges of my mind that I'd arrive at about the same conclusion. Living up to his name, Raskolnikov is such a contradiction, his being jerking every which way, that instead of being forced and irritating, the spectacle struck a chord with me. My axe-murdering aspirations, rest assured, are decidedly non-existent, but Dostoevsky's characterization of him is so complete and natural that everything he says and does, even when he tempts fate and practically gives the game away with random outbursts and smirks, makes perfect if twisted sense. Raskolnikov acts in ways that leave you briefly discombobulated, but in his situation, his thoughts zipping by a million miles a second, anyone would as well if they're not kidding themselves, especially with a crocodile like Porfiry on their trail. Like cats chasing laser pointers, I couldn't get enough of reading about so misguided a character reconciling so grandly silly a theory with the consequences of taking it to ridiculous extremes, and of watching him sweat buckets. Train wrecks were never so interesting and, given the mere one-year difference between Raskolnikov's and my ages, so startling. If Dostoevsky's next books are half as good as C&P, and we and our dogs know The Brothers Karamazov is widely agreed to be the cat's pajamas, my body is ready.