Monday, November 21, 2005

The Crime Is Not Reading It.
The Punishment Is The Same.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Read by George Guidall, Recorded Books, LLC, 1991

Outside of the general literary schools of criticism and analysis, there seems to be two prevailing opinions of Russian novelist, Fyodor Dostoyevsky. One either finds him cloyingly sentimental, long-winded, and dull for being so prolix. Or one finds the experience of reading Dostoyevsky like a searing vision of the world in a compact and compressed form, all its loves and hates and fears and hopes crystallized to the keen point of an almost unbearable clarity.

You can probably guess where I fall on that continuum.

I won’t be tedious in relating the plot of this novel as it has so permeated western culture that you know the story in its essentials even if you’ve never read it, most likely. What is curious, however, in misapprehensions of the book is that the theory of the Extraordinary Man (later ubermensch for Nietzsche) is fundamental to its plot and conception, when the novel could quite as easily be done with all that and still be as important and necessary as it is now. Dostoyevsky includes it, as he does so many other things, because he is recreating an entire world, all the people, all the places, all the ideas, of his time, a kind of hyper-diorama for us to see all the refracted ramifications of action and reaction. It would not be the same novel without it, but what’s essential, what’s characteristic would still remain intact.

But what is most remarkable in reading Dostoyevsky’s work is how recognizable much of the characters’ behaviors are to us, even though they are monstrous or demeaning or embarrassing. They are revelatory glimpses into our own behavior we have forgotten in our shame or repressed in our memories; they are acid sketched portraits of what we might have said, what we might have done, the bubbled up angst and desperation most of us only act upon in our dreams and our imaginations.

With great insight, the author notes such unpleasant truisms as “We all like to be offended,” not in the straightforward sense of liking it every day at every time, but there are moments, even you will admit, Dear Reader, when you have taken quite a self-debasing satisfaction in being offended. You set out wanting to be offended, took offense, and were able to release all the pent-up anger you’d been feeling. Liking to be offended is an excuse for righteous indignation and anger to find its outlet. It carries with itself a perverse satisfaction.

And what is still perhaps the greatest achievement in writing such insights, perhaps the only way you could manage it, is how little Dostoyevsky judges his characters. He is open to all their possibilities, he is open to all their faults and foibles, and even if he does have a very specific morality in mind, it’s clear he doesn’t love his characters one whit less for not being devout Christians. It is even rather obvious, as with most great works of storytelling, that it is precisely the characters least like Dostoyevsky’s vision of idealized humanity that are the ones most interesting to him. And to us the readers.

Written for a magazine, Crime and Punishment is a classic cliffhanger. The scene immediately before the murder, when the main character Raskolnikov has decided to kill the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna, ends with the Raskolnikov outside her apartment with an axe under his coat, waiting as she turns the lock from inside. We are literally and figuratively on the threshold as that installment ends. This is a nice touch when you can imagine having to wait until the next issue to get the continuing story, not that it would take long. The full novel was written over the course of one year — while the author was simultaneously writing The Gambler, both books written to get out from under a demonic gambling debt.

As is common in crime, the one crime, the first crime, leads to another to hide the first. I had completely and totally forgotten, even having read the novel three times previously, the even more horrible second murder Raskolnikov commits, that of Lizaveta Ivanovna, the pawnbroker’s good and simple sister. This crime is even more unforgivable than the one performed under perverted kind of utilitarian arguments Raskolnikov makes, yet even characters in the book remark on how everyone forgets that murder, as though they only one that mattered was the first. And as the murder scene progresses, the possible chance that Raskolnikov might even need to commit a third and maybe fourth murder to escape the trap he finds himself in shifts us into ever deeper nightmare.

Raskolnikov’s own nightmare is only just beginning. The portrait, the idea, Dostoyevsky wants us to take from this book is that even if you can rationalize your own fears away about committing a horrible act like this, even if you can be swayed by every possible slick sophistry, murder will out. The torments of Raskolnikov’s soul are the amplified anguish of every soul laboring under secret sin, the pricks of conscience become a storm of fury amid the self-abnegating lash of madness.

Even the degenerate Arkady Ivanovich Svidrigailov, one of the most interesting characters in the book, more along the lines of Raskolnikov’s super man than the hero himself, he too, it is made clear at the book’s end, is still tormented by the blood on his hands. His suicide in the last few chapters demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s contention that there is no escaping one’s punishment. You may not be detected by other men, you may escape legal or extra-legal vengeance, but your own conscience will always be there. The ghosts of your victims will follow you even as you sleep.

It is quite easy, too, to see how Raskolnikov could go mad in his circumstances, crushed by his poverty and eating little food and getting even less sleep while constantly running about. Dostoyevsky’s books have a tendency toward a swarm of events, much happening, an exhausting amount of activity, in short bursts of time. Crime and Punishment, save for the epilogue, takes place in just several consecutive days. Often long passages of the novel, chapters upon chapters, are one scene after another without let up, people constantly crashing in on Raskolnikov or him hurrying out of the apartment on some errand or mission. In terms of sheer walking, the characters are almost never off their feet, moving from address to address, unhinged as it were by their minds, by their philosophies which make them hurry on notional motives.

A younger Guidall, 15 years younger, has more zest and zing in to his voice than he has had in previous audiobooks. His more recent recordings have the frailty of old age creeping through them, while this audiobook finds him at the top of his game. As said before, Guidall is not an actor-reader, but a straightforward teller of tales. Dostoyevsky’s writing, once you’ve surrendered to its transformative quality, doesn’t need any help in this department.

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