Crime and Punishment? It’s a bloody Crime how long it is and the Punishment is reading the whole damn thing. I read this novel here in Spain while in full lockdown. It felt interminable, confusing and depressing; and lockdown was no picnic either, bah dum sssshhh! But all joking aside, I can’t say I loved reading it.
In this book we meet Raskolnikov; a piss poor student who has stopped going to classes. He is hungry and lives in a yellow room that is ‘like a cupboard’ in Petersburg. He receives a letter from his mother and it’s clear that his mother and sister had been depending on him to pull them outta the gutter; ‘you know how I love you; you are all we have to look to, Dounia and I, you are our all, our one hope, our one stay.’ But then she brings good tidings that might get Raskolnikov off the hook -his sister Dounia is going to marry a wealthy man called Mr Luzhin who can sort Raskolnikov out with a job in Petersburg. Problem solved and they all live happily ever after. Not.
‘Never such a marriage while I am alive and Mr Luzhin be damned!’ says Raskolnikov cos he doesn’t want his sister sacrificing her happiness for his sake. He comes up with a better plan; Kill the pawn broker. The pawn broker is an old witch with lots of money that no-one likes. As Raskolnikov walks about the streets of the city, the diabolical plan stewing in his brain, the things he sees and hears lead him to believe the universe is giving him a major thumbs up. Thus, he decides to execute his plan with an axe – a surprising choice for a man with no history of violence. But the Pawn Broker’s sister Lizaveta happens upon the scene of the crime and he buries an axe into her skull too, which is a bit harsh cos, by all accounts, Lizaveta was sound. He escapes with his pockets full of money and other people’s pledges.
Bizarrely, Roskolnikov doesn’t seem to be interested in taking advantage of his ill-gotten gains. On top of that he gives away the little money his mother sent him to people he deems to be in need of it more, like Sonia, a woman who has prostituted herself in order to provide for her step-family cos her father, Marmeladov, has squandered the family’s money. In fairness to Dostoyevsky, he presents us with an axe murderer, no more no less, but he also furnishes us with examples of his kind deeds. Marmeladov too, a man whose hopeless devotion to alcohol leaves his family in dire straits, comes across as likeable. Here is how he is described to us;
‘He was a man over fifty, bald and grizzled, of medium height and stoutly built. His face, bloated from continual drinking, was of a yellow, even greenish tinge, with swollen eyelids, out of which keen, reddish eyes gleamed like little chinks. But there was something very strange in him; there was a light in his eyes as though of intense feeling – perhaps there were even thought and intelligence, but at the same time there was a gleam of something like madness. He was wearing an old and hopelessly ragged black dress coat, with all its buttons missing except one, and that one he had buttoned, evidently clinging to this last trace of respectability.’
Interestingly, Dostoyevsky was going to call the book The Drunkards. Like Mameladov, Raskolnikov is drunk, but not on booze, on notions. Most people with notions talk shit about wine or use expressions like ‘furnishes us with examples’ but Raskolnikov’s notions lead him to kill a couple of old ladies.
Mind you, he doesn’t take it in his stride. He falls ill after the murders and when he’s not walking about the city almost giving himself up, he is in his bed with a fever while an endless parade of characters enter his tiny chamber and babble on and on and on.
Apart from the themes mentioned in the title the book tackles nihilism, religion, guilt, love, poverty, extraordinary people, friendship and family. Dostoyevsky doesn’t scrimp on the violence either. If you have to read Dostoyevsky – and apparently you do cos he’s on all those Read Before You Die lists – it is said that Crime and Punishment is a good place to start cos it’s a page turner –in a book published in 1866 sense of the term. True that each of the six parts (there is also an epilogue) leave you on a cliff hanger.
Not for me but Freud, Nietzsche, Jordan Petersen and my two female friends in Book club are fans, so what do I know? Indeed, Nietzsche said that Dostoyevsky was ‘The only psychologist from whom I have something to learn.’ I will say Crime and Punishment is a great choice for a Book Club in that there is plenty to discuss and having friends on board will help you get through this sprawling 700 page tome.