Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Crime and Punishment (1866)
Well, I suppose it serves me right for trying to broaden my horizons, to branch out and generally embiggen myself through the magic of proper literature sans airbrushed spacecraft on the covers. Crime and Punishment may well be deserving of its reputation, but I was bored shitless for the most part. I suppose it must be me, because no-one on the internet seems to have a bad word to say about this particular translation, the work of one Sidney Monas - indeed, this version is praised as definitive in a few places I've looked. I'm no stranger to the long-haired books section of the library, so I'm fairly certain of my not being entirely stupid, at least in so much as I can tell that there are readers considerably less perceptive than myself out there, but nevertheless I found Crime and Punishment a tremendous bore.

I spoke to my mother who told me that she had found it similarly turgid.

'I'm just not enjoying it,' I said.

'I don't think you're supposed to enjoy it,' she suggested.

Similarly, my friend Andy Martin opined that Dostoyevsky, like Gogol and Pushkin, is one huge yawn from start to finish, and Andy is both well and widely read.

I'm not saying either that Crime and Punishment is without merit or that I hated every minute, but some chapters were distinctly more engaging than others, and the more yawnsome sections became such a slog as to mean that it became pointless my reading them during the bedtime shift. I generally read for an hour after I get up each morning, and then for another hour before I go to bed. For some reason I am better able to appreciate detail in the morning, although the difference is rarely so pronounced as to make for books which I can't read at all in the evening, but this was one of them; and so it really began to drag out as I took to reading Danny Baker's autobiography and then an L.Ron Hubbard novella before bed - you know, reading for pleasure.

I've enjoyed Danny Baker's radio shows for many years, and have appeared on one of them at least twice. Going to Sea in a Sieve (2012) relates the best part of his younger years growing up in and around Bermondsey and Deptford in south-east London up until his first television appearances. It retains his typically ripe turn of phrase as heard on the wireless, and makes for a genuinely fascinating read even beyond the wisecracks, not least because it turns out that I know a few of the places in which he grew up; and I'd even go so far as to say that Going to Sea in a Sieve represents a valuable time capsule of both an era and a specific kind of childhood which probably doesn't happen any longer, what with your downloads and your pornotubes and what have you. Belly laughs alternate with moments of surprising profundity.

It was George Currie, the fantastic wiry guitarist from Dundee that now stepped forward as spokesman for the band.

'Why don't you fuck off?' he reasoned.

Obviously I'm quoting that as an example of the former.

If I have any criticism, it is that the tone occasionally veers into the as told to territory of the ghostwritten celebrity footballer biography, as I said to my famous friend, Adge Cutler of the chart topping Wurzels pop band; but I suspect this may be just a natural interference pattern resulting from what is essentially a conversation set down as prose. In any case, it's not a massive problem, and Going to Sea in a Sieve makes for one hell of a livelier read than Crime and Punishment.

Returning to which, I got through Crime and Punishment in the end, which at least suggests it has some discernible value above those few novels on which I've given up with just a hundred or so pages left, Robert Heinlein's fucking abominable Stranger in a Strange Land for example. Cheating, I consulted Wikipedia every few days in order to work out what I had just read:

Crime and Punishment focuses on the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov, an impoverished ex-student in St. Petersburg who formulates and executes a plan to kill an unscrupulous pawnbroker for her cash. Raskolnikov argues that with the pawnbroker's money he can perform good deeds to counterbalance the crime, while ridding the world of a worthless vermin. He also commits this murder to test his own hypothesis that some people are naturally capable of such things, and even have the right to do them. Several times throughout the novel, Raskolnikov justifies his actions by comparing himself with Napoleon Bonaparte, believing that murder is permissible in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Most of this I already knew. Some of it seemed unclear, and I remained unable to see quite how the novel was doing that which it supposedly does for about three quarters of the book. The translator's afterword suggest this to be a novel concerned with the gulf between ideology and human nature, which makes it sound a lot more interesting than I found it. I can see it in passages such as:

'I'll show you their books. It's always the influence of the environment with them, that's all they know! They love that phrase! If society were constructed normally, therefore, all crimes would disappear at once because there would be nothing to protest against and we'd all become righteous in a flash. Nature doesn't count; nature gets chased away; nature's not supposed to exist! They won't have mankind developing along some living historical path to the end, turning finally of itself into normal society; but on the contrary, a social system emerging from some kind of mathematical brain that's going to reconstruct mankind and make it in one moment righteous and sinless, quicker than any life process, no living or historical path needed! Instinctively they don't like history, and that's why.'

Unfortunately I found instances of such clarity few and far between, islands amongst page after page of rambling dialogue of ambiguous consequence, sometimes with one person holding forth before another for the duration of an entire chapter, complete with aggravating self-conscious digressions of are you still listening? or you must think I'm going on a bit, old fruit and the like - no fucking kidding.

Oddly, just as some modern novels read like television drama - the work of authors who would rather be writing for their favourite medium, but can't either because they're too shit even for television or all this time they've been sucking the wrong dicks; Crime and Punishment reads in part like a stage production set down as print due to prohibitive length, and in a couple of places it reads as though the narrative is aware of this to some extent. There is a scene in part one, chapter four wherein Raskolnikov encounters a vulnerable and obviously drunken girl in a park, and notices a seemingly villainous dandy lurking nearby with apparent ignoble intent. Raskolnikov discusses both the girl and the dandy with a policeman even as said dandy continues to lurk as though stood to one side of a stage, ready to resume his advances on the destitute girl. In part three, chapter five Razumikhin is described standing with his back to the audience, which feels like a theatrical allusion. Of course, unless I'm just imagining this layer of artificiality, it may itself be a deliberate evocation of the theme of ideology or hypothetical structure imposed over that which exists.

The above may of course all be complete bollocks, given that I'm reading a translation, and that I failed to really engage with it after the first few chapters. There are some interesting and arguably quite important ideas, poorly expressed - in my possibly limited view - which is a shame because they might also serve to explain why the Soviet Union went tits up once they made Joseph Stalin head boy, so it's a pity some of those guys apparently couldn't get to grips with this one either.

You're better off with Danny Baker.

At least I was.


  1. The strange thing about this particular review is that it has neither put me off or made me want to read Crime And Punishment or Danny Baker's autobiography but it has made me want to read Stranger In A Strange Land. The fact that you call it "fucking abominable" makes me want to find out why such a book has produced such a reaction from you. I don't imagine it's quite the effect your review of two other completely different books might have but there you go. An example of the power of an off-the-cuff aside. I shall be adding Stranger In A Strange Land to my list of books to read. Thank you!

    1. You're welcome. I know plenty of people who rate Stranger highly so you may well get more out of it than I did, and hopefully will. 'Fucking abominable' should probably be regarded as hyperbole. I wouldn't say it was entirely without merit, but the whole seemed weighed down by how pleased with himself Heinlein appeared to be to the point that I found it too irritating the more I read.

  2. I read Crime and Punishment a looong time ago and it didn't do much for me either, (although I much preferred it to that other 'classic' Russian novel War and Peace, which is the most over-rated novel ever as far as I'm concerned...).

    The only bit that really stuck in my mind was the chapter when the 'detective' comes to him and goes 'I know you did it, you know you did it,you're eventually going to confess and the rest is basically a formailty' which I later discovered was of course the inspiration for Columbo, a show I adored. It probably speaks volumes about my low brow tastes, that I think Dostoyevsky's greatest achievement was inspiring this great tv show a hundred years down the line...

    For all its faults though, I still thought it was far, far better than Stranger in a Strange Land...

    1. Thanks - further relief of it not being just me.