In the first installment of the Candid Book Club, Lana Crowe explains why Fyodor Dostoevsky’s philosophical blockbuster Crime and Punishment is more millennial than outmoded.
I would take this opportunity to offer a spoiler alert if the book in question hadn’t been published 150 years ago. Despite being a recent literature graduate, three-weeks-ago me had disgracefully little knowledge of nineteenth-century Russian literature; after having a quick read of one sufficiently well-known and relatively short Russian novel, in translation, acquired second-hand for £2.50 in a late-night online book blitz, I now deem myself qualified to pontificate on the subject. Having accompanied me on many a commute, provided some thought-provoking bedtime reading over a quiet Christmas (murder and poverty, ho ho ho) and acted as an attempted disguise for my drunkenness on one long late tube ride home, Crime and Punishment has fast carved itself a spot amongst my literary favourites.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s philosophical blockbuster Crime and Punishment was originally published in the classic nineteenth-century style of twelve monthly instalments – think of it as the Victorian equivalent of broadcast television, before the Netflix of the print world, the full-length novel, saw an epidemic of binge-reading and late-night telegraphs of ‘Crime and Punishment and chill?’ eclipse St Petersburg. We’re treated to the story of the poor intellectual Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikoff, whose lack of funds has resulted in his removal from his university, shoddy lodgings and inability to find a job. Replace miscellaneous nineteenth-century destitution with too many avocado lattes and you’ve got a classic millennial on your hands – however, things take a turn for the absurd when he convinces himself that the solution to all his problems is to murder and rob an old lady. Not cool bro.
Unfortunately (?), his plan is scuppered when the old woman’s sister, Elizabeth, walks in mid-murder, pressuring Raskolnikoff to knock her off as well. Though he manages to escape, he spends the rest of the novel floating in and out of an ambiguous mental discombobulation, awaiting the discovery of his guilt. A succession of sub-plots unfolds, including the death of Raskolnikoff’s new friend Marmeladoff and his infatuation with Marmeladoff’s daughter Sonia, several unadvisable nights out on the town (lads lads lads) and an unexpected dream sequence in which a horse gets whipped in the eyeball (ouch). A large portion of the novel is dedicated to the arrival of Raskolnikoff’s sister Dounia (and their overbearing mother Pulcheria), who has traded in one lecherous old man (her former employer Svidrigaïloff) for another (the snobbish and arrogant lawyer Looshin). She rocks up to St Petersburg pursued by both, hoping her older brother will give them a piece of his mind (and let’s just say she’s not disappointed).
I was impressed by the abundance of badass women included by Dostoevsky. Catherine Ivanova, the widow of the civil-servant-cum-drunkard Marmeladoff, is a complex character: fiercely protective of her children, haughty despite her impoverished condition, and (dangerously) unfazed by the fatal tuberculosis that slowly engulfs her in the course of the novel. It was refreshing to see a supportive stepmother/stepdaughter relationship arise between Catherine Ivanova and Marmeladoff’s eldest daughter Sonia, as a contemporary reader in a world where the rivalry between daughter and second wife is a tired and chauvinistic cliché. Sonia is an inspiringly avant-garde character: though her presence is expressed quietly through most of the novel, she implores Raskolnikoff to atone for his crime, is unrattled by a false public accusation of theft by the scoundrel Looshin, and, as a licensed prostitute, has seized her only means of making money – her body – and managed to support herself and her entire family with her income. Pretty empowering stuff. The final vertex of this proto-feminist triangle is Raskolnikoff’s sister, Dounia Romanova: in an unexpected twist in the final section, Dounia fights off a sexual assault by another scoundrel, her former employer Svidrigaïloff, by threatening and attempting to shoot him with a revolver. These are women who use what they have to get what they need, proving to be bastions of strength in a novel riddled with foolish and scandalous men.
The most likeable character is the student Razoumikhin, who does his utmost to nurse Raskolnikoff back to health, stands by his friend loyally amongst (correct) rumours of his murderous deed, and provides a shimmer of optimism amongst the abundant poverty, death, and general injustice suffered by the characters for no reason other than unavoidable bad luck. I couldn’t help but cheer on Razoumikhin as he drunkenly slags off Dounia’s slimy fiancée Looshin – in that moment of imploring Looshin to overcome the outdated mode of decorum and declare his love, I forgot that we were in a Dickensian tale of murder and intrigue, not a 90s romantic sitcom with a classic will-they-won’t-they relationship to devour.
What I found most interesting about the novel was how I was able to sympathise with Raskolnikoff, despite being a brazen and unremorseful murderer. It wasn’t just his irresistible Morrissey-esque brooding, but the mix of logic and irrationality: a combination of the serious philosophical argument of achieving the maximum happiness for the maximum number of people, and superstitious signs pointing him back towards the old lady. Dostoyevsky had me waiting with baited breath when, 50 pages from the end, the Crime bit seemed in the distant past, and the Punishment bit was nowhere to be seen. A complex philosophical narrative driven by surprisingly modern characters – the socialist/feminist ideals spouted by Lebeziatnikoff are more Corbynite than Communist Revolution – Crime and Punishment was one of the most pleasantly surprising books I’ve read in a long time. And I’ve read a lot of books.