Book review: Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment.Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (tr. Oliver Ready).
My rating: 4 of 5 stars.

When I first read Crime and Punishment in my late teens, I was surprised at how accessible I found the text. I’d been led to believe that Russian literature was, to a word, turgid and overblown – not to mention depressing. Imagine my surprise when I found that the straitened world of Raskolnikov was intriguing and compelling. It was a revelation, and opened me up to a lot of literature I’d not previously considered.

This time around, I was surprised at how much more lively the text appears when viewed through the lens of a more recent translation. And how much deeper the book appears – and how differently I viewed parts of it – after an extra 20 years of life.

Certainly, I can’t say I read a great version initially. It was a cheapie copy, bought for about three bucks in the muddiest setting Wordsworth Classics could muster. This version is worlds away: there’s excellently creepy cover art, and Oliver Ready’s translation ensures that the text, while very much connected to the time of its genesis, feels modern. There’s an excellent balance of the archaic and the current, as befits Dostoyevsky’s meditations on the decline of then-modern (well, in 1865) life. It feels like a living world in a way I don’t remember through my previous reading.

The story is in the title, pretty much: it’s about student Raskolnikov’s crimes. But the punishment is broader than his being called to account for them: it’s about the personal and the communal. It’s about the prison of one’s thoughts, and about the suffocating penalty of life itself. The crimes are bowled through fairly quickly, but the impact they have on their instigator – and the wider world – take much longer to tease out.

Can we just spend a moment on Dostoyevsky’s beard here? Shit’s WILD.

Shit gets *more grim* too: animal and child abuse, death and poverty – and the straitened position one finds themselves in following a swift change of station – are all given a turn around the parlour here. There’s more than enough woe to be found in here, though Dostoyevsky ensures we’re not overloaded.

For every grim interlude, there’s a humorous – or absurd – leavening moment. Hell, the book offers a whodunit it reverse: whenever investigator Porfiry Petrovitch turns up there’s wryness to be had, along with the sense that he’s this far from figuring out what’s actually gone down. There’s a mixture of realism and raving vision in the way the characters interpret the world, and it keeps the reader on their toes. You never know what you’re going to get in the next chapter, and the deftness with which we’re moved between the deadly serious and the fucking hilarious keeps pulling us forward.

The notes accompanying the work are excellent. Not only do they firmly ground the story geographically – bear in mind Dostoyevsky was a bit coy about names, truncating actual street names in a way that confuses non-locals – but also socially. Changes in religious and social structures are explained, as are cultural references that would otherwise be lost. There’s an excellent amount of minutiae included, from foreign language translations to song lyrics to period-correct descriptions of flood warnings. There’s biographical details, and thoughts about how the author maps on to the work. It’s chewy enough to provide much food for thought, but not so dry that it is off-putting to all but literature students.

Of course, I did sometimes find Crime and Punishment hard going. But my struggles were less to do with the story and the adroit translation, but more to do with the standard Russian form of address: the use of patronymic nomenclature, diminutives and full names, as well as nicknames – all of which depend on the level of familiarity and respect the relationship in question is owed. It’s not uncommon for the same person to be called three different things during the course of the work, and it adds an occasionally tiring courtliness to the proceedings.

This, I admit, is something that likely bugs me more than it does other readers. At any rate, it didn’t stop me from ploughing through. But sometimes I did feel a little fatigued. I guess this could also be the result of the work’s polyphony, as the LARB has it: there’s a lot going on, on varying levels, and it’s easy to stick on a single track, even if it’s the wrong one.

That aside, though, I was dazzled by this book, yet again. Knowing now how thoughts can corral one into a particular frame of deleterious action – something I wasn’t aware of when I first read the book – I found a lot more to chew on. Crime and Punishment remains an amazing achievement, and to feel something completely different upon rereading is a treat that few works can offer positively.

My Goodreads profile is here.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks for this very gratifying review. Most people seem to read this book in their teens – and the book itself is about a man who has not yet ‘grown up’ – but it was my particular hope to convince people to return to it a little later on in life as well. As you show, the novel deserves it.
    – Oliver Ready

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