I’m inherently a bad person to loan a book to. You see, I don’t necessarily have a reading schedule beyond just reading as often as I can. When it comes to the books I read there’s no real rhyme or reason other than attempts to make my reading a bit more diverse than it has been in the past. I was loaned Crime and Punishment just over six thousand years ago by a friend who, if we didn’t speak so often concerning books, would assume I was either dead or had stolen his copy of Crime and Punishment. I took it with me when I moved to Texas for a brief moment and promptly bought a different Dostoevsky novel, The Brothers Karamazov, to read. I made it a personal goal this year to read Crime and Punishment and get the book back to my friend, but halfway through reading it I was wondering if I should buy my own copy and give my friend’s back to him.
Normally that’s a good thing, yet here it was complicated. I wasn’t sure if I liked Crime and Punishment, but the things I didn’t like about it I was sure were actually translation issues. Constance Garnett’s translations are still thought to be the hallmark by some in the literary world. These people are curmudgeons. Garnett’s translation is choppy and out of sync, with a distinct lack of voices in characters other than Raskolnikov, Porfiry, and Svidrigailov. When the narrative leaves Raskolnikov for any amount of time or even switches away from focusing on the psychology of Raskolnikov, the novel drags. It becomes something to trudge through. Part of this is Dostoevsky’s tendency to rant for days about things that probably only really make sense to scholars of Dostoevsky or those well-versed in Russian culture. Yet the other part, the part that affects me in a way I feel I can point out, is simply bad translating.
I was spoiled, I see now, by Ignat Avsey’s exceptional translation of The Brother’s Karamazov. It flows. Each character has his or her own unique voice. The novel doesn’t bore you to death with random escapes into the lives of characters that don’t seem to have their own point (in Crime and Punishment I felt repeatedly that every character existed solely in relation to Raskolnikov, that they were only interesting insofar as they were connected to Raskolnikov). It becomes clear that Karamazov goes on far too long, but up until that point there’s never once a desire to skim. In Crime and Punishment you’re left wondering why the narrative seems to leave Raskolnikov’s psychology early and often. And when it does leave him, why does it fail to succeed? Once again, part of it is bad translation.If characters seem to have nothing unique about them in their voicing then they aren’t going to be fun to read.
Yet there’s something more interesting at play in Crime and Punishment. As David Foster Wallace points out in his essay “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky”, Dostoevsky was pretty much the last ideological writer. Meaning that his characters don’t speak like people. His plots aren’t actually all that interesting. He’s long winded and writing to simply establish a point. Crime and Punishment is Dostoevsky’s Christian Philosophy of Conscience. He wants to establish that to be human is to make it impossible to separate your actions from your psychological make-up. He is attempting to establish that the conscience can be just as much of a prison as Siberia. In fact, he argues that it is moreso. I will return to that in a moment. This is why the novel excels when it stays firmly entrenched within Raskolnikov’s dealings with his conscience and the police. Porfiry isn’t a normal detective as much as he is Kierkegaardian one that doesn’t look for evidence as much as sees actions and says, “You act like this, but you are not this precisely because you are acting like this.”
When the novel is spending its time playfully exhibiting a back and forth between Raskolnikov and Porfiry it is exhilarating and impossible to put down. Yet when the two go their separate ways for 100 pages the novel is lacking in anything that makes you want to keep going outside of a hope that Porfiry and Raskolnikov’s next meeting is perhaps only a few pages away. But to be fair, this changes as the novel hurtles towards the end and we are invited to take a more detailed look at Svidrigailov. Svidrigailov is the character in which Dostoevsky attempts to playfully undermine his own philosophy. Much like Karamazov‘s Ivan, he is potentially the character that proves Dostoevsky wrong. Unlike Raskolnikov, Svidrigailov does not appear to be bothered by his conscience. Dostoevsky’s thesis that the conscience is more of a prison than an actual jail cell appears to be nothing more than idealistic thinking if Svidrigailov succeeds in his aims. You see, Dostoevsky sets up a choice for our two criminals (though Svidrigailov is only hinted at being a criminal, it is safe to assume he is): Suicide or Siberia. Fleeing to America is presented as an inadequate option for it doesn’t solve the actual issue, but this is the option that Svidrigailov repeatedly says he will take. (SPOILER UPCOMING) It is only when he shockingly commits suicide that Dostoevsky shows himself to be right.
Of course, this is by Dostoevsky’s own failsafe logic. There was never a doubt that Svidrigailov would fail to make it to America because if he had succeeded then Dostoevsky would be wrong. This is what makes Dostoevsky a purely ideological writer. His characters have a set purpose from the onset that only Dostoevsky knows. Whereas most modern writers let a character decide their own path within the flow of writing, Dostoevsky refuses this option. Is this dishonest? Perhaps. But Dostoevsky is not a modern writer. In many ways, this is what makes him unique and great despite being frustrating at times. Crime and Punishment is yet another example of Dostoevsky’s flawed brilliance.
Recommended to: Anyone who considers themselves theological thinkers absolutely must read Dostoevsky. He’s worth reading regardless, but Christian thinkers have to read him.
Avoid as if it’s pitching from the stretch and you’re Matt Harvey: Just avoid the Constance Garnett translation. There are better, more recent translations for a reason.