Review: Crime & Punishment

November 18, 2010 Comments Off on Review: Crime & Punishment

FINALLY I have finished this book!! Reading it was the strangest book experience maybe of my life. It alternated amazing character descriptions and tense, riveting scenes with long sections of excruciating boredom, and all this isn’t even taking into account the strangeness of the translation.

Where do I start?

Well, to begin with, the story is great. Raskolnikov, the main character, is incredibly frustrating: at first you’re terrified for him because he’s sick and delirious and might give himself away at any moment. Later he goes back and forth ad nauseam about whether it is worth it to do one bad deed if it allows for a hundred good deeds, and whether there exists a class of “great men” who are allowed to “step over” common ethics—he’s obsessed with Napoleon. What makes it heartbreaking is that he spends much of the book trying to convince himself that he is one of these great ones, while confronted with much evidence that he is not, and he misapplies (I think) the logic of his own argument to his situation. He is egotistical and fickle and kind of pathetic, in an infuriating but sometimes (unwillingly) endearing way. He’s an interesting character who spends over five hundred pages proving to you that he is absolutely the last person on the planet who should ever think of trying to pull off a murder.

The writing is awesome. Dostoevsky has a neat way of describing a person by two or three adjectives that don’t seem to go together very well but in fact convey a pinpoint-accurate description. The characters are consistent and well-rounded, and Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya is a beautiful, noble, wonderful character who (I must admit) I have a total crush on. Tense scenes can be drawn out for pages upon pages, and the reader glued to the pages, before suddenly the chapter ends and you’re allowed to put it down. Much of it is very well done.

But these strong scenes are interspersed with stretches of such boredom that many times I almost quit reading this book. Much of it is probably the translation, but some of it is totally dependent on the reader’s understanding of how Russian society worked at the time. There are establishments whose function and reputation are fuzzy, statements of dress that are often cryptic, and occasional nonsensical utterances by even the most sensible characters. I believe that the reader is supposed to be saying to himself during these stretches things like, “Ah, he’s going to a pleasure garden. That’s out of character, because of the reputation of such establishments is not of a piece with the kinds of clothes he has just bought. It must indicate that he is a socialist, because he is at the same time a student.” This is why Dostoevsky put this kind of thing in, I assume…but for a modern American reader, it is nearly indecipherable.

Speaking of indecipherable, allow me to shift my focus to the translation. I read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, a team of an American writer and his Russian wife whose translations of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky have been widely lauded as the most literal, most accurate, BEST translations of Russian EVER. My friend Robbie, who is a Russian literature junkie, recommended them highly. I am disappointed. As I have stated before, I’m not sure where I stand on literal translations. In fact, I’m pretty sure I am not in favor. What’s the point? Any nimrod can go word-by-word through a book with a dictionary, but that won’t give you a sense of turns of phrase, tone of voice, or any of that that is so essential to literature. The whole point of translating something is to make it flow nicely. The point is to take a trip to an alternate universe where absolutely everything is the same as it is now, except everyone speaks English. The point is to bring back from this alternate universe Dostoevsky’s book Crime & Punishment, as opposed to Dostoevsky’s book Преступление и наказание. And this translation is just not smooth enough. I’m sure it’s difficult to translate—it’s always difficult to translate truly great writers—but the occurrence of words like “even” and “somehow” is too high for English, and gives it a foreign feel. At first I tried to approach it like Chaucer: you have to learn to read the piece in its own language. But by the end of this book I was tired of it. And let us not forget the famous sentence, “We have such an emblem going, you can forget about your algebra!” Part of that, admittedly, might be a context problem (addressed above), but I blame the translators for making no effort whatsoever to soften the strangeness of that sentence. They made the long boring stretches worse, because the whole time you were reading everything twice, thinking, Maybe it’s the translation. Surely I’ll understand what’s going on if I just get a better grip on the words. If this book were shorter I’d be tempted to compare it with other translations, but as it was, it was such an ordeal, I don’t think I want to go to the trouble.

But I don’t mean to be harsh on the book. It is a wonderful work, thought-provoking and (mostly) exciting. It was frustrating but fascinating to be kept in suspense for five hundred pages—even as I neared the end I had no idea what Raskolnikov was going to do, so badly was he vacillating. And the reader never knows quite what to think of him, either, which is irksome but really does make you think. The book raises some really, really good moral questions—not that they’re fuzzy or ambiguous, but rather that they’re important issues which we’ve never really considered to try to figure out why they are the way they are. There is a fantastic paragraph near the end, where Raskolnikov remembers a dream:

“…he had dreamed that the whole world was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgments, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands.”

I think that’s amazing. And in a way it’s the theme of the book. We have to be careful not to be infected with these trichinae. We need to remember that other people’s truths are just as valid as ours (and perhaps they are equally worthless), yet at the same time, certain truths cannot but be individual, internal, and unique. The dilemma is insurmountable, but, as I think this novel demonstrates, it is very, very important to ponder.

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