The first time I read this novel – about fifty years ago – I thought that I should think that it was good, so I did – but I found it a bit of a drag. Since then I have read all the major novels of Dostoevsky, and I have read The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, and Demons twice. Only the first of them kept its charm for me; the other two crashed. The problem seemed to me to be too many exclamation marks, and too much hysteria, or as Eliot said of Hamlet, emotion in excess of the facts as they appear. None of these books made it into my top fifty, although War and Peace is up there with only two challengers for numero uno.
I have just had the opposite experience with Crime and Punishment. It was so much better the second time. The trick for me is to treat it like an opera, or at least a work or art, on a different plane, and just let it wash over you. If you do, it can be ravishing.
A young man, Raskolnikov, who thinks too much, develops a Napoleon complex – Tony Blair did not read this novel – and decides to kill a mean old woman to give himself a start and to bring relief to his family. ‘A single evil and a hundred good deeds….I only killed a louse, Sonya, a useless nasty, pernicious louse.’ Here is the author’s version of probably the two most murderous lines known to mankind. Having accepted his own dare, he finds that there is more to being a murderer than meets the eye. He unravels in a way that looks logically determined but which is dramatically alive.
The book has a real plot – and a thrashing Act Five that I did not see coming. (You might say it ends with a bang.) And some of the interrogation scenes, where a wily cop plays cat and mouse with the murderer, reminded me strongly of that wonderful film Une pure formalite with Depardieu and Polanski. (It too starts with a murder and focuses on the interrogation; I could never work it out, but it is a truly great movie.)
A lot of the characters and scenes are right over the top – you must treat it like an opera – but two women carry the back story (if that is the phrase) – Dunya, the straight talking sister of the hero who shrugs off a mean and uppity lawyer and whose palpable virtue drives men mad with sexual desire; and Sonya, the hooker who has God, the poor daughter of a drunk who gets a yellow card (goes on the game) to sustain her family, and whose transcendent spirituality becomes the only thing that stands between the hero and the hellish consequences of his crime. (There is more than a touch of both Fantine and Cosette in Sonya.) Theatre cannot rise any higher than these two women. And you get renewed insight into the dark side of the Russians.
Somerset Maugham, who knew something about writing, thought that Dostoevsky was a jerk. He said: ‘Dostoevsky was vain, envious, quarrelsome, suspicious, cringing, selfish, boastful, unreliable, inconsiderate, narrow and intolerant.’ Well, none of us is perfect, but Maugham thought it was the badness of Dostoevsky that made him ‘one of the supreme novelists of the world.’ Interesting, but I want to refer to what Maugham said about the characters of this great novelist.
They are constituted of a desire to dominate and a desire to submit themselves, of love devoid of tenderness and hate charged with malice. They are strangely lacking in the attributes of normal human beings. They only have passions. They have neither self-control or self-respect. Their evil instincts are not mitigated by education, the experience of life or that sense of decency that prevents a man from disgracing himself. That is why to common sense their activities seem wildly improbable and the motives of them madly inconsequential….They are devoid of culture. They have atrocious manners. They take a malignant pleasure in being rude to one another in order to wound and humiliate….They are an outrageous lot. But they are extraordinarily interesting. Raskolnikov, Stavrogin Ivan Karamazov are of the same breed as Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff and Melville’s Captain Ahab. They palpitate with life.
And they are like characters in an opera. The point of this most extraordinary insight in literary criticism is that we are talking about works of art in Wuthering Heights, Crime and Punishment, and Moby Dick – and masterpieces at that.
This mighty book is a cracker of a read – and I am not surprised that Hitchcock thought that it was too great a novel – or work of art – for him to chance his arm on with a film. God willing, I will read it again at least once more before I go.