Crime and punishment

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.

Venus in a Fur

This film may not be one for the boys, but it is a film for anyone who is into theatre or film, and who goes to either to be entertained. You will hardly ever be as well entertained as you are here. It is also a vindication of aging. The great director Roman Polanski is over eighty and the lead, Emmanuelle Seigner, who is his wife, is nearly fifty – and she is about to reach her prime – in any way you care to nominate. She is well supported by the only other actor, Mathieu Amalric, who does not look entirely unlike Polanski at that age.

The film follows a Broadway play a few years back. There is only one set, a theatre set for auditions. Thomas has written a play based on a nineteenth century novel about sado-masochism. He cannot find anyone from the modern stage to play an Ibsen-like siren-part. Then on a stormy night, Vanda arrives, unannounced, with a bag of tricks, as rough as guts, and larger than life, and ready to challenge all preconceptions about acting, sexiness, and politesse – and you know immediately that Thomas’s life may never be the same, the poor bastard. Vanda bludgeons Thomas into allowing her to start to an audition with him standing in for the male lead. The moment that she converts to the role might take your breath away. She knows the part by heart and Thomas gets sucked in to the point of obsession, and to where she has very much ceased to be the supplicant. Because they go in and out of character until you lose track, the capacity for irony is endless. The night might also be fateful for the fiancé of Thomas – a fiancé: how quaint! – who keeps ringing him to see what is keeping him. His phone rings to the Ride of the Valkyries, and our Thomas was not made to ride in that company. (Who is?) It is then that some of the boys in the audience might start to wonder how this all might end well for Thomas, and look around in case there are some Amazons on the prowl with a spare pair of garlic crushers.

The performance of Seigner is breathtaking. She does not command the camera – the camera salutes her. Her dominance – again in any way you like – is complete, although Mathieu Amalric is also flawless. Her presence and her mannerisms reminded me a lot of Gerard Depardieu and I say that in the warmest possible way. The play keeps trashing boundaries. It is a stunning night at the theatre – in the cinema – where we are privileged to be with great stars at the height of their powers. It is just that some of the boys might need a shot of something as a steadier on the way home.

For that matter, there may be something in it for the Sisters. I am not talking about sado-masochism, which I find at best unhappily tasteless and wasteful, like an angry drunk, but about the fact that this show revels in the celebration that women can be feminine in so many ways. Sex may not make the world go round, but it does see that the world stays peopled which is, as another play reminds us, an imperative.