After reading Dostoevsky’s The Demons, a few years ago, I felt traumatized. That’s not to say I didn’t like it. Actually I loved the book, but at the same time, I felt the building of a slow, agonising dread. I knew a horrible, ugly murder was going to take place and I felt powerless to stop it yet compelled to read on. It took me some time to recover from the experience.
So I was delighted to come across a wonderful quote about the traumatizing impact of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. This is a quote from The Miraculous Years (1865-1871) –the fourth volume in a 5 volume biography set on Dostoevsky from Joseph Frank. Crime and Punishment initially appeared in serialised form in The Russian Messenger.
Dostoevsky had every reason to be pleased with the public response. “I have already heard many enthusiastic utterances [about it]. It contains daring and original things” he proudly told Wrangel. To be sure, “these daring and original things” were by no means to everyone’s taste, and the radicals on The Contemporary, just as they had done with Turgenev’s Fathers and Children four years earlier, responded immediately to Dostoevsky’s challenge. “Has there ever been an instance in which a student killed someone in order to commit a robbery?” asked its critic G.Z Eliseev. “If such an instance occurred, what can it prove regarding the state of mind of the students as a group? What would Belinsky have to say about this new ‘fantasy’ of Mr. Dostoevsky, a fantasy according to which the entire student body is accused without exception of attempting murder and robbery?” A month later the same critic wrote that, from the artistic point of view, Dostoevsky’s depiction of a sordid murder, “in the sharpest exactitude and with all the most minute particulars,” was “the purest absurdity,” and no justification for it could be found in the annals of either ancient or modern art.
Such predictable reactions did not prevent the book’s installments from being a sensational success with the reading public; many years later Strakhov still recalled the furor they had created. “Only Crime and Punishment was read during 1866,” he testifies, “only it was spoken about by lovers of literature, who often complained about the stifling power of the novel and the painful impression it left, which caused people with strong nerves almost to become ill and forced those with weak ones to give up reading it altogether.” Strakhov also remembers what he considers “most striking of all”: the coincidence “with reality.” On January 12, 1866, a student named A. M. Danilov killed a moneylender and his manservant in order to loot their apartment, and many of the details surrounding the crime instantly brought Raskolnikov’s deed to everyone’s mind.
It appears I am not alone….