On Writers: Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

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….


Filed under Dostoevsky, On Writers

18 responses to “On Writers: Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

  1. This is a bit what happened to me when I watched Heavenly Creatures. I read Crime and Punishment years ago and found it great but it didn’t impress me as much as Thérèse Raquin which I read at the same time. I have The Demons somewhere but wasn’t aware of it being also about a murder. Maybe almost all of Dostoevsky’s great novels are. What a dark imagination he has. And how much darkness he experienced himself.

  2. Yes, the murder in Demons is based on was the murder organised by a young man called Nechaev. I had read the (slim) book Bakunin and Nechaev first– written by Paul Avrich and also reviewed here, and that’s what led me to Demons. Nechaev is sometimes called the First Bolshevik for his philosophy and behaviour. It’s a fascinating story of how he coerced people into his group. He then coerced some of them to murder another.

    The more I read of Doestoevsky, the more respect I have for him as a man and as a writer.

  3. leroyhunter

    “Stifling power” is about right, in my experience anyway. It was tough going. I feel that, as a reader, I didn’t do the book justice, almost like I failed its test; but it’s not something you think about going back to with much relish. As I said before, Demons next from Fyodor.

    He seems to have been an amazing character alright. My hat is off to you for working through a 5-volume bio. Have you watched much (or any) Bresson? He was obsessed with Dostoevsky and their style can be comparably severe and unforgiving to the reader/viewer.

    • The 5 volumes have apparently been condensed down to just one HUGE volume, but the 5 volume set seemed the way to go.

      I’ve seen some Bresson but I haven’t swept my way through very efficiently. I’ll see which titles I’ve missed.

      I’m beginning to think that it’s a mistake to start with Dostoevsky’s powerhouse novels. I think they would be better with a build up. I’m currently reading Dostoevsky’s Winter Notes on Summer Impressions and it is really very funny.

      • leroyhunter

        I agree with you on the question of reading in order. I likewise regret jumping in with Crime & Punishment; Notes from Underground was an eye-opener and refreshed my interest. I think Dostoevsky will work better when I’m acclimatised to him. Looking forward to your review of Winter Notes etc….

        • I wish I had started in order. I began with Demons. Although I loved it, I think, in retrospect I jumped in too deep. But now I think I’m ‘getting’ Dostoevsky a bit better. Winter Notes has to be the most bizarre ‘travel’ book I’ve ever read, but then what else would you expect?

  4. Five volumes!? Are you reading them all? Frank’s daughter was a good friend of mine with whom I just this year reconnected after nearly 30 years.

    • Well that’s the plan….At the moment I am picking bits but then will start with page 1 and read on. Twenty years later… I’ll finish. You can tell the author really cares about the subject. And so do I.

  5. What do you think of the Constance Garnett translations Guy?

    I ask because they have the charming merit of being free, though they also keep the period feel fairly well from what I’ve seen. The risk though with older translations is always that they’re bowdlerised.

  6. I have only read The Idiot, which I really liked, and I know I should read more of him. But knowing that you are used to reading bleak, difficult stories and that you’ve been traumatized by The Demons, I’m a bit frightened to start it or Crime and Punishment now. (silly reaction, I know, but still true)

    You’re reading five volumes of Dostoevsky’s bio plus Casanova’s memoirs ? Chapeau bas, mon cher !

    • I haven’t started the Dostoevsky bio yet. I’ve been told that it would be better to wait until I’ve read more Dostoevsky, so so far, I’ve only dipped into the odd passage or two.

      There is a WONDERFUL Russian television adaptation of The Idiot.

      I’m beginning to form the opinion that it’s better to read early D first. Could be wrong, but that’s what I’m thinking.

  7. When considering the way that Dostoevsky writes, it’s best to keep in mind that his life could have been a novel. Being mock-executed does things to people.

    That being said, I thought that Demons is a fantastic study of a terrorist cell, and that it has much more modern relevance than people give it credit.

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