Category Archives: On Writers

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

Boris Savinkov and W. Somerset Maugham

Boris Savinkov is not a name I’d readily link with W. Somerset Maugham, but I came across a chapter about these two vastly different men in the marvellous book A Traveller in Romance: Uncollected Writings 1901-1964– W. Somerset Maugham (edited by John Whitehead). In the chapter The Terrorist: Boris Savinkov, Maugham recalls meeting Savinkov years before. Here’s how the chapter begins with Maugham on a ship:

I suppose it was something in the air. No one in the ship could sleep. One went to bed tired, but no sooner had one laid one’s head on the pillow than all one’s senses grew alert and one was wide awake. This was not the case only with a few bad sleepers, but with the passengers in general, and as night followed night, knowing there would be no rest in our rooms, we stayed up later and later.

One evening, having played bridge till our eyes ached and our brains were dizzy, we sat in the smoking-room, half a dozen of us, weary but unwilling to face a sleepless bed. We drank and smoked. We talked of one thing and another and presently one of those present threw out a question.

‘Who is the most remarkable man you’ve ever met?’ he asked.

As the conversation continues into the night, Maugham listens:

I sat silent, for no one spoke to me, and within myself considered whether really the most extraordinary men were to be found among those who have made a splash in the world; I had a notion that perhaps they were to be found rather among the obscure, living secret lives in a great and populous city, solitary on some island in the South Seas.

As I read this passage, I thought how typical it was of Maugham to include the South Seas into the equation. Here’s an observation made by Maugham as the discussion continues:

But I noticed that no one had said what he meant by extraordinary. Had it any reference to goodness? Had it to do with force of character or was it the sense of power that is manifest in certain men, which had led the speaker to claim for one or other of the persons mentioned that he was the most extraordinary man whom he had ever met? Or was it just strangeness?

Not the best discussion for the insomniac, and later Maugham returns to his cabin, tries to sleep, and instead goes onto the ship’s deck and recalls his meeting with Boris Savinkov in 1917 in Petrograd (Saint Petersburg):

I suppose few remember his name now, but [it] is a name that might have well been as familiar to us all as that of Lenin, and if it had, Lenin’s would have remained obscure. Boris Savinkov might easily have become a man of tremendous authority in Russia; I do not know whether he failed owing to some defect in his character or because the circumstances of the time were such that no man could have altered the course of events. There is no more sometimes than a trembling of a leaf between success and failure.

Maugham gives no hint as to why he was in Petrograd in 1917–hardly a tourist destination at that time in history. He just states that he’d “been sent there on business.” What sort of business, I wondered, and why did he contact Savinkov? There is no explanation. At that time Maugham had read two of Savinkov’s novels and knew of his reputation as a terrorist. When he meets the Russian, Maugham reports that Savinkov  “had the prosperous, respectable look of the manager of a bank.”

Maugham meets Savinkov in order to conduct this mysterious business more than once, and the chapter discusses the various topics of conversation that took place between the two men. At one point, the conversation turns to the Bolsheviks:

Savinkov hated the Bolsheviks. When he spoke of them, though his voice remained soft, his eyes grew steely. The last words he ever spoke to me were these:

‘Between me and Lenin, it’s war to the death. One of these days, perhaps next week, he will put me with my back to the wall and shoot me, or I shall put him with his back to another wall and shoot him. One thing I can tell you is that I shall never run away.’ 

Savinkov spoke those words to Maugham in 1917. Shaplen, the translator of Savinkov’s memoirs, states that Savinkov provided Socialist-Revolutionary Dora Kaplan with a gun with which to shoot Lenin in 1918. Considering the quote from Maugham, well, it all falls into place. While the wounds were not lethal, Lenin never fully recovered, and later suffered a series of strokes before his death in 1924. Dora Kaplan was executed. 

Savinkov lived in exile for a few years before being lured back to Russia in 1924  through the encouraging letters of a friend. He was arrested immediately in Minsk. Then came the trial, news of his ‘repentance,’ and a ten-year prison sentence. Then came the suicide. (I’m injecting here that suicide by ‘falling out of a window’ is a a popular but highly suspicious end–I’m thinking Giuseppe Pinelli as one example).

Shaplen appears to struggle with this final phase of Savinkov’s life. He takes the trial and the suicide at face value while speculating exactly what was going on in Savinkov’s mind when he ‘repented.’ Shaplen asks whether Savinkov returned to Russia thinking that his moment had come to seize his place in Russian history:

Lenin had been dead eight months and the Communist Party was beginning to be torn by the internal strife which, being in large part a struggle of the epigones for the succession to Lenin’s power, resulted ultimately in the elimination one after another of most of the Bolshevik old guard, the exile of Trotsky and the enthronement of Stalin. Did Savinkov believe that the moment was propitious for his reappearance on the stage? Did he see in the schism which was beginning to rend the Bolshevik Party an opportunity to impose himself upon the situation?

Maugham’s thoughts gel well with Shaplen’s speculations. Here’s Maugham on the subject of Savinkov living in exile and waiting for what he considered the perfect moment:

He went into hiding till the fitting opportunity to strike presented itself. For all his passion there was a certain coldness in his temperament; he was not a man to allow his emotions to interfere  with his judgement. He had that great gift, the capacity to wait till the moment was ripe.

Maugham’s memories of Savinkov occupy just a few pages in the book, and yet the recalled acquaintance underscores Maugham’s power as a story-teller. It’s a haunting tale of a disturbing moment in Maugham’s life and also in the history of Russia. Although the story is told, there’s no sense of closure. It’s only fitting that remembering the episode leaves Maugham on the ship’s deck unable to sleep, in a deck chair and staring “at the starry night.”


Filed under Maugham, W. Somerset, Non Fiction, On Writers, Savinkov Boris

The Presentation of Evil in Literature: Panyushin, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Raymond….

Russian journalist Valery Panyushin, who writes for Kommersant,  recently spoke on Radio Kultura. I’m paraphrasing a translation here in which Panyushin states that there are “two basic cultural traditions in Europe. One is called, conditionally, the ancient Greek, and the other is called, conditionally, the christian.”

Panyushin argues: “the ancient Greek tradition presupposes evil exists simply as a mistake of the good whereas christianity presupposes that evil exists in and of itself, by itself.”

Panyushkin says that he “loves Pushkin, Tolstoy, Nabokov and Pasternak,” but admits that he has “a very difficult relationship with Dostoevsky and … Platanov, because in them, evil exists, it’s not simply a mistake of the good. It really exists and maybe they are right, but this makes me very sad and I rarely reread them while I reread Tolstoy every year.”

This excerpt from the radio broadcast got me thinking. When I read Dostoevsky’s The Demons a few years ago, I found it extremely disturbing, so much so that I delayed dipping into Dostoevsky again.

Then I started to think of other books I had really enjoyed but that I found disturbing. The Derek Raymond novel He Died With His Eyes Open immediately came to mind. He Died With His Eyes Open deals with some evil, horrible people. The book is incredible but at the same time, it got under my skin.  I turned the last page, and I felt that I needed to recover before starting the second Factory novel in the series. Is this what Panyushin means?

Derek Raymond’s fourth novel, I was Dora Suarez is notorious for being both his best and his most “repulsive” work. I have yet to read it, but it’s reviewed over at Pechorin’s Journal. Raymond (real name Robin Cook) said this about the toll of writing the book:

Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once.

He added:

If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up–if you do come up.

So according to Raymond, writing about evil also comes with a price. Reminds me of Nietzsche’s epigram:

Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Beyond Good and Evil Epigrams and Interludes 146 )



Filed under Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, On Writers, Raymond Derek