Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Reading Assignment: Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment has been hanging over my head since I was seventeen, and our AP English teacher added it to the syllabus. We spent so much time dissecting every shred of symbolism in Anna Karenina, there was no time at the end of the year for C&P.  A bullet dodged, but only temporarily, because I knew I would read it eventually.  Which I did for the Fifty Classics project.

I wish I could read Russian, because I suspect Crime & Punishment would be a much more elegant novel if read in the language in which it was written.  Maybe I had a particularly bad translation.  There were many clumsy attempts to replace Russian colloquialisms with English ones which made this novel feel like the literary equivalent of one of those kung-fu movies in which the characters' lip movements don't even come close to the sounds they're making.

But let's overlook the language barrier and focus on the plot: Rodion Roskolnikov is a young ex-student who murders an unpleasant old lady and then undergoes enough intense mental anguish to drive himself mad.  Side plots involve Dunya, Roskolnikov's sister who is pursued by a married man and engaged to a despicable one, and the Marmaladov family, who live in poverty and squalor. Dostoevsky is a genius for depicting misery.   Speaking of torment, his characters engage in intense, bewildering dialogue that goes on for pages and pages.  And yet, I'm glad I read this, and despite my complaining, it wasn't as painful as I was expecting it to be. Dostoevsky's treatment of Raskolnikov is almost like that of a scientist: let us place someone into an appalling situation and see what happens.  I think we can all relate to Roskolnikov.  If you have ever obsessed about something to the point at which you are barely rational, or known someone who has, then this book will touch a nerve.

A selection of book covers:


  1. Hm. "She collapsed on her couch, gnashing her teeth while pulling at the ragged ends of her cloak."

  2. My very first freshman year in college (I had a few, as I transferred schools a few times), I took a Russian lit class. I have adored Russian lit ever since. It may be the only classics beyond Jane Austin I can actually sit through.

  3. Mmm . . . no. I feel absolutely no need to read this book :-)

  4. Who translated the version you read? The translation can make a huge difference in one's reading experience.

    Constance Garnett is a familiar name to me, as the translator available at the time I read many of the Russian classics. The colloquialisms may have been current when the translation was newly made, but would quickly become dated.

    I have read C&P but don't recall much about it. I suspect I will have to read it again when the youngest child here gets to 11th grade.

    1. I read an old Penguin paperback that my husband bought at a used book store. It was translated by David Magarshack in 1951. There's a little bio of the translator in my book, and he was born and raised in Russia, so English was his second language.

  5. I read C&P three times in five years during high school and college 25-ish years ago and haven't picked it up again. I suspect that if I were to read it now, I'd get a lot more out of it than I did back then, but I haven't been able to summon the energy to tackle it.