Thursday, 28 August 2014

Hot in the City:Crime and Punishment - Dostoevsky

I always have a trepidation of approaching work considered as a "classic".  Not that I would feel any compunction about saying er it's not very good but rather there seems to be too much history around it - particularly in literature.  I found this weight appeared more than usual with Dostoevsky's stand out book as it is related to law in the broadest sense, the area of human "knowledge" in which I work.  But sometimes all your worries are blown away and the term "classic" is completely appropriate as in this case.  A brilliant novel.

One good sign is that the book surprises you in lots of ways.  Even having spent the last couple of years reading the novellas/novels of  Dostoevsky I still have a picture in my mind of the setting being bleak, dark, wet, cold like Russian winter cold.  But this novel is hot - really hot set at the height of summer "early July, in exceptional heat" as the first line of the novel puts it.   The crime - a double axe murder which even now in these anaesthetised times is a shocking read - takes place in the smelly, cramped heating setting of a St. Petersburg tenement flat.

Like most of Dostoevsky's other works to this point it is also unarguably an urban novel .  People and cultures are living on top of each other in the city - interacting in lots of chaotic ways.  One of the characters is killed by being run over. Again touching on another common theme of Dost the tensions are clear between the strict feudal hierarchy of Tsarist dictatorship and the burgeoning urban life/squalor of Russia's biggest city.  Immigration is also a reality with many different nationalities mentioned in particular German landlords.   One scene has the accent and lifestyles of Germans living in Russia mocked - a very modern development as nation states interact through people.

In the midst of this world a  murder happens. It occurs early in the book and we know the perpetrator.  Raskolnikov - a drop-out law student  living in the archetypal garret room not even a flat.  By the end of the work he confesses to the police.  And that's about it as far as plot goes (apart some family developments with his sister and his burgeoning relationship with a prostitute Sonya).  This is not a who-dunnit or even why -duunit this is an exploration of human psychology, interaction and ideas.

This is not a sprawling family saga but a tight, rich exploration of humanity in a very contemporary (for 1866) setting.  I cannot really understand the phenomenal success of crime fiction - puzzle solving maybe -but everything that could be strong about a crime novel was covered here by Dostoevsky:  the thinking of a killer, the consequences of meaningless violence and the ending of human life.  Every crime book or the sub genre (apparently) psychological thriller since then that touches on this pales in comparison in my view.

Dostoevsky even creates  a bumbling intellectual detective Porfiry who solves the crime early on.   His interactions with Raskolnikov are excellent mind games .  Porfriry was apparently the model for legendary TV Detective Colombo (and the structure of each show was broadly based on this work too) which you can see.  In fact every cliched detective maverick with a brain (which he's not afraid to use!) has some roots in this little man - I'm thinking Cracker with his centre piece interviews/analysis with the criminals or more obscure  Frank Pembleton in Homicide Life On the Streets -  a forerunner of the Wire.

So plot is not really the thing but characters and ideas are.  This probably explains why three has been quite a few dramatisations of it  - not because of the story but the continuing power of Dostoevsky's creations.

Some of the ideas explored are pretty basic - why kill someone?  What affect does it have on a killer, any?  Although Raskolnikov seems to create a motive -  the woman he murders is a "hag" and a money lender - he can use the money for a greater good - to re-establish himself as a student (tuition fees were about then!) and help his widowed mother and sister.  Yet he ends up killing an "innocent" - the hag's half sister and never spends the money which he steals.  In a vague echo of Johnny Cash - is he killing her "just to watch her die" or to see what will be the impact on him.    Well it's not good - Raskolnikov retreats into his shell, but life goes on and his attempt to exist with his actions as the banality of life goes on around him is spellbounding to read.

Along with these fundamental questions there is also a lot of nineteenth century ideological debate.  Another powerful aspect of this novel is that the discussion of these concepts neither seemss dated nor contrived.  Often in fiction when the author is linking the novel with an idea it seems shoe-horned in.  For Raskolnikov makes an attempt to intellectually justify the murder of "lesser" people - it is discovered that he has written an academic article (which Porfiry has read, obviously).  He argues that exceptional people have the right to overcome their conscience as they have a higher and greater aim.   Indeed the greatest people in history have introduced new laws and systems which traduce earlier ones thus they are by necessity turning things on their head.   Napoleon is a recurring (and for the time current) example.   His greatness and plans allowed him to take endless lives.  It is still a symptom of psychiatric illness to believe you are the reincarnation of Napoleon or related to it.  This is part of Dost's attack on the Nihilists and Early Utopian Socialists - essentially ascribing Raskolnikov with these views.  The ends justify the means at one level but it is a bit more than that - the ends almost require these means.    Some have seen this as an attack on Marxism but that is very unlikely as Marx's work was only in limited circles by then.  But it is an attack on "modern" or "European" responses to the radically altering world in the nineteenth century.  Particularly there are many side swipes at "What is to be Done" - the Utopian Socialist Novel.

For the problem with Raskolnikov is that even though he may believe the great man can do what he wants philosophical action the double murder he has carried out is impossible for him to bear and maintain his grip on reality.  The dichotomy of actions that end in people's deaths - it seems easier to do this when ordered from a distance - like Napoleon or even Tony Blair.  Interestingly it is the detective Porfiry who outlines the argument from the article to Raskolonikov in another memorable scene.

Again that highlights the strength of the work it is not a dry academic analysis on the impact on human pschye of killing one or two people (although it is partially that) it is a fast paced work with memorable scene after memorable scene.  In many ways like a great piece of cinema.

There are dark characters found in the grottiest bars in back streets of St Petersburg - one called the Crystal Palace accurately enough.  Early in the book he stumbles into a bar-room bore drinking his family's money away.  He gives a brilliant monologue outlining the tedium, self indulgence and delusion of all drunks.  This is so strong I almost hoped it wouldn't be referred to again - just existing as a stand alone piece.  But there is a nod to the 19th Century novel plot and the fallen daughter which the drunk refers to becomes entangled in Raskolnikov's life - Sonya.

A true villain Svidrigailov also exists in the piece - although ironically we don't discover if he actually has killed anyone (though the murder of his wife and others is hinted at) where we do know that Raskolnikov did.  He is attempting to seduce and pursue Raskolnikov's sister which he almost does in a chilling scene near the end.  He also seems to be a peadophile - marrying a 15 year old in his fifties, grooming other children.  Again a very modern, nasty dark truth written about by Dostoevsky.  Svidirigailov also kills himself which Raskolnikov cannot bring himself to do.  The nature of suicide is something which obsessed Dostoevsky.

There is so much in this work (in fact it is a book you could get obsessed with in itself).  A disturbing scene where Raskolnikov demands Sonya reads Biblical passages to him.  The comical uselessness of Luzhkin - a clerk on the make who manages briefly to convince Raskolnikov's sister to become engaged to him.  And of course the creation of Porfiry. All of the work is of its time : St Petersburg 1866 - streets, events, people are referred to but also universal.

Dostoevsky really found his voice with this book - although he had written some strong pieces as I have outlined on this blog.  Literally - this is a third person narrative although it follows Raskolnikov almost through every page: he apparently rejected the version where he was the narrator.  There are two exceptions to this - near the end the narrative breaks from Raskolnikov to follow Svidrigailov - ending with his death. Also the Epilogue which has a strange distant tone - it follows Raskolnikov (or the criminal as it calls him) to his prison exile ( a la Dost himself) and his redemption through Sonya's love and (of course for FD) religion.  I am not sure about that ending but it follows Dostoevsky's spiritual belief - the truly dark figure kills himself.
It is great when "classics" live up to expectations and I have not really done it justice.  In contemporary writers the balance of the very new with the universal is often attempted but never that successfully.  Old Dostoevsky shows how it is done.  Amazing.

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