Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment refashioned the idea of what a novel could be

By the 1860s Dostoevsky had been orphaned, imprisoned, conscripted and widowed. Lumbered with debts and immersed in the nihilism of St Petersburg, he set about developing the “psychological account of a crime”.

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With the exception of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and possibly Frasier, Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment, published a little over 150 years ago, and now available in a pair of lucid and pleasurable – and largely similar – new translations, ranks as the most successful spin-off in the history of Western culture.

Impressive sequels were fairly common when Dostoevsky got down to work in the mid-1860s. Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet, which Dostoevsky himself translated into Russian, comes at around number 30 in his “Comédie humaine”. Dostoevsky’s contemporary Leo Tolstoy, after scoring a hit with Childhood, proceeded to write Boyhood and Youth. But no great novel had sprung from the mythology of another book by the same writer in quite the way that Crime and Punishment, the story of a murder that ends in a Siberian prison, did from Dostoevsky’s memoir of his own four-year stretch, Notes on the House of the Dead (1861).

From that heaving catalogue of criminal types (killers by mischance and by profession, “brigands”, “simple thieves”) he drew the material for a single case study. Dostoevsky’s ability to make such varied use of his experiences is a testament to his openness or resourcefulness – and also a reflection of just what a long and traumatic journey he had taken to composing his first great novel.

He was born in Moscow, in 1821, and spent much of his life on the wrong side of Fate and Power. By the end of the 1830s, he was an orphan. As 1849 turned to 1850, he was en route to Omsk, south-western Siberia – following a close shave with the firing squad – where he served almost a decade as an inmate in a prison camp and as a conscripted soldier for his membership of the group of writers and intellectuals known as the Petrashevsky circle. And although by the end of the next decade he seemed to be back on track – newly married, editing a magazine with his brother – this new arrangement was cut short in 1864 by the closure of the magazine and the deaths within the space of a few months of both his wife and brother.

 The 1860s, post-Siberia Dostoevsky was no longer a radical, partly because his primary cause, the abolition of serfdom, had been achieved, and partly because of changes in the radicalist make-up. The utopian socialism dominant in his youth had been replaced by a new atheist doctrine known as rational egoism or nihilism – and Petrashevsky replaced by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who promoted his views in the novel What is to be Done?

In 1865, a widower lumbered with his brother’s debts, Dostoevsky began developing a novella attacking nihilist St Petersburg in the form of “the psychological account of a crime” – the murder by a university dropout of a local moneylender, on the strength of “half-baked” notions “floating about in the air”. In a letter to his friend Milyukov, he guaranteed the story’s “originality” and “power to grip”.

Dostoevsky may have intended a polemical allegory or existential chamber piece, but the result was voluble and worldly, propelled less by its murder plot than its marriage plot, and with a stream of chance encounters, overheard conversations and surprise visits that produce a texture close to melodrama and even farce. Soon after Raskolnikov commits his crime, his sister arrives in St Petersburg trailed by a pair of highly imperfect suitors, her “morbidly” self-admiring fiancé Luzhin and the demonic Svridrigailov (“a man of endless schemes and designs” – my quotations come from the Pasternak Slater version), who soon find themselves outgunned by Raskolnikov’s friend, Razumikhin, a polyglot intellectual whose only plan for long-term financial security is a publishing start-up specialising in translations. (“Maybe it’s a good idea,” Raskolnikov’s mother says, “but then again, God alone knows!”)

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The murder of the moneylender would at times feel incidental if it didn’t also serve as such a trenchant tool of characterisation. The Raskolnikov who struggles to abide the affection of his family and friends is the same lost, conflict-ridden figure who gives himself three distinct justifications, indebted in different ways to Chernyshevsky, for committing his crime. There is the utilitarian case – killing the moneylender would produce an overall benefit for mankind. There is the financial-familial case – the robbery would liberate Raskolnikov from penury, and thereby rescue his sister from a marriage tantamount to prostitution. And there is the philosophical case – the theory, set down by Raskolnikov in a book review (of all things), stating that the truly great man is above the law.

But all of this reasoning comes swiftly undone. Raskolnikov’s attack of guilt, experienced first as a fever, suggests that he is not imperious and invulnerable, the Napoleon of Nevsky Prospect. What little money he manages to steal he hides or gives away. And his newly revealed instability throws into doubt all his sober calculations – troubled in any case by his killing of the moneylender’s half-sister, Lizaveta, whose burden to mankind featured nowhere on his balance sheet.

Confessing his crime to the pious pros-titute Sonia, Raskolnikov announces that the motives he espoused were all “rubbish”, that he harboured “quite, quite, quite different reasons”. Rationalism was merely a rationalisation, a cover for something animal or ineffable, and he undergoes a speedy conversion to the opposite mode of thinking. When the intellectual Lebezyatnikov suggests that you can talk someone out of being upset, he replies: “That would make life far too simple.” The failure of Raskolnikov’s “perfect” crime, by revealing the limitations of his conscious understanding, topples not just his worldview but the possibility of a worldview – something relevant or utile that also respects life’s complexity.

The rest of the novel is devoted to investigating the question of what actually drove Raskolnikov, with various characters prompted by the unsolved murder case to air their own musings about the origins of the criminal mentality. Along the way, there’s extensive reliance on Dostoevsky’s favoured forms, the squabble and the rant, as well as a devoted tracking of emotional states, which, even as they jerk and shift, remain safely within the narrow spectrum known as Dostoevshchina.

In one scene, the much-called-upon physician, Zosimov, notes with some wonder that his patient’s “pale and gloomy” face appeared at first to “light up” when he saw his mother and sister, but only to the extent of turning an “expression of listless dejection into one of more concentrated torment… a sort of grim, hidden determination to endure an hour or two of torture that could no longer be avoided.” Still, Zosimov reflects, Raskolnikov’s ability to restrain himself marks an improvement on the mono- mania displayed the previous day, when words that now merely irritate would have goaded him “almost to a frenzy”. (Later, Raskolnikov experiences something “oppressive and painful”, “strange and terrible”: in the world according to Dostoevsky, that’s just what being loved feels like.)

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Dostoevsky’s original plan was for something tighter in focus, a monologue in the style of Notes from the Underground, and despite the use of multiple perspectives, the novel is especially vivid and fervid when occupying Raskolnikov’s thoughts. Still, the biographer Joseph Frank was fighting a vain cause when he maintained that Crime and Punishment anticipates the techniques used by Henry James and Joseph Conrad. In their work, the desire to conjoin the first person and the third person, the recipe of intimacy-with-detachment, was mobilised by the double-narrated tale-within-a-tale (The Turn of the Screw, Heart of Darkness) or the use of a “free indirect” style (What Maisie Knew, Nostromo), a precursor to stream-of-consciousness in which an authorial narrator commands ready access to the characters’ impressions and reflections. Dostoevsky’s mode is altogether balder, even story-book, with the tag “he thought” (making it “unfree”) followed by a rendering of the thoughts as if they were speech (therefore “direct”), a kind of soliloquy with the mouth taped shut.

If anything, Crime and Punishment was more notable as the favoured anti-model, a how-not-to guide, for the novel’s leading theorists and practitioners. James said he was unable to finish it. Conrad wrote a novel-length riposte – Under Western Eyes. Why? The handling of point of view was taken as an index of a writer’s literary credentials, as defined by James, whose call for a balance between form and reality, life and art, pattern and freedom, was reflected in the phrase “a deep-breathing economy”. Dostoevsky’s novels, by contrast, were what James called “fluid puddings”, all life, all reality, and yet worthless as such without the countervailing forces of “composition” and “architecture”.

A description of Dostoevsky’s writing was offered as a straightforward takedown, when in fact he simply possessed different priorities. Crime and Punishment, for all the clockwork of its plotting, is an assertively rugged piece of work, unabashed in the pursuit of the big moments. A torrent of telling, its barely papered-over coincidences (“How strange this was!”) and confessedly turgid speeches (“Raskolnikov had long been wanting to leave”) constitute a snubbed nose to the ideals of proportion and refinement.

In overstating his European influence, Joseph Frank missed the more important and remarkable fact that Dostoevsky achieved canonical security – easy recognition as one of the few essential writers – despite being granted no role in the novel’s turn-of-the-century liberation from what James’s disciple and fellow doubter Ford Madox Ford called “the merely barbarous stringing together of piquant rogueries and hypocritical moralising”.

Dostoevsky, an impassioned Slavophile, with an increasing commitment to Russian “soil”, the Orthodox Church, and the writing of Pushkin, was determined to work in a home-grown genre, less social and sensory, more discursive and theological, than the writing of Balzac or the Victorians. This enterprise was better received by the generation of novelists born in the 1880s, among them James Joyce, who might have been replying to Ford when he said that Dostoevsky “shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces”, and DH Lawrence, who did more than any other writer to make Dostoevsky’s interest in psychic mysteries the basis of a distinctive anglophone tradition.

Though you couldn’t exactly call Henry James macho, an element of repression, an almost masculinist sense of etiquette, was crucial to his aesthetics, and Dostoevsky was found wanting for similar reasons to George Sand, George Eliot, and Mrs Oliphant. Dostoevsky’s novels, with their exclusively male heroes consumed in acts of bearded brooding, may seem an unlikely cause for feminist revisionism. But when Angela Carter was asked to identify her favourite woman writer, she cursed herself for naming Emily Brontë (“who’s pure butch”) because, as she told a friend, “if one is talking about these qualities of sensitivity, vulnerability and perception traditionally ascribed by male critics to female novelists”, Dostoevsky was “the greatest feminine writer who’s ever lived”. (In this context, Lawrence was “infinitely more feminine than Jane Austen”; she later wrote that he made Colette look like Cassius Clay.) At one point, Raskolkinov laments, “I’m so sad, so sad! As if I was a woman… honestly!”, and it seems possible that James was simply embarrassed by the romantic tenor of Dostoevsky’s fiction, which trades in pounding hearts and burning gazes, in characters who fall into hysterics or run shrieking into the night, and in feelings of world-historical extremity (“Rarely, if ever, had anyone carried away so much venomous hatred in his heart as this man nursed against Raskolnikov”).

Despite the silliness of Carter’s categories, many of the standout Dostoevskian writers, such as Sylvia Plath, Patricia Highsmith and Joyce Carol Oates, were not only female but belonged to a national tradition on easier terms with extroversion, maximalism and Gothic psychodrama, the same tradition James had rejected in his study of Hawthorne – and in his life – and that Lawrence celebrated in his Studies in Classic American Literature.

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Of course, Dostoevsky’s claim to have invented a new literary genre doesn’t solely rest on Crime and Punishment. Although it was published when he was 45, after so many books and setbacks, it marked a breakthrough, not a culmination. Its resemblance to Hamlet resides both in its details (fatherless ex-student, bookish sidekick, philosophy, mumbling, murder) and in its peculiar status, as an extraordinary achievement that also serves as the preparation for a trio of more ambitiously unsettling tragedies.

Various touches point towards Dostoevsky’s later novels: a reflection on the “holy fool” (The Idiot), a dream involving a city-wide disease (The Possessed), a smattering of theodicy (The Brothers Karamazov). It is not an insult to Crime and Punishment but a tribute to its author to say that his most famous book, the face he shows to the world, plays a more servile role within his body of work, something like a hinge, or border – a spin-off that doubles as a gateway drug to more exalted highs. 

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s chief fiction reviewer and a judge for the 2018 Man Booker Prize

Crime and Punishment
Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater
Oxford World’s Classics, 544pp, £16.99

Crime and Punishment: a New Translation​
Translated by Michael R Katz
Liveright, 624pp, £28

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the radical left