Living in a foreign country has had all sorts of funny effects on my reading habits. I read a lot more, partially just to enjoy the English language, but there’s a limited choice in the libraries, English books in the shops are pretty expensive, and Amazon orders have to be rationed. This all means I’ve ended up reading lots of books that have been sitting on the shelf a long long time. Crime and Punishment has been waiting years. I don’t even remember why I bought it in the first place. Autumn’s coming on and I was feeling fairly serious so decided to tackle it this week. Well, I finished. It turns out there’s no prize for getting to the end – disappointing.
The plot summary on my copy begins: 'Crime and Punishment (1866) is the story of a murder committed on principle, of a killer who wishes by his action to set himself outside and above society.' However, I felt that this concept – the murder on principle – became more important after the event, as the main character, Raskolnikov, tries to comprehend and justify his actions. When the actual action happens insanity, anger and frustration appear more significant than philosophy. What follows is a psychological-philosophical thriller as Raskolnikov lives in dread of his crime being revealed. Dostoevsky presents a vivid and repellent portrayal of nineteenth-century St Petersburg, peopled by lunatics, consumptives, saintly prostitutes and generally sinister folk. (See that ugly cover image? It's fitting - Russia here is not onion domes, snow-covered steppes and bear-skin but dingy rooms and worn out clothes.)
Dostoevsky wrote this story following his own experiences of interrogation and trial for political activism. He was sentenced to death, but this was changed to penal servitude and exile. Perhaps this is one reason why Raskolnikov’s tortured monologues are convincing rather than hysterical. The book has become a classic for its urgent interrogation of questions of good and evil, madness, and social justice. It seems foolish to criticise it really, but for me it was too long, the suspense was weakened by speeches that lasted pages (single paragraphs that must have been more than 2000 words), and I never felt convinced that the author really cared about his characters or knew them as more than fictional devices. Dostoevsky’s thought to be one of the greatest novelists who ever lived. For what it’s worth, Crime and Punishment is a great book objectively, but it left me cold.