30 Novels, Day 15: Crime and Punishment
Guest Post by Laurence Miall
I had a friend in high school who was a talented artist. He once showed me a series of black and white illustrations he was working on. Each illustration depicted a scene from a novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I was struck by the intensity and the dark tones of the illustrations. I said to myself, I’m going to check out this Dostoyevsky guy.
Six months after graduating, I was living in France, learning French, babysitting and tutoring for money. I rented a studio apartment in Paris. That sounds somewhat glamorous, and I guess in some respects it was. The Jardin du Luxembourg was close by, with its rows of perfectly-tended flowers, trees standing like sentries in lines, and the centrepiece, a fountain that I could stare at and lose myself in. But my own dwelling was not quite so picturesque. It was only big enough for a thin mattress on the floor, a small stand for my little stereo, and in the corner, a sink. To go to the bathroom, I had to use the shared toilet down the hallway. To take a shower, I had to leave the building entirely and go to the local swimming pool.
Alternating between lying on that uncomfortable mattress, or sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg, I made my way through Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. I was immediately drawn to the character of Raskolnikov. Like me, he drifted around rather aimlessly, but he seemed to have very big plans in his head. I didn’t share Raskolnikov’s particularly sinister plan – to murder an old woman – but I nevertheless did often have dark thoughts. I was depressed and lonely. I had been having perfectly innocent dates with a beautiful Portguese girl called Inès, and at one point I said to myself, “She will think I am a mouse if I don’t stir myself to make a move, so I am going to show her I am made of sterner stuff; I am going to attempt to kiss her!” So one evening, in the entrance to the Metro, where I was bidding her farewell after a date, instead of the usual kiss on the cheeks, I went right for her mouth. She turned her head so that I would miss my target. She said, “You are very kind,” and then she hurried away.
So I felt I understood, in some respects, the angst-ridden world of Raskolnikov – his numerous resentments and feelings of unrealized potential. When I pictured where he lived, described by Dostoyevsky as “a closet,” I thought of my own miserable dwelling, where I couldn’t eat at a table, but instead, had to crouch over a cheese and tomato sandwich on a plate, picking the errant crumbs off the brown carpet.
To read Dostoyevsky is to enter a world that often feels like a nightmare, because the drama is rendered in visceral, almost apocalyptic terms, and moreover, Dostoyevsky considers the actual dreams of his characters to be an important part of the action. Crime and Punishment contains two (from my recollection) quite famous dreams: one in which a horse is cruelly beaten to death, and the other about a plague that besets the entire world, making people insane and murderous.
One day, my reading of Dostoyevsky was interrupted by a knock at the door. I opened it. Standing there was a tall man with a metal canister strapped to his back. He asked me if I had a problem with cockroaches. I said, no, I didn’t. Nevertheless, the man was insistent on spraying for cockroaches. A day or two after he’d done his work, I was engrossed in Crime and Punishment to the point where I had delayed going to pee for a long time. I stepped over the remains of my lunch – the usual cheese and tomato sandwich – and I went down the hallway to the toilet. When I returned, I found that a cockroach had crawled onto my plate. He was nonchalantly looking at the remnants of my sandwich.
This was yet more proof that my life was every bit as miserable and awful as I had imagined it to be! The indignities I suffered! Raskolnikov could have been a brother of mine. If had been in Saint Petersburg, Russia, I would have listened to him, just as his faithful friend, Razumikhin, did. As I advanced through the book, I was developing quite a dislike for the character of Porfiry, the investigator that keeps cross-examining Raskolnikov, seeming to delight in tormenting his victim, hinting that he knows what the young man has done, but never saying so. At times, this cat and mouse game made me feel almost unbearably anxious.
D.H. Lawrence reportedly once read an early English translation of this book and reacted with revulsion, calling Dostoyevsky a “snake slithering around in hate.” I can see that. Dostoyevsky remains the most modern of 19th century authors, because he can and will shock you with sleaze, cruelty, violence and debauchery. But he remains the most moral of all authors. He will lead the reader down very dark pathways, but eventually he will always lead you to the light.
Image from the Crime & Punishment graphic novel by Korkos and Mairowitz