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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Crime and Punishment (1867) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Book Review
Crime and Punishment (1867)
by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  This was my third time through Crime and Punishment, and I feel like my second time listening to the audio book edition.  At 25 or so hours it isn't as long as you would think it would be, given the fearsome reputation and repeated use as a punchline for confessions about otherwise literate people and what classics they haven't bothered to read.   Crime and Punishment is a forbidding task beyond the length, featuring the pay-by-the-word style that is a part of any work written originally as a serial; with the complexity of Russian character names and a surpassing fondness for the declamatory style of various characters making long winded speeches, spelled by the narrator making even more long winded speeches.

 Today, Crime and Punishment gets credit for being an originator of the "true crime" genre- not entirely deserved given the gap between the original Russian publication and the widely known English translation in 1914.   I think this half century gap between publication in Russian and dissemination in English is often overlooked when Dostoevsky is lumped in with other 19th century English and French language authors.  The fact is, no one, or hardly anyone, in the west had read Dostoevsky before 1900, and real acknowledgment of his status as a master didn't come until 20 years into the twentieth century.  

  The tale of Raskolnikov, the existentialist student, and his senseless murder of a pawn broker and her assistant, take place almost at the beginning of Crime and Punishment.  The rest is more about "Punishment," and what punishment means, and how it is inflicted.  There is, at the heart of Crime and Punishment, something that could be described as a detective story, as investigator Petrovich compensates for the lack of evidence and weakness of the Russian judicial system to torment Raskolnikov into confession and imprisonment.    However, in true nineteenth century fashion we are also treated to hundred page subplots involving not only Raskolnikov's immediate family, notably his sister, but also the plight of a totally unrelated family, and their teen aged daughter, who is the love interest for Raskolnikov.

  Despite the panoply of characters, Crime and Punishment has a claustrophobic air, with characters closeted together in a fashion that strongly suggests the conventions of the stage.  There are some notable out of door scenes, particularly the trampling of Marmeldov in the winter snow by a passing team of horses, but most of the activity takes place in the rooms of the poor and not-so-poor of St. Petersburg. 

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