The Sunday Section: Book Review - 'Crime and Punishment' and 'Notes from Underground'

I first read ‘Crime and Punishment’ in my late teens, and I admit I was probably too young (and sheltered!) to fully appreciate it.  I remember being worried because I was attracted to the protagonist who, at the beginning of the book, is planning a murder – I was convinced I had to be some sort of deviant!

Anyway, I’ve recently re-read it, and am glad I did.  Granted, the book is a little wordy sometimes but so are most late 19th/early 20th century books.  Like Russian fairy-tales, I find there’s something ‘other’ in the literature that isn’t found in Western literature … something melancholic but not depressing; almost as if the ‘sadness’ is a part of life, something to embrace, not fight against.

Dostoevsky is simply brilliant at creating dramatic tension; and his characters are so believably human, not three-dimensional, cardboard cutouts – no one is entirely good or entirely bad; everyone has flaws, everyone has the potential to be good and bad.  And his insight into human nature – spot on! 

The protagonist, Raskolnikov, is shown to be a complex person.  You start off thinking, this has got to be a ‘bad’ guy as he’s planning the murder of a defenceless old woman.  But once you’re shown the inner workings of his mind, his actions begin to make sense, in a weird sort of way.  Dostoevsky masterfully reveals the sense of isolation that descends on Raskolnikov once the crime has been committed.  And yet, the man isn’t an evil monster.  Practically destitute, still he gives his money away to those who need it, and he obviously cares for his mother and sister.

The other characters are equally fascinating – Raskolnikov’s friend, Razumikhin, as destitute, but gregarious and caring, he wears his heart on his sleeve; Raskolnikov’s sister, Dunya, brimming with confidence, and not as innocent as she might first appear; her suitor, so in love with his own importance that he’s lost sight of his humanity; her ex-boss who seems to be nothing but a lecherous old man … Sonia who, despite the constant hardship that is her life, maintains her beliefs of ‘good and right’ … Porfiry, the police detective who embarks on a cat-and-mouse game with the mentally stressed Raskolnikov is a true master of his profession, but he doesn’t necessarily behave in the way that’s expected.

You get to the point where you’re no longer wondering/worrying if Raskolnikov will be caught, the question becomes, how will he be caught … or will he turn himself in?

Be prepared to take your time with this book as the story reveals itself slowly.  But, in my opinion, it is definitely worth the time as I found it a rich, rewarding read.

Another Dostoevsky book I read a couple of months ago for the first time was ‘Notes from Underground’.  Being a short novel, about 100 pages, I thought I’d probably finish it in a couple of days.  How wrong I was! 

The book is in 2 parts, there is barely any plot to speak of, and it opens with: “I’m a sick man … a spiteful man … an unattractive man, that’s what I am.”  Talk about setting the tone.  Part 1, ‘Under The Floorboards’, is basically the thoughts of a man, a civil servant who has taken early retirement; because he has chosen to live apart from society, he believes he has no social obligation.  But we aren’t presented with mere ‘simple’ thoughts – it’s like reading the rambling blog of a brilliant yet insane man who believes very much that suffering is good for the soul.

The second part, titled, ‘In Connection With Wet Snow’ – because there’s snow outside – has most of what little plot there is.  He fixates on an encounter he’s had with an officer, whom he believes has slighted him, and starts planning his revenge.  Insinuating himself into a dinner with former schoolmates despite the fact that he actually despises them, he doesn’t seem to realise that they’re not too fond of him either.  Later he finds himself in a brothel with a sweet prostitute, and clumsily attempts to start a relationship despite his hatred of human contact.

Dostoevsky has written a masterpiece of a loner who you cannot possibly feel anything other than pity, even revulsion, yet he also manages to show the man’s wounded soul.  This all sounds awfully grim, and yet, to my surprise, I enjoyed a good laugh because he has given his anti-hero one helluva wicked sense of humour!  And if you’re looking for an introduction to Dostoevsky, this is probably not the book to start with.  Despite its ‘little’ size, it’s meatier than ‘Crime and Punishment’.

I’m including this from the introduction as I found the information fascinating.  The title of the book in Russian is ‘Zapiski iz Podpol’ya’, which, apparently, is difficult to translate.  It literally means ‘Notes from Under the Floorboards”.  In the original translation in 1918 by Constance Garnet, it was called ‘Notes from the Underground’ and that is what the novel has come to be known as.  But the word ‘underground’ has “acquired connotations of conspiracy, insurgency, early tremors of revolution.  But in 1864, podpolye, the space under the floorboards, referred essentially to the shallow space uninhabitable by humans but inhabited by rodents and, according to Russian folk legend, the abode of devils, demons, evil spirits and other representatives of what Russians call the Unclean Power (‘Nechistaya Sila’); creatures more sinister even than conspirators, insurgents or revolutionaries.”

What a deliciously creepy thought …