Dostoevsky’s crimes

Fyodor Dostoevsky was forty-three when he began work on what was to become Crime and Punishment. This was just old enough for him to count as an old fogey in the eyes of the young men and women who defined Russia in the 1860s and who found themselves slandered by Dostoevsky’s depiction of them as potential axe-murderers. For his part Dostoevsky felt vindicated when Dmitry Karakozov (aged twenty-five) made an assassination attempt on Alexander II that bore some resemblance to his protagonist Raskolnikov’s crime, just as his novel was commencing publication in the journal Russky Vestnik (The Russian Herald). Dostoevsky always fancied himself a prophet, but the French critic Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé attributed Karakozov’s crime to Dostoevsky’s penchant for stimulating the “demon of imitation”. Indeed, Dostoevsky sympathized with the young people’s desire for social justice, regarding their crimes as born more of impatience than malevolence. Yet crimes they were, and in a letter to his editor, the arch-conservative ideologue Mikhail Katkov (aged forty-eight), Dostoevsky diagnosed the pestilence afflicting Russian youth as nihilism:
“Our poor defenceless Russian boys and girls have their own eternal main point, which will be the basis of socialism for a long time to come, namely their enthusiasm for the good and the purity of their hearts. There are many swindlers and rascals among them. But all these school children and university students, of whom I have seen so many, have converted to nihilism so purely, so selflessly, in the name of honour, truth and true usefulness! Healthy science [or learning: nauka], of course, will wipe it out. But when might this occur? How many victims will socialism consume before then? And, finally, healthy science, though it will take root, will not destroy the chaff so soon because healthy science is still science, not a direct form of civic and social activity.”
Dostoevsky goes on to identify the antidote to nihilism as “freedom of speech” or “glasnost”, which will allow right-minded authors to “make all Russia laugh with positive clarifications of their [the nihilists’] teaching. Whereas now they are given the semblance of Sphinxes, riddles, wisdom, and mystery, and this tempts the naive”. Remaining true to his own youthful socialism, Dostoevsky saw the path to its fulfilment as much more fraught and dependent on discursive mediation. For all its suspense, Crime and Punishment was a considered contribution to the “science” of action.
Young people today may be less inclined to take direct offence, but they are no less likely to see themselves implicated in the naive “enthusiasm for the good” exemplified by Raskolnikov and his motley retinue. After all, the novel is very much a tragedy of failed generational change. When he sees a thirty-year-old man stalking a drunken sixteen-year-old girl, Raskolnikov reflects on how quickly and irrevocably living souls become demographic statistics (what more exalted types might still call “fate”): “Haven’t I seen girls like that? And how did they get there? . . . That’s how it should be, they say. A certain percentage, they say, must go that way every year”. Raskolnikov shudders at the thought of his sister marrying Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin (aged forty-five), even though, Raskolnikov’s mother reports, Luzhin shares “the convictions of our newest generations”; this ingratiating older man has learned the language of the young but misses their point, discrediting their ideals with his transparent calculation. For Raskolnikov all men over thirty are “Svidrigailovs”, or dissolute predators, nihilists of decay rather than of action. Svidrigailov himself is a youthful fifty years of age, but then Raskolnikov’s victim, this “old hag” and “louse”, is herself probably no older than fifty (we are told only that her younger sister, Lizaveta, whom Raskolnikov also murders without premeditation, is thirty-five, as is the investigator Porfiry Petrovich). The generations are separated by an ontological divide and intersect only in set-pieces such as interrogations, public scandals and crimes.
The ages are brought together most melodramatically in the saga of the Marmeladov family, a narrative strand that originated as a project for a novel with the working title “The Drunkards”. The elder Marmeladov, a former civil servant and self-flagellating alcoholic, is in his fifties, but he is only barely outlived by his second wife Katerina Ivanovna (aged thirty), whose fall from noble birth into disreputable squalor and consumption drives her to the brink of insanity. Her stepdaughter Sonya is a prostitute at sixteen, but retains enough of her youthful glow to rekindle in Raskolnikov – and generations of readers – belief in “the good”. The novel culminates in rebirth, the narrator tells us in the second epilogue, but Dostoevsky’s novel remains scarred by the inevitable loss of innocence that makes its characters dependent on contingent beneficence, and which renders direct action more a symptom of their malaise than its remedy.
Oliver Ready, the novel’s latest translator, advocates for the young, laying claim to “the first new translation for a generation”. This is only just true, that of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky having been first published in 1992. Short of some radical strategy of adaptation – and the world abounds in adaptations of Crime and Punishment for stage and screen and in formats such as the graphic novel – how can any new translation bring the novel any closer to new generations of readers? What is different about Ready’s generation of translators
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