Sheltering from the evening drizzle on a grey Maundy Thursday in London, a crowd packed into the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a talk on Dostoevsky’s great novel of resurrection, Crime and Punishment. The latest in the gallery’s "In Conversation" series, the talk was part of a varied programme of events complementing a newly opened exhibition: Russia and the Arts: The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. The legacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, which was published a century and a half ago this year, was the subject for a panel composed of the literary specialists Oliver Ready (the TLS's Russia editor), Sarah Young and Lesley Chamberlain.
Ready, who is also the novel’s most recent translator, playfully opened the discussion by noting that the typical question of a classic work’s "relevance today" can often sound threatening, laying the onus on the novel to engage us rather than on us to engage with the novel. So Ready invited his co-panellists to look through the other end of the telescope and consider not what the novel can tell us about our world, but rather how similarities in our world might bring us to a closer understanding of Dostoevsky’s novel. Young painted a vivid picture of the St Petersburg to which Dostoevsky returned from his period of Siberian exile. The city he saw as he began work on Crime and Punishment was radically changed: there was overcrowding, a sudden influx of migrants, strange foreign ideologies floating around, and a surge in urban poverty and vice. The novel that he would go on to write – one that he intended to be "current", very much of the year of its composition – abounds, Chamberlain reminded us, in newspaper details and topical references. It was a book, Young surmised, written about "the world of today, but also fearful for the future".
The talk meandered through the philosophical quagmires of the novel (deftly outlined by Chamberlain) before considering Dostoevsky’s reception in the West. The fact that doom and gloom is so closely associated with the author – Marcel Proust claimed that Dostoevsky’s entire opus could be titled "Crime and Punishment" – is, it would seem, somewhat unfair. The panel commented on his brilliant flashes of humour, an oft-forgotten aspect of his writing. (Actually, Dostoevsky’s skill as a humorist was one of the few merits as a writer that Vladimir Nabokov, his most infamous critic, was willing to concede.) Comparing the author of Crime and Punishment to his erstwhile mentor Nikolai Gogol, Ready further remarked that while Gogol’s oeuvre succeeds in bringing out the tragic in comedy, Dostoevsky’s great skill is showing the comic in tragedy.
One of the most fascinating moments in the discussion was the brief but beguiling consideration of Dostoevsky’s manuscripts, with their doodles and illustrations. Here, as we were shown, may be seen the very texture of Dostoevsky’s writing in visual form – subplots sprouting in all directions around the main plot, adorned with the author’s calligraphy, sketches of high Gothic architecture, and haunting portraits.
Questions followed. The audience was keen to know whether Dostoevsky had any modern literary heirs. The three names touted by the panel were the recent Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich; winner of the Russian Booker Prize, Vladimir Sharov; and, the ostensible outsider in the group, J. M. Coetzee.
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