Dakota Ate this Book: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’ve been saving my review of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky for several weeks; a book like this requires some reflection. It was not what I expected. I have read lots of 19th century fiction, most of it English fiction, so I was expecting Dostoevsky to fall in place neatly alongside Charles Dickens. Dickens wrote about crime and criminals in several novels and was said to be a fan of Dostoevsky’s work. I was wrong. Rashkolnikov, the murderous anti-hero of Crime and Punishment bears little resemblance to any of the criminals in Dickens’s novels–the two authors have little in common in their approach to the subject at all.

Even in Charles Dickens’s most intimate story the reader gets the impression that he is in an expansive universe. The richness and the variety of characters imply that there is a colorful world out there if only we can go and find it. I think this is even true in a novel like Little Dorrit much of which is confined to small rooms the Marshalsea prison. Even in prison the characters create a world. I had the opposite sensation with Crime and Punishment. Throughout the novel I felt that the world was collapsing on Rashkolnikov. Although there is a large cast of characters, many colorful enough to be in a Dickens novel, everything seems to close in on Rashkolnikov’s lonely room. To the point that when he left it, he was still in it. He takes his isolation with him when he enters the world, rather than bringing the world with him into prison as the characters in Little Dorrit do.

Rashkolnikov is a young student in St. Petersburg, Russia, just eking out a living barely able to pay for his classes and his own support on the money his family can send him. He reaches a point when he can no longer even do this and is faced with paying the rent. He reasons that his life is worth more than that of the local pawnbroker, that if he were to kill her and to rob her he would be no different really from a Napoleon who did just that on a much grander scale and is hailed as a genius and a hero for doing so. Men of genius are not subject to the law and morality of ordinary men according to Rashkolnikov, so what would be an act of murder for one is not so for the other.

Raskolnikov kills the old woman and her servant only to be tormented afterwards by guilt and by the fear of discovery. He becomes ill as a result. His friends and neighbors along with his mother and sister arrive on the scene, each one voicing their own theory as to why he is ill and how to cure him. They hover over him in his tiny room talking about the flu while he is consumed with guilt and the suspicion that they all know what he did and are mocking him. Once he recovers his health he must deal with a police inspector who has found a witness, a young neighbor girl whom Raskolnikov has fallen in love with in spite of her lower status and suspect reputation. In what many, myself included, find a weak ending, she brings him to redemption.

This all takes place in the space of a few days and it all makes for compelling reading. I don’t know why that surprised me but it did. I was expecting Crime and Punishment to be something of a slog, but I found it difficult to put down right from the start. Parts of it are actually very funny, but what is most interesting is the study of a single criminal mind. I felt like I was reading a case study in a book by Sigmund Freud. Since the main reason I read Crime and Punishment in the first place is that Matt has talked about it so frequently on his blog A Guy’s Moleskin Notebook, I decided to ask him about this. His reply follows:

I haven’t stumbled upon any published literature that Freud has written on Crime and Punishment. Fyodor Dostoevsky began to write this novel in 1859, the last of his ten years of exile in Siberia. Living a life of suffering, he created the character of Raskolnikov with the preconceptions of his own harrowing experience. I have read volume after volume of critical essays on where Raskolnikov’s suffering originated, which is, from the frame of the novel itself, in his murder of the pawn-woman. The lectures on the novel in my undergrad class also focused on this topic. But Dostoevsky’s main concentration I believe is why suffering must exist and how one can overcome this suffering.

In part one of the novel, Dostoevsky describes Raskolnikov as “having been in an over strained irritable condition, verging on hypochondria” for some time past. When out in public, he is almost always preoccupied with his own agitated thoughts or muttering to himself in a state of feverish confusion. These irregular characteristics indicate Raskolnikov’s nervous anticipation of the murder that he plans to commit. The guilt that he experiences after carrying out the murder further amplifies his irritable condition, thus plunging him into a period of illness and delirium. A reader would conclude, therefore, that Raskolnikov’s mental state is directly linked to the guilt about the crime.

As a neurotic, Raskolnikov is unable to suppress his instincts as effectively as a regular person. He engages in these palliative measures for the same reasons as everybody else does, yet is unable to achieve the same results due to the abnormal strength of his instincts. When the instincts of regular people come into contact with their palliative measures, they are instantly subdued. But when Raskolnikov’s powerful instincts come into contact with his palliative measures, they combine with the palliative measures, thus turning them into extreme and distorted mental obsessions.

How is it that Raskolnikov’s aggression still exists, when the conditions of civilization are supposed to repress such instincts? Freud maintains that civilization “is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.” In order to answer our question, we must again remind ourselves that Raskolnikov is a neurotic character with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization.

Freudian analysis of Raskolnikov might indicate that complex connections exist between civilization and the human psyche—connections which are impossible to completely sever. The presence of these connections make it impossible for us to try to oppose the structure of civilization without ending up in the same plight as Raskolnikov. Thus, both Freud and Dostoevsky seem to suggest that it is necessary for us to adapt ourselves as best we can to the pre-existing constructs of civilization and learn to accept its less pleasant aspects.

Reference: Freud, Sigmund. “Civilizations and Its Discontents.” The Freud Reader. Ed. Peter Gay. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1989.

I find this to be the key point Matt makes: “Raskolnikov is a neurotic character with instincts that cannot be repressed as readily as those of normal people. He maintains his aggressions, therefore, while others find their aggressions limited by civilization.” This should be a major point of debate: does civilization place a positive limit on more natural instincts towards violence? By the end of Crime and Punishment I suspect Dostoevsky’s answer would be yes, but I’m not sure mine is. While Raskolnikov is punished and does come to repent his actions, Napoleon is still considered a genius and is still praised as a hero. You can visit his tomb in Paris and see the bas relief sculptures that portray him as the great unifier of Europe. I’m left to wonder if Raskolnikov’s great sin is not that he committed murder but that he thought he was the kind of man who could get away with it.

I’d like to thank Matt for his participation in this project. I envy his students. I bet his classes provide lots of food for thought.

Update: This book was eaten by Dakota on July 6, 2009.

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2009.  Dakota ate several more books before she stopped her book eating habits.  As many of you know, Dakota, who is much older now, has lymphoma.  She has outlasted the doctor’s predicted time left by four weeks now, but she has started to slow down noticeably.  As I type this, she is laying on the rug by my side, probably wishing I would get up and fix her breakfast already.  That’s just what I’m going to do.  

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The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Jonathan Phillips

The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople by Jonathan Phillips tells the story of what went wrong. The crusade began as an attempt to send large numbers of reinforcements to the crusader kingdoms in Palestine to try and recapture Jerusalem but ended up invading several Christian kingdoms culminating in the destruction of Constantinople, the most splendid city in the Christian world of its day. It takes many mistakes and many people for something to go so disastrously wrong, and it is to Mr. Phillips credit that he does such a good job explaining how the Fourth Crusade came about and then came to such a bad end.

The crusade started with an overreaching promise to send 30,000 men to defend the crusader kingdoms and a contract with Venice to build enough ships to carry them. Because England did not participate in this crusade and because several other groups decided to bypass the planned gathering in Venice and go straight to Palestine, not enough forces gathered to cover the contracted cost of building the ships. To pay off the dept, the crusaders agreed to take the coastal city of Zara, which the doge of Venice had long wanted to control. Still not enough money was available to pay the debt for the ships, so the crusaders joined forces with Alexus IV, son of the deposed emperor of Byzantium in an attempt to dethrone Alexus III and take Constantinople. Afterwards, Alexus IV was not able raise enough taxes to pay his debt to the crusaders and was dethroned by his own people. In the end, because the political situation in Constantinople was so chaotic the Greeks were not able to adequately defend their city and it fell to the crusaders.

In the end, the venom intended for the Muslim population of the holy land was unleashed on the Christians of Constantinople. Churches and monasteries were raided. Relics were looted. Money and valuable objects were stolen. The silver leaf that decorated the Hagia Sophia was pealed away, chiseled off and melted down. Not even nuns in their convents were safe.

The crusaders then established a kingdom in Constantinople and tried to bring the rest of Byzantium under their control. They never made it to the holy land in the end, nor did their kingdom last very long. Within a century, the Greeks were back in control of Byzantium and Constantinople, though even they fell shortly afterwards to the Turks.

Mr. Phillips explains all of these events using eyewitness accounts from both sides of the story. He gives the reader the details needed to illuminate the events and to understand the motivations of the people involved. It’s hard to find any heroes in the Fourth Crusade, everyone’s motives are so compromised either at the start of the crusade or by its end. That the crusades targeted both Muslim and Jewish populations, most people know. The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople is a useful book because it details the extent to which the crusades targeted Christians and did so in the name of God. In the final analysis, there is not much to admire in the notion of a crusade, and we should be on our guard whenever we hear someone call for one.

Fail to learn the lessons of history at your own risk.

 

This post first ran on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., towards the end of 2008.  I enjoy reading history and still don’t read enough of it.  I hope to do a couple of books for non-fiction November which starts in a  week.  

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Around the World in 72 Days by Nellie Bly

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I want to start by saying that I really enjoyed reading Nellie Bly’s book Around the World in 72 Days.  I fear that my review may imply otherwise, so I want to be upfront up front.

In 1888, the then 23-year-old journalist Nellie Bly convinced her editors that it was possible to break Phileas Fogg’s fictional 80-day record and that she was the reporter to do it.  They agreed and put her on the next boat for England.

The newspaper accounts of her journey made her so famous that crowds of people greeted her when she arrived in San Francisco and at each small town where her special train stopped between the west coast and Chicago.  The final leg of her journey from Chicago to New York was one step above coach.

I picked up this volume of Nellie Bly’s work based on a review I either read or heard, I can remember which, a while ago which described her writing as basically a blog.  Informal, concerned with minutia, opinionated, personal.  This is true for the outset.  After getting the assignment to travel round the world, her first subject is what and how to pack.  She has just over a day to prepare so there won’t be much time for shopping.  Here’s how to pack for an around the world trip against the clock:

I bought one hand-bag with the determiniation to confine my baggage to its limit.

Packing that bag was the most difficult undertaking of my life; there was so much to go into such little space.

I got everything i it at last except the extra dress.  Then the question resolved itself into this: I must either add a parcel to my baggage or go around the world in and with one dress.  I always hated parcels so I sacrificed the dress, but I brought out a  last summer’s silk bodice and after considerable squeezing managed to crush it into the hand-bag.

But hers is not a hardship journey, not really.  There are a few bad vacation moments, ones that would forever put me off a certain shipping line, but for the most part she travels in decent to fine style.

Like a good blogger, she makes an extended visit to a major celebrity along the way, Jules Verne himself, who is quite charming and more than happy to show her the room where he writes.

The room was very small; even my litle den at home was almost as large. It was also very modest and bare.  Before the window was a flat-topped desk.  The usual litter that accopanies and fills the desks of most literary persons was conspicuously absent, and the waste-basket that is usually filled to overflowing with what one very often considers their most brilliant productions, in this case held but a few little scraps.

Other than this stop, and a few others, Ms. Bly is much more interested in more extreme sightseeing.  She visits the execution grounds in China where she sees the aftermath of the previous days beheadings.  She goes to a crematorium in Japan.  Visits several unsavory markets and salons and a leper colony.  All of which struck me as something an adventurous girl travelling alone in 18– would do, especially one seeking material for her articles.   Most of it was interesting reading some 140 years later.

As you will find with just about all 19th century writing, Nellie Bly’s book contains an unfortuante level of racism.  Here she is on the difference between the Japanese and the Chinese:

The Japanese are the direct opposite to the Chinese. The Japanese are the cleanist people on earth, the Chinese are the fithiest; the Japanese are always happy and cheerful, the Chinese are always grumpy and morose; the Japanese are the most graceful of people, the Chinese the most awkward; the Japanese have few vices, the Chinese have all the ices in the world; in short, the Japanese are the most delightful of people, the Chinese the most disagreeable.

Ms. Bly is writing at the time of great anti-Chinese hysteria in America. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed just six years before her 72 day journey in 1882.  And this passage is really  no worse than the anti-Irish portions of Mark Twains Innocent’s Abroad.  Even Fredrick Douglas expressed anti-Chinese views.  I don’t offer this as an excuse for Nellie Bly’s racism–I’m not one to let people off the hook because they are men or women of their times.  They should have known better.  And we should not forget just how bad the situation was.

Nellie Bly retired from journalism after marrying an industrialist millionaire some 40 years her senior.  She spent the rest of her life running his manufacturing plants and doing charity work.  Her life is quite a story. Someone should write a book about it.

If you only read one book by Nellie Bly, and let’s face it, chances are you’ll only read one if you read any, you should read Ten Days in the Mad House instead of this one.  This one is good, but it’s Ten Days in the Mad House that put Nellie Bly on the map and impressed me much more than this 72 day journey.

Even if Nellie Bly was the first person to break Phileas Fogg’s record.

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Instead of a typical review I respond to the blurbs on the back cover:

“A fine novel, remarkable for the purity of its ambitions.”—The Washington Post Book World.

The Story of the Night is a fine novel.  Very well written, reading it feels like spending a long weekend hearing all the details about a new acquaintance’s history.  The more I read it, the more I enjoyed it.  But I have no idea what “the purity of its ambitions” even means so I can’t say how remarkable they are.  I don’t think there’s very much that is remarkable about The Story of the Night.  The narrator, Richard, goes from rags to riches, from loveless to loved, only to face losing it all.  There’s not much remarkable in that story.

“This is one of the most absorbing new novels I’ve read in quite some time.”—The Irish Times.

I agree.  The narrator, Richard, is an Argentinian of English descent.  When the novel opens he is still living in his mother’s apartment.  She is disappointed with how her life has turned out, having left England to marry an Argentinian who died leaving her to raise a son in a strange land.  This gives Richard an odd outsider status in his homeland which he never really overcomes.  But he is able to use that to his advantage after meeting an American couple who take a liking to him and set him up as a public relations/escort person for wealthy oil industry executives keen on buying up Argentina’s newly privatized oil industry.  The business and the politics of the novel are soon subsumed by the romance Richard begins with Pablo, the son of a former political boss now trying to get himself democratically elected to office in Argentina’s first elections after the Falkland’s war.  The Story of the Night becomes almost an escapist read with so many wealthy people living the high life in Buenos Aires.

A smart literary novel that is also a satisfying page-turner.”  —Out.

Smart and literary yes.  The Story of the Night precedes Mr. Toibin’s Booker nominated The Master by almost ten years, but even in this early work it’s clear that he was an author worth watching.  But page-turner no.  I’ve read many a page-turner and The Story of the Night is not one of them.  Reading it one might become so absorbed that time flies by a bit, but it’s not a book you’ll stay up late reading on a school night if there’s a big test the next day.

“Toibin’s simple but eloquent telling of this personal story is sometimes explicit, often moving, and always vivid in its portrayal of Argentina and its people.” —Library Journal (starred review).

True.

“Beginning the book is like sneaking into a diary; ending it is like losing a fascinating friend.” —Harper’s Bazaar.

Again true.  This is an excellent way to describe some of my favorite books.  I love books that read like a person’s life, that don’t focus so much on plot, but allow the reader to spend time with a character or set of characters getting to know all about them.  Reading The Story of the Night has the added bonus of getting to know Argentina.

Front cover blurb: “An impressive, beautifully modulated, unexpectedly affecting book.” —Jeffrey Eugeides, author of The Virgin Suicides.

“Impressive” and “unexpectedly affecting” yes.  But watch those adverbs!  Just as with his later book The Master, I found myself much more moved by the story than I expected to be.  Colm Toibin has this way of sneaking up on the reader emotionally.  He never even taps the reader on the shoulder, it’s not that dramatic, but by the end I feel that someone has been standing behind me all along.  But “beautifully modulated” what does that mean?  Maybe Mr. Eugeides was playing Apples to Apples with his children while he was writing his review.  It sounds very good, “beautifully modulated” but surely it’s a phrase best used to describe a piece of music or the segmentation of an attractive invertebrate.

In the end, I have to go with Harper’s Bazarre’s blurb.  I think it’s the best description of my own reaction to the book, and the best of the blurbs quoted on the book’s cover.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in 2010.  Colm Toibin was the guest on the Books and Author’s podcast from BBC 4 last week, so I thought I’d repost my review of his work today.  He’s a very enjoyable interview, and was a contender for the Booker prize again this year.  Listening to him during my morning commute yesterday I learned two things: one, his first name is not at all hard to pronounce.  For years I’ve been trying to pronounce it using only the letters c-o-l-m which is difficult for me to say the least, but it’s really just Collum which is a cinch.  The second thing is that he wrote lots of books, many more than I previously knew of.  I think it would be fun to read them all, too.  Maybe a personal reading challenge in 2015….

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Shakespeare Wrote for Monday by Nick Hornby

Shakespeare Wrote for Money is the third collection of the columns Mr. Hornby wrote for Believer magazine about the books he read each month. This is the column that almost got me to subscribe to Believer; a popular author with eclectic reading tastes, writing about the books he’s reading every month–sounds like the perfect thing for every incurable biblioholic to me.

Shakespeare Wrote for Money, the final collection, covers Mr. Hornby’s reading from August 2006 to September 2008 and includes September 2006 when Mr. Hornby read not a single book, due to his obsession with watching the World Cup. It’s nice to know that even a devoted reader takes a month off now and then.

Each entry begins with a list of the books Mr. Hornby read that month along side a list of the books he bought. The lists never match. Book bloggers tend to love lists of books and I freely admit that these added greatly to my own enjoyment of Shakespeare Wrote for Money. (What is it about list of books that we all like so much? Are we really closeted librarians?) The articles/chapters are breezily written and tend to wonder off on whatever tangents Mr. Hornby’s reading suggests, though never in an uninteresting way. One month he reads several books about East Germany’s police force the Stasi and a couple on mental illness, while in another he discovers the world of Young Adult fiction. He claims that his editors, whom he calls the Polyphonic Spree, won’t allow him to write bad reviews so he ends up recommending almost everything he reads. (This does have the side effect of adding titles to ones TBR list. Consider yourself warned.)

Though not as eclectic as I am, since he freely admits his complete lack of interest in fantasy and science fiction, Mr. Hornby reads a wide range of material. His reviews cover non-fiction, some popular, some more serious, and fiction ranging from literature in translation, to graphic novels, to classics, to Young Adult fiction, to best sellers. There is something for almost everyone in Shakespeare Wrote for Money. (Except, of course, people who read only fantasy and science fiction.)

While Mr. Hornby is a successful author, he reads more like an everyman. You won’t find an esoteric critique of literature in these columns, but you will find an honest and open reflection on what one man’s reading experience was like. When something moves him in an embarrassing way, he admits it. When something begins to bore him, he admits that as well. At least, as much as his editors who do not like negative reviews will allow. He does not recommend books that are good for you or that should be read, but books that he enjoyed reading. A useful distinction that makes Shakespeare Wrote for Money a useful and entertaining read.

 

This review first ran on my old blog, Ready Wheny You Are, C.B., back in 2008.  I think Mr. Hornby’s three books have recently been rereleased in a single volume.  Just in time for the holidays.

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