We are all set for our Dostoevsky Day on 19 February, and we have two piece of good news.
“2016 is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment. To celebrate, Leeds University is holding a Dostoevsky Day on the 19th of February and I’ll be taking part.
It’s been a few years since I last read the book. The last time I did was when I was writing my own Dostoevsky-inspired novels, which feature Porfiry Petrovich, the investigating magistrate from Crime and Punishment. So, in all honesty, I wasn’t really reading as an average reader would. I was a little too focused on my own purposes.
There is a freshness and an immediacy about this new translation that I really like. The characters come alive with a clarity and energy that’s incredibly impressive. It doesn’t feel like you’re reading a translation – there’s none of that usual stiltedness, particularly in the dialogue. Yes, there are some oddities of expression, but that is as much to do with the different culture and the historic distance. (Thankfully it doesn’t follow the trend of many BBC adaptations, where they make everyone from the past speak like a character from Eastenders. Remember The Ark?)
There seem to be things that I notice in this version that had never struck me before. I would even say the novel makes more sense to me now than it has ever. I’m more awed than ever by its greatness. And, too late I’m afraid, more sensitive than I ever was at the time to the complete effrontery of my outrageous act of literary purloining. In retrospect, I am almost unable to forgive myself for my own ‘crime’. I can only turn my face to the wall and stare at the fascinating flower in the pattern of my wallpaper, as a hot sweat of shame breaks out all over me.
What I had forgotten was the novel’s amazing psychological focus. It’s as if Raskolnikov is being observed under some kind of psychic microscope. Every twist and turn of his thought process is laid out for us. Dostoevsky has entered into the mind of a murderer and he compels us to enter it too. Needless to say, it’s not a comfortable experience.
The narration of the events leading up to the murders, and the murders themselves, as well as the immediate aftermath, could hold their own against any piece of crime fiction writing in any era. It’s the observation of the telling detail that does it for me. There is a remorseless, not to say ruthless, honesty to Dostoevsky’s gaze. He refuses to look away, refuses to flinch, even at the most dreadful moment. And he holds our head in his his grip so we’re forced to look too. For example, he just has to show us the tortoiseshell comb – or the fragment of a tortoiseshell comb – pinning up the old pawnbroker’s hair, the second before Raskolnikov strikes her on the crown of her head with the butt of his axe. Genius.
But with its moral, philosophical, social and religious preoccupations, the book is so much more than just a crime novel.
I think one of the most extraordinary sequences in the book is Raskolnikov’s feverish dream in Part One, Chapter V, where he dreams he is a boy again with his father, and together they witness a group of drunken peasants gleefully beat an old nag to death. It’s one of the most savage, humane, awful, devastating, vivid passages in literature. Is it simply the dream of a criminally insane man, or a metaphor for the fate of Russia? Or an elegy for a lost innocence?
So I’m rereading the book at the same time as watching the Netflix documentary everyone is talking about, Making a Murderer (not literally, but you know what I mean). I’m up to about episode 5, so don’t spoil it for me. Anyhow a thought struck me the other night as I was watching it. It was the episode where the learning disabled sixteen-year-old Brendan Dassey is making and retracting his various statements. His mother asks him how he could say the things he said in his ‘confession’. He says he was ‘guessing’ – just like he used to guess when he did his homework. In the end, he writes a letter to the judge trying to set the record straight, with the heartrending postscript “Me and my mum think you are a good judge”. The whole thing just seemed so Dostoevskyan to me, especially as Crime and Punishment features a young man who falsely confesses to the crime.
Dostoevsky used to scour the newspapers for true crime stories, as well as tales of suicide and tragedy. There are references to real crimes in the novel. I couldn’t help thinking that he would have been riveted by the series.”
To commemorate the publication anniversary of this iconic landmark of Russian literature, the University of Leeds invites you to an afternoon of events devoted to the author Fyodor Dostoevsky on Friday 19 February 2016, featuring talks, screenings of film and photography, interactive web art and games.
For the full programme, see our previous Events posting.
The event is free of charge, and open to all.
For any enquiries please email firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us @dostoevskynow.
Celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Publication of Crime and Punishment
Friday 19 February 2016
Room B10, Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, Woodhouse Lane
14:00 Welcome and introduction
14:15 Discovering Crime and Punishment
Screening of an extract from the BBC’s 2002 adaptation of the novel, followed by discussion.
15:00 Translating Crime and Punishment
Oliver Ready (St Antony’s College, Oxford), translator of the 2014 Penguin edition of the novel, talks to Jacob Blakesley (Centre for Translation Studies, University of Leeds).
16:00 Being Dostoevsky
The work of Vladislav Mamyshev-Monroe, performance artist and Dostoevsky impersonator, displayed and discussed by Olga Andreevskikh (PhD student, University of Leeds).
16:30 Playing Dostoevsky
Eduard Chasovitin‘s Dostoevsky-inspired online games and web art, explored by Dan Fuller (PhD student, University of Leeds) in an interactive session. Bring your tablets/smartphones!
17:00 Re-imagining Crime and Punishment’s detective
R. N. Morris, author of a series of detective novels featuring Crime and Punishment’s Porfiry Petrovich, talks to Sarah Hudspith (School of Languages, Cultures and Societies, University of Leeds).
18:00 Concluding remarks, followed by Dostoevsky-themed quiz in The Packhorse pub (Woodhouse Lane). Prizes featuring original artwork!
What is it that so many of us find so appealing about detective stories? Is it the idea of a complex mystery, full of tantalising clues needing to be connected together? Perhaps it is the thrill of a duel of minds between a sophisticated criminal mastermind and a wily, dogged investigator. Maybe it is a sense of awe and horror at audaciously choreographed crimes, as if the perpetrator is trying to make an art form out of murder. Or maybe it is the reassuring feeling that no matter how far evil reaches, the reach of the law will always extend further.
Dostoevsky subverts many of these expectations for the modern lover of detective fiction. We already know who the criminal is and how he committed his crime. To compensate for this, Dostoevsky provides us with other mysteries, such as the unknown artisan in the street who seeks out Raskolnikov in order to call him a murderer; or the decorator Mikolka who falsely confesses to the crime. Why these things happen is left largely unresolved, but they have the effect of showing Raskolnikov and the reader that he was not, could never have been, fully in control of the circumstances of his act.
What seems less certain is why Raskolnikov murdered Alyona the pawn broker and her sister Lizaveta. But uncovering the motive is not the main preoccupation of the investigator, Porfiry Petrovich: it is left to Raskolnikov himself, in his interactions with Porfiry, with his friend Razumikhin, his mother and sister and ultimately Sonya, to penetrate beneath his layers of self-justification to understand profoundly why he killed.
Instead Porfiry’s role is to let Raskolnikov know he is a suspect, to keep reminding him of this fact despite having little concrete evidence, and to wait patiently until he is ready to turn himself in. In the end it is Sonya, representing God’s law, rather than Porfiry, who is the catalyst for Raskolnikov’s confession, which rather leaves the impression that earthly law is somewhat ineffectual. But I believe it is part of Dostoevsky’s purpose that Porfiry does not ‘catch’ Raskolnikov in the stereotypical detective fashion.
Because we see the story from Raskolnikov’s point of view, we are able to empathise with him, and this prevents us from demonising evil as something ‘other’, as something with which we have nothing in common. It is convenient, and comfortable, to categorise criminals as ‘monsters’ or ‘beasts’, and therefore to see the job of the law as to hunt them down and confine them. But Dostoevsky shows us a likeable, if troubled, young man, loved by his family and friends, struggling to make sense of his own thoughts and feelings. Porfiry sees this too. He seems to have a genuine sympathy for Raskolnikov, and rather than trapping him in an incontestable circle of evidence, he allows Raskolnikov the space to begin coming back to himself. Porfiry is an important part of the novel’s message that evil is a potential within everyone, and overcoming it also comes from within.
The next meeting of the Crime and Punishment reading group will be Wednesday 9 December at 16:00 in SR10, Emmanuel Centre, Woodhouse Lane, Leeds.
This week we will focus on the police investigation and Raskolnikov’s interaction with Porfiry Petrovich.
If you missed the first week, you can still join, in person, on the blog or on Twitter! It’s recommended to read at least up to the end of Part III of the novel for this week.
I remember when I first read Crime and Punishment, as a student in the early 1990s. The novel seemed to take over my life: I immersed myself in reading it almost to the exclusion of my other studies, because it felt like I couldn’t argue with it, it left me no choice. Whenever I left my room, I felt hunted and kept looking over my shoulder, and the world around me seemed bleak and ugly.
Raskolnikov too finds his world bleak and ugly, and as he moves towards committing his crime, he feels increasingly like he has no choice. Events, like the urgency of his sister’s impending marriage, the fortuitous discovery of when the pawnbroker will be home alone, arrange themselves to suggest he is fated to carry out his murder, until he feels as if his clothes have got caught in the flywheel of a machine and he is being pulled inexorably into it (Chapter 6).
But though he is keenly aware of signs which seem to impel him towards murder, he is less aware of the alternatives that present themselves to him. Without thinking, almost without noticing, he commits two acts of charity: firstly towards the Marmeladov family (Chapter 2) , and secondly towards the vulnerable girl on the street (Chapter 4). He has a choice of how to respond to the ugly, fragmenting society, involving compassion rather than violence. Raskolnikov dismisses these moments as taking the wrong, indeed an irrational, decision – but at least he recognizes his freedom of choice in these moments. On the other hand, he justifies his impending crime as a removal of his free will.
Many critics and commentators discuss why it is important to read Dostoevsky today. For me personally, perhaps his value is to remind us that we cannot say we do not have a choice.
We look forward to inviting you to our Dostoevsky Day on Friday 19 February 2016 at the University of Leeds, featuring discussion, films, games and more.
Confirmed speaker: Dr Oliver Ready, St Antony’s College, Oxford, translator of a new edition of Crime and Punishment (Penguin, 2014).
More details to follow soon.
Open to all!
2016 will be the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. To celebrate this milestone, we are hosting a reading group on the novel. The group is open to anyone, and we hope it will be a friendly space where people can share their impressions of this wonderful book.
You can find Crime and Punishment for free in downloadable format or to read online here:
There will be three meetings in person at the University of Leeds:
Where: Seminar room 10 in the Emmanuel Centre on Woodhouse Lane
Dates: Wednesday 18th November, Wednesday 9 December, Wednesday 27 January
In between these meetings, the discussion will continue via the Dostoevsky Now blog and on Twitter.
Please join us, in person, online, or both!