Yesterday I finished Crime and Punishment. This is not the first time I read this novel. I had read it as a teenager, and then one more time when I was in my twenties. And I saw a Russian and an American play, and two movies based on the novel. But all this happened a long time ago, and recently I decided to revisit those writers who influenced me most in life, Dostoyevsky certainly occupying an important role in my formation as a writer, next to Dumas, Tolstoy, Camus, Hemingway, Salinger, Marquez, and maybe Carver. There are more authors who influenced me, too many to list them all, but I decided to start with Dostoyevsky. I wanted to see if I still loved him as much as I did when I was young, and what I may want to do, with my mind and my life experience today, if I wanted to write like him.
My literary background is strongly anchored in the classics, but it is haphazard, poorly organized, and it has major gaps. I did not attend a liberal arts college, and I never studied literature. Thus, I have never been exposed to a systematic analysis of an epoch, a literary style, or an artistic trend. I read what fell into my hands, as it happened, as people around me read books and recommended them to me. Most of my knowledge is intuitive and self-taught, rather than structured and educated. Of my more significant lapses, I never read the complete Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Greek Mythology, Dante, Chaucer, and so many others. I read Joyce, but I never read Ulysses. I did not read Proust. I did not read Schiller or Goethe exhaustively.
Of Dostoyevsky’s writings, I had read The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Demons, and Crime and Punishment. Of these four, I liked The Brother Karamazov best, and I would have started with it, but I didn’t have the book in my home library.
I’ve read Dostoyevsky in the original Russian, also in translations in Romanian, and English. I re-read Crime and Punishment in Romanian, in a 1969 edition of his complete work, comprising 11 volumes. From this edition, I own only four volumes that we shipped from Romania when we immigrated here in 1977. At the end of each volume, there are notes written by Romanian literary critics.
Dostoyevsky wrote about 500 pages a year, through bouts of epilepsy followed by extremely productive (even though unhappy) periods, when he worked day and night continuously. While writing The Idiot, after he had lost all his money at some casino in the West, he wrote 98 pages in a period of only 23 days. I am obsessed with the speed and the efficiency of writing and I continuously feel time slipping though my fingers. I recently read Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke, and that novel’s main character, a young and ambitious writer, was writing in approximately the same way as Dostoyevsky. Is that what I need to do? Could I do it? Does anybody do it like that?
As I started re-reading Dostoyevsky, I was keenly aware that he had influenced the world of literature, maybe as much as Cervantes and Shakespeare had.
It was easy to read, and I read it fast, in about four days, but I didn’t enjoy all of it.
I had a hard time remembering some of the characters (not the main ones) mostly because of the writer’s sloppiness with the names. He kept on switching back and forth between their first name and their patronymic, with which I’m no longer familiar. Yet not remembering them didn’t prevent me from following the main course of action or understanding the philosophical underpinning of the novel, which means in my opinion that, many of these secondary characters were fillers, unnecessary.
Simply put, most men were villains, and the women were victims. The misery was appalling throughout.
It was written in scenes (almost like a play), with very little attention paid to the story moving logically from one location to another.
Descriptions abounded, but they were generally superficial, and not well integrated within the story.
Coincidences abounded (people meeting people as convenient for the progress of the plot, but not in a believable way).
The dialogues were mostly monologues, with many repetitions that, in my opinion, could have been eliminated.
The characters debate many topics of the day, 19th century issues that are no longer relevant.
And yet, despite all this, the novel is fascinating. There are scenes that moved me in such a powerful way that the world around me disappeared and I became totally immersed. When I finished the novel, the impression was dazing. It was not a cerebral reaction; it came from the gut. One might not remember every scene and every line of dialogue and every character, but the sum total is a blow to the head, or the heart, or both. It is like a play by Shakespeare, where, unless you are a Shakespearean scholar, you might not understand every word but you love it nevertheless. It’s like a mighty river, with the good and the bad and the landscape that takes your breath away. It’s like a current at sea. It’s like a dream.
When we talk about books we read, my wife likes to ask me what I think the message of this or that novel is. What does it reveal to the world? I didn’t need to read Crime and Punishment to understand that killing is bad. And I understand the remorse that can follow a crime. I know that often redemption is God. This book illustrates these ideas, but it is so much more. It is a flood of misery that symbolizes human existence in its purest form. It is something one must experience (read) to understand.
The Romanian critic stated, at the end of the volume, that Crime and Punishment was Dostoyevsky’s roundest novel. I believe he was trying to say that in form, it approaches the modern novel. Perhaps he felt it was more polished than his other work, with fewer plot yarns that don’t lead anywhere.
One of the best descriptions of Dostoyevsky’s craft that I read was in a Hemingway biography. If I remember correctly, Hemingway had decided to read the great Russians, and he marveled at how untidy they were, how uneven, how negligent, and how wonderful and influential at the same time.
A friend of mine, who understands literature, said that Dostoyevsky wrote for his times. I think he wrote for all times.
Would I like to write like him? You bet I would. I would love to possess his creative power and genius, and just write, yet without the pressure he experienced from creditors and threats from debt collectors, in the comfort of a clean and quiet American suburban home, with the power of the word processor and the Internet at my disposal, the experience and the wisdom of all great writers that came after Dostoyevsky, and with the umpteen books of how-to, paying attention to plot, point of view, characterization, dialogue, and language. My overwhelming writing theme is immigration, a defining personal experience filled with emotion, loss, satisfaction, and the daily struggle that endow my characters.
That’s what I’d like to do. And for now, I started rereading The Idiot.
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