First, I have to come clean about one thing. In that previous post, I realize that by casually dropping the great Russian novelist's name like that, it might be inferred that I'm some sort of amateur Dostoyevsky expert, or perhaps that I might simply have read a few of his books. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth. No, in fact, despite being, I feel, a pretty well read guy, I have one (at least one) giant literary blind spot, and that's the Russians.
The Russians are the only group of writers to be so labeled; you never hear anybody say "Have you ever read the French?" or "You simply must read the Japanese" or "I feel the greatest novelists in history are the Americans". Yet you could conceivably hear people say all those things about the Russians. How many writers really fall under that heading, I'm not sure. For instance, I'm pretty sure the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would not be included, despite the fact that he was, without a doubt, Russian. But he was a 20th century writer, and the Russians, I think, need to be from the 19th century. So Dostoyevsky's one, and Tolstoy, and Chekhov, and Gogol. And Pushkin. Who else?
Anyway, as I say, this had been a huge blind spot in my reading life. I've read two plays by Chekhov (The Seagull and Uncle Vanya), and several years back I took a valiant but otherwise doomed stab at reading Dostoyevsky's The Idiot. And that's been it...until now.
Yes, two days ago I started reading Crime and Punishment, and I feel pretty good about my chances this time around. Sure, the names are a chore (I've counted three different "Ivanovna"s so far, but for all I now that will be important later), as is the fact that these Russian bastards are quite intent on telling you every last bit of the story. A character doesn't decide to go somewhere, and then suddenly the scene changes to that new location. No, the character decides to go somewhere, and we follow him every step of the way. I'm also not sure I'm reading the best available translation. But this particular novel is, so far, basically like a 19th century Russian version of Taxi Driver, and once I realized that I perked right up.
Raskalnikov, like Travis Bickle, has gone mad well before we first meet him. He's a poor, unemployed ex-student (a fact which he seems to think carries a lot of weight) living in St. Petersburg, away from his beloved mother and sister, the latter of which is engaged to be married to a man of whom Raskalnikov does not approve. And as Raskalnikov goes through his empty, daily grind, he finds himself increasingly horrified by the world around him, and by the people who inhabit it. However, he does care about those who he feels have been kicked around and had their faces rubbed in the dirt, people whose lives seem even worse than his own. Like Bickle, he seems particularly concerned with the plight of St. Petersburg's prostitutes: at one point, he comes across a drunk young woman on the street and assumes she's a prostitute, and tries vainly to help her; he's also concerned that his sister might go down that same road if he interferes with her marriage.
Raskalnikov seeks justice, even though he realizes that the path to justice he's chosen is garbled, unfocused, and possibly evil. That path -- his "project" -- is something he's been thinking about for a long time, and it consists entirely of murdering, with an axe, and old woman to whom he's pawned certain possessions when he's found himself desperately short of cash. This woman has a younger sister, who Raskalnikov knows faintly, and who he's heard suffers terribly under her older sister's wrath. So he will kill this old woman, steal all her money, and use it to help the city's poor and downtrodden.The murder turns into murders, and are far more graphic than I'd expected. Like the final gasp of bloodshed at the end of Taxi Driver, the violence in Crime and Punishment is sudden, brief and gruesome. But unlike Taxi Driver, we feel the full moral horror of what Raskalnikov has done. Critics of Taxi Driver sometimes complain that Scorsese's film ends on a note that might imply the filmmakers condoned Bickle's actions. I've never bought that, but can we be honest about one thing? How many of you really felt a sense of moral outrage over what Bickle does. The men he kills are violent, pedophile rapist pimps. We can say that Bickle should not have done it, that this was not justice, that the police should have handled the situation. But if we read a story in the newspaper about a similar shoot-out taking the lives of similar victims, would a single one of us think, "Oh, those poor men"?
In Crime and Punishment, however, the violence offers no such catharsis, no matter how grubby and shameful. Raskalnikov is completely lost, even further adrift than Travis Bickle. Bickle, in his breakdown, was nevertheless able to focus his rage on one goal: saving Iris. The best Raskalnikov can do is crack open an old women's head so that he can take her money and divvy it out, Robin Hood-style. And this last, "altruistic" element of his plan becomes nebulous and evaporates almost immediately.
So maybe Raskalnikov and Bickle aren't so much alike. But they're both completely alone, partly by choice, and partly because they don't know how to not be alone. And they both see the world crumbling around them, and both can only imagine one way to make things right. One picks up an axe, the other picks up agun.