Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dostoyevsky's Lonely Man - Part One

So, you remember in my last post how I said that you might find posts on my blog about Fyodor Dostoyevsky? Man, I wasn't fucking around, was I?

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.


Greg said...

Did you ever watch the television show on The Learning Channel, The Great Books, narrated by Donald Sutherland? This is back when The Learning Channel was, bizarrely enough, about learning, before Las Vegas, cooking, interior design, motorcycles and alien abductions took over the line-up.

Anyway I've got a few on VHS and if you can find them on DVD I recommend them. They take a single book (the episodes are an hour long) and intersperse short films visualizing the book with a group of literary experts discussing the book, its characters and meanings. One episode on Crime and Punishment alternated between the book and Taxi Driver. Paul Schrader is even one of the experts in on the discussion.

They did a great job of connecting the two in much the way you did (I'm not implying you didn't think of that on your own you understand, I think it's fairly clear to a reader and viewer of both - Schrader even says it was a primary influence when writing it).

So, it's been ages since I've read this but what a novel. I've never seen a film version of it and probably wouldn't want to (although oddly, I really like the clips in The Great Books episode).

By the way, that show also gave me my first ever thorough understanding and appreciation of Moby Dick even if it was slightly marred by Ray Bradbury (who wrote the screenplay for the John Huston version) being as self-centered and annoying as humanly possible - "I looked in the mirror and said, 'I am Herman Melville' and I wrote the screenplay that night!" You know, shit like that.

bill r. said...

Yes, my next post is going to be about certain similarities I've noticed between West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet.

The point being, I felt pretty sure that this ground had been covered before. As you say, it should be pretty clear to anyone whose read and seen both (and I'm not even halfway through the novel). But I hadn't known about the connection before (I've heard of that show, The Great Books, but I've never seen it), and it's all I could think about. I was reading the book today with an extra antenna up to pick up any other Taxi Driver clues.

As for Moby-Dick, I think I have about as firm a grasp on that book as I can have after one reading, but it will always be one of the strangest books I've ever read. And cut Bradbury some slack: he had to read that sucker about ten times to write that script.

Anonymous said...

God, what a start to a blog. Dostoyevsky ... I read Crime and Punishment in high school and never looked back. I couldn't remember what it was about if you held me at gunpoint and poured hot molasses over me ... actually, that's happened, before ...

Anyway, you're going to give us all a complex with stuff like this.

Greg said...

You should check out some of the Great Books shows. I liked them a lot when they were on. And hey, you watch Bradbury go on and on about how inspired his screenplay was and then come back and tell me to cut him some slack.

And if didn't say so the first time, great first post. As in first "real" post, if you know what I mean. I look forward to many more.

Brian Doan said...

Wow, nice post! I'm ashamed to say I've never read Crime and Punishment. But I love the connections you make.

bill r. said...

Thanks, fellahs! It was a bitch to write this: I thought I'd deleted the whole thing at one point, and I had to take out a few pictures that were jacking up my format. So I'm glad you liked it.

I should have said something about the whole "Part One" thing. It doesn't mean I'm going to keep writing about those Taxi Driver connections (I can't imagine they last through the bulk of the book anyway), but I will, at some point, write about Crime and Punishment again. Not right away, but after some significant progress, and after I've, obviously, thought of something else to write about. I'm hoping that by doing this I'll ensure that I finish the book. And, to be honest, it's going to take me a while to do so.

bill r. said...

Jonathan - Why do you hate Ray Bradbury so much?

Actually, the kind of arrogance you describe is, I think, pretty common among genre writers from a certain era. That, and a mild obsession with money. I think the arrogance probably has to do with their genres being looked down upon. Anyway, Harlan Ellison and Ed McBain have/had it, too.

Greg said...

I'm going to be singing "I'm Different" in my head all day now ( re: Thanks fellahs).

And even though I know you're joking about hating Bradbury I should clear up that I don't hate him, nor was he that arrogant in the show. He really wasn't. He was just annoying. I wanted discussion of the book and he kept talking about his screenplay which kind of bugged me.

bill r. said...

I ain't sayin' I'm better than you are (though maybe I am).

Greg said...

I'm not gonna play your goddamn game.

(I really am singing it to myself but that's okay, I like it)

bill r. said...

It's a great song. Can't imagine why it wasn't number one with a bullet, but what're you gonna do?

bill r. said...

But back to Bradbury, which I guess is what my post was about, I can't remember anymore: have you read Green Shadows, White Whale, his, I assume, fantastical novel based on his experience working on the movie? I haven't, but I've long been curious about it.

Greg said...

No, it's not even been on my radar but now I'd love to read it even if it might annoy me at times.

Here's the thing with Bradbury that I notice. I have this book "Imagining Space", a science book that covers 1950-2000 and then forecasts what's to come from 2000 to 2050. Anyway, Bradbury does the preface - And it's all about him and his experience with the Smithsonian! They wanted him to write the copy for their planetarium show and it didn't work out. The thing is, the way he describes it, I can see why it didn't work out. If I were the Smithsonian I would've run screaming too. But he doesn't see that, he doesn't see himself. He seems to berate them from the start and can't believe how poorly he was treated by them. Anyway, I'd still like to read the Moby Dick stories. I'm sure they'd be entertaining.

bill r. said...

I really only know Bradbury through his work and his general reputation around the SF community as a nice guy (and from that time a few years ago when he called Michael Moore a "screwed asshole", which I really enjoyed). If he's pretty full of himself, though, that wouldn't shock me. It's not an uncommon trait among writers. I recently heard T. C. Boyle refer to his own book The Tortilla Curtain as a "modern classic". Off-putting, I'll admit -- hearing Boyle say that really bothered me, actually -- but what can you do? I haven't thought about it, but it probably makes the audience read their work more critically.

Still, Bradbury has more reason to be arrogant, in my view, than Boyle. It's already clear that Bradbury's work will survive. The jury's still out on Boyle.

Greg said...

BTW, I can never think of Bradbury without thinking of Martin Prince's line: "I'm aware of his work."

Marilyn said...

Solzhenitsyn is so a great Russian writer, and I've read them all. But mostly Solzhenitsy. Tolstoy? Devil Mason!

bill r. said...

I didn't mean that Solzhenitsyn isn't great. I just meant that, when you hear someone make reference to "the Russians", they generally mean the 19th century guys. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Gogol, and so on.

But Solzhenitsyn was a genius, don't get me wrong (and I have read some of his work: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Cancer Ward).

Marilyn said...

I see what you're saying, but I honestly think Solzhenitsyn has been promoted to that group even though he's of a different era. Cancer Ward is my favorite of the works I've read. I'm looking forward to the unabridged The First Circle, which is coming out in English later this year.

bill r. said...

I read Cancer Ward too young. I was mightily impressed with it, but I know a lot went straight over my head. I could technically read it again, but nowadays I'm a hypochondriac, so I might go into fits reading it.

I didn't know the copy of The First Circle I had was abridged. I'm glad I never read it, because I'd be pissed right now.

Since you seem to know more about this than me, do you know if the rest of The Red Wheel was completed, and when/if it's going to be published in the US?

Marilyn said...

I really don't know. Sorry.