I included this book on my list with high expectations that it was money in the bank. I’d read The Brother’s Karamazov the summer I was 19, and it knocked me out with its profundity, and a friend had suggested that Crime and Punishment was a really good read as well, so I felt it was not just a safe bet for a good book, but something to look forward to. I was so convinced that it was going to be a good read that I took it with me on vacation to Maui, expecting to curl up with it on the beach. Sadly, my confidence was misplaced, and what I discovered in Maui was a story that was tedious, full of characters that were insane, about an idea that is sophomoric.
The book follows Raskolnikov, a down-on-his-luck former student living in St. Petersburg, as he plans, executes, and then repents from the murder of an old woman. This titular crime is built around Raskolnikov’s idea that there are certain men (e.g. Napoleon) who are able to transcend the morals of society, and unfortunately for Raskolnikov he never explores the question of what gives a man such standing, and instead jumps right to putting himself in that category. The novel begins when the idea has already taken hold in his mind, so we see him in fairly short order ride the idea to a plan to an act. The lady is dead maybe 80 pages in.
This idea was subsequently (I believe) made explicit in Nietzche’s idea of the Ubermensch, which has always struck me as a sophomoric idea, and I was disappointed to realize early on that this was the idea that was driving Raskolnikov, that he was driven to his crime by second-rate philosophy. But yep, let’s go kill an old lady with an axe because some men transcend the morals of society, uh huh. So he does, and we are then treated to another 300 pages of Raskolnikov trying to live with his crime, nearly confessing his crime, trying to stay ahead of the police investigating the crime, admitting the crime to a girl he sort of loves, getting extorted about his crime, and then ultimately confessing his crime in the last sentence, leading to a tedious afterward set in Siberia that itself ends after a good 20 pages with another epiphany, where Raskolnikov finally allows himself to love.
Among the many things I found to dislike about this book were the general insanity of the characters in it. We are of course subjected at great length and depth to the fever swamp of Raskolnikov’s thinking, but everyone around him seems to act like a lunatic as well, with insanely heightened emotions hurling in every direction. Everyone in the book seems to be driven entirely by their emotional connections to those around them, and the rational and practical needs of life are essentially ignored by everyone in the book, despite the fact that most of them are destitute, and I would think wouldn’t have the freedom to indulge such excesses. R’s school chum essentially devotes himself to taking care of him, for no clear reason, and then he falls instantly in love with R’s sister, which ends in a marriage. R meets a drunk in a bar, and walks him home, and then later sees the drunk die in that home from a carriage accident (that’s what they had back then), R feels such empathy for the woman that he gives her the complete nest-egg he has just gotten from his mother, which was her last money herself. The widow he gives it to blows the whole thing on a funereal feast to show up the neighbors, whick bankrupts here and leads to her eviction—at the conclusion of the feast itself. The husband in the house where his sister worked not only fell in love with her, but then poisoned his wife to be free of her and pursues the sister to Petersburg to press his case. Seemingly every character in the book operates on rules of behavior that make little sense here in the real world. R is hopelessly behind on his rent, but the sweet servant girl keeps bringing him tea all the time. Where do people actually behave this way?
But sadly for all that everyone acts like a lunatic, the book is unable to parlay that into a compelling story, and the whole thing is exceptionally tedious. We have the profound tediousness of Raskolnikov himself, thinking his tedious thoughts while he wanders the city in a delirium, colliding periodically with the dozen or so characters orbiting around him, who indeed seem to be the only people in Petersburg, since one of them always happens to be around the next corner. Then we have the mother and sister who come in from the country, as the sister is set to wed a businessman, whom R knows to be unworthy even before meeting him, so there’s a whole drama around that. Then there’s the school chum and his love for the sister. Then there’s the drunk who dies, and the family that remains, which consists of a Matriarch, who actually goes insane in the book, and her children, the eldest of whom prostituted herself to care for the family, and we follow the rapidly shifting fortunes of this family over the course of this tumultuous couple of weeks time. Then there’s the blackmail scheme from the sister’s country admirer. There are layers and layers of tedium to navigate here, and none of them really serve to give the book any momentum, or the reader any particular drive to keep turning the pages.
On the whole, this was book a terrible disappointment. I was expecting a riveting character study steeped in deep philosophy, and instead I got the shallows ravings of someone who dramatically overestimates their own intelligence, and I mean Raskolnikov by that, but I can’t help but also mean Dostoyevsky. I find myself wondering whether the profound experience of reading The Brother’s Karamazov had less to do with Dostoyevsky’s brilliance, and more to do with the fact that I was a sophomore at the time, not as smart as I imagined myself to be, and easily beguiled by cut-rate philosophy and a world where all emotions are heightened and world-changing. The only way to know for sure would be for me to revisit The Brother’s Karamazov, but in my case I am saved from that potential tedium by the fact that it is simply not on the list.
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