Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) is above all a novel of ideas, and in its pages one reads about people who profess the philosophical obsessions of their time. In the characteristic manner of Russian literature, Dostoevsky focuses on the intelligentsia, its habits of thought, its delusions of insight, and its self-image of superiority to the rest of society. This novel, indeed, became a central text in the Russian debate about the intelligentsia’s pretensions, and therefore came to speak to later generations as if it had just been published.
In fact, whenever an intelligentsia yields to a belief in its special mission to save society, Dostoevsky’s criticisms achieve renewed relevance. Although his examples are Russian, his lessons are pertinent to many other cultures, including our own. And that is reason enough to welcome two new English versions of Crime and Punishment, one by David McDuff1 and the other by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky2—although, as I shall try to show later on, neither one measures up to the classic rendition of the novel by Constance Garnett.
“Intelligentsia” is a word we get from Russian, where in the 19th century it meant something different from just the educated classes. An intelligent (member of the intelligentsia) was identified as such by his sense of solidarity with that group and by his contempt for all others, who were regarded either as enemies of the people or as benighted objects to be saved even against their will. Intelligenty were expected to live a particular kind of life—with the fastidiousness of the politically correct, they cultivated bad manners of a certain sort—and, above all, to share a set of approved ideas. Almost by definition, an intelligent believed in atheism (itself a sort of faith in Russia), socialism, and materialism. Somehow or other, from this materialist denial of all moral norms the intelligentsia managed to derive ethical urgency. As the philosopher Vladimir Soloviev quipped, the intelligentsia appeared to live according to an illogical syllogism: “Man has descended from the apes; therefore we should sacrifice ourselves for our fellow man.”
Dostoevsky also stressed the tendency of the intelligentsia to transform everything into ideology and to take all ideas to a fanatical extreme; a Russian intelligent, he commented, is someone who can read Darwin on the survival of the fittest and promptly resolve to become a pickpocket. It need hardly be added that even petty theft could be justified as a contribution to the salvation of the people.
What was most important to the intelligentsia mentality was a mystique of revolution, specifically, revolution inspired and led by the intelligentsia itself. Members of the intelligentsia therefore held fast to a faith in two tenets: first, that they possessed or would soon find the underlying laws of history and civilization; and second, that by violent activity in accordance with those laws they could eliminate absolutely every evil from the world forever. A young man or woman who had never read a book but who accepted these revolutionary ideas, lived a properly sordid life, and belonged to an intelligentsia “circle” would be accepted as an intelligent much more readily than an intellectual like, let us say, Leo Tolstoy, who used his title of “Count,” never conformed to reigning intellectual pieties, and lived on his estate, supremely disdainful of all those scribblers in the capital. Tolstoy in fact emerged as the key figure in a Russian countertradition, which answered the intelligentsia by developing an anti-ideological perspective that might be called “prosaics.”
As it happened, this counter-tradition included most of Russia’s greatest writers. The critic Mikhail Gershenzon did not much exaggerate when he observed that “in Russia an almost infallible gauge of an artist’s genius is the extent of his hatred for the intelligentsia.” Tolstoy’s War and Peace became an exemplary text of the counter-tradition. That book repeatedly insists that there can be no viable “theory” of history and that people who act as if there were knowable historical laws rapidly become ineffective at everything except petty tyranny. For Tolstoy, history, like everything else in life, is shaped not primarily by dramatic events or noticeable crises but by the countless small events of daily life.
Anton Chekhov, too, was if anything even more devoted to the prosaic and even more contemptuous of “high drama” than Tolstoy. He expressed utter contempt for
the indolent, lazily philosophizing cold [member of the] intelligentsia . . . who is not patriotic . . . who grumbles and negates everything, since for an idle mind it is easier to negate than affirm; who does not marry and refuses to educate his children. A flabby soul, flabby muscles, a lack of movement, inconsistent ideas—and all this on the strength of the fact that life has no meaning . . . and that money is an evil.
As for Dostoevsky, his position in the debate turned out to be remarkably complex. Himself a former radical who had been sentenced to mock-execution, a labor camp, and Siberian exile for his youthful political activities, Dostoevsky eventually became the great scourge of the intelligentsia. His novels chronicle the horror produced by this “vaudeville of demons,” to use a phrase from The Possessed (a title more accurately rendered as The Demons). That novel catalogues the varieties of intelligentsia madness, and at least one of its characters, Shigalev, has earned Dostoevsky the reputation of prophet for his uncanny understanding of the totalitarianism that in Russia would eventually seize power.
For Dostoevsky, nothing leads to greater evil than schemes to end evil once and for all. And yet he himself was drawn to such schemes. He seemed to oscillate between opposite responses to the intelligentsia. At times, he rejected ideology altogether and, like Tolstoy and Chekhov, turned to the prosaic virtues. But at other times, he argued that the intelligentsia was right in its yearnings for the millennium; it had simply put its faith in the wrong source of salvation. The answer was to be found not in materialism but in religion, not in populist or Marxist socialism but in what Dostoevsky called the “Christian socialism” of Russian Orthodoxy.
In his most “possessed” writings, Dostoevsky asserted—quite literally—that he had ascertained the date at which the world would come to an end and the Kingdom of God would be established on earth. His insight as an artist had, he wrote, allowed him to see the inner workings of Providence and to read the plot of history as he could read the plot of a novel. These prophecies—they were not just predictions—occur in The Diary of a Writer, which contains article after article devoted to explaining world politics in terms of the biblical Book of Revelation. In its Russian Orthodox version, this kind of thinking led straight to fanatical anti-Semitism, and indeed Dostoevsky’s truly horrifying anti-Semitic writings date from this period of his life.
In earlier passages of The Diary of a Writer, however, Dostoevsky rejects millenarian thinking in favor of a prosaic viewpoint. Insisting on the need for skepticism, he mocks both the intelligentsia’s habit of discovering “laws” of history and its pretensions to save mankind “at a stroke.” In one memorable passage, Dostoevsky contrasts grandiose plans to liberate all humanity with the efforts of a certain “humble and little fellow” who spent a lifetime saving money so that, every ten years, he could buy the freedom of a single serf. By the end of his life, Dostoevsky reports, this unknown man had liberated three or four people. Dostoevsky then imagines the sarcasm that intelligenty would direct at such a quixotic project; but he insists that it is just such “microscopic efforts” that do the most good and constitute the greatest heroism.
When his prophecy of the End failed, Dostoevsky returned to this prosaic standpoint. In The Brothers Karamazov, his last novel, the wise elder Zossima tells the story of a man who fabricates “enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity” but cannot share a room with someone for two days without hating him. And yet, this man concludes, “it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity [in general].” Zossima instructs that real love must be for real, individual people.
Like Dostoevsky’s thought as a whole, Crime and Punishment seems torn between these two competing alternatives to the mentality of the intelligentsia. It is almost as if there were two novels here, sharing a diagnosis but prescribing incompatible cures.
Crime and Punishment clearly offers an analysis, if not an etiology, of the intelligentsia’s sick mentality, as the novel’s original reviewers recognized. The novel’s hero, Raskolnikov (“the schismatic”), “had entirely given up attending to his daily affairs and did not want to attend to them.” He has ceased earning money as a tutor, refuses to worry about such “commonplace trifles” as paying his rent, and does nothing but lie on his threadbare couch or aimlessly wander the streets. “To become more degraded and slovenly would have been difficult; but Raskolnikov even enjoyed it in his present state of mind.” People who see this self-absorbed youth on the street take him to be drunk.
In a letter to his publisher, Dostoevsky explained that his hero had succumbed to “an infirmity of notions . . . under the influence of those strange, ‘incomplete’ ideas which go floating about in the air.” The more Raskolnikov neglects his daily affairs, the greater the hold those ideas have on him. Yet these “incomplete” theories contradict each other, and later, when Raskolnikov tries to explain to himself and others what has guided his behavior, he recognizes that none of them suffices. Nevertheless, they all converge on a single action: murdering an old woman, a pawnbroker.
One of Raskolnikov’s theories demands this murder on moral grounds. Kill her and give her money to the poor; “one death for hundreds of lives—it’s simple arithmetic!” Another theory denies the existence of morality altogether. Good and evil are simply prejudices, “artificial terrors” inherited from religion, which means that, for the man who truly dares to transgress, “all is permitted.” Indeed, Raskolnikov imagines that all the great men of history, from Solon to Napoleon, acted on precisely this principle, which justifies any crime if for no other reason than that there is no such thing as crime.
What is remarkable about the “Napoleonic” theory is that it distills the intelligentsia mentality to its pure form. Usually terrorists and revolutionaries assert that their theories and actions will save humanity, and therefore that the intelligentsia is society’s vanguard. The middle step of the argument, the aspiration to rectify social evil, is what justifies the claim to superiority over ordinary people. Raskolnikov is honest enough to do away with this middle step and go directly to the claim of superiority, which is the constant element preserved through all ideological fashions.
And yet, even this theory does not explain why Raskolnikov commits his crime. Later he admits that he always knew he was not a Napoleon, that he was not one of the geniuses with “the right to transgress.” Can one imagine Napoleon groping with shaking hands under an old woman’s bed while terrified at the sight of her blood?, he asks himself. Can one even imagine Napoleon first needing to invent a theory before doing what he had to do? No, a true Napoleon would have killed “without casuistry.”
In that case, what is Raskolnikov’s motive? This question perplexes him almost from the moment he commits the murder, and he never resolves it. Apparently, Dostoevsky also remained uncertain, and his notebooks record his own quest for a motive, which seems to parallel his hero’s. Dostoevsky recognized that the portrait of Raskolnikov was true—his keen psychological sense told him that—but he did not know why. Critics from then until now have remained just as convinced of the book’s psychological accuracy and just as unconvincing in identifying Raskolnikov’s underlying motive.
As it happens, the most persuasive answer has come not from a professional critic but from Leo Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s view, there is no “underlying motive” for Raskolnikov’s crime, no single moment in which he “decides” on murder. Rather, the crime emerges from the climate of Raskolnikov’s mind, which is itself the product of countless small decisions made at many ordinary moments. Tolstoy alludes to several passages in which the novel tells us that although Raskolnikov constantly teases himself with the possibility of murder, “never for a single moment during the whole time could he believe in the feasibility of his designs.” Raskolnikov talks to himself, lies on his couch daydreaming, or toys with some odd detail of his scheme, but he neither chooses nor ever renounces his terrible plan.
Tolstoy regards passages like these as fully revealing. The idea of murder is never anything but a dream for Raskolnikov, a mere possibility, even when he stands before the old woman, ax in hand. That is why he never actively prepares himself for the crime, only doing the bare minimum to prove to himself that he has not repudiated it. But when a unique opportunity arises, that “minimum” turns out to be quite enough for the dream to become reality. It leads him to the murder scene, where he must act even without actually having made a decision to act.
In Tolstoy’s view, this is precisely how important decisions are often “made.” It is not a single moment, but the whole way Raskolnikov thinks and lives, what Tolstoy calls his “true life,” that ends in murder:
That question was decided . . . when he was doing nothing, and was only thinking, when only his consciousness was active: and in that consciousness tiny, tiny alterations were taking place. . . . Tiny, tiny alterations—but on them depend the most immense and terrible consequences.
Not grand events, but those “tiny, tiny alterations,” are what make a life good or bad. Tolstoy’s own novels focus on such “tiny, tiny alterations,” into which he divides even the simplest and most apparently indivisible actions. (That is one reason his books are so long.)
In those restless hours when Raskolnikov is torn between renouncing and yielding to his murderous plan, he is amazed to find himself going to his friend Razumikhin. Like the simple decent maid Nastasya, who brings food to Raskolnikov at her own expense, Razumikhin conveys cheerfulness and sociability; he is never discouraged by setbacks, and, though poor, is resourceful at getting odd jobs. Throughout the novel, he also serves as Dostoevsky’s mouthpiece for criticizing all grand theorizing, as he insists on the messiness of history and the need for individual responsibility in an uncertain world. He directs his sarcasm toward all attempts to gain a fortune or solve social problems without steady, persistent effort, and mocks the idea that “a social system, coming out of some mathematical head, will at once organize the whole of mankind and instantly make it righteous and sinless, sooner than any living process.” Going to Razumikhin thus indicates a desire to escape from the mentality leading to crime, and in the novel as a whole, Razumikhin—his name means “the reasonable one”—most clearly carries the prosaic idea.
If Nastasya and Razumikhin speak prosaic truths, one character, the detective Porfiry Petrovich, actually seems to have read Tolstoy. As it happens, Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were being serialized in the same “thick journal” at the same time—such was the intensity of literary creativity in Russia in the 1860’s and 1870’s—and so an interesting dialogue between the two great novels became possible. Most obviously, both seem engaged in a debate about “the idea of Napoleon.” Thus, explaining to Raskolnikov why he does not follow established police procedure, Porfiry Petrovich claims that procedures, like theories, are made only for the idealized situation, whereas “every crime as soon as it actually occurs turns into a completely particular case, unlike all the previous ones.” As an example, Porfiry adduces
the former Austrian Hofkriegrat. . . . On paper, they had Napoleon crushed and taken prisoner, it was all worked out and arranged in the cleverest manner in their study, and then, lo and behold, General Mack surrenders with his entire army!
Porfiry doubtless derived this striking example from a recently published section of War and Peace, where it illustrates that there can be no science of war (or history) because an infinitude of contingencies, choices, and “tiny alterations” of circumstance render each military or historical situation irreducibly particular. Tolstoy’s wisest general, Kutuzov, understands it is not advance strategies but attentiveness to the flux of unforeseeable particularities that makes the difference; and Dostoevsky’s detective applies this lesson to civilian life. He makes himself into the Kutuzov of crime.
Until well into Crime and Punishment, then, prosaic attentiveness and responsibility oppose the abstraction and megalomania of the intelligentsia. But for temperamental reasons, Dostoevsky apparently grew dissatisfied with the prosaic answer. Without revising the novel as a whole, he added a second alternative, the Christian myth. He changed Sonia, the prostitute who reads the Gospel to Raskolnikov and eventually follows him to Siberia, from the realistic and partly flawed person she was in his notebooks to the pure and perfectly Christian symbol of wisdom—as the diminutive of Sophia, the name Sonia means “wisdom”—she became in the published version. This violation of the realistic tenor of the novel was evidently quite deliberate, but readers have nonetheless often deemed it a flaw.
Readers have been still more disturbed by the novel’s epilogue, in which Raskolnikov is at last converted from Napoleon to Sonia, from ideology to wisdom. The epilogue completely abandons the realistic tenor of the work, and we enter mythic, if not biblical, time. Raskolnikov finds faith while contemplating nomads on an eternal landscape where “time itself seemed to stop, as if the centuries of Abraham and his flock had not passed.” No meticulously detailed psychological process accounts for his conversion; a mythic dream, and an implicit appeal to the reader’s own longing for faith, bring the novel to its Christian close.
Summoned as it were by professional duty, generations of scholars have identified numerous connections between the epilogue and the rest of the novel. But the very need for such a persistent defense testifies to the dissatisfaction readers usually feel. Most have agreed with Philip Rahv, who described Sonia’s “answer” and the novel’s epilogue as “implausible and out of key with the work as a whole.”
The problem, I think, is not that a Christian solution could not have been made to work aesthetically, but that the novel never reconciles its prosaic and its mythic impulses. The result is a confusion of two designs. Or we might put it this way: the author’s final intention conflicts with what might be called the energy of the work as it unfolds. Sensing the prosaic energy that drives the novel forward, the reader feels cheated by an intention that does not seem to emerge from the whole. The indisputable fact that Crime and Punishment is still one of the world’s greatest masterpieces testifies to the amazing power of Dostoevsky’s conflicted genius.
Most American readers first encounter Russian fiction in Constance Garnett’s classic renditions. In the first decades of this century, Garnett translated almost the entire canon of great Russian prose, and her versions remain the ones for aspiring translators to beat. Few have done so, and only Ann Dunnigan, who has produced three volumes of Chekhov, a brilliant War and Peace, and several other classics, has done so consistently.
Nevertheless, it has become fashionable among Russian scholars to look down on Garnett’s efforts. Her errors have been duly catalogued and deplored, and her virtues taken for granted. Yet when scholars prefer a more recent and perhaps more accurate rendition, they are unwittingly specifying something to supplement rather than to replace Garnett. In most cases, unless one knows the novel either in the original Russian or in Garnett’s English, one may never discover that special excitement that has given Russian literature its aura of unspeakable brilliance.
Garnett’s strengths and weaknesses derive from her purpose of making Russian novels into masterpieces in English. Because at the time she worked so little was known about Russian culture, she simply left out numerous topical references (thus, when a character in Crime and Punishment refers to the radical critics Belinsky and Dobroliubov, Garnett omits the sentence entirely). She softened colloquialisms and slang, produced proper syntax even when a character or narrator is decidedly awkward, and, occasionally, missed small but telling details. Errors of this kind are corrected in the new versions of Crime and Punishment by David McDuff and by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky—but both fail in other respects.
When one embarks on translating a classic that has been rendered many times before, one should have a well-formed reason to serve as a guide in making choices. David McDuff seems to have no reason except to produce yet another translation. His work is competent but uninspired; his sentences generally accurate but, on the whole, flaccid. On the other hand, he has written a fine introduction, which sets the novel in its cultural context and offers some sensible intuitions for interpreting it. Like Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, he has also supplied a helpful set of notes, which draw on the apparatus to the recently completed Soviet edition of Dostoevsky’s complete works.
In contrast to McDuff, Pevear and Volokhonsky have a very definite idea of what they are doing. They want to capture all those colloquialisms, slang expressions, and low tonalities that Garnett smoothed out. Generally speaking, they succeed quite well. To take a single example: the profligate Svidrigailov, one of Raskolnikov’s many doubles, shoots himself in the head in front of a Jewish fireman wearing an “Achilles helmet.” The Jew, whose “face bore that expression of eternal, grumbling sorrow that is so sourly imprinted upon all faces of the Jewish tribe without exception,” absurdly explains in his heavy Yiddish accent that suicide is not permitted in such a locale. Pevear and Volokhonsky are in their element:
“Zo vat’s dis, a choke? It’s de wrong place! . . . Oi, dat’s not allowed, it’s de wrong place!” Achilles roused himself, his pupils widening more and more. Svidrigailov pulled the trigger.
This version captures the malicious humor of Dostoevsky’s grotesque scene.
But Pevear and Volokhonsky fail at producing equivalents of normal literate Russian prose, which is, after all, most of the novel. Although this team consists of one person whose native language is Russian and another whose native language is English—a promising combination—the English-speaker seems to have a tin ear for his own language. At one point, Raskolnikov is so alienated from humanity that even if he were in a room with his “most intimate friends” (as I would render the phrase), he would feel just as distant. Garnett gives us “those nearest and dearest to him,” which is good, and McDuff, “his dearest and most cherished friends,” which is acceptable. Pevear and Volokhonsky, evidently guided by the morphology of the Russian word perveishie (the superlative of first), produce the senseless “foremost friends,” thereby turning intimacy into status.
Another example: in Raskolnikov’s room, visitors feel zhutko—a word that has no exact English equivalent, but which conveys oppressiveness, eeriness, perhaps even terror. Garnett renders the word “ill at ease,” which is too soft; McDuff’s “claustrophobic” misses the tonality of strangeness. Pevear and Volokhonsky choose “creepy,” which is good semantically, but wrong in every other respect. They seem not to understand that the word “creepy” belongs to “kidspeak” and that its effect is jarring. Such insensitivity makes reading their version an irritating experience.
They are still worse when Dostoevsky invokes poetic or biblical language. In one of the most memorable scenes of the novel, the drunkard Marmeladov imagines how he and others like him will be summoned before God’s Last Judgment to receive forgiveness. Garnett brilliantly captures the unexpected poetry and liturgical cadences that ring through the tavern. Her version sings:
He will say, “Come forth ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” . . . And He will say unto us, “Ye are swine, made in the Image of the Beast, and with his mark; but come ye also!” And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, “Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?” And He will say, “This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.”
Pevear and Volokonsky flatten the passage:
He will say, “Come forth, my drunk ones, my weak ones, my shameless ones!” . . . And he will say: “Swine you are! Of the image of the beast and of his seal; but come, you, too!” And the wise and the reasonable will say unto Him, “Lord, why do you receive such as these?” And He will say, “I receive them, my wise and reasonable ones, forasmuch as not one of them considered himself worthy of this thing.”
McDuff’s version is halfway between the two.
On the whole, Pevear and Volokhonsky excel at capturing the frenetic and colloquial Dostoevsky, Garnett at conveying the work’s prosaic (or novelistic) and poetic (or mythic) qualities. Garnett is therefore the one for a first reading, Pevear and Volokhonsky for a second.
1 Viking, 647 pp., $24.95.
2 Knopf, 564 pp., $25.00.