Last year I quit drinking, and read a ton of Dostoyevsky. Sadly, I was unable to play the Dostoyevsky Drinking Game–which I recommend to you all–but I did get a chance to see some of the weird resonances between what I was reading and what I was experiencing. Most of what follows is about the Pevear/Volonkhosky translations (except for The Gambler, which I read in MacAndrew’s translation) and there are spoilers for two nineteenth-century novels.
I first fell in love with Dostoyevsky’s writing because of a drunken conversation in The Brothers Karamazov, the one about hooks in hell. This is such a great scene, the horrible patriarch (he’s right, though, really) and the long-suffering son. It’s hilarious and it’s totally recognizable. I’ve never understood why people say Dostoyevsky’s characters aren’t realistic!
In general he writes drunkenness really well. “This is a hymn, see! It’s a hymn, or else you’re an ass!” (Demons.) There’s also Dmitri’s awful arrest scene, in the course of which he skids from still-drunk to hungover. And The Gambler obviously gets at one of the classic distortions of thinking produced by addiction: I am sure my life will change, without my behavior changing at all. I am coming back soon. At some point all of this will just be the past, because I will have changed, everything will have changed–somehow, eventually. Here’s that same thing in Karamazov by the way.
But the deepest and most unexpected resonance came when I re-read Crime and Punishment. I’ve never loved this book, and I don’t think I loved it this time around either. It’s a heavy book–oppressive, constraining, dragging itself painfully along rather than rattling crazily down the tracks like TBK. But maybe for that exact reason it felt very familiar. By the end Raskolnikov’s mind is scurrying around in this awful nightmare maze of rationalizations, maybe I won’t go, maybe I can get away with it, he feels unable to stay where he is and unable to move–and then he confesses because of the women who, because they love him, want him to enter into an unimaginable future of renunciation, shame, and suffering. And the way out requires admitting a fact about oneself which is also a kind of identity-statement: “Hi, I’m Rodion, and I’m a murderer.” (Hi, Rodion!)
In the epilogue things get even more interesting–I often feel this way about books with epilogues!–as he has to keep talking about the circumstances of his crime in court. It’s a long, ongoing, and repeated confession. Then there’s the grimly funny little bit about how other people think of him as “not quite like the ordinary murderer,” but he keeps insisting that he killed because he was poor and wanted money, and confessed because he was sorry–totally straightforward, totally boring! It’s double-edged because of course Raskolnikov is not the typical murderer. That’s why we’re reading a book about him. He actually is terminally unique! And yet, in his repentance, it’s necessary for him to insist that he is like others. “There was something almost crude about it all….”