Magazine article The Spectator

'Crime and Punishment', by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Translated by Oliver Ready - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'Crime and Punishment', by Fyodor Dostoevsky, Translated by Oliver Ready - Review

Article excerpt

Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Oliver Ready

Penguin, pp.702, £8.99, ISBN: 9780141192802

Subscribers to this periodical, while Mark Amory has been literary editor, must often have felt they were enjoying an incomparable feast. Even The Spectator at its best, however, could not quite rival the periodical the Russian Herald (Russkii Vestnik ) under the editorship of M.N. Katkov. This phenomenal editor, in the year 1866, secured serial publication of the two giants of Russian fiction. Tolstoy had been slow in giving Katkov enough material for continuous serial publication of War and Peace . To fill the gap, Katkov enlisted Dostoevsky. Readers could enjoy episodes from War and Peace in the spring numbers of the magazine. Then in May, they could start Crime and Punishment .

Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, who never met (Tolstoy refused a meeting), had parallel and deeply contrasting visions and careers. Tolstoy paints a huge canvas which appears to be more objectively real than reality itself. Dostoevsky, instinctively distrustful of any attempt to portray a thing-in-itself, is the ultimate subjectivist. The contrast is vividly demonstrated by the differences between the two great novels. War and Peace is the story of a national awakening, and the spiritual regeneration which occurred to Russia, and to several key figures in the novel, during the invasion of 1812. Napoleon is cut down to size in the book, made insignificant compared with the great elemental forces of fate: God, winter, Russia.

Raskolnikov, the murderous student of Dostoevsky's novel, has interiorised Napoleon, made him his pattern to live and to die. Raskolnikov did not set out to conquer worlds, but he is a Napoleonist in the sense of believing that geniuses (he is one, naturally) are above the morality which governs the lives of lesser mortals. To prove this to himself, he carries out the callous murder of the old female pawn-broker from whom he has been getting cash in St Petersburg. Everything goes wrong, and then right.

That is, he is witnessed killing the old woman by her sister -- so, in order to silence the witness, he has to perform a double killing. Yet, far from being the inhuman brute he had believed himself, he is a neurotic, fearful, self-doubting mortal who possesses a soul. While the cynical, giggling detective Porfiry Petrovich homes in on the murderer, Sonya, the virtuous prostitute who is in love with him, pleads with him to repent and to rediscover true life by kneeling at the feet of Christ. Awakening comes for Raskolnikov, as it came to Dostoevsky, in the prisons of Siberia. Whereas for Tolstoy, Christianity consisted, literally, in rewriting the gospels and making them more rational, Dostoevsky rejoiced in their saving irrationality, the inner capacity to be healed by mystery.

Sometimes new translations of old favourites are surplus to our requirements. It might be fun for the translator, and it might make the hopeful publisher a bit of money -- but has any translation of the Iliad ever been as good as that of Alexander Pope? And has any English translation of War and Peace actually been as good as Louise and Aylmer Maude's? Sometimes, though, a new translation really makes us see a favourite masterpiece afresh. And this English version of Crime and Punishment really is better than, say, David Magarshack's (excellent) Penguin, or Constance Garnett's old Heinemann translation.

Take some of the most dramatic moments in the story. The murder of the first old lady, for example. …

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