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Re-reading Crime and Punishment: Dostoevsky’s spaces

The process of re-reading a novel is simultaneously frustrating and interesting. It’s frustrating because there are too many books out there, and too little time to read them, so returning to ones you’ve already read is always accompanied by a depressing awareness that you’re getting further away from others you’d like to read — I can imagine books falling off the bottom of my mental list. But it is very interesting, particularly if you’ve had quite a gap between readings, because you never know quite what to expect, and you’re always struck by different things, even if, as is inevitable, you start with preconceived ideas.

It’s some years since I last read Crime and Punishment properly (i.e. reading carefully and making copious notes, rather than just doing a quick read-through for teaching purposes), so my perceptions and interests have had plenty of time to change, giving me lots to think about. Also, for the first time I was working solely with an electronic text (albeit with reference to the Academy of Sciences complete works to check for and correct errors in the version I downloaded). I think that as well as making the process of note-taking (using colour-coded highlighting and marginal comments) very efficient, it also made me more alert to certain text features, such as repetition. I’m not sure whether that’s because the Cyrillic is clearer on screen than in the print editions I generally use, or if there’s another explanation. Perhaps I’m just imagining it, and I’d have noticed exactly the same things if I’d been using my old working copy, but somehow I think not, if only because I might have been distracted by my old underlinings and scribblings, some of which date back to my undergraduate days and could best be described as ‘basic’. One advantage of using electronic text is that you’ve always got access to a ‘clean’ version.

One of the things that surprised me this time was how much detail there is in Crime and Punishment of the material world. Dostoevsky’s reputation is primarily as a spiritual writer, who is more interested in the inner lives of his characters than the external world, particularly its physical dimensions. I would never wish to deny the significance of the spiritual aspects of his writing, but I think it’s more complicated than that characterization suggests. I’ll write more in my next post about how the relationships and encounters between the characters create a different dynamic, but for now I just want to make a couple of observations about the material aspects of the novel.

The Petersburg setting is obviously crucial (for me too — but more on that in a future post), but less attention is usually paid to the interiors that feature in the novel, except for the prominence of stairways, in which the grime and stink of the outside world intrudes on living spaces, and doorways, which act as thresholds and, far from shutting out the outside world, serve to make private spaces public. What surprised me, however, was the description of the various lodgings we visit in the novel. Raskolnikov’s coffin-like room, and its effect on his psyche, is famous, but not just here, but also the Marmeladovs’, Alena Ivanovna’s (before and during the murder, as well as afterwards, when Raskolnikov revisits the flat when it’s being redecorated), Pulkheria Ivanovna’s and Dunia’s, Sonia’s, and Svidrigailov’s rooms are all presented in minute detail, including not only the type and position of the furniture, but where the characters are placed.

A couple of uncanny effects are associated with this. The first is the distortion of space, particularly apparent in Raskolnikov’s room. It’s supposedly six paces long, with a large sofa that takes up almost the entire length of the room and half the width, but also contains three chairs, a table, and a bedside table (part 1, chapter 3). And if it’s not difficult enough to imagine how all that fits in, there are several scenes where five or six people are present. I start to have surreal visions of the walls bulging out or Zosimov being stuck on the ceiling, and then discover that Nastasia the maid is in the room as well (she almost always is, and her presence is frequently not announced until the scene is well advanced). This obviously relates to the connection between mental and physical space, and Raskolnikov’s perception of his surroundings and the people who crowd his world. But when a similar effect is apparent in relation to other rooms and flats, regardless of whether Raskolnikov is present, that explanation doesn’t entirely work.

The second feature is the tendency of some of the characters (particularly Svidrigailov and Porfiry) to provide a verbal commentary on the spaces they occupy, in terms of both telling people where to sit, and describing the rooms themselves. One might suggest this is merely a device to vary the narrative, so that it doesn’t always come from the narrator, but again it begs the question of why these spaces are so important. More importantly, in a novel where eavesdropping plays such an important role, this verbalization of the actions and spatial arrangements in a setting evoke parallels with scenes where we know someone is listening in, such as Porfiry’s interview with Raskolnikov (part 4, chapter 6), to suggest that there are also secret eavesdroppers elsewhere — see, for example, Svidrigailov’s meeting with Dunia in part 6, chapter 5 for this effect. Can the hidden listener only be the reader? In that case, he or she is thereby implicated in the novel’s dynamics, even morally (Svidrigailov’s eavesdropping is highly dubious), and the novel gains a metanarrational element that has not previously been identified. Or is another presence implied?

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  1. Reading: slow and difficult « Trewisms

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