Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Some Thoughts on Classics
I'd wanted to read something by Fyodor Dostoevsky for maybe five years now. I don't think I've read a single piece of Russian literature. I tried to read Notes from Underground once but I couldn't get into it for some reason. Every winter seems like the time to do it, and around Christmas I decided I wanted to plunge into Crime and Punishment (which I discovered was ironic because the entire novel takes place in the hot summer—spoiler alert!). For the last couple years I couldn't make it happen because I was too preoccupied with the fiction I was reading in my book club, but in December my book club called it quits and I decided—in a really difficult, complicated phase of my life—I'd finally read Crime and Punishment.
I've always assumed C&P would be somewhat long, slow, dense, verbose—dated. I remember in that Freaks and Geeks episode where Sam has to read it in English because when given the choice to read what they wanted, all his classmates picked “non-serious” books, so they had to read Crime and Punishment almost as . . . punishment. When Sam's dad asks, one night before going to bed, how he likes it, Sam responds that everyone's names are hard to remember. (Which is true—everyone in Russia apparently has at least three different names: a first and last [I think?], which are always both used, and then like a nickname which often sounds absolutely nothing like either of the other ones. Dostoevsky switches back and forth with seemingly no rhyme or reason. For example, Avdotya Romanovna is usually referred to as Dunya. Sometimes Dunechka. It feels like if my name was Charleskovna Pugslanovich, but most people called me Greg. It's not a judgment; it's just interesting.)
But it reads surprisingly smoothly and easily. I think it helped that I read a fairly new translation (pictured), in which the translators have included lots of helpful contextual information. And if I left off reading it for a week, it was always easy to pick right back up again. I've always tended toward fiction written like this: simply, with quick descriptions of the setting (lots of bare, dingy apartment rooms in this one), with inciteful, easy-to-relate-to descriptions of characters' thought processes and behavior. And I've always loved existentialism, which I think kind of goes hand-in-hand with the style I'm talking about.
Just before starting C&P I'd finished The Outsider by Richard Wright, whose claim to fame was his scathing fictitious examination of race in America, Native Son—one of my very favorite novels. But The Outsider took what Wright was saying with Native Son a few steps further, and reached into depths I hardly thought possible in a novel. It was so huge and sweeping, so engaging in a thrilling way, but at the same time, so expertly crafted and meticulously schemed. C&P feels a lot like that book to me, and I'd be very surprised if Wright hadn't been influenced by it. By way of an unthinkable, yet at the same time everyday behavior—namely murder (spoiler alert! But really it's no secret that C&P is about murder)—both novels explore the complexities and inherent contradictions in our advanced, civilized existence, peeling back the layers that most novels (and people) are afraid to examine. They both shove a big mirror in the reader's face, and at many points it's hard to keep reading, because it's hard to look, because it's ugly.
The aforementioned book club went strong for two and a half years and thirty-one books. We called it the Men's Feminist Book Club, and it was an important source of joy in my life. I had the idea of starting it one day when I was spending time with my friend Brad, right after I moved back to Columbus in the summer of 2015. I very badly wanted to start a book club, but I didn't know how to narrow it down to something specific enough that it could sustain itself—a purpose for it to have. (Without a purpose it's hard to keep up momentum in a book club, to keep morale high.) Then in what felt like an instant I realized what I wanted. I wanted to read as many feminist novels as possible, but with people who considered themselves men. Not to exclude women necessarily, because that's never my first thought; I'm a person who usually feels more comfortable around women than men—maybe because I grew up with sisters. But I wanted to create a space where we could discuss these books seriously, but also with vulnerbility. I wanted to attract men to the club who might not otherwise read these books, and who could quickly learn, yes, that they have a lot to learn—but also that that's okay. And we'd all be along for the ride together. Maybe I'm starting to sound a bit sentimental; that's probably because I am. I'll never forget that book club, and many of the conversations we had. I love all those men very much, and I'm grateful to them for their time and effort and willingness to get as real as we got. In retrospect it seems ironic that I was the one who ended it. Like I said, I was going through a very complicated, difficult time. I needed to scale back on some things, take inventory, and re-evaluate everything. Even book club.
But my reason for bringing up book club, and I swear I'll get to the point eventually, is to emphasize how very liberating and refreshing it was to read nothing by white men for such a long time. I remember hearing of women being public on their blogs about their plans to quit reading anything by a man for a year, and the swift and violent backlash they received from wounded male readers. Oy. Every piece of media we consume is male-dominated, because every media industry is male-dominated. That's how industry works. If it were female-dominated, it would be called something else. I digress. Anyway, I'm grateful for those women who were brave enough to do it first, and honestly folks, it shouldn't be that radical of an idea! Think of how man-heavy the books you read as a kid in school were. We can think of reading only women for a year as an attempt at balancing the scales, but I'm sure overall the tally would still be in the men's favor.
But at the same time, I want to defend “the classics,” but maybe not in the way you might think. I think many people have become disillusioned with them, and for good reason. They're drilled into us when we're adolescents—people who want to do anything but sit still and read. We have to write five-paragraph essays about them, in institutions that bear striking similarities to prisons: schools. And as might be obvious, they are predominantly written by dead white men. (Although some important female exceptions spring to mind: Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edith Wharton, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, etc. Still, all white.)
Classics have achieved the status they have for good reason: they are well-written. And often when I read them now as a much more open-minded adult than I was an adolescent, I am stricken with how subversive they are. I wish I had been better able to engage with their words and ideas in high school, because in retrospect it feels like my teachers were nudging me with their elbows, trying to explain something to me about how fucked up our world really is, or how profoundly absurd or beautiful it is. But I was too distracted to hear. Often I didn't even read the book. And although the language of these books can make them feel dated, the messages never weaken with time. C&P and many other novels feel like downright premonitions sometimes.
I think maybe where we get tripped up on classics is in prejudging their white male authors for their white maleness. I think it's important to remember that these men were of their time, and not bad people necessarily. (Although I don't put much stock in the idea that some people are “bad” and some are “good,” but that's perhaps for another essay entirely.) Instead of deciding not to read anything by, say, John Steinbeck because of his less-than-super-respectful views of women that he gives us whiffs of from time to time, we can bear them in mind as we critically read his beautiful books, remembering that all people are flawed. I'd hate for someone to pass up the opportunity to read The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden because they didn't want to read anything by white men.
Then again, I'm not here to judge what people read, and in the time somone decides to not read The Grapes of Wrath, they can easily read something just as beautiful. And do I consider John Steinbeck more “classic” than, say, Toni Morrison or Alice Walker or Nella Larsen or Gloria Naylor or—hell!—Octavia Butler? Absolutely fucking not. I still don't understand why so much black American fiction must be relegated to the status of black American fiction, as opposed to simply classic American fiction or modern American fiction or whatever pretentious academic words you wish to hold things up with. If The Color Purple isn't a classic, I don't know what is. It's as good as anything written in the English language.
Again, I digress. But I suppose the point I'm getting to is that I've found it unhelpful to be prescriptive for things like what one should or shouldn't do with their time, with their attention. People can read whatever calls to them. But I do think it's important to read whatever we read with a critical eye. To ask ourselves why a writer chose to write that way, why they chose to paint certain people a certain way. To perhaps not narrow ourselves down to a certain kind of book or certain style of writing, but to be open to something new. And when we do, to be critical and forgiving at the same time. This is the place where I feel like I get the most out of what I read.