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Sunday, April 26, 2020

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky


Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky is a novel whose plot reflects its title. It is about a terrible crime and punishment that is both reality - based and psychological. Along the way Dostoyevsky has fashioned a work filled great fictional characters. The book is also chock full of ideas and philosophical musing about life, death, God, government, crimes, punishment, and lots more. The novel was first published in 1866. I read the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation.


This is the story of Rodion Raskolnikov, a young ex -college student. As part of an attempted theft, Raskolnikov plots and carries out the murder of pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna. He also kills her virtuous sister Lizaveta, who walks in on the crime. The murder takes place fairly early in the plot. Most of the novel concerns itself with the post - murder doings of Raskolnikov, his family and friends, as well as the police investigation that eventually ensures. 

The idea that Raskolnikov might be redeemed takes up a lot of the philosophizing in later parts of the book. Dostoyevsky explores ideas related to The Bible, Christianity as well as Raskolnikov’s psychological state and philosophy. 

As mentioned above, the novel is filled with superbly crafted characters. Razumikhin is Raskolnikov’s best friend who genuinely tries to help the protagonist. Dunya is Raskolnikov’s sister who is engaged in the unscrupulous government official Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin. Svidriga├»lov is a wealthy landowner who tried to seduce and later marry Dunya. Sonya is a young woman who is forced into prostitution to support her family. Raskolnikov is attracted to Sonya and forms an important relationship with her. Porfiry Petrovich is a police detective who uses psychological tactics and games to get at the truth. Those familiar with television’s Colombo character will find a lot that is familiar in Porfiry. The television character was partially based upon him. 

There is a lot going on here. Throughout the book all these characters, as well as many others, interact as Dostoevsky tries to portray something about life. I have previously read Dostoevsky’s The Devils and The Brothers Karamazov. As was typical with those books, this novel is characterized by lots of characters and interacting plot threads. I thought that this had a less complex plot then those novels however. With that, it is impossible to share my thoughts about every aspect of this novel in a single post. Dostoyevsky goes off in a lot of directions within these pages. Instead, as I have done in the past, I will write a few things about one interesting point here. 

Something that this work shares with the other Dostoyevsky books that I have read is the tendency for characters to embrace bad, radical ideas that lead to catastrophe. In this novel, these bad ideas tie in with the murders. Early on, Raskolnikov rationalizes his crime on the presumption that he will use the money that he is planning to steal for good. Furthermore, he has written pieces arguing that certain people should be exempt from punishment if they commit crime. These people should be exempt from the rules of society as they are “extraordinary”. Later he compares himself with Napoleon Bonaparte who he considers another extraordinary person. 

At one point Razumikhin is describing and article that Raskolnikov has written. 

there supposedly exist in the world certain persons who can … that is , who not only can but are fully entitled to commit all sorts of crimes and excesses and to whom the law supposedly does not apply . The whole point is that in his article all people are somehow divided into the ‘ordinary ’ and the ‘ extraordinary . ’ The ordinary must live in obedience and have no right to transgress the law, because they are, after all , ordinary . While the extraordinary have the right to commit all sorts of crimes and in various ways to transgress the law, because in point of fact they are extraordinary.

Later Raskolnikov further elaborates on his own theory,

Those of the second category all transgress the law, are destroyers or inclined to destroy, depending on their abilities. The crimes of these people, naturally, are relative and variegated; for the most part they call, in quite diverse declarations, for the destruction of the present in the name of the better. But if such a one needs, for the sake of his idea, to step even over a dead body, over blood, then within himself, in his conscience, he can, in my opinion, allow himself to step over blood—depending, however, on the idea and its scale—

The above quotation illustrates how Dostoyevsky has a knack for digging into ghastly ideas and how these ideas might influence people. Often radicals want to destroy the norms and rules of society. These radicals often put themselves in a special position. The metaphor of stepping over blood, which becomes a reality for Raskolnikov’s murderous actions are so well described. As in Dostoyevsky’s time, some people today have a greater tendency to play with very bad theories. Though most do not go as far as Raskolnikov, I think that it would be interesting to see what would make of some of our current intellectual trends. 

Raskolnikov is not hopeless however. A major theme of the book involves his redemption. Later on, the exploration of these awful theories intertwine themselves with Raskolnikov’srecovery from immorality. Porfiry points out that Raskolnikov’svacuous beliefs have fallen flat but that it is not to late for him,

He came up with a theory, and now he’s ashamed because it didn’t work, because it came out too unoriginally! True, it did come out meanly, but even so you’re not such a hopeless scoundrel. Not such a scoundrel at all! At least you didn’t addle your brain for long, you went all at once to the outermost pillars. Do you know how I regard you? I regard you as one of those men who could have their guts cut out, and would stand and look at his torturers with a smile—provided he’s found faith, or God. Well, go and find it, and you will live.

Raskolnikov is not a hopeless sociopath, so according to Porfiry, his humanity can still redeem him, despite having come under the influence of his own terrible theories. 

Dostoevsky wrote incredible books filled with amazing characters, themes and story lines. I have only summarized this above and touched on one of many interesting things that I found. This novel is bursting with all those things. This is a must read for those who appreciate Russian literature.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

I thought that Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was a fantastic book. This piece of plague - fiction was gripping, had complex and interesting characters, philosophical musings and themes. The novel was first published in 2014. It has been very popular since. Obviously, a lot of folks are comparing the plot of this book to the current situation to the covid - 19 situation, a comparison that I think might be overblown. 

The premise of the book is that a devesting contagion, known as The Georgia Flu, wipes out all but 1% of humanity. At the book’s center is Arthur Leander. Arthur is a famous actor who dies on stage of a heart attack while preforming King Lear, just before the flu hits. Every major character in the narrative is somehow connected to Arthur.  The novel takes place in various time periods both before and after the epidemic. 

After the plague civilization collapses and people congregate in small settlements, living with almost no technology. Eventually even internal combustion motors become inoperable as the remaining gasoline becomes unstable. After the collapse most of the story occurs around the Great Lakes Region of Canada and the United States.  The most important of several plot threads centers upon The Traveling Symphony, a classical music and Shakespearian theater group that moves between the settlements putting on performances. 

Kirsten Raymonde, who as a little girl witnessed Arthur’s death, is now a Shakespearian actor with The Symphony. Clark Thompson is Arthur’s best friend. After the plague he helps to establish a civilized community in an what used to be an airport. Miranda Carroll is Arthur’s first wife. Before the plague, she created a comic book, called Station Eleven about a gigantic future space station and its commander, that serves as an inspiration for Kirsten and other members of The Symphony. Jeevan Chaudhary is an ex - paparazzi and a paramedic who attempted to save Author when he collapses on stage. Jeevan survives the flu while holed up in an apartment and later becomes a doctor in post collapsed America. Tyler Leander is Arthur’s son. He is a child when the plague hits. He grows up to be a Jim Jones - like cult leader who accomplishes his goals through violence, rape and murder and eventually comes after The Traveling Symphony. There are many other characters and plot threads that take place before and after the outbreak. 

This book is something of a jigsaw puzzle. The plot, characters and certain symbolic objects fit together as the novel progresses. What I mean is that the narrative frequently jumps between various times and places. A chunk of the narrative takes place fifteen years before the virus strikes. Another takes place just when the plague hits and in the ensuing months. Still another takes place fifteen years after the outbreak. What is more or less the main story, takes place twenty years after the initial outbreak. There are many plot threads and characters interweaving through it all. Mandel handles all this expertly as it never becomes confusing and the connections between people and objects become apparent as the story progresses. For instance, the tale of Miranda’s creation of the Station Eleven comic slowly unfolds throughout the book. Interspaced with this is references to the same comic that take place in a future time period. 

There are a few overriding points throughout the book. The characters philosophize a lot about life, science, art, and all sorts of other themes. A basic  idea seems to be that that certain things in the post - flu world are worth supporting and these things are what makes the world better. Those elements are decent, empathetic and community orientated behavior, reason and science, as well as art. After the collapse the world became violent, unjust and brutal. But things seem to be slowly getting better because of these basic, positive values. There is an eventual confrontation between Kirsten and other members of the Symphony and the prophet, but it is not a great climatic battle. Instead, the characters who hang on to a basic form of morality, build communities, and try to preserve art and science over the course of years are the heroes of the story. 

The novel includes a lot of literary and philosophical references including a fair amount of Shakespeare. There are also many references to various Star Trek television series. In fact, the motto of the traveling orchestra is “survival is insufficient” a phrase used in a Star Trek Voyager episode. Mandel cannot seem to help to delve into all kind of subjects so there is also an aesthetic discussion about the lower art of Star Trek verses the higher art of Shakespeare. Star Trek’s common themes of art, reason, decency and humanity triumphing over chaos are integrated into this novel’s plot so this all makes sense. The characters also tend to philosophize a lot in a middle brow way that also reminds me a lot of the philosophizing that goes on in Star Trek episodes. Mandel is obviously a fan. 

Other plague books that I have read over the years come to mind when thinking about this novel. Though Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain was highly scientific, the plague in that novel did not reach apocalyptic proportions. Though I liked it Stephen King’s The Stand, that book did not try to be realistic. Instead it was a mix of horror and fantasy that was ultimately turned into a parable of good versus evil. Frank Herbert’s The White Plague was realistic and still is the most horrifying plague  - fiction that I have read. Folks often mention Albert Camus’s The Plague, however, that book did not involve science fiction or fantasy elements and really belongs in a different class of books. Camus’s novel aside, Station Eleven was the best science fiction plague book that I have read to date. 

This novel was most similar to King’s book as both novels took the reader through the plague itself and then into the post - plague worlds. I found Mandel’s vision here mostly realistic, particularly the post - plague part. Her vision of the plague and the world that is left behind seems mostly plausible, especially as compared with King’s more fanciful book. I could nitpick about some details in this novel. For instance, I think that anything that killed as fast as The Georgia Flu would not spread so fast as it would kill and disable people before they could spread it. It is also not clear whether the survivors were just immune to the disease or just managed not to get the disease. 

Mandel’s prose style is excellent. She manages to mix poetic descriptions with insightful and sometimes philosophical commentary. Below she is painting a picture of how life has changed after the collapse. In doing so she seems to have something to say about the world as it is, in this case, social media related,

No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room.

The characters are also well crafted and nuanced. Arthur is complex. He is not always likable. He is self - centered and does not always treat those around him as he should. However, he also has redeeming qualities. He is self - aware and comes to recognize that he must do better. Kirsten is a very capable and intelligent person who wrestles with the trauma that she has encountered and the things that she has had to do in the in this post - apocalyptic world. She also seems to represent optimism. There are additional characters who are also well drawn. 

Of course, with the coronavirus outbreak, this book is timely, at least in some ways. My blog posts are delayed so I actually started reading this relatively early when the real virus was just beginning to be a concern in many countries. These early news reports may have prompted me to finally read this but I have been meaning to give this a try for a long time. With that, as serious as coronavirus is, I think that parallels to this book are really limited. The wiping out of most of humanity is not what is happening now. Any points that Mandel is trying to convey here tend to be universal, and not really related to diseases or epidemics. 

For all the above reasons I thought that this book was excellent. It has interesting characters, a page turning plot, and thought provoking themes. For those who like this sort of book, I highly recommend this novel. It deserves its popularity.