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67 4 “Daring and Original Things” (Assez causé!)1 Although almost a decade had passed since Goncharov’s Oblomov, the point of departure of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is essentially the same. It is the bed of the protagonist, Rodion Raskolnikov, and the “fantastic nonsense” that he dreams up there. “‘I want to attempt such a thing, and at the same time I’m afraid of trifles!’ he thought with a strange smile. ‘Hm . . . yes . . . a man holds the fate of the world in his two hands, and yet, simply because he’s afraid, he just lets things drift—that is a truism. . . . I wonder what men are most afraid of . . . Any new departure, and especially a new word—that is what they fear most of all . . . But I am talking too much. That’s why I don’t act, because I am always talking. Or perhaps I talk so much just because I can’t act. I’ve got into the habit of babbling to myself during this last month, while I have been lying in a corner for days on end, thinking . . . fantastic nonsense .’”2 Raskolnikov contemplates the conundrum so familiar from the critical polemics of the early part of the decade: an excess of talk caused by or symptomatic of the inability to act. The conundrum is old, and so is the conflation of word and deed. But in Raskolnikov’s case the word/deed must mark a break, must constitute a “departure.” “Any new departure, and especially a new word—that is what they fear most of all.” For good reason, as it turns out. 68 Part One: Enigmas of A-synchrony “And nonetheless for a start I need at least three thousand now. I’m trying in every corner to get it—otherwise I’ll perish. I sense that only chance can save me. Out of the whole stock of my powers and energy all that’s left in my soul is something disturbing and vague, something close to despair. Alarm, bitterness, the coldest vanity, the most abnormal state for me and in addition, I’m alone.”3 The reader of Crime and Punishment will be excused for mistaking these words and the plight they describe for Raskolnikov’s when they are in fact his creator’s, Dostoev­ sky’s. With the exception, perhaps, of his fictionalized memoir of prison camp life, Notes from the House of the Dead, none of Dostoevsky’s works is more autobiographical than Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s letters of 1864–65 reveal how closely his situation and state of mind paralleled that of the protagonist of the new novel that had begun to germinate.4 That fateful year was perhaps the emotional and financial nadir of Dostoevsky’s life: he had lost his estranged but strangely beloved wife and his most intimate companion, his brother Mikhail, in the space of a few months (“And suddenly I was left alone, and I was simply terrified. My whole life had been broken in two at once”),5 assumed a massive debt incurred by their failed journalistic enterprise, as well as responsibility for the financial support of his brother’s family. And his Notes from the Underground, as the rebuttal of Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done?, passed completely unnoticed. Thus, when Dostoev­ sky sent a prospectus peddling his novel-in-progress to Mikhail Katkov, the conservative publisher of the successful Russian Messenger, describing a former university student “expelled from the university, petitbourgeois by social origin, and living in extreme poverty who [had] decided . . . to get out of his foul situation at one go,” he knew whereof he spoke.6 Dostoevsky wrote out of desperation and with a sense of urgency, but with undiminished confidence. “Now I’ll start writing a novel again from under the stick, that is out of need, in haste. It will turn out to be striking.”7 “And meanwhile, if I’m given time to finish it, the story that I’m working on now may be the best thing I’ve written.”8 As Parts I and II were published sequentially in January and February of 1866, public response fulfilled Dostoevsky’s hopes. In a letter to his close correspondent Alexander Vrangel, he triumphantly reported: “About two weeks ago the first part of my novel came out in the January issue of the Russian Herald. It is called Crime and Punishment. I’ve already “Daring and Original Things” (Assez causé!) 69 heard many enthusiastic...


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