Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"The Ocean Ground Against His Utmost Bones"

Let us return once again to the passage I cited in yesterday’s letter from the epilogue of Crime and Punishment:

"He was ill a long time. But it was not the horrors of prison life, not the hard labour, the bad food, the shaven head, or the patched clothes that crushed him. What did he care for all those trials and hardships! He was even glad of the hard work. Physically exhausted, he could at least reckon on a few hours of quiet sleep. And what was the food to him—the thin cabbage soup with beetles floating in it? In the past as a student he had often not had even that. His clothes were warm and suited to his manner of life. He did not even feel the fetters. Was he ashamed of his shaven head and parti-coloured coat? Before whom? Before Sonia? Sonia was afraid of him, how could he be ashamed before her? And yet he was ashamed even before Sonia, whom he tortured because of it with his contemptuous rough manner. But it was not his shaven head and his fetters he was ashamed of: his pride had been stung to the quick. It was wounded pride that made him ill. Oh, how happy he would have been if he could have blamed himself! He could have borne anything then, even
shame and disgrace. But he judged himself severely, and his exasperated conscience found no particularly terrible fault in his past, except a simple blunder which might happen to anyone. He was ashamed just because he, Raskolnikov, had so hopelessly, stupidly come to grief through some decree of blind fate, and must humble himself and submit to ‘the idiocy’ of a sentence, if he were anyhow to be at peace."

I like this paragraph. I like it a lot. Among other devices that might be of benefit, we can observe the transition from physical realities to internal, with the former being a reflection of the latter: the beetles in the soup reflecting in an inexplicable, but nonetheless tangible manner the circumstances of his inner torment.

More to the point, I am struck by the manner in which Dostoevsky manages to prise his way into the head of our beloved protagonist and reveal to us the vibrant, multicolored skein of fears, resentments, and evasions lurking there, without in any way seeming to support Raskalnikov’s emotional state, nor his dark, subversive thoughts. “But he judged himself severely, and his exasperated conscience found no particularly terrible fault in his past, except a simple blunder which might happen to anyone.” The blunder thus referenced is Raskalnikov’s slaying of an old woman with an axe. Might have happened to anyone! It is unfortunate that fate reserved such an uncomfortable circumstance for the hero of this novel, with whom we have been growing more than casually acquainted for the last 700 pages, and who less than anyone else in the book we should like to see thrown into prison for the totally arbitrary occurrence of murdering a woman in cold blood.
“He was ashamed just because he, Raskalnikov, had so hopelessly, stupidly come to grief through some decree of blind fate…” Through the experience of writing my own novel I have discovered that such stray details are never merely a reflection of the character’s current convictions, but are the extenuation of sentiments and paradigms which have been at work within him, normally since the beginning of the novel, and which in one way or another are connected to every single event of the story, and every word he speaks. I would have to write out the previous sentence, three, four, five, or six times to emphasize the reality of it, and its ongoing significance for our present purposes.

And now, at the opposite pole, not the end, but the beginning, of another great Russian novel:

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

"Everything was in confusion in the Oblonskys’ house. The wife had discovered that the husband was carrying on an intrigue with a French girl, who had been a governess in their family, and she had announced to her husband that she could not go on living in the same house with him. This position of affairs had now lasted three days, and not only the husband and wife themselves, but all the members of their family and household, were painfully conscious of it. Every person in the house felt that there was no sense in their living together, and that the stray people brought together by chance in any inn had more in common with one another than they, the members of the family and household of the Oblonskys. The wife did not leave her own room, the husband had not been at home for three days. The children ran wild all over the house; the English governess quarreled with the housekeeper, and wrote to a friend asking her to look out for a new situation for her; the man-cook had walked off the day before just at dinner time; the kitchen-maid and the coachman had given warning."

The line about the various members of the family all feeling they were but loosely connected, more like the inhabitants of a dingy inn than a fellowship of blood, is unnervingly vivid. I remember at the height of my mother’s insanity during the summer of 2006, wildly exclaiming to Booth, “This isn’t a family! This is nothing like a family! It’s just a collection of people who live together under the same roof!” The entirety of the first chapter is delineated in a similar manner. Nothing particularly eventful happens, but the accumulation of small, perceptive details leads in the end to an impression of overwhelming realism. Stepan’s reaction to his wife when she first confronts him with the evidence of his transgression is particularly startling—he smiles. “His face utterly involuntarily… assumed its habitual, good-humored, and therefore idiotic smile.” It is hard to imagine such a person reacting in any other way.

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