My goal this year was to read a classic novel every month — either reread a book I’d read years ago and forgotten or not appreciated sufficiently; finish a book I’d started but never gotten through; or read one of those “I really ought to read,” books. I didn’t quite meet that goal — I read 9 rather than 12 classics, but to be fair, some of them were quite long. And with few exceptions I enjoyed every one of them more than I’d either remembered or expected.
I left Dostoyevsky till last because I find Russian novels difficult and I’ve always felt guilty about not having read anything by him when so many smart people list him as a favourite author. I’ve never attempted to read one of his novels before and I picked Crime and Punishment entirely because there’s an allusion to it in the Mountain Goats song “Love Love Love.”
Once I got into it (which admittedly took awhile) I found it a fascinating study of an unsympathetic main character, Roskolnikov, who commits a crime for reasons not even he fully understands, and spends the rest of the novel dealing with the consequences. It’s like a mystery novel in reverse, in which you know from the beginning whodunit and you see the story unfold not from the point of view of the police but from the point of view of the criminal wondering whether he will get away with it and if he even really wants to get away with it. The focus here is mainly on the psychology and Roskolnikov is an extremely complex character, surrounded by people who are just as meticulously depicted and painstakingly explored.
I struggled a little bit with this English translation — I’d like to read one where the translator had tried to capture a more modern idiom, so that the story could feel more immediate and compelling. There’s enough cultural and psychological strangeness here without adding a distancing layer of formal-sounding language to make the novel feel even more like a museum piece. Despite my problems with the translation I found myself reading very quickly as I got to the end since by that time I was eager to know what happened to poor old Roskolnikov and the people around him. Dostoyevsky does not disappoint.
I don’t plan to continue striving for one classic a year next year but I do want to continue the practice of picking up books I’ve “always meant to read” since much of the reading I’ve done this year has helped me overcome the mental blocks I had about some works of classic literature. You can look back at some of my other reviews of the classics here.