Why I’d Never Read Crime and Punishment
I’m reading Crime and Punishment and this morning I nearly missed my train connections because of it (I take three subway lines to work and I just escaped as the doors were closing every time because I had my face in the book). My getting so absorbed in it probably isn’t a shock to anyone because, after all, it is supposed to be “the greatest book of all time,” “a psychological thriller,” “a masterpiece” . . . What might shock you is that, I, a Russian, one who was actually born there, had never until now read a word of Crime and Punishment except for some excerpts analyzed in a translation theory textbook . . .
No, I’m not in high school or college. I’m not in my early 20s; I’m 28, I got my MFA in creative writing, I work at an institute of Russian, Slavic and Eurasian Studies at Columbia University, yet somehow I’ve managed to slip by without reading the most talked-about Russian novel.
I don’t usually tell people this, of course, I don’t lie, but I let them assume, and when they mention Raskolnikov or Razumikhin or Alyona Ivanovna, I nod and smile and pretend that I know exactly what they’re talking about.
You can imagine the embarrassing situations this has caused me. The marks my teeth would leave on my bottom lip as I clenched my hands in an effort to stop them from trembling while this or that professor raised her eyebrows and gazed at me in anticipation as she referred to the novel and eagerly awaited the insight of the native speaker who surely had not only read Crime and Punishment but had done so in the original tongue . . .
Every year it got worse, and in those rare instances when I’d find a trustworthy soul, someone who I felt wouldn’t judge me if I divulged my well-kept secret, they always reacted in the same way—they thought I was kidding.
If you’d asked me why I never read this pillar of not just Russian but international literature, I wouldn’t have had a good answer. The one I liked to give was that I was waiting to read it in Russian, but because it is such a long book, and because I read much faster in English, I just hadn’t found the time.
This summer I happened to start dating a boy who not only loved Crime and Punishment but was obsessed with it, and he was pressuring me to read it. So, when my grandmother asked me if there was anything that I would like for her to bring me from Moscow, I told her to bring me the 600-page book.
“Are you out of your mind?” my mother said when she found out. “You want your grandmother to lug that thing from Russia? Call her immediately and tell her you’ve gone insane!” But I didn’t, I let my 77- year-old grandma put the 1,000+ page book in her red rolling suitcase (she brought me an edition that also had Dostoyevsky’s sketches and notes) and bring it across the Atlantic Ocean; I knew that it would give her an invaluable sense of pleasure to put one of Russia’s greatest works directly from her home into my hands (you should have seen the smile on her face when she did).
So she gave it to me, and I brought it over to my boyfriend’s house and told him, “Aren’t you jealous that I can read Russian and you can’t?” He was, but I quickly realized that the giant hardcover edition grandma gave me was way too heavy to bring on the train, so it just sat at his house.
In the meantime, I got a Kindle. I downloaded the book in both Russian and English under the pretense that I would read both at the same time—for a couple of days I read it chapter by chapter, one in each language, comparing the original to the translation. I told my boyfriend that he hadn’t even really read Crime and Punishment because in the original it is a different book altogether.
The result? I got too immersed in it to continue with the language switching, and after trying to read in Russian, I remembered how painstaking that was for me and convinced myself that I actually preferred the way it sounds in English. I also realized that the Garnett translation was very dated, and that holding a real book was much nicer than reading off the screen of a Kindle, so I ordered the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation on Amazon, and have been carrying it around everywhere I go.