The Writer’s Text
Dostoevsky, The Notebooks for Crime and Punishment.
by Edward Wasiolek.
University of Chicago Press. 244 pp. $6.95.
This translation of the notebooks for Crime and Punishment is the first instalment of a long-needed project. Despite Dostoevsky’s enormous popularity, the basic: scholarly material relevant to his work has not hitherto been accessible to English readers, though it has been available in Russian—and partially in French translations—for many years. Thus Professor Wasiolek can only be congratulated on his plan to translate all of Dostoevsky’s notebooks for his major novels. (One assumes, though it is not mentioned in the announced list, that the recently-published notebooks for A Raw Youth will also be included.) If this plan is carried through, we shall have all of Dostoevsky’s working notes, so far as they have been preserved, for the five major novels beginning with Crime and Punishment and ending with The Brothers Karamazov. This, to be sure, does not exhaust all the notebook material known to exist in Soviet archives—there are, for example notebooks dating from the important period of the early 1860’s, just before the composition of Notes from the Underground, which are certainly of the utmost interest. But the Russians so far have refused to publish these manuscripts themselves, and have barred foreign scholars from access to them.
What are known as Dostoevsky’s notebooks are, in reality, a heterogeneous mass of writings containing all sorts of material that the author wished to record or to remember. “They contain,” writes Professor Wasiolek, “drawings, jottings about practical matters, doodlings of various sorts, calculations about pressing expenses, sketches, and random remarks.” Dostoevsky simply flipped his notebooks open any time he wished to write, and proceeded to fill the first blank space he could find; hence there is no chronological sequence of any kind in his entries, though occasionally he included a date that helps to orient the reader. The so-called “notebooks” have been carved out of this mass of material by the Russian editors of the various volumes, who grouped together all the entries that could be related to one or another creative conception. There is, then, nothing systematic or even self-reflective in these notes, in the sense of an author both creating and at the same time observing himself create. Dostoevsky’s thoughts—at least as recorded here—are all directed outward to the work he was striving to bring into being; his occasional moments of introspection or self-admonition invariably concern one or another problem that he was wrestling with in the course of composition.
With the aid of the notebooks, it is possible to follow the composition of Crime and Punishment from its first inception to its conclusion. The book, we learn, was originally conceived as a long short story or novella to be written in the first person, and extensive fragments of this original work are to be found here intact. These fragments are in the form of Raskolnikov’s confession, which was intended to recount the murder retrospectively after the process of repentance had already done its work. The book would thus have been formally much closer to Notes from the Underground than to the novel as it finally appeared. However, Dostoevsky abandoned his original idea in favor of the complex drama of inner self-discovery that finally emerged as his first great masterpiece. This process of self-discovery was there from the very start, to be sure; in the letter outlining the first idea for the book, Dostoevsky writes that, after the murder, “unresolved questions arise before the murderer, unsuspected and unexpected feelings torment his heart.” But this idea blossomed out into Raskolnikov’s dialectic of inner evolution only when Dostoevsky abandoned the first-person form for the dramatic novel. The confession could only have begun after all the “unsuspected and unexpected feelings” had done their work; and so it would have been impossible to show them in action on Raskolnikov with the requisite force and unexpectedness.
The same letter also provides us with valuable information about the ideological genesis of the book. Dostoevsky describes the central figure as “a young man expelled from the university, a petty bourgeois by background, living in the most extreme poverty,” who has “become obsessed with badly thought out ideas which happen to be in the air” and who decides to kill a useless old moneylender for the benefit of his family and, ultimately, of humanity. (A more literal translation of this passage would give “incomplete ideas” for Professor Wasiolek’s “badly thought out.” Literalness is preferable here precisely because Raskolnikov “completes” these ideas by putting them into practice.)
To anyone familiar with this period of Russian culture, it is clear that Dostoevsky can only be referring to the Utilitarian egoism which then formed the ethical basis of Russian radicalism. A doctrine which holds that everything can be justified in the name of the greatest happiness of the greatest number can logically lead—though it usually did not—to the kind of decision at which Raskolnikov arrived. At any rate, Dostoevsky believed that such an ideology, though it might begin with the noblest humanitarian motives, would ultimately result in unleashing the purely self-centered and diabolic egoism that was an ineluctable possibility of the human psyche especially under extreme conditions of deprivation and despair. The aim of the book is to dramatize this belief objectively through Raskolnikov’s tragedy, and also to bring Raskolnikov himself to a recognition of its truth. Hence the movement of the book from one motive for the crime (the humanitarian) to the gradual revelation of the coldly egoistic hatred for mankind (the Superman motive) which provides the emotional dynamism for Raskolnikov’s deed. These two motives, incidentally, are linked together in the very first pages as the two sides of the same coin. The Superman motive is not tacked on arbitrarily in the later pages, as so many critics have—incomprehensibly—contended, but is clearly foreshadowed both implicitly (by Raskolnikov’s behavior) and explicitly (in the crucial tavern-conversation that Raskolnikov overhears just before the murder).
Professor Wasiolek has supplemented the text of the notebooks with an introduction, and also with a commentary summarizing the material in each of the separate sections. His comments on Dostoev-sky’s artistry and on the workings of his creative imagination are accurate and apropos, and should help to destroy the erroneous legends of Dostoevsky as a half-demented, erratic genius or as a journalistic hack. Since the work of the Russian Formalists in the 1920’s, it has hardly been news that Dostoevsky was acutely aware of the problems of his craft, and, as the notebooks show, continually kept them in mind. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could ever have thought otherwise when confronted with a work as classically controlled as Crime and Punishment. But all this is certainly worth repeating for the benefit of English readers exclusively nourished on the melodramatic nonsense that so often passes for Dostoevsky criticism. One should add, at the same time, that Dostoevsky would have had no sympathy with Flaubert’s ambition to write a work about nothing, sustained only by the sheer force of its style. Dostoevsky’s artistry was always in the service of a passionate involvement with the moral-social experience of his time; and as Prof. Wasiolek remarks perceptively, his “creative imagination moves usually from conceptual framework to circumstantial elaboration, from general to particular, from schema to narrative fact.” Dostoevsky, in other words, always started with a general thematic idea—not a situation or a character, though the idea might involve a particular type of character—and then tried to imagine the concrete actions that would best express his theme. Most of the entries in the notebooks are imaginative variations of such schematic actions, which he altered freely in every possible combination until he hit on the one that best satisfied his creative instinct.
If Professor Wasiolek had limited his commentary to such helpful and illuminating observations, there would be little left to do except to compliment him on a difficult task admirably brought to completion. Unfortunately, however, he could not resist the temptation to use his commentary as a platform from which to argue for his own particular (and very dubious) reading of Crime and Punishment; and in so doing he woefully mishandles what should be the proper relation between the notebooks and the text. To those (presumably Formalists or New Critics) who would argue that the notebooks are unimportant and even misleading because “the novel is before us, and it alone contains what Dostoevsky wanted to say,” Professor Wasiolek rightly answers that it is absurd not to try and use everything we have that might cast light on the book. But he himself appears to forget that what should control such usage is the finished text: the notebooks are relevant only to the extent that they help us to understand what the author actually wrote. The great danger is to use them to substitute what the author might have written, and what the commentator would have liked him to write, for what he actually did write. Time and again this is precisely what Professor Wasiolek does in his commentary; and the result can only be deplored, especially if one thinks of the authority his remarks are likely to exercise over the unwary student and the inexpert reader.
Disregarding the entire ideological context in which the book was conceived, and which had so much importance for Dostoevsky, Professor Wasiolek prefers to see it in broadly psychoanalytic terms. For him Raskolnikov committed the murder not for any of the reasons given in the text but out of a need for self-punishment—though he concedes that it requires some “refined analysis [?] to see that he [Raskolnikov] craves what he is aggressively against.” But, he remarks triumphantly, “in the notebooks his self-punishing traits stand out sharply.” The sentences quoted to prove this point do not seem to me to have anything to do with a need for self-punishment; but even if they did, the fact that Dostoevsky weakened them in the book would argue against giving them undue artistic importance.
Even more hypothetical and extravagant is the notion that, in killing the old moneylender, Raskolnikov symbolically murdered his mother, and that he nourished incestuous feelings toward his sister. “One wonders” writes Professor Wasiolek, “why Dostoevsky felt it necessary to veil the love-hate relationship that comes out clearly in the notebooks and only dimly in the novel.” Once again, the material cited to prove this “love-hate relationship” with his family can easily be explained in terms of a particular stage in Raskolnikov’s inner evolution after the crime; it is simply inaccurate to pretend that the same feelings about his mother and sister prevail throughout. And, it may be suggested, the reason why Dostoevsky “veiled” this material was that he was not writing the novel Professor Wasiolek wishes he had—a novel whose psychoanalytic significance would have been clear to all, and which would not have required the “refined analysis” now so regrettably necessary.
These critical excrescences, to be sure, do not injure the value and the merit of Profesor Wasiolek’s scholarly contribution to Dostoevsky studies in English. But one hopes that in his future editions of the notebooks he will follow the example of the Russian editors, and draw a sharp distinction between his speculative readings and his textual commentary.