Sunday, April 13, 2008

Crime and Punishment + Dorian Gray + Labyrinths

More book reviews ...

1. "Crime and Punishment" by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

This novel is a regarded as a classic of world literature.  Given the
subject matter, I was worried the 600+ pages would be heavy going.
Fortunately, it turned out to be a compelling story with a great cast
of characters, making it an enjoyable read.

The novel is set in the mid-19th Century in St Petersburg, capital of
Russia at the time.  Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov is a destitute ex-
student, living in a room "no larger than a closet" in the attic of an
apartment building.  His clothes are tattered and he's heavily in debt
to the landlady.  The author describes in great detail the poverty and
difficulties that many people had to endure at the time.  You can almost
understand the desperation that would drive someone like Raskolnikov to
violently steal from a pawnbroker.  In the process he kills both the old
woman and her sister.

After the murders, Raskolnikov becomes mentally unwell.  Is it guilt, or
simply the fear of getting caught?  Whatever, when he gets home he
becomes bed-ridden for a few days.  His friends, who are unaware of what
he's done, are concerned for his well-being and takes turns in caring
for him.

As the title suggests, the novel is about crime and the punishment that
ensues.  This is not a detective novel, where the emphasis is on the
investigation of the crime.  Rather the focus is mainly on the criminal
and how the crime affects him.  Will he confess, or will the police
uncover his crime?  Does he gain redemption?  Perhaps it could be argued
that the punishment may have already begun once the crime was committed.

Almost halfway into the novel, chief investigator Porfiry Petrovich
discovers an article that Raskolnikov had published.  Raskolnikov argued
that "extraordinary" individuals almost have the right to transgress,
even to the point of committing crimes, in order to achieve higher
goals.  He cites the example of Napoleon.  Based on this, Petrovich
suspects Raskolnikov is the murderer, and conducts a series of informal
and formal interviews to tease out as much information as he can.  The
two men become engaged in an intriguing psychological battle.

There are many other interesting characters, including:
* Dunya, Raskolnikov's beautiful and hard-working sister.
* Luzhin, Dunya's fiance.  He's a self-made man, who likes the idea of
  marrying someone who will be indebted to him for "rescuing" her from
* Razumikhin, another ex-student and friend of Raskolnikov.  He's cheery
  and optimistic, always looking for new (and legitimate) ways to make
  ends meet.
* Sonya, the teenaged daughter of a boozer that Raskolnikov befriends.
  She works as a prostitute to help support her father's family.  Her
  step-mother suffers from consumption.
* Svidrigailov, Dunya's former employer, and confessed scoundrel.  In
  love with Dunya, he follows her to St Petersburg.  Like Raskolnikov,
  he's battling his own inner demons.

The novel also gives an insight into the politics of the time, which
foreshadowed the Revolution to come.  Overall, a fascinating novel that
lived up to its reputation.

2. "The Picture of Dorian Gray" by Oscar Wilde

The novel is set in England in the late 19th Century.  Dorian Gray is a
young man, born into the Victorian aristocracy.  After having his
portrait painted, and influenced by an earlier talk with new chum Lord
Henry Wotton, he laments to himself:
 "How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But
  this picture will remain always young... If it were only the other
  way! ... I would give my soul for that!"

His little "prayer" is answered, and no matter what mischief he gets up
to, it is the painting that shows the effects of excess, guilt, and the
passing of time.  He remains forever young and beautiful.  This pleases
him greatly, since he is surrounded by people obsessed with beauty and

I found the plot a little predictable, but perhaps I already knew too
much about the story.  In Jasper Fforde's "The Fourth Bear" there's a
character called Dorian Gray, who sells Jack Spratt a car that shows no
wear or damage, even after serious crashes - as long as the portrait of
the car, which is kept in the boot, remains intact.  And last year I
saw an Italian TV program called "Per un Pugno di Libri" where high
school kids answer questions on certain books.  "The Picture of Dorian
Gray" was one of the featured books.

Fortunately there are lots of witty and wry quotes to keep the reader
entertained, for example:
* "... there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked
   about, and that is not being talked about." 
* "There were moments when he looked on evil simply as a mode through
   which he could realise his conception of the beautiful."

3. "Labyrinths" by Jorge Luis Borges

This is a collection of short stories, essays and other writings by
Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges.  Interestingly, Borges never wrote
a full-length novel.

Among the works of fiction, "The Circular Ruins", "Lottery of Babylon"
and "The Library of Babel" were standouts for me.  Italo Calvino is
possibly my favourite author, and his style is often compared to that
of Borges.  When Borges writes about strange worlds and paradoxes,
using an economical style, I can understand the comparisons.

Coincidentally, "The immortal" by Borges touches on similar themes to
Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray".

Of the essays, I found "A New Refutation of Time" and "Avatars of the
Tortoise" the most fascinating, even if they were quite challenging.

A common device in many of the pieces is referencing other works, not
just in the essays but also in the works of fiction.  In the short
stories the references are usually imaginary, and set the scene.  The
concept of the labyrinth was also obviously important to the author,
as the word appears in almost every story and many of the essays.

Overall, I found the stories and essays interesting, but the consistency
varied.  Perhaps I would have got more out of them if I followed the
advice of one of the Amazon reviewers and took my time?  I might revisit
Borges' work later.