Crime and Punishment at 150: Global Contexts

by Barnabas D. Kirk

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Dostoevsky’s seminal novel Crime and Punishment (1866). Originally, the novel was serialized over a period of 12 months on the pages of the literary journal Russian Messenger. It was hailed as a revelation for giving readers unprecedented insight into the human psyche that spoke of the individual’s role and responsibility within society. To commemorate the novel’s overwhelming success during the past 150 years, the Petro Jacyk Resource Centre, in collaboration with Professor Kate Holland of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, organized a special exhibition on the 1st and 3rd floors of the John P. Robarts Library, running from October to November 2016. This event is part of an international outreach program that has brought together the Universities of Cambridge, Bristol, British Columbia and Toronto, as well as the North American Dostoevsky Society—all contributing to a year-long festival celebrating the novel’s legacy. The findings of the exhibition were presented at the “Crime and Punishment at 150” conference held at the University of British Columbia. A full exhibition guide can be found online through the University of Toronto Libraries (UTL).

cp150-poster

The main goal of the exhibition has been to celebrate the success of Crime and Punishment across the boundaries of national norms and cultural media. In doing so, it has been imperative to highlight the richness of our library collection. The University of Toronto Libraries hold more than 12 million print volumes in 341 languages, and support the scholarly needs of 700 undergraduate and 222 graduate degree programs. Keeping in mind the vast range of intellectual and personal interests, the exhibition’s design principle has been to appeal in some capacity to each individual visiting the University of Toronto’s largest library.

In order to make sense of this prodigious collection of materials, the celebration of Crime and Punishment’s legacy has been divided into five themes: translations; art and illustrations; literary adaptations; theatre, film, and music; and critical receptions. Through a collaborative process with UTL subject librarians and Dostoevsky scholars from across the world, we have assembled more than 50 items from 25 countries, each with an extended caption detailing the work and its author.

The five themes offer new perspectives on how Dostoevsky’s novel has been interpreted at different levels of cultural dissemination. The selected translations highlight the fascinating history of how a book is received and then globally propagated. Our earliest featured translation of Crime and Punishment is Victor Derély’s (1840- 1904) French translation of 1884, an early edition that is significant for its prominent role as international intermediary – it was Derély’s translation that was most widely used as a source text for translations into Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, amongst other languages; and it was this French translation that made such a lasting impression on the English intellectual circles of the early 20th century through the Bloomsbury Group. With so few nations sharing the close relationship that France and Russia enjoyed, it fell to this early edition to act as the bridge between Russia and the world at large. It is interesting to note that the celebrated 2001 Brazilian-Portuguese translation by Paulo Bezerra (b.1940) is the first of its kind in Brazil to be translated directly from the original Russian, as opposed to existing French, Spanish, and English editions. It goes to show, that even after so many years and so many miles of separation, it is never too late for Raskolnikov’s chaotic steps in St. Petersburg to be retraced along the intricate pavements of Paulista Avenue in São Paulo.

Materials for the theme of art and illustration offer a highly-condensed and subjectively-distilled snapshot of key scenes from Crime and Punishment. Each artist featured was confronted with the dilemma of how to choose a scene that was the most striking to the reader, most resonant with the artist, and most illuminating to the novel. As the featured illustrations show, German-American illustrator Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990) highlights the high sanctity of Sonia; Belarusian-born Benjamin Kopman (1887-1965) employs a much heavier mode of drawing to capture the troubles undercurrent of Raskolnikov’s confession; and Max Burchartz (1887-1961) embraces the novel’s darkness by distorting space and characters.

Literary adaptations provide rewarding examples of how a single novel can be received and assimilated into foreign cultures. Ten works are showcased from countries including South Korea, Israel, Macedonia, Brazil, China, France, USA, and Russia. The selection is made up of short stories, comic books, children’s literature, and full-length novels. These diverse stories all connect through their study and contemplation of the theme of schism – raskol. Just as in Dostoevsky’s novel the name Raskolnikov presupposes a split in the troubled mind of the antagonist, so do these adaptations that transpose this conflict into foreign, but recognizable settings. Robert Sikoryak’s (b.1964) chapter in Masterpiece Comics reimagines Raskolnikov leading a dual life as a Bob-Kane-style Batman. Yu Mu-Yong’s (1908-1960) Korean short story discusses divine and secular responsibilities – the protagonist is a Catholic priest. And, Brazilian author Clarice Lispector (1920-1977) uses the grotesque image of a severed cockroach to confront the question of one’s individual place and connection with the outside world.

A selection of materials from the exhibit showcasing Crime and Punishment’s global reach

The breadth of cultural appropriations of Crime and Punishment is further investigated in the fourth theme, which highlights the novel’s exemplary history across different cultural media. First performed on stage in 1888, the subsequent stream of productions featured in our exhibition illustrate how the novel’s ingenuity is by no means restricted to any particular genre of literature and mode of language. Gaston Baty’s (1885-1952) production of 1933 was praised for capturing the very height of popular interest in crime literature in early 20th-century France, and Andrzej Wajda’s (1926-2016) play of 1989 promoted the ongoing appreciation for the novel beyond national boundaries by touring Madrid, Berlin, Belgrade, Palermo, and Tel Aviv. Be they from Peru or the Philippines, films have engaged audiences throughout the age of cinema. Directors such as Robert Bresson (1901-1999) and Woody Allen (b. 1935) have attempted to further develop the enduring appeal of Dosteovsky’s novel.

The final theme, a gathering of critical receptions, brings us to the long-term significance of this exhibition. Featuring critical works from a diverse body of authors, including the former Archbishop of Canterbury and Norwegian scholars at a Slavic-Baltic symposium, the appeal and relevance of Crime and Punishment to society is demonstrably universal and contemporary. Recent works like Boris Akunin’s (b. 1956) post-modern novel F. M. (2006), the 2013 stage production by Chris Hannan (b.1958), and the 2014 English-language translation by Oliver Ready (b.1976) are proof that 150 years later Dostoevsky’s classic novel can still satisfy the cultural and intellectual demands of contemporary society.


This article originally appeared in PJRC Update, vol. 9 (Fall 2016) and appears here with the permission of the Petro Jacyk Resource Centre at the University of Toronto.

Barnabas D. Kirk is a PhD student in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto. In 2016 he co-curated the Crime and Punishment at 150: Global Contexts exhibit at the Robarts Library with Ksenya Kiebuzinski and Kate Holland.

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