Raskolnikov on Trial in Postwar France

by Ian Williams Curtis

The North American Dostoevsky Society stands with all the people of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the world who condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine. See our statement here.

In post-World War II France, Dostoevsky’s work was believed to contain key ethical lessons—lessons much needed in a country that, in the wake of the dark years of defeat and collaboration, had perhaps never been less sure of its moral compass.  In a 1945 speech whose goal was to defend existentialist philosophy against accusations of moral disengagement, Jean-Paul Sartre cited Dostoevsky as existentialism’s “starting point”—the starting point for a moral atheism where man is entirely responsible for his actions, “condemned to be free.”[1] Similarly, Albert Camus (who believed himself to be Dostoevsky’s “spiritual son”[2]) took Dostoevsky as a model for a moral “metaphysical insurrection” in The Rebel (1951).[3] A survey conducted in 1951 found that Dostoevsky was one of the favorite authors of young French men and women, second only to Shakespeare among the writers they read in translation:[4] “We devour Russian novels, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy” declared one respondent, who claimed that his generation was in search of “wholesome [saine] literature” rather than the “low,” “dirty,” “morbid” stories that characterized contemporary French fiction.[5]

Like certain of his illustrious contemporaries, Joseph Kessel, a renowned French author and journalist from a Russian Jewish family, turned to Dostoevsky to assess troubling and ambiguous questions of moral responsibility that concerned postwar France.  In May of 1951, he attended the trial of a young French man accused of murder and, upon seeing the criminal, immediately thought of Dostoevsky, whose fictions he had read and reread as an adolescent:[6] this was no ordinary Parisian teenager, but rather “Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov who slid his slender body and narrow shoulders into the dock,” Kessel wrote, summarizing his impressions of the first day of the trial for the daily paper, Paris Presse.[7] Several days later, as it became increasingly clear that the boy on trial would not benefit from extenuating circumstances, but would be found wholly responsible for his crime, Kessel protested in another newspaper article: “But who, having read [Dostoevsky’s] masterpiece, will accept that Raskolnikov, upon killing, was lucid or normal?”[8] A young, French Raskolnikov was before them, on trial, and the key to understanding him was to be found in Dostoevsky’s novel.  The characters and ideas in Dostoevsky’s fiction, thought Kessel, provided truer insights into the boy’s psychology than did contemporary psychiatry or the juridical process.

The real name of Kessel’s Raskolnikov was Claude Panconi.  In December of 1948, he had killed his classmate, Alain Guyader, after luring him into the woods outside of Paris.  Two friends, Bernard Petit and Nicole Illy, had helped him plan and execute the ambush.  The facts of the crime were banal enough, but the murder fascinated France for two and a half years, while a lengthy investigation into Panconi’s character repeatedly failed to establish motive with any certainty.

No photo credit, in “J-3 Murder in France: A Generation’s Ordeal,” Life, 4 Jun. 1951, p. 43

One popular theory held that Panconi had been inspired by gratuitous acts of violence portrayed in modern French literature and that his crime was somehow of a philosophical nature, “a fantasy assassination, [committed] simply for the pleasure of proving to himself his free personality.”[9] The papers abounded in comparisons to fictional murders in the works of André Gide (Lafcadio’s Adventures [1914], The Counterfeiters [1925]), Jean-Paul Sartre (“Erostratus”[1939]), and Albert Camus (The Stranger [1942]).  Tapping into widespread anxieties about the influence of Sartre, in particular, on the young generation, certain journalists presented Panconi as a young, would-be existentialist.  François Mauriac, an illustrious mid-century novelist and frequent contributor to Le Figaro, responded to these commentators who, as he put it, “assur[e] us, in accordance with the needs of [their] cause, that the assassins of little Guyader were carrying [Sartre’s] Nausea around in their pockets.”[10] He entitled his article “La faute à Voltaire” (“Voltaire’s Fault”), a reference to a satirical song mocking those reactionaries who, over a century and a half before Guyader’s death, blamed literature and philosophy for the French Revolution.[11] Mauriac was rightly skeptical about assertions that the high schoolers had any understanding of existentialist philosophy: during his trial, Panconi was asked about his reading habits and he declared that he’d only read one short essay by Sartre, which he hadn’t understood at all.[12]

Like Mauriac, Kessel thought postwar French existentialism was a red herring.  He turned, instead, to an older literary and theoretical framework, to Dostoevsky and to the ideas that informed Crime and Punishment.  Sartre’s Dostoevsky was a proto-existentialist who, via Ivan Karamazov had declared that, “everything would be permitted”[13] in the absence of God and who thereby validated Sartre’s own founding principal of human agency and responsibility.  But Kessel’s Dostoevsky was entirely different.  His was the Dostoevsky of his father’s library, the one who had his place alongside the founder of French naturalism, Émile Zola,[14] a Dostoevsky in whose work Kessel found “the destruction of a personality by a great passion, a great vice.”[15] This was the Dostoevsky of monomania, that great passion that led men to lose themselves in gambling or even in murder.[16]

When, in his newspaper articles, Kessel described Panconi as “obsessed, haunted, pursued by an idée fixe” and asserted that Panconi’s “internal organization” was, by nature, essentially “predestined, doomed to an idée fixe,” he had a specifically Dostoevskian malady in mind: “When I first saw Claude Panconi,” wrote Kessel, “I immediately thought of Raskolnikof, [sic] the hero of ‘Crime and Punishment.’  I could not have foreseen then how far the parallel would go for me.  Raskolnikof was also full of pride and he also premeditated his crime.  And with what prolonged and minute care.”[17] 

The key to understanding Claude Panconi, then, was the notion of an idée fixe, and Crime and Punishment was a useful case study.  Homicidalmonomania is prominent in Crime and Punishment: the terms monomaniac or monomania (“мономан”; “мономания”) appear half a dozen times in the novel[18] and the expression “idée fixe” (used in rendering “слишком на чем-нибудь сосредоточившихся”—literally, “too focused on one thing”[19]) appears in the 1884 French translation of Dostoevsky’s novel to describe Raskolnikov and his deadly obsession. 

Théodore Géricault, La Monomane de l’envie, 1822, Oil, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, Lyon

Monomania, an early nineteenth-century diagnostic classification that attributed certain aberrant behaviors to a single obsession, had already begun to fall out of fashion in Western European medical circles when Dostoevsky used the term in Crime and Punishment—and Kessel’s interest in monomania, in 1951, attests to the concept’s uncommon staying power.[20]  But the médecins-aliénistes (the French doctors who would later become psychiatrists) who worked to discredit the diagnosis wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that the idea would have an important literary afterlife: in 1864, just two years before Dostoevsky’s novel was first published in serial form, Doctor Jules-Philippe-Joseph Falret, monomania’s most important detractor, had denounced the notion, derisively calling it a “technique of literature writers [littérateurs]” and a tendency to view human subjects as “characters.”[21]  Falret would have viewed Kessel’s Panconi-Raskolnikov as a literary creation.

And Kessel, novelist that he was, would have responded that it was precisely in fiction that truth is to be found.  Indeed, in his newspaper articles, he anticipated objections to the parallels he established between Panconi, the boy on trial, and Raskolnikov when he wrote: “[Raskolnikov] is a creature of fiction, they will say, but the creations of genius are truer than living beings.”[22]

Jean Marquis, Joseph Kessel, in July 1963, Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, photograph, in Frédérique Roussel, “Joseph Kessel, l’ami colosse,” Libération, Jan. 29, 2016

Kessel’s analysis of the criminal trial was, essentially, literary: he viewed the adolescents who stood accused as literary characters, analyzing their actions and motivations according to the narrative logic he had learned reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.  He even collected the articles he had written for Paris Presse and published them under the rather literary title, The Trial of the Lost Children (Le procès des enfants perdus).  The book read so much like a work of fiction that several film production companies pestered Kessel with requests to buy the rights to the story.[23] Fiction writing and reading techniques, Kessel clearly hoped, would reveal the truth of a case that no one seemed to understand.

Kessel’s use of Dostoevsky also had important moral implications.  Like Sartre and Camus, Kessel was interested in the question of responsibility: to call Panconi Raskolnikov and to allude to monomania was to say that the accused was not mentally well, not “lucid,” as his judges said, and therefore not entirely responsible for his crime.  Although his references were dated, Kessel’s project was very much of the time.  Like most midcentury French adults, he believed that the recent war was first and foremost responsible for damaged young men like Panconi.  The reason Kessel felt such sympathy for “this little Raskolnikov” was precisely because he belonged to a generation “whose childhood had been marked by the stories of war.”[24] The events of recent history had turned Panconi into Dostoevsky’s anti-hero.  Nearly one hundred years after its first publication, fifteen hundred miles from Raskolnikov’s Saint Petersburg, Dostoevsky’s novel served as a way of establishing a new ethical sensibility, one better suited to life in postwar France.

Ian Curtis is an Assistant Professor of French at Kenyon College, where his research and teaching interests center on postwar French literature and film, youth culture, and the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis in France.  He received his Ph.D. from Yale University in 2020.  Curtis is currently preparing a book manuscript entitled The J3 Affair (1948-51): Modern Literature and the Memory of Occupation in a Postwar Murder in France.  Based on an original archival discovery, Curtis’s book project retraces and analyses a midcentury assassination supposedly committed in the name of literature and philosophy, and argues that the crime played a pivotal role in defining a new cultural category in France, known at the time as “the J3s.” 


[1] Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, 1946, Yale UP, 2007, p. 28.

[2] Albert Camus and Maria Casarès, Correspondance (1944-1959), Gallimard (Folio), 2017, p.1245.

[3] Albert Camus, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, 1951, Vintage Books 1991, p. 18.

[4] Robert Kanters and Gilbert Sigaux, Vingt ans en 1951: Enquête sur la jeunesse française, Julliard, 1951, p. 141.

[5] Ibid.,pp. 179-80.

[6] Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la piste du lion, Plon (l’Abeille), 2020, p. 157.

[7] Joseph Kessel, “J’ai eu peur pour les deux petites bêtes traquées,” Paris-Presse-l’Intransigeant, 9 May 1951, p. 7.

[8] Joseph Kessel, “Malgré sa maîtrise de contour et ses dons les plus rares, Floriot, pour vouloir trop obtenir a dépassé son but,” Paris-Presse-l’Intransigeant, 18 May 1951, p. 7.

[9] Alec Favori, “Albert Camus rejette la prétention du J3 Panconi d’avoir commis un assassinat ‘gratuit’ inspiré de son œuvre,” Ici-Paris, Apr. 2-8, 1951.

[10] François Mauriac, “La faute à Voltaire,” Le Figaro, Feb. 5-6, 1949.

[11] The complete song can be found in Pierre-Jean de Béranger, “Mandement de messieurs les Vicaires-généraux de Paris,” 1815, in Gaités : Quarante-quatre chansons érotiques, Self-Published, 1864, p. 135.

[12] Jean Bernard-Derosne, “Oui c’est bien comme cela que j’ai tué Alain Guyader,” L’Aurore,May 9, 1951.

[13] Feodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1990, p. 69 and passim.  See Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism Is a Humanism, op. cit., p. 28.  Joseph Kessel, for his part, interpreted this dictum differently, as a kind of hedonist permission structure.  See Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la piste du lion, op. cit., pp. 157 and 313.

[14] Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la piste du lion, op. cit., p. 32.

[15] Philippe Hériat, Les Ecrivains contemporains n° 3 (1952), qtd. in Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la piste du lion, op. cit., p. 120.

[16] Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la piste du lion, op. cit., pp. 125 and 202.

[17] Joseph Kessel, “Malgré sa maîtrise de contour et ses dons les plus rares, Floriot, pour vouloir trop obtenir a dépassé son but,” op. cit., p. 7.

[18] See F. M. Dostoevsky, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, v 30 tt., vol. 6, Nauka, 1973, pp. 26, 159, 163, 171, 267, 411.

[19] Ibid. p. 26.  My sincerest thanks to Chloe Papadopoulos for help with the original Russian.

[20] The concept began to fall out of use by the mid-nineteenth century, and was essentially obsolete by 1870.  French psychiatrists, as early as the 1850s, had begun warning against using the term, which they believed was imprecise at best, and simply falsified at worst.  See Jan Goldstein, Console and Classify: The French Psychiatric Profession in the Nineteenth Century, Chicago UP, 1987, pp. 191-2).  On the subject of monomani’s cultural importance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Western Europe, see Marina Van Zuylen, Monomania: The Flight from Everyday Life in Literature and Art, Cornell UP, 2005.

[21] Jules-Philippe-Joseph Falret, Des maladies mentales et des asiles des aliénés: leçons cliniques, J. B. Baillière et Fils, 1864, p. 110.

[22] Joseph Kessel, “Malgré sa maîtrise de contour et ses dons les plus rares, Floriot, pour vouloir trop obtenir a dépassé son but,” Op. cit., p. 7.

[23] Yves Courrière, Joseph Kessel ou Sur la piste du lion, op. cit., p. 1052-3.

[24] Ibid. p. 1051.

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