Rachel Bomberger is the copywriter at Eerdmans. She loves reading, writing, and matryoshka dolls.
As an English major, I read Crime and Punishment in college. (Don’t all English majors read Crime and Punishment in college?) It came in the middle of an 18-week course on the development of the novel, in which we sped through an entire book nearly every week. It was enlightening but exhausting — a grueling romp that our energetic professor likened more than once to “riding a motorcycle through the Louvre.”
I remember Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work as brilliant but difficult. I remember the angst, the darkness, the torment — and one or two snippets of quotes from my favorite character, Razumikhin — but, alas, not much else. It all went by so fast.
Now, finally, I’ve had the opportunity to encounter Dostoevsky again, albeit as a younger, greener version of himself, in Eerdmans’ new translation of The Insulted and Injured. I cannot deny that, as so much of my professional effort is devoted to much more — ahem — academic sorts of texts, the chance to read a novel for work was simply too good to pass up. I dove into it eagerly as soon as first page proofs appeared in our shared drive.
The Insulted and Injured is a book we refer to here as a “minor gem in the Dostoevsky canon.” It has a gripping, sentimental, even soap-operatic storyline. (Mary Hietbrink was kind enough to unknot a few of the many interwoven relationships in her post last week.) It’s filled with the sorts of classic elements guaranteed to make any story riveting: unrequited love, requited (but doomed anyway) love, rogues, idiots, pitiful orphans, beautiful heiresses, fretful mamas, stern papas, disreputable women with hearts of gold, disreputable women with hearts of stone, a selfless hero, and a soulless villain so ruthless and nasty he’ll make your skin crawl. (The villainous Prince Valkovsky is, of course, one of the best things about the book. Despising him is deliciously good fun.)
The novel remains a page-turner throughout — in spite of the fact that it sometimes sputters, sometimes gallops apace, sometimes stalls outright, and sometimes even gets tangled up in its own criss-crossing storylines. Dostoevsky seems to have had trouble in a few places keeping his story straight — someone in Hollywood might say the work has “continuity issues.” It has a slow start and a quick end. It is not always terribly polished. It’s not quite a great book — not quite a Crime and Punishment or a Brothers Karamazov — but that never stops it from being oh-so-good.
As in all of Dostoevsky’s books, I suspect, it’s the characters that really matter, and in The Insulted and Injured, every last one of these is brilliantly rendered. Full-bodied and psychologically nuanced, even the little characters feel multi-dimensional and true-to-life.
As I came to know one after another of them, light bulbs of recognition kept popping on in my head. Vanya? I went to school with him! Alyosha? I think he dated my sister. Anna Andreevna? She goes to my church. Anna Semoyonovna? Masloboev? Natasha? Nellie? Smith? I know them all. (Or almost all. Thank the Lord, I’ve never yet met Prince Valkovsky in the flesh. This goes a long way toward explaining why I remain a bright-eyed optimist.)
Even more startling than this was the feeling that I, too, was represented in the pages of the book. I kept seeing myself in Dostoevsky’s characters (though to preserve my own dignity, I won’t say exactly which ones). I found myself recognizing their thoughts as my own; their actions, decisions, and emotional responses to their triumphs and tragedies too were eerily familiar to me. In some parts, it felt almost as if Dostoevsky had watched me closely, read my mind, and plunked the best and worst of me down together in nineteenth-century Petersburg. (Mary, who is editing the book, confessed to me that she had a similar experience when she first read the manuscript.) There’s more dirt, more vodka, more consumption, and generally more kissing than in my life, perhaps, but the dramas playing out in Dostoevsky’s work are in many ways the same dramas that have played out many times deep in the recesses of my own mind.
Eugene Peterson, in his excellent book for pastors Under the Unpredictable Plant, credits Dostoevsky with helping him through a time of intense vocational crisis. “I made several attempts to find a vocational mentor among the living, without success,” he recalls. “Then I found Dostoevsky. . . . I took my appointments calendar and wrote in two-hour meetings with ‘FD’ three afternoons a week. Over the next several months I read through the entire corpus, some of it twice. . . . And then the crisis was over. Thanks to Dostevsky, God and passion would never again be at risk, at least vocationally.”
Peterson explains further (for him, as for me, it is the characters that matter): “Dostoevsky straightened me out not by arguing but by creating — creating characters who demonstrate the dehumanized desiccation of an un-Godded life and, in contrast and comparison, the terrible beauties of a pursuit after God. . . . Now when I came across dull people, I inserted them into one of the novels to see what Dostoevsky would make of them. It wasn’t long before the deeper dimensions developed, the eternal hungers and thirst — and God.”
“Deeper dimensions.” Yes, that’s it exactly. The Insulted and Injured shows all the immaturity and greenness typical of an early novel — but it also shows breathtakingly the early seeds of Dostoevsky’s great life’s work: understanding people and how they work, and demonstrating through fiction how creation’s enduring themes — desire, sin, pain, death, despair, hatred, love, forgiveness, reconciliation, joy, hope, peace, and more — touch and transform their lives, their relationships with others, and their very souls.
The Insulted and Injured is, all in all, the kind of book that makes me really excited to do what I do. And if my experience with this book is any indication, I think it may be time for me to give Crime and Punishment — not to mention The Brothers Karamazov, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, and all the rest — another go.