March 01, 2019

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment
Victor Mogilat is a St. Petersburg photographer whose moody images of his hometown evoke the city’s particular beauty. Victor Mogilat

In the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, toward evening, a young man left his tiny room, which he sublet from some tenants who lived in Stolyarnyi Lane, stepped out onto the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, set off towards the Kokushkin Bridge.

He had successfully managed to avoid meeting his landlady on the staircase. His small room, more like a closet than an apartment, was tucked under the roof of a tall five-story building. The landlady of the apartment, who rented him this room and provided both dinner and a servant, lived below in a separate apartment on the same staircase; every time he left to go out, he had to pass the landlady’s kitchen door, which was almost always left open onto the landing. Every time the young man passed, he felt a painful and fearful sensation, one that he was ashamed of and that made him wince. He was deeply in debt to the landlady and was afraid to face her.

Crime and Punishment
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It wasn’t that he was so fearful and cowed; in fact, it was just the opposite; but for some time he had been in an irritable and anxious state, similar to hypochondria. He had become so absorbed in himself and so isolated from others that he was afraid of meeting anyone, not only his landlady. He was crushed by poverty, but even his constrained circumstances had ceased to burden him of late. He had completely stopped handling his own everyday affairs and didn’t wish to deal with them. He was not actually afraid of his landlady, no matter what she intended to do to him. But to stop on the staircase, put up with all sorts of nonsense about ordinary rubbish that didn’t concern him at all, her constant pestering about payment, her threats and complaints, and, in the face of it all, to have to dodge her, make excuses, tell lies—no thank you; it was better to slip past somehow, like a cat on a staircase, and steal away unnoticed.

However, this time the fear of meeting his creditor surprised even him as he made his way out to the street.

“What sort of feat am I about to attempt, yet at the same time I’m afraid of such nonsense!” he thought with a strange smile. “Hmm ... yes ... everything lies in a man’s hands, and still he lets it slip by, solely out of cowardice ... that’s an axiom.... It would be interesting to know what people fear the most. Most of all they fear taking a new step, uttering a new word of their own.... But I’m babbling too much. It’s because I’m not doing anything that I’m babbling. That may be the case: I’m babbling because I’m not doing anything. And it’s in the last month I’ve learned to prattle, lying for days and nights in my corner, thinking about... ‘once upon a time....’ Well, why am I going out now? Can I really be capable of doing that? Is that really serious? No, it’s not serious at all. So, I’m amusing myself for the sake of fantasy: games! Yes, that’s it, games!”

It was stiflingly hot outside; moreover, the stuffiness, the crush of people, lime plaster everywhere, scaffolding, bricks, dust, and that particular summer stench, so familiar to every Petersburg resident lacking the means to rent a summer dacha—all this suddenly and offensively struck the young man’s already distraught nerves. The unbearable stench of cheap taverns, which were particularly numerous in this part of the city, and the drunkards encountered constantly, despite its being a weekday, completed the repulsive and grim scene. For a moment, a feeling of the deepest loathing flashed across the young man’s delicate features. Incidentally, he was remarkably handsome, with splendid dark eyes and dark brown hair; he was taller than average, slender, and well built. But soon he seemed to slip into profound pensiveness, even, it would be more accurate to say, into a state of oblivion. He walked along not noticing his surroundings, not even wanting to take notice of them. From time to time he merely muttered something to himself, from his penchant for monologues, which he immediately acknowledged to himself. At that moment he himself was aware that at times his thoughts were confused and that he was feeling very weak: it was the second day he’d eaten hardly anything at all.

He was so poorly dressed that someone else, even someone used to seeing such, would be ashamed to appear on the street during the day wearing such ragged clothes. However, the district was one where it was difficult to shock anyone with one’s apparel. The proximity of the Haymarket, the abundance of certain establishments, and, primarily, the population of tradesmen and craftsmen, all crowded into these streets and lanes of central Petersburg, sometimes filled the general panorama with such subjects that it would be strange to be surprised at all on meeting another such figure. But so much malicious contempt had already accumulated in the young man’s soul that, in spite of all his own sometimes very immature squeamishness, when he was out on the street he was not in the least embarrassed by his tattered clothes. It was another matter altogether when he met some of his acquaintances or former comrades, whom, in general, he didn’t much like seeing.... However, when one drunkard, who for some unknown reason was being transported somewhere along the street in an enormous cart harnessed to a huge dray horse, suddenly shouted to him, in passing, “Hey, you, you German hatmaker!” and roared as loud as he could, pointing his finger at him—the young man suddenly stopped and violently grabbed his own hat. It was a tall, round top hat bought at Zimmerman’s shop, but already worn out, and now of a completely faded reddish-brown color, with many holes and stains, lacking a brim, and leaning to one side at a most unattractive angle. However, it was not shame that seized him but a completely different feeling, more resembling fear.

“I knew it!” he muttered in confusion. “That’s exactly what I thought! This is the most disgraceful part! It’s just this kind of foolish thing, a really trivial detail that can spoil the whole plan! Yes, a hat that’s too noticeable.... It’s funny-looking, and therefore noticeable.... With my tattered clothes I really need a peaked cap, even an old one, flat as a pancake, not this monstrosity. No one wears hats like this; it can be recognized a mile away and remembered ... that’s the main thing, remembered afterward, and there’s your evidence. One has to be as inconspicuous as possible.... Details, details are the main thing! It’s the details that always ruin everything ...”

He had only a little way to go; he even knew exactly how many paces it was from the gate of his own building: seven hundred and thirty. Once, when entirely lost in his daydreams, he’d happened to count them. At the time he himself still didn’t believe in his dreams and was merely irritating himself with their repugnant, though seductive audacity. Now, however, a month later, he’d begun to regard them in a different light, and in spite of all his mocking monologues about his own powerlessness and indecisiveness, he’d grown accustomed, even against his will, to considering this “repulsive” dream something of a feat, although he still didn’t believe in it himself. Now he was even on his way to carry out a trial run of his endeavor; with every step his agitation grew stronger and stronger.

Excerpted from Crime and Punishment: A New Translation by Fyodor Dostoevsky and translated by Michael R. Katz. Copyright © 2018 by Michael R. Katz. Used with permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

Michael Katz is a member of the Russian Life Advisory Board.

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