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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, April 27, 2007

another stepping-stone of the artist

Yesterday I talked about my relationship with A. A. Milne's The World of Pooh as the earliest example of my being impressed and shaped by a work of literature. That was the first the literary stepping-stones that have influenced my own development as a creative writer.

The next stepping-stone was Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, which I first read when I was 13. I've mentioned my encounter with this book before, such as here and here, but I thought I might say a bit more about it.

I was enthralled by the book. Looking back on it, I would now say that a large part of my fascination came from the fact that the hero was a criminal. He murders two old women, one of whom is the pawnbroker who he feels has been exploiting him and his kind, the other the pawnbroker's innocent sister, who merely happens to be at the scene when Raskolnikov commits his crime. Thus Dostoyevsky makes it clear that Raskolnikov is guilty, even if you buy the idea that his murder of the pawnbroker is justified. He kills in cold blood, and to me, at age 13, the idea of making a cold-blooded killer the protagonist of a story was strange and chilling. For Raskolnikov is otherwise not a bad person: he's a poor but brilliant student struggling to make ends meet. Without realizing it, I had been introduced to a truly and deeply conflicted hero, and experienced the mesmerizing effect of sharing in the life and thoughts of such a person.

I felt the crushing, inescapable burden of blood-guilt as I read. Raskolnikov's psyche deforms and cracks under the pressure of it. There was a sense of this leaden guilt overshadowing all the action of the book, which has quite a busy plot with many characters and twists, all of which seemed somewhat irrelevant when the crime was remembered. Just as in real life, when we're guilty of something, we manage to forget for awhile, and then the memory returns, and the guilt is fresh and painful. This experience must be the mainspring of the criminal's frequent desire to confess.

I loved the characters, the vivid portrayal of the strange world of St. Petersburg in the 19th century, and especially Dostoyevsky's handling of Raskolnikov's relationship with money--the ostensible motivator of his crime. I felt the preciousness of each ruble-note, each coin. All blood-tainted.

I suppose I would say now that with Crime and Punishment I became conscious of literature as an art form, something that can affect one deeply and shape one's views and life. I glimpsed how the deeper, more moving stories would be about not physical peril, as I'd read about so far in my young life, but about moral peril and the effect of ideas on people's lives and actions. Raskolnikov's conscience and his soul were the real battlefield of this novel, and the experience was an eye-opener for me. To find the most powerful stories, the writer needs to look within.

Crime and Punishment was an influence in a stricter sense than The World of Pooh too, because in reading it I formed the desire to write like this. I formed a certain competitive desire to be able to create a work that would affect others as this one had affected me. Harold Bloom, author of The Anxiety of Influence and The Western Canon, would say that I developed an agon with Dostoyevsky, a desire not to be outdone by him--a driver of high-caliber literature throughout the history of literature, he maintains.

So there we are, the first two influential works in my artistic formation:
  • The World of Pooh by A. A. Milne (age 6)
  • Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (age 13)
The artist is being formed...

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