Clues to the Crime

The Notebooks for Crime and Punishment

by Fyodor Dostoevsky, edited and translated by Edward Wasiolek
University of Chicago, 246 pp., $6.95

While he was at work on his major novels, Dostoevsky jotted down in small notebooks various thoughts about the meaning and structure, the incidents and characters of his projected works. These were unsystematic scribblings, intended for himself alone, and not at all for publication. His widow, however, had the good sense to realize their importance; she numbered them, briefly described the content of each, and presented them to the State Archives of the USSR, “In 1921,” as Professor Wasiolek now tells us, “a representative of the Soviet government in the presence of A. V. Lunacharsky, Assistant Commissar of Education, opened a white tin case,” which contained them. There were fifteen notebooks in all, “hard-covered copybooks, about nine by ten inches in size, bound in faded darkish maroon cloth.” They were presently published in Russia and later, in translation, in France. Now, happily, an English version has been undertaken. The first three notebooks, which we have here, concern Crime and Punishment.

For readers to whom Dostoevsky has seemed a careless writer they will be a revelation, so much are they taken up with the “tone,” the most appropriate, or most effective, way of saying this or that. Originally, Dostoevsky thought of writing his novel in the first person, in the form of a confession or a diary, as he had already done in Notes from Underground, but after many pages in this form, he jotted down, underlining the words: “the story must be narrated by the author and not by the hero,” and a few entries later: “Another Plan. Narration from the point of view of the author, sort of invisible and omniscient being who doesn’t leave his hero for a moment…” By this decision the narrative gains immeasurably in dramatic power, without sacrificing the inward intimacy of the first person. The “invisible, omniscient” author can now record his hero’s doings and words not as a memory, but at the very moment of action and utterance; he can feel his emotions and see his dreams, and observe others when the hero is not there. It was not, to be sure, technical experiment for its own sake that interested Dostoevsky. All he ever wanted was the right vehicle for his idea, and his numerous “Nota Benes,” and headings marked “Fundamental,” “Most Fundamental,” “Main Idea,” “Important,” “Most Important,” and so on, refer to the meaning of his work which he was attempting to clarify to himself.

THE CHARACTERISTIC QUALITY of his writing, that tension, as of a taut string stretched to the breaking point, is true even of his laconic notes—proof, if proof were needed, that his special tone was not a planned maneuver or well-practiced device, but an echo of the structure itself of his experience, of the manner in which he thought and felt. It was doubtless this inherent intensity that dictated the differences between notebooks and novel, for it is evident, when we compare the two, that his changes are mostly simplifications: episodes are cut out, the natures of…

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