I finished Crime and Punishment recently. I ploughed through the Project Gutenberg electronic version of the novel (available here http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2554) on my Blackberry during lunch hours and finished it in a concerted but enjoyable Sunday afternoon reading session; the characterisation really is so strong that I felt compelled, like with all the best fiction, to reach the end and see how the plot and themes were going to resolve.
Aside from the author’s undoubted, legendary, skill, there was another reason I found myself captivated by the story of Raskolnikov: I couldn’t help feeling like I have been a little bit like him. I have never brought an axe down through a cowering old woman’s head then hacked her simple-minded, uncomprehending witness of a sister to death for good measure but I can relate, still, to the methodical planning of an act I know to be wrong; to the lofty minded rationalisation of wrongdoing, before and after the deed and to the pridefulness which cleaved Raskonlikov from his faith, family and friends.
I’m sure I’m not unique in identifying this way with Raskonlikov (er, I’m not am I?). Strong fiction relies, quite often, on characters being relatable so it’s a fair bet that this is part of the reason why Crime and Punishment is regarded as a classic of world literature.
Raskolnikov’s double axe-murder was a powerful way for Doestoyevsky to illustrate, through a well portrayed and relatable character, the struggle between good and evil in the human heart. It was not a commentary on any kind of widespread propensity amongst Russians for chopping each other into bits. I’m sure it happened but not every day on every street. Sometimes though the struggle of the main character in a book or movie relates clearly and directly to a struggle in the society in which the book or movie is crafted; the struggle of Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, in Shame, a sexually explicit but far from ‘sexy’ or pornographic movie, casts light on the struggle of the 21st century Western world to cope with sexual desire loosed from sexual morality.
Brandon is a well looked after guy in his late thirties, has his own apartment and a respectable job and can hold a female stranger’s gaze without hyperventilating and telling her how wonderful she is or offering to supply her and all her friends with free drinks. This all means that Brandon can indulge, with impunity, in casual sex with willing city-slicker sluts. He takes the opportunity regularly. He also masturbates in his office bathroom as a response to workplace stress (somebody buy him a squeezy desk toy), frequents prostitutes and spends hours at home watching porn and paying for webcam whores.
By the end of Shame we get to see him brought to his knees by his knowledge of the despair and emptiness which are the only fruits of his behaviour. We are also, depressingly, left uncertain of whether he has what it takes to turn over a new leaf in response to hitting rock bottom. The real power of the movie comes from what it says about 21st century appetites. At a time when a significant number of modern men are apparently addicted to pornography by ten years old and trendy women everywhere worry about the carbon footprint of their toasters yet cheerfully screw with the delicate hormonal system of their own bodies in the name of shagging about (‘having fun’ they call it, thinking it makes them cute), Shame is like a cold shower on a Monday morning: brutal, horrible but somehow necessary.
Unlike the superficially similar nonsense of American Psycho, Shame confronts you with the uncomfortable truth about men and women quite probably in your social circle, on your street, maybe even sitting at your computer. It does not make them look good.
Verdict on Crime and Punishment: Well aged Russian genius.
Verdict on Shame: Outstanding, sobering and grave. Maturity required.