A couple of things to note: (1) Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment in the mid 1860s; (2) the edition of Crime and Punishment that I read was published in 1991, with an introduction by David McDuff presumably written in the same year.
After finishing Crime and Punishment, I went back to the start of the book, and read the introduction to see if it could elucidate the meanings of the novel, or perhaps reveal things that I had missed.
Side note: It never made sense to me to read introductions before reading the actual story because, assuming the story is new to you, you wouldn’t know what is being referenced, and it would also spoil the story. It seems more fitting to put the “introduction” at the end, like a “discussion” section. You know, like how research papers and journal articles are set out as Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, Conclusion. Perhaps a novel’s introduction should just talk about the context of the novel, or events leading to the creation of the novel.
Anyway, I digress.
I believe The Cider House Rules is the third John Irving novel I have read, and although the story is quite different to what I remember of The World According to Garp or The Hotel New Hampshire, there is something about it that is still very classically Irving. I think the best word for it is “unapologetic”. He really lays the story out — guts and all — and doesn’t sugarcoat or censor anything.
The other very Irving thing about TCHR and the other novels is that although the events seem rather bizarre and absurd at times, the characters feel so real, and so the events surrounding and involving them also feel real. I think it also has something to do with how fluid his writing is. The story flows effortlessly so that I’m turning the page before I have time to question the plausibility of what is happening. All I want is to keep reading.
[Spoilers ahead — you have been warned]
This week, on ABC Classic, they have been featuring the works of Luigi Boccherini because it’s his birthday on Saturday. When I heard this, I thought, “Imagine being dead for over 200 years, and people are still celebrating your birthday…”
Well, of course, you wouldn’t know that people are celebrating your birthday if you’re dead, but you might have descendants, and I wonder how they would feel. And what if they have no interest in whatever you’re famous for?
Back in 2020, ABC Classic spent the whole year celebrating the life of Ludwig van Beethoven because it was his (theoretical) 250th birthday — 250 years since he was born. To be fair, he was a particularly prolific composer, so it’s kind of understandable that they wanted to stretch the celebrations over a whole year so that they could still play other music in between all the Beethoven.
Anyway, as I drove home from work, listening to the radio presenter talk about how it’s Boccherini’s birthday, I started thinking about how someone gets to this level of renown — how do you get so famous that people will continue to celebrate your birthday for generations to come? Is this what it really means to be a “legend”, or how you know this or that is a “classic”?
But I guess no one really thinks that far into the future when they’re writing an opera or composing a symphony or whatever. More likely they’re thinking of their present audience. Resonate with your present audience first, and there’s a chance your work could resonate through the years ahead.
And then I started thinking about us common folk, who don’t aspire to be legends. A similar principle still applies, doesn’t it? Do good by the people around you (your audience of sorts), and be well-received and well-remembered by them, even if only fleetingly. Is it ok to try less or do less just because your audience is smaller or their memories are more fickle?
In high school English class, we learnt about the idea of a “classic” novel, and discussed what made something a “classic”. One characteristic that might not have stood out for me back then, but certainly stands out for me now, is the notion of “timelessness” — that a novel becomes a classic because it is timeless in its themes, ideas and moral messages.
Part of me thinks that it was probably a bit pointless for the teachers to discuss timelessness with teenagers. I mean, we weren’t daft, but we were young, and as much as we probably believed we knew everything about the world, there was undoubtedly a lot that we didn’t know the half of. Besides, even back then, there was a quick succession of crazes and fads and fashions — there’s not much appreciation of “timelessness” when one day everyone’s watching this show, and playing this game, and then next month these things are barely a memory.
Even so, I’d like to think that I had some grasp of this idea of “timelessness”. In high school, I began reading a lot of “classics”, particularly Charles Dickens. It was also during high school that I discovered I really like Jane Austen’s writing. To my younger self, these books were classics because they were beautifully written, the stories and characters were exquisitely constructed, and they were simply captivating. Then there is all the usual stuff about love and friendship and family — the things that people throughout history have always valued.
I finished reading War and Peace on Tuesday (that’s more or less an entire year spent reading it). I then spent Tuesday night and the greater part of Wednesday alternately wondering how I was going to blog about it, and procrastinating from thinking about how to blog about it.
I typed out some notes and ideas on Tuesday that I could use as a starting point, or perhaps form into some sort of outline. But the more I thought about it on Wednesday, the more I felt like there was no real point in writing anything about something for which so much has already been written.
Yet, at the same time, I felt like there was so much that I wanted to write about.
When I read Anna Karenina, the character that stood out the most to me, and that had the most impact, apart from Anna Karenina herself, was Konstantin Dmitrich Levin. I think all of the characters were constructed and explored really well, but Levin in particular was given a lot of depth.
One of the main things I remember about Levin, even several years after reading the novel, is how, despite being a well-off landowner, Levin yearned for a simple life of honest labour. There is one part of the book where he helps his muzhiks with the harvest, wielding a scythe alongside them in his fields. To him, it was satisfying work, but not only in the physical sense of “a good day’s work”, but also in a psychological or spiritual sense.
I’ve heard that Levin was the character that Tolstoy most identified with, or that was most closely modelled on his own thoughts and beliefs. In War and Peace the equivalent most Tolstoy-esque character is Pierre Bezukhov. It is not surprising then, that this yearning for a simple and honest life is also experienced by Pierre.
[Warning: spoilers ahead. Please note, also, that I haven’t quite finished War and Peace yet, so please don’t spoil the ending for me.]