The Workings of Project D

by Dennis Abrams

The day has come. Project D is officially launched!

We’ll start off with Crime and Punishment, where we’ll we explore the soul of Raskolnikov, a young man who believes that he has a moral right to commit crimes in the name of humanity. We’ll follow this with Demons, which biographer and critic Joseph Frank calls “still the best ever written about a revolutionary conspiracy.” After that, in The Idiot, we explore the struggle between “goodness” and “the world.” And then finally, we’ll dive into Dostoevsky’s masterpiece (and one of the true masterpieces of Western literature) – The Brothers Karamazov, where the master struggles with, among other things, the question that has long haunted man: “How can a God of love have created a world in which evil exists?”

Indeed, there is much to learn from the man who spent so many long, dark nights contemplating the human condition. But, it should be noted that spending your time reading Dostoevsky is not like being sentenced to hard labor in a gulag. There are many genuine pleasures to be had as well.

James Joyce said of him that “he is the man more than any other who has created modern prose, and intensified it to its present-day pitch. It was his explosive power which shattered the Victorian novel with its simpering maidens and ordered commonplaces; books which were without imagination or violence.”

Virginia Woolf noted, “The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled around, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture. Outside of Shakespeare there is no more exciting reading.”

It seems to me that if writers so very very very different as Joyce and Woolf can agree on Dostoevsky, we’re all going to be in for an extraordinary experience.

Today’s is going to be a bit of an introduction, telling you a little about me and about how the blog is going to work.

I make my living as a writer (children’s books, restaurant reviews), but in my real life, at my core, I’m a reader. For as long as I can remember I’ve been reading, and it’s something that I can’t imagine not doing — that I can’t even imagine going a single day without doing. Am I a literary expert? Not by a long shot. I’m simply a reader, a “common reader” as Woolf would say, and I’m in this process with all of you — sharing what I learn as I read, and, inevitably and hopefully, learning just as much from you.

Here’s how it will work. I’ll be posting Monday-Friday. In each day’s post, I’ll give a synopsis of the previous day’s reading, along with my commentary on what we’ve read, excerpts from other critics about what we’ve read, historical and biographical background information, questions for the group — whatever I can find to make the experience of reading Dostoevsky more fulfilling for everyone.

How much will be reading per day? To be honest, I’m not quite sure yet. I’ll start out slow, maybe two chapters per day, and see how that works for the group.

It’s also important for me, and for the group, that Project D is a dialogue, not a monologue. I fervently hope that you’ll all take part in the discussion — posting your own thoughts, interpretations, and questions for me or for the group. Please please please don’t be shy — I want to hear everybody’s voices.

For the next few days, I’ll be posting introductory pieces — on translation and why we’ll be using the Pevear/Volokhohsky editions, a little historical background on the world that Dostoevsky grew up in, that sort of thing. I’ll assign the first reading in Friday’s post, so you’ll have plenty of time to pick up YOUR copy of Crime and Punishment and be ready to start along with myself and everybody else.

And in a programming note, on Monday January 3 on Turner Movie Classics, they’re going to be broadcasting the 1935 film version of Crime and Punishment. Now, don’t think this is like high school and you can just watch the film and get away not reading the book. It’s definitely not the book, but it is an interesting attempt to get Dostoevsky on film. Here’s what my favorite film critic in the world, Pauline Kael, had to say about it:

“There’s almost everything you can think of the matter with this Hollywood version, directed by Josef von Sternberg, but it has got a great Raskolnikov: Peter Lorre. He had only three roles that tapped his full talent — the child-murderer in M, the hero in The Face Behind the Mask, and this remarkably suggestive and witty Raskolnikov. Stolid Edward Arnold is embarrassingly miscast as Inspector Porfiry; if Harry Baur, who did the role in the French version, had played opposite Lorre, the film might have caught fire. As the pawnbroker, Mrs. Patrick Campbell adds some distinction, but not much can be said for the Madonna lighting given to Marian Marsh’s placid Sonya, or the standard Hollywood performances of Elisabeth Risdon as Raskolnikov’s mother, Talia Birell as his sister, and Gene Lockhart, Robert Allen, and Douglass Dumbrille. There’s nothing Russian about them but the long-winded names by which they address each other. Lucien Ballard did the cinematography, in the stylized von Sternberg manner.”

If you get a chance, drop me a line at Let me know you’ll be participating in the project. And if you have any questions or comments, please let me know.

More tomorrow.

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4 Responses to The Workings of Project D

  1. Shonna says:

    I was planning to read this book (Crime and Punishment) this year anyway, and already have a copy on my shelf. Will definitely be participating.

  2. Untitled says:

    Hello from cold Northern Europe!

    I’ve just reached page 100 in my Finnish translation of Crime and Punishment (‘Rikos ja rangaistus’), so I will definitely follow and try to keep up with your terrific Project D for at least the duration of this first novel – interesting to see whether it “sticks” and continuing to the other three will feel like the only way to go after finishing C&P…

    I will probably post a thing or two about the process in my own blog (link above/below), too. I write in both Finnish and English, depending on my daily mood.

    Looking forward to this!

  3. Jim says:

    Greetings from Palo Alto…

    I’m eager to participate but am delayed only slightly while waiting for the Pevear/Volokhohsky edition from Amazon…Would you believe our local libraries lack this particular translation? And, it’s not easy to sourcing it on iBooks for the iPad?


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