By BRYAN KARETNYK
Sheltering from the evening drizzle on a grey Maundy Thursday in London, a crowd packed into the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a talk on Dostoevsky’s great novel of resurrection, Crime and Punishment. The latest in the gallery’s "In Conversation" series, the talk was part of a varied programme of events complementing a newly opened exhibition: Russia and the Arts: The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. The legacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, which was published a century and a half ago this year, was the subject for a panel composed of the literary specialists Oliver Ready (the TLS's Russia editor), Sarah Young and Lesley Chamberlain.
Ready, who is also the novel’s most recent translator, playfully opened the discussion by noting that the typical question of a classic work’s "relevance today" can often sound threatening, laying the onus on the novel to engage us rather than on us to engage with the novel. So Ready invited his co-panellists to look through the other end of the telescope and consider not what the novel can tell us about our world, but rather how similarities in our world might bring us to a closer understanding of Dostoevsky’s novel. Young painted a vivid picture of the St Petersburg to which Dostoevsky returned from his period of Siberian exile. The city he saw as he began work on Crime and Punishment was radically changed: there was overcrowding, a sudden influx of migrants, strange foreign ideologies floating around, and a surge in urban poverty and vice. The novel that he would go on to write – one that he intended to be "current", very much of the year of its composition – abounds, Chamberlain reminded us, in newspaper details and topical references. It was a book, Young surmised, written about "the world of today, but also fearful for the future".