Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Within and Without: Raskholnikov, Maritime Medicine and the Intensity of Character

I am currently engaged, with all due intensity (to the detriment of home, hearth, and offspring), upon a new literary endeavor. In the concluding acknowledgements of my last novel Killing the Bee King, I extended apologies to husband and children for the bouts of frenzied obsession, neglectful musings, grumpy irritability (when required to interact while writing - oh, the horror!), and the general lack of sociability that living with a writer often brings. And I have a feeling that such self-abasement will again be required at the conclusion of my next literary work.

My current novel aspires to an eighteenth-century maritime adventure, spanning the Tunisian slave-trade in the Mediterranean to the colonial enterprise in the Banda Seas as economic interest is supplemented by military might. I am interested, most acutely, in examining the interaction of cultural groups, of unlikely dependencies (the Portuguese preference for Indian healers, for example) and domineering religiosity; of the cannon and the spice - and the intricate way in which policy and culture, trade and  acquisition, shaped the relationships not only between nations and sultanates, but between one individual and another.

With a broader notion of plot-line established, I am currently fixated on the formulation of  characters of depth and engagement. There are, it seems, two aspects to the well-elucidated character: the external trappings and the internal ruminations. The former, perhaps, are more particular to the historical fiction genre and set that character apart in regard to attire, tools, and accoutrements - the outward manifestation of that individual's place within his or her cultural context. A ship's surgeon will make an appearance in my next novel and I have been delving into his historical medical chest and examining his modus operandi which consisted predominately of the restoration of Gallenic humors via bleeding, the lancing of boils, and the sprinkling of vinegar to dispel noxious miasmas. And, naturally enough, he has a vast compendium of powders, poultices, and pills within his medical chest to be dispensed during his twice-daily rounds (according to regulations that govern his duties under sail). In the mid-eighteenth century in particular, these medical chests were valuable commodities - not only to the unscrupulous surgeon who might pilfer high-quality prescriptions, replacing them with shoddy substitutes, but to those who were taking their lives into their own hands venturing into the far east, rife with tropical fevers and wasting diseases. This chest, and the man who governed its usage, epitomized hope - hope that the rhubarb tea concoction would ward off dysentery, that elixir of viterol might prove a hardy antidote to scurvy-related complaints. I digress! But isn't it rather marvelous? It is precisely this juxtaposition between past and present that I find utterly intriguing, whether it be the relative gap in understanding of viral mechanisms, the differentiation in attire, in attitude, in politics - so that when the connections are made, when the humanity of an individual transcends the chasm of time, when the reader feels an immediacy despite chronological separation - is that not a significant measure of success for a work of historical fiction? To expose and elucidate the gap and then to provide a bridge across it? Pewter cups, mortar and pestles, syringes and nozzles, 'vomiting root' and mercury are some of the many physical accoutrements that bespeak the surgeon's trade - the literary clues that are dropped like breadcrumbs to suggest a place, a period, or a prevailing notion. The significant challenge, however, for the writer is the conveyance of what is less readily ascertained by the material assemblage - the preoccupations, the thoughts, the ruminations, the mental ponderings.

For the critical aspect that renders a fictional character more than the superficial sum of his or her parts  is what simmers within. This nameless surgeon may be singularly well-equipped for his trade in the mid-eighteenth century, have all requisite chests and tools at his disposal, but until he is intrinsically developed as a complex mental being he is but a shallow, lackluster shadow of a thing. So, in seeking depth and complexity for my character-strain, my literary concoction, the recipe that encapsulates the fictional protagonist, I revert to the masters. Specifically, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and the gloriously enthralling moodiness that is Raskholnikov - an expelled university student barely subsisting in abject poverty, eking out a meager existence in the cramped dinginess of a closet-room, who seeks to redeem his fortunes and extricate himself from misery in one swift stroke by the murder of an old pawnbroker.

In the opening pages of Crime and Punishment, and indeed through much of what follows, we are plunged into the "morbid state of tension and irritability" that is Raskholnikov. There is an immediacy to the narrative, an unrelenting focus on the psychology of the central character - we arrive without ceremony, without backstory, in St. Petersburg, accompanying Raskholnikov on his initial distracted meandering through the streets as he contemplates the murder of the miserly pawnbroker, a vile and reprehensible hag who has subjected her mentally-sluggish sister to servitude. For the intellectually-inclined Raskolnikov, poverty-stricken and ill, wishes to raise himself to the stature of greatness that financial independence can initiate.

Napoleon (an old acquaintance of mine from Bee King days), having crushed so many in his path to greatness, is lauded by Raskholnikov as a military genius, as a leader of renowned accomplishment. And what could he not achieve with the quick death of this parasitic witch who preys upon the poor and the downtrodden? For Raskholnikov seeks to "hold the fate of the world in his two hands" but (as stipulated in his own published article) exceptional men are a consequence of other fashionable notions that "are in the air," some "happy conjunction of race and breeding," a "mysterious law." He is trapped between his own passionate promptings, his own fervent desire to "struggle into life," and the invariably cold precision of external laws, dogged by a sense of fate, of some Darwinian evolutionary mechanism that grinds onwards, unseen by human eyes.

 There is a singular intensity to this psychological drama. In the aftermath of the murder, Raskholnikov is acknowledged by many as a fretful shadow of his former self: absorbed as he is in a dream-like trance, plagued by the fearfulness of detection, and subject to shivering fevers that weaken his limbs and cloud his vision. Raskholnikov distances himself from his friend Ruzmukhin and from his doting mother and sister until he, in this self-inflicted isolation, becomes consumed by a morbid delirium, a distillation of anguished despair. The other characters are brilliantly utilized as foils to Raskholnikov's internal state - their buoyant normalcy, their happy expectations of a family reunited, Ruzmukhin's growing tenderness for Dunya, all of which is set against Raskholnikov's preoccupied misery and solitude.

The exchanges with Porfiry, the examining magistrate, exquisitely elucidate Raskholnikov's mental descent into near-madness, his agitated uncertainties, and his escalating anger at what he perceives to be Porfiry's calculated manipulations. For Porfiry appears, in all of his mocking cheerfulness, to possess an intuitive, prior knowledge about the murderer (in whom he recognizes grand qualities) and struggles to save him by bringing about his repentance - suggesting perhaps the role of an objectified conscience. These encounters are portrayed through the opaque filter of Raskholnikov's frenzied fever, an increasingly unreliable perspective - so it is that we, along with Raskholnikov, are kept in agitated uncertainty as to Porfiry's true state of knowledge regarding the identity of the murderer. And while we keep fretful company with the beleaguered student during these interviews, so within Raskholnikov the imperative for self-preservation battles bitterly with the tendency to self-destruction.

It is a brilliantly nuanced portrayal. Raskholnikov is not remorseful for his crime, but descends into a paroxysm of despair and paranoia, weakened by illness and plagued by dark dreams. He is, with marvelous ambivalence, simultaneously 'victim' and 'monster' - a notion gloriously evoked at the threshold of the crime, just prior to the enactment of the bloody deed, where Raskholnikov waits, still and quiet, before the pawnbroker's door, and she within - each like mirror images of one another: "Someone was standing silently just inside the door listening, just as he was doing outside it, holding her breath and probably also with her ear to the door."

Dostoyevsky wrote Crime and Punishment under the most excruciating of circumstances. His literary career had been interrupted by ten years of penal servitude and exile; he had suffered the death of his wife and shortly thereafter that of his brother. Feeling financial pressure to support his stepson, as well as the family of his brother, and desperately short of funds with which to do either, he accepted the terms of a rogue publisher to deliver the manuscript in a timely fashion or be deprived of his authorial rights for nine years. Unable to fulfill these requirements, he fled abroad to escape creditors, his mistress abandoning him for another, until all was lost at the gaming tables at Wiesbaden. In a hotel room Dostoyevsky could ill afford, attempting to subsist on tea, he conceived the idea for Raskolnikov. 

So, in the formulation of character, sea-surgeon or otherwise, the example of Raskholnikov looms large - an intensely focused psychological drama in which the supporting cast reflect and accentuate the protagonist's internal turmoil. Whether one's narrative highlights a primary character or a multitude, whether the fictional work is a psychological drama or a maritime adventure, a writer can benefit immensely from examining literary works, such as Crime and Punishment, and authors such as Dostoyevsky who, quite simply, excelled at their craft. Must a writer endure agony before being able to adequately portray it in words? Or will a profound empathy serve its turn? One must hope for the latter, or familial apologies will scarcely suffice if I am to dispense altogether with home and hearth and take to the wharfs in search of the downtrodden and afflicted. But a notion that perhaps is not without merit? To understand true desperation one must bear witness, one must step out of one's skin and slip into another's - accommodating oneself to an uncomfortable fit. For there is that literary imperative to understand - whether it is the self-complacent East India Company directors who dismissed scurvy as the ailment of lazy men (swelling due to accumulating fluids that should have been vigorously exercised into appropriate arterial channels!) or the horror of the sailors incarcerated within the hospital hulks among the festering, the suppurating, the still-oozing dead...one can imagine! But to aspire to Dostoyevsky-greatness in regard to doing it so very well! I, for one, am eternally grateful to have such superlative examples of what the careful construct of language can achieve.


  1. A wonderful musing, dearest PJ. It makes me want to revisit Crime and Punishment which I read during my adolescence at an age when, I am certain, many of the nuances were lost on me.

    The poignancy of like novels perhaps stems from the fact that the characters were inspired by the plight and torment of the authors. So, in answer to the question you pose in your last paragraph, I should think that the depth of the psychological turmoil, the Gordian knot of mental and emotional decline, must be informed in part by the author's own soul-searching. Add to that the courage with which such eminent writers push the limits to convey the damage, conscious and subconscious, that their characters endure.

    Having read your superlative novel, The Bee King, I have no doubt that by virtue of your curious mind that delves beyond the superficial, searching for nuances, wanting to grasp 'the external trappings and the internal ruminations' you will produce another riveting work. Time travel being sadly impossible, nothing stops the imagination from wandering back to eras long gone but not forgotten.

    1. Thank you dear Dana, for your wonderful comment and for being kind enough to stop by for a read of my humble musing. Yes, Crime and Punishment has been a long-time favorite of mine - the nuances of the psychological portrayal is so brilliantly and deftly done! And I am quite sure you are right - our own internal ruminations and sensitivities doubtless contribute towards our own ability to portray such. The silver lining of the inevitable angst-ridden experiences? Thank you for your kind verdict on Killing the Bee King - I do most fervently hope to improve with each subsequent work and Dostoyevsky's superlative example indeed provides ongoing inspiration! I loved your novel, Leah, (with angst gorgeously portrayed!) and am most excited about reading Beirut in shades of Gray this Christmas! Deepest gratitude for your perpetual literary support!

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you Geoffrey, although keeping busy has seldom been an issue - usually the imperative is to find a small patch of quiet amidst the madness and the mayhem! But there is indeed something to be said for the stimulus of activity - although I sometimes feel more akin to Sisyphus than might be desired....! Hope your novel also is proceeding apace - I am a most keen reader when all is said and done! Thank you for stopping by my humble musing.