Wishing you a literary Valentine's Day
Some newspapers like to ask readers to submit their favourite love stories. If you ask me, I might have picked Anastasia and Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey or Ximen Qing and his concubine Pan Jinlian in The Golden Lotus, newly translated by the American scholar David Tod Roy. But this being a family newspaper, I will pick a more respectable couple: Sonya and Raskolnikov, a teenage prostitute and a double murderer.
It's been said that Crime and Punishment is the kind of book that makes a man out of a boy; and so it is. In this immortal scene, it is the first time he visits her in her derelict flat. Her father has just died. Her stepmother is going mad. She has to prostitute herself to support her half-siblings. An egoist and atheist prone to abstract thoughts, he has no concept of how such self-abnegation is possible, other than that she is delusional. He tells her cruelly that the reality for her and her family is that they will all end badly. "But God would not allow it," she says.
He holds her hands and realises how frail they are, and he suddenly understands it is only the intensity of her faith in Christ that sustains her through her suffering and humiliation.
He falls on the floor and kisses her foot, which scares the daylights out of her.
"I am not bowing to you. I am bowing to all suffering humanity," he says, surely one of the most ridiculous yet grandest gestures in literature.
Seeing a worn Bible on her desk, he makes her read out the rising of Lazarus, which he didn't know was in the fourth Gospel. And the rest of the chapter becomes a long quotation from the Bible, which she reads aloud in triumph because that Gospel miracle proved Jesus would not let down those who believed in him.
There is much wailing and crying, confusion and silence in this chapter; not a word of love is spoken. Yet, by the end, an unbreakable bond has been formed. He would die for her after that.
Years ago, the BBC did a superb production of the novel, starring John Hurt. Pale, sickly and intense, the youthful Hurt nailed that scene. Ever since, he was how I imagined Raskolnikov to look.
So here we are. Let me dedicate this column to my lovely wife. And happy Valentine's Day to all the lovers and beloved.