“All Our Figments and Alogisms” | The Kafkaesque, Borgesian, Phildickian Worlds of Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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At some point I acquired the notion, probably a fair one, that comparing writers to other writers is critically lazy. At the same time, writers write after other writers, through other writers, to other writers, against other writers, in other writers, out of other writers, on top of other writers, and so on. Literature is archaeological. And if I’m honest, a lot of the time it’s the comparison to another writer that prompts my interest in a writer I haven’t read.

Let me get to what I was getting at:

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Russian, 1887-1950: His collection Memories of the Future: Seven stories in spirited translation by Joanne Turnbull: Available in English from the good folks at NYRB: It’s the sort of book that deserves its own book. Etc.

In lieu of writing that book, quite beyond my power, I’ll compare Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to some other writers in the hope of piquing your interest in this neglected master.

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KAFKAESQUE

You knew I would start here.

Four years senior to Krzhizhanovsky, Mr. Kafka of Prague was our Russian writer’s contemporary (if we want to use our postmodern imaginations). I was tempted to simply type “K” for Kafka, but they are both K. Kafkaesque is invoked frequently enough to potentially sap the adjective’s potency, but consider that the same nebulous yet very real forces that shaped (warped?) Kafka (which, in turn Kafka shaped (warped) in his own writing) shaped (warped?) Krzhizhanovsky. Unseen, displaced authority, alienation, and absurdity, yes, but also humor, the line of hysteria, the constraining order that induces madness. The nightmare of modernity.

From “The Branch Line”:

“Speaking in more modern terms,” the fine print went on, “our nightmares, weighing as they do on the brain, gradually form a sort of moral ceiling that is always about to come crashing down on one’s head: some of our customer’s call this ‘world history.’ But that’s not the point. The point is the durability, unwakeability, high depressiveness, and wide availability of our nightmares: mass-market products good for all eras and classes, nighttime and daytime, moonlight and sunlight, closed eyes and open.”

BULGAKOVIAN

If Kafka was Krzhizhanovsky’s psychical contemporary, Mikhail Bulgakov (Russian, b. 1891) is his geographic one. Both men were writing through (and to some extent, against) the Russian Revolution, rendering the crowded buzz of new Moscow in manic strokes. Humming under the surface of Bulgakov’s masterpiece The Master and Margarita is the threat of disappearance, the loss of personal space, but also absurd humor. These themes run through the seven stories collected in Memories of the Future, but perhaps evince most strongly in “Quadraturin” (maybe Krzhizhanovsky’s most famous story), where furtive bachelor Sutulin obtains a samizdat device that expands his tiny apartment—ad infinitum into limitless space and terror.

From “Quadraturin”:

In their sleep and in their fear, the occupants of the quadratures adjacent to citizen Sutulin’s eighty-six square feet couldn’t make head or tail of the timbre and intonation of the cry that woke them in teh middle of the night and compelled them to rush to the threshold of the Sutulin cell: for a man who is lost and dying in the wilderness to cry out is both futile and belated: but if even so—against all sense—he does cry out, then, most likely, thus.

BORGESIAN

So much of Kafkaesque applies to Borgesian, and perhaps I’ve quickly run up against one of the central problems of comparison: The originary: The source of the source: Primary (etc.). No matter. Krzhizhanovsky’s modernism is Borgesian: Tale-telling: nested tales, circular tales, winding tales, labyrinths and mirrors, trap doors and hidden texts (motives), narrators who tell us a story as if it’s just a distraction in the middle of some bigger story we won’t get to hear—yet. Could there be a more Borgesian title than “The Bookmark,” a tale loaded with hundreds of tales. (Okay, maybe not hundreds, but still loaded with that Scheherazade programming, that infinite looping…).

From “Someone Else’s Theme”:

And an invented person makes the greatest impression, naturally, on the seemingly not-invented, real person who, upon finding his reflection in a book, feels replaced and redoubled. This person cannot forgive his feeling of double insult: here I, a real, not-invented person, shall go to my grave and nothingness in ten or twenty years, whereas this fabricated, not-real “almost I” shall go on living and living as though it were the most natural thing in the world; more unforgivable still is the awareness that someone, some author, made you up like an arithmetic problem, what’s more he figured you out, arrived at an answer over which you struggled your entire life in vain, he divined your existence without ever having met you, he penned his way into your innermost thoughts, which you tried so hard to hide from yourself. One must refute the author and vindicate oneself. At once!

HAWTHORNESQUE

It might be easy to go to Poe for a comparison: He’s famous for his tales, and Krzhizhanovsky is a tale-master—whereas Hawthorne’s estimable short stories are often overlooked because he happened to write what may or may not be The Great American Novel. But Hawthorne’s dark romantic imagination, his weird sci-fi streak, and his wry sense of humor offer a better frame of reference for Krzhizhanovsky’s contours. Krzhizhanovsky is also fond of Hawthorne’s closing gambit, the “It-was-all-a-dream-or-hey-was-it?” maneuver. Both writers practice allegorical destabilization in their deeply darkly ironic parables. Soul detectives.

From “The Branch Line”:

He knew from experience that dreams, like the thieves in the parable, come unseen, they slip under foreheads, trying to avoid the eyes, and only there—under the cranial roof, safe and sound, sprawled the brain—do they throw off their invisibility.

DOSTOEVSKIAN

Krzhizhanovsky directly invokes several Russian writers by name, including Gogol and Turgenev, but Fyodor Dostoevsky seems to pop up the most. This makes sense. Dostoevsky is Krzhizhanovsky’s parent-writer. Or maybe Raskolnikov is. Or maybe the Underground Man is. Like Dostoevsky, Krzhizhanovsky crafts alienated loners and thrusts them into absurd moral quandaries.

From “Red Snow”:

Resignation to one’s fate takes practice. Like any art. Or so citizen Shushashin maintains. He begins every day—after putting on his shoes and washing his face, before throwing on his jacket—with an exercise. Again, the expression is his. This expression works like this: he walks over to the wall, puts his back up against it and stands there in an attitude of utter resignation. For a minute or two. And that’s all. The exercise is over. He can begin to live.

O’BRIENESQUE

Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman channels Crime and Punishment via the dream machines of Hawthorne, Wells, Verne et al—all elements we might find in Memories of the Future. And of course O’Brien is Kafkaesque, Borgesian, etc. The stories-within-stories, the fake philosophers, the hefty strawmen, the dreams, the nightmares…Must I draw this out?

From “The Bookmark”:

‘I remember I tossed all night, my elbows bumping against the hard theme that layers our entire life. My pen, as soon as I dipped it in ink, wrote Animal Disputans. That was the title. Next came…Perhaps this doesn’t interest you?’

‘Please go on.’

‘I took the title and the first verses of my song, if you will, from an old and long-forgotten book by the Danish humorist Holberg. This book—Nicolai Klimmi Her subterraneum, I believe it’s called—describes the fantastic adventures of a traveler who winds up, I can’t remember how, inside the Earth. The traveler is astonished to find that inside the planet, as inside a hermetically sealed vessel, lives a race with its own hermetically sealed State system, way of life, culture, everything that is customary in such cases. Over time the life of these undergroundlings—once rife with wars and conflict, cut off, hidden away beneath miles of crust—sorted itself out and settled into a harmonious routine. The problems of the hermetically sealed were all solved, everything ironed out and agreed upon. But in memory of those long-ago wars, Nicolai Klimmi tells us—no, please listen, it’s rather touching—the land’s noblest and richest magnates raised animal disputans. There isn’t anything to argue about in an isolated country where everything has been determined and predetermined in saecula saculorum but these disputants were trained for the purpose, fed a special diet that irritated the liver and sublingual nerve, then pitted against one another and forced to argue till they were hoarse and foaming at the mouth—to unanimous laughter and merry halloos from the lovers of old traditions…

PHILDICKIAN

I think we can all agree that Memories of the Future could be the title of a Philip K. Dick story, right? The story of the same title (the longest in the collection, a novella, really) strongly recalls Dick, channeling him through time travel, and Phildickian themes course throughout the book: Paranoia, identity crisis, cynicism, the realization that the waking life might conceal alternative consciousness…

From “The Branch Line”:

Haven’t we managed to unify dreams? Haven’t we hoodwinked humanity with that sweet million-brain dream of brotherhood, a united dream about unity? Flags the color of poppy petals flutter above the crowds. Reality is fighting back. But its blazing suns don’t frighten the newly ascendant underground. Sleepers’ eyes are shielded by eyelids. Yesterday’s utopia has become today’s science. We’ll break the backs of facts. We’ll rout their status quos: you’ll see those status quos turn tail and run. If an ‘I’ should rise up against our ‘we’, we’ll hurl him down a well of nightmares headfirst. We’ll hide the sun behind black blots, we’ll plunge the whole world into a deep, static slumber. We’ll even put the idea of waking to sleep, and if it resists, we’ll gouge out its eyes.

BOLAÑOESQUE

While reading Memories of the Future, I sometimes pretended that Krzhizhanovsky (and his doppelganger writer-protagonists) were versions of Boris Abramovich Ansky, the dissident Russian writer who appears (via diaries and fragments) in “The Part About Archimboldi” in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Sure, I brought some of that metatextual layering with me, but Krzhizhanovsky’s Borgesian stories repeatedly destabilize the notion of an authoritative narrator or storyteller, like matryoshka dolls that open into eggs that open into dreams and nightmares. Like Bolaño’s work, Krzhizhanovsky’s writing skates across an abyss of horror. The Krzhizhanovskian milieu shares psychic space with the Bolañoverse—in particular, both writers seem to love to walk their characters through graveyards.

From “The Thirteenth Category of Reason”:

That’s how it always is: first you call on your friends, and then—when the hearses have delivered them—on their graves. Now my turn too has come to exchange people for graves. The cemetery where I go more and more often lies behind high crenelated walls and looks from the outside like a fortress: only when the fighters have all fallen will the gates open. You walk in—first past a chaos of crosses, then past the inner wall—to the new crossless cemetery: gone are the monumental statics of the old human sepulchers, the massive family vaults and stone angels with their penguin-like wings grazing the earth: red metal starts on thin wire stems fidget nervously in the wind.

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By way of conclusion, I’ll submit that Krzhizhanovsky is just as notable for his divergences from the writers I’ve listed above as he is for any similarities. There are also plenty of names that could be added to the list above, and readers of Krzhizhanovsky will likely protest that I’ve failed to underscore the political underpinnings of his writing (for the record, the seven stories in Memories of the Future clearly respond to (and in many ways protest and satirize) early Soviet politics and lifestyle, but Krzhizhanovsky’s approach is coded, oblique, and in this sense, timeless).

I’ll end with with another citation from “The Thirteenth Category of Reason,” a story that plays with Kant’s twelve categories of conception. Krzhizhanovsky’s work is always dialogic; he’s always performing voices, but occasionally one slips through that I take to be a more direct version of the author’s own. Here, Krzhizhanovsky offers a possible thesis statement for his project—his desire to write outside the confines of reason, his desire to find meaning in “all our figments and alogisms”:

For you see, all those who are off (I won’t look for another definition) or, rather, out of their heads, evicted, so to speak, from all twelve Kantian categories of reason, must naturally seek refuge in a thirteenth category, a sort of logical lean-to slouched against objective obligatory thinking. Given that the thirteenth category of reason is where we entertain, in essence, all our figments and alogisms, the old gravedigger may be useful to my projected cycle of “fantastic” stories.

That projected cycle of fantastic stories is Memories of the Future.

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Alain Robbe-Grillet on Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Kafka

Alain Robbe-Grillet in his 1985 interview with The Paris Review:

ROBBE-GRILLET

When a novelist has “something to say,” they mean a message. It has political connotations, or a religious message, or a moral prescription. It means “commitment,” as used by Sartre and other fellow-travelers. They are saying that the writer has a world view, a sort of truth that he wishes to communicate, and that his writing has an ulterior significance. I am against this. Flaubert described a whole world, but he had nothing to say, in the sense that he had no message to transmit, no remedy to offer for the human condition.

INTERVIEWER

But did Dostoyevsky have nothing to say? Tolstoy?

ROBBE-GRILLET

Tolstoy yes. That is why on the whole he doesn’t interest me.

INTERVIEWER

Not even Anna Karenina?

ROBBE-GRILLET

Especially not Anna Karenina! Among Tolstoy’s books the one that interests me is The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan is someone who hurts himself while unhooking a curtain, and one sees his death in that gesture. As for Dostoyevsky, perhaps there is a message in his work but for me it is a kind of parasite. In Crime And Punishment, I am much more interested in the first part which is the preparation for the murder. You remember the scene where Raskolnikov is getting the axe ready? And he is fascinated by the act he has to accomplish? The last part of the book, about guilt and moral responsibility and so on, bores me profoundly.

INTERVIEWER

Because you, or your characters, never feel moral responsibility or guilt?

ROBBE-GRILLET

Never!

INTERVIEWER

Aren’t you lucky!

ROBBE-GRILLET

Perhaps. The book of Dostoyevsky’s that interests me most is The Possessed. It is an enigmatic novel; the main protagonist is an enigma. I read it over and over again and find it tremendous—it has a concept of reality that escapes “significance.” That may be my reading of it; someone else might apprehend it differently. I am sure Camus would have said something quite different about it.

INTERVIEWER

Another writer who has had a great influence on you is Kafka. He is someone who has been interpreted in more than one way. What is his fascination for you?

ROBBE-GRILLET

He has been read as having a metaphysical and religious message—the relationship between the Jew and his God. This is the influence of Max Brod, his friend and first biographer. It doesn’t interest me in the least. I read Kafka as the revelation of a world, which is much more important than yet another meditation on the Talmud. Brod’s reading of Kafka is reductive and restrictive, as if his work could be reduced to metaphysical relations. What I find extraordinary is the actual presence of this opaque world.

 

I Riff on Dostoevsky’s Novel Crime and Punishment

Self-portrait in Hell, Edvard Munch

1. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment—

Did I read it before? In high school? Not in college, not in grad school, I’m certain of that.

That I could have read Notes from Underground in full three times, but not Crime and Punishment—how?

I vaguely recall wandering into Crime and Punishment as a young man. All those Russian names though. My attention was on other matters.

And so reading Crime and Punishment this month I repeatedly felt a strange anger or shame at all my younger selves for lacking the attention or the will or the discipline to stick it out . . . and these words, attentiondisciplinewill, they don’t seem like the right words, because the book compels, commands, rewards . . .

2. You are familiar with the plot of course:

Our hero, our anti-hero, young Raskolnikov murders a pawnbroker, an old woman; in the rush of the crime, he fails to close the door, and the pawnbroker’s innocent sister sees him. So he murders her too. The rest of the novel deals with the psychological fall out of this crime. Sure, there’s a sister and a mother, a failed marriage plot, a detective, a friend, and a love interest, a prototypical hooker with a heart of gold, etc.—but that’s it. That’s the plot.

3. What impels Raskolnikov to murder the pawnbroker?

Perhaps I shouldn’t answer here. Perhaps it’s better to suggest you just read the book if you haven’t yet—because is not this the driving question?

(Oh you’ve read the book? I’ll continue then).

4. Raskolnikov murders the pawnbroker not because he is an indigent student in need of funds. He murders her to test his theory—or rather, he murders her to test his place within the scheme of his theory.

The Murderer, Edvard Munch

5. Raksolnikov’s idea:

I maintain that all great men or even men a little out of the common, that is to say capable of giving some new word, must from their very nature be criminals—more or less, of course. Otherwise it’s hard for them to get out of the common rut; and to remain in the common rut is what they can’t submit to, from their very nature again, and to my mind they ought not, indeed, to submit to it. . . . I only believe in my leading idea that men are in general divided by a law of nature into two categories, inferior (ordinary), that is, so to say, material that serves only to reproduce its kind, and men who have the gift or the talent to utter a new word. . . . The first category, generally speaking, are men conservative in temperament and law-abiding; they live under control and love to be controlled. To my thinking it is their duty to be controlled, because that’s their vocation, and there is nothing humiliating in it for them. The second category all transgress the law; they are destroyers or disposed to destruction according to their capacities. The crimes of these men are of course relative and varied; for the most part they seek in very varied ways the destruction of the present for the sake of the better. But if such a one is forced for the sake of his idea to step over a corpse or wade through blood, he can, I maintain, find within himself, in his conscience, a sanction for wading through blood . . .

Raskolnikov believes that “extraordinary men” have the right, the duty, even, to transgress law—even to the extremes of murder (even mass murder) in order to bring about a new word, a new idiom, a new philosophy, a new paradigm, a new zeitgeist, even a New Jerusalem.

Raskolnikov wants to know if he is one of these “extraordinary men.”

6. But Raskolnikov, like Macbeth or a figure out of Poe, is plagued by doubt, misgiving—and more than a touch of insanity and egomania.

His instability and his psychological and moral dilemma is summed up neatly in only the second chapter of the book:

“And what if I am wrong,” he cried suddenly after a moment’s thought. “What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general, I mean, the whole race of mankind—then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.”

7. The word or an iteration of the word psychology appears 25 times in the Constance Garnett translation I read.

Crime and Punishment was published in 1866, when Sigmund Freud was ten years old.

(I am not naively/stupidly suggesting that Freud invented psychology, by the way. I’m just riffing).

8. What Crime and Punishment does so well:

Harnesses the intellect of its protagonist Raskolnikov, shows us his fevered mind in revolution, shifts us through his moods and dilemmas and despairs and strange joys.

9. And it’s not just the interior of Rakolnikov’s skull we get such access to—Dostoevsky gives our lead a marvelous, taunting foil in the detective Porfiry, a loyal and empathetic counterpoint in friend Razumikhin, a despicable enemy in the poseur Luzhin, and a dark-future forecast in Svidrigaïlov.

Each of these characters represent viewpoints and attitudes about psychology and morality without ever falling into being mere allegorical sketches or mouthpieces for Dostoevsky’s ideas.

10. Dostoevsky—unlike certain contemporary novelists I’ll neglect to name—doesn’t tell us that his character is brilliant (or troubled, or confounded, or fucked up). And he goes beyond showing us—he actually lets us experience the character’s psychology.

11. A marvelous, frightening episode that illustrates point 10:

Raskolnikov’s horse dream.

Despair, Edvard Munch

12. This isn’t to say that Dostoevsky’s handling of characterization is flawless.

His women appear less fully-realized than his men, as if he perhaps cannot inhabit their minds so fully or exercise their brains, their souls, their voices.

Raskolnikov’s sister Dunya, for example, is a bold, more perfect, more more moral, more stable version of her brother, a woman who seems able to withstand conflict, disappointment, and misfortune with ease—too much ease. Raskolnikov’s mother, in contrast, is something of an idealized blank—not just a mother, but the mother figure: nonjudgmental, loving—her character summed up in her hugging her son and forgiving him for what she cannot forgive

It’s the depiction of Raskolnikov’s love interest Sonia that I find most troubling though. Dostoevsky renders her an unsubtle merging of the Virgin Mary with Mary Magdalene. Her alcoholic father forces her into prostitution to save the family, but she never appears bitter or angry or even upset. Dostoevsky rarely affords her a speaking role, and in her biggest scene she reads the entire parable of Lazarus. Sure, she makes the words her own, but she’s being ventriloquized. The strings show. She’s pure symbolism, really, and stands in stark contrast to the dark, flawed humanity of Raskolnikov.

13. Re: Point 12 above: If Dostoevsky shows a certain weakness in his depiction of women, he perhaps compensates in other areas. For example, Luzhin’s roomate Andrey Semyonovitch, a utopian socialist, serves as a mouthpiece for emerging feminist ideas. And if Dostoevsky mocks would-be reformers in his novel, it’s not always with vitriol, but sometimes with understanding, and even perhaps love. After all, this is Raskolnikov’s pretension—to be a reformer of others, to step over the line of law, to be a great man.

14. But Raskolnikov is a failed reformer, or at least is unable to live with his trespass, his sin. Crime and Punishment’s epilogue emphasizes the Jesusian theme of the possibility of resurrection, even as it subdues or complicates that possibility.

We get the final image of Raskolnikov “mechanically” taking up Sonia’s copy of the New Testament; he doesn’t open it to read, but instead reflects on the possibility of a new life with Sonia, a life that “would cost him great striving, great suffering.” Dostoevsky does not let his protagonist off the hook, even as he offers the reader a final comforting vision of “the gradual renewal of a man, the story of his gradual regeneration, of his passing from one world into another, of his initiation into a new unknown life.”

15. There’s a strong temptation to see the epilogue as tacked on, as a sentimental gesture to the reader’s sense of stable morality, as a bit of window dressing that covers the ugliness of the narrative.

And perhaps this is true.

I’d argue though that Dostoevsky gives us a cold, ugly ending in the figure of Svidrigaïlov, who more or less commands the final moments of the narrative, moments that lead inexorably to his suicide—the self-erasing gesture that Raskolnikov cannot commit to. I think that Svidrigaïlov’s suicide might stand as a placeholder for Raskolnikov’s—an exchange of sorts.

And Svidrigaïlov’s death is not without a small measure of redemption—the redemption of other-directedness, of giving, of selflessness. It is far more complicated and troubling than the Jesusian resurrection that Dostoevsky implies as a possibility for Raskolnikov, but it also strikes me as far more real.

Portrait of the Author Fyodor Dostoevsky — Vasily Perov

Read “Bobok,” a Short Story by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“Bobok,” a short story by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Bobok – From Somebody’s Diary

Semyon Ardalyonovitch said to me all of a sudden the day before yesterday: “Why, will you ever be sober, Ivan Ivano- vitch? Tell me that, pray.”

A strange requirement. I did not resent it, I am a timid man; but here they have actually made me out mad. An artist painted my portrait as it happened: “After all, you are a literary man,” he said. I submitted, he exhibited it. I read: “Go and look at that morbid face suggesting insanity.”

It may be so, but think of putting it so bluntly into print. In print everything ought to be decorous; there ought to be ideals, while instead of that…

Say it indirectly, at least; that’s what you have style for. But no, he doesn’t care to do it indirectly. Nowadays humour and a fine style have disappeared, and abuse is accepted as wit. I do not resent it: but God knows I am not enough of a literary man to go out of my mind. I have written a novel, it has not been published. I have written articles – they have been refused. Those articles I took about from one editor to another; everywhere they refused them: you have no salt they told me. “What sort of salt do you want?” I asked with a eer. “Attic salt?”

They did not even understand, For the most part I translate from the French for the booksellers. I write advertisements for shopkeepers too: “Unique opportunity! Fine tea, from our own plantations… ” I made a nice little sum over a panegyric on his deceased excellency Pyotr Matveyitch. I compiled the “Art of pleasing the ladies”, a commission from a bookseller. I have brought out some six little works of this kind in the course of my life. I am thinking of making a collection of the bons mobs of Voltaire, but am afraid it may seem a little flat to our people. Voltaire’s no good now; nowadays we want a cudgel, not Voltaire. We knock each other’s last teeth out nowadays. Well, so that’s the whole extent of my literary activity. Though indeed I do send round letters to the editors gratis and fully signed. I give them all sorts of counsels and admonitions, criticise and point out the true path. The letter I sent last week to an editor’s office was the fortieth I had sent in the last two years. I have wasted four roubles over stamps alone for them. My temper is at the bottom of it all.

I believe that the artist who painted me did so not for the sake of literature, but for the sake of two symmetrical warts on my forehead, a natural phenomenon, he would say. They have no ideas, so now they are out for phenomena. And didn’t he succeed in getting my warts in his portrait – to the life. That is what they call realism.

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“I don’t believe in a future life,” said Raskolnikov

“I don’t believe in a future life,” said Raskolnikov.

Svidrigaïlov sat lost in thought.

“And what if there are only spiders there, or something of that sort,” he said suddenly.

“He is a madman,” thought Raskolnikov.

“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.”

“Can it be you can imagine nothing juster and more comforting than that?” Raskolnikov cried, with a feeling of anguish.

“Juster? And how can we tell, perhaps that is just, and do you know it’s what I would certainly have made it,” answered Svidrigaïlov, with a vague smile.

This horrible answer sent a cold chill through Raskolnikov.

From Chapter I of Part IV of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment.