No. 20 - A Croc of Lit

The process of deciding which book to publish next here at Century Press is an exciting one – albeit always challenging  as the decision needs to reconcile various small but important aspects. Faced with a seemingly endless expanse of classic novels that would look beautiful in our handcrafted leather bindings, we must also consider elements such as subject matter, an author’s renown, a story’s uniqueness and its potential for a modern re-reading.

And the winner is ... 'The Crocodile'!

With all these things in mind, in March 2023 at the home office, we had narrowed down the options that we liked for our next release, but being evenly split between the two, we opted to take a poll from our readers. In the end, we were happy to go forward with the title that you all voted for in our online survey: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Crocodile.

This particular short story is one that is not very well known by readers, even those who might be familiar with Dostoevsky, which is one of the reasons why we found it a great contendor for our next publication. Additionally, the story has something of a strange aura as it narrates an absurd event that would only occur in a dream or an imaginative children’s story… 

Our beautiful handmade leather-bound edition of 'The Crocodile'

But far from being a mere fantastical tale for children, the value of Dostoevsky’s writing and of this particular piece – in our opinion – lies in the fact that the swallowing of a human by a crocodile (sorry for the spoiler!) is described with such nonchalance that it isn’t the event itself that is questioned, but instead it is our own expectation of what is meant to happen in such a story that is turned upside down.

One of the great qualities of literature is its ability to inverse our preconceived ideas of fiction and reality and what is possible inside of these worlds. The Crocodile is one such example that will leave you perplexed with the simplicity of the unfolding events and the casualness of tone that borders on indifference in the way the characters react to the event.

 Fyodor Dostoevsky

These tonal subtleties serve to impart the immense humour that underlies this entire story. Now, you might think that Dostoevsky is not particularly well-known for being a comical writer, but if this short story can do anything, it can make you laugh and perhaps prove you mistaken on that perception. 

The Crocodile is hilarious in the ways it addresses current affairs of 19th century Russia and its relations to Europe. The crocodile’s proprietor and his mother – both German – are caricatured to the very extreme by their interjections in German and their wholly capitalistic inclinations with regards to the crocodile and its swallowing of Ivan Matveyich. Other aspects like the narrator’s isolation in being the only one that is concerned about Ivan’s wellbeing inside the animal’s body are subtle proofs of Dostoevsky’s sense of ingenuity. 

A typical 19th century shopping arcade in St. Petersburg 

The political aspirations of Ivan Matveyich also become a source of laughter for the reader as the seriousness of his intentions seem totally ridiculous in the absurd situation that he finds himself in. But maybe Ivan’s total composure in his new environment and his steadfast motivation to become the famous individual he wants to be can be somewhat inspiring in that he shows us that you don’t have to resign yourself to desolation in a seemingly inescapable situation. Rather, it might be worth summoning all one’s energy to try and make the most out of the little time there might be left.

From a different perspective, we can also recognize the value of Dostoevsky’s writing in the modernity that his text exudes; the allusions to the dangers of capitalism, the cultural differences between Russia and Europe as well as the satirical portrayal of Russian high society and politics are all elements that can be compared to our world today (and applied not only to Russia!). So, even without a sense of humour, one can find much value in the social criticism that Dostoevsky employs in this short story.

One of the amazing illustrations by Rohan Eason in our edition

Finally, as you will be able to read in the editorial preface to the story, there is (or was) extensive discussions on if and how these events could really have happened. This, again, falls back on the question of our own expectations for what the realm of possibility and/or plausibility in fiction (and reality) contains. And maybe the lesson that the author wants us to take from this hilariously absurd story is that the fantastic and imaginative might contain more reality than we grant it credit for and that our boundaries of what is (and should) be real are too rigid and should be moved around every once in a while.

After all, great literature has the ability to do exactly that and more.

The story begins...

When it comes to the translation of the text, we were very lucky to come into contact with Dr. Sarah J. Young – a professor of Russian literature at UCL in London (UK) – who was willing to revise the English translation by Constance Garnett in order to create a more accurate and annotated version of the text for this edition. Her expertise in everything Dostoevsky and particularly in this short story (you can read about her interests in Russian literature here) was exactly what we were looking for when it came to putting together an introduction for the text. She seemed like the perfect person for the job! And not only did she adapt the Garnett translation and write a brilliant introduction to the text – she also translated the ‘Editor’s Preface’ at the beginning of the text which is left out in every other English translation of The Crocodile. We are deeply grateful to her for adding this valuable part of the piece to our edition and thus making it so much more special.

Our wonderful collaborator: Dr. Sarah J. Young

In terms of creative additions, we were excited to work together with Rohan Eason, a professional illustrator from England who created some magnificent illustrations to accompany the text.

Inside the crocodile's belly

Lastly, we have to say a huge thank you to our cover designer from Ukraine, Oksana Tarasenko, who managed to incorporate precisely the essence of the story itself into the simple but elegant style and that we like to use for our Century Press cover designs.

We hope that you are as excited as we are about the upcoming release of our Century Press edition of Dostoevsky’s The Crocodile. If you would like to receive a copy with handmade paste paper end sheets crafted by Canadian artist Susan Kristoferson, be sure to order by the end of the month!

- Laura 

Endsheets Paste Papers Susan Kristoferson

1 comment

  • Casey

    Can’t wait to receive my copy and add it to my Century Press collection!

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published