16. Demons, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

28 Apr


This is one of those books I ranted about, while reading, to all who would listen. It’s a terrorist novel, from the 1850s, set in a small Russian town where the egoism and blindness of the local elite plays into the hands of the so-called revolutionaries. The stakes are petty, the crimes are sordid, the workers and the common people are used and abused, and a more brilliant, foul, hysterical and deranged atmosphere has rarely been established in literature.

It’s a cliché to say so, but people just do not write books like this anymore. My favorite element was the choice of narrator–he’s a minor, unnamed character who lives in the town. Thus everything that happens either has to take place with the narrator in the room (a third party, since he’s only tangentially a player), or be related as gossip—what writer would dare to choose something so challenging and limiting today? The majority of the text is speech—hardly dialog, even, since characters hold the floor for pages. There’s one long segment in the middle where more and more people keep rushing into a drawing room, making successive confessions and allegations. It’s so brilliant, it’s practically a farce.

Another favorite sequence was a drawn-out suicide and confession, set in a series of dark little rooms, involving a dropped candle and a bitten finger. Evil here is squalid and petty, and the Demons of the title are a series of fools who let themselves get drawn into a nonsense anti-establishment plot, for nonsense reasons. The plot’s leaders are the wastrel children of the rich, and the public intellectuals, leading the students and the local middle class astray. These were the people Dostoyevsky thought were destroying Russia, and his loathing of them knows no bounds.

Here’s what happens when the revolutionaries succeed in an aspect of their plot. One of their number, Lyamshin “began to scream in a voice that wasn’t human, but animal-like. Squeezing Virginsky with his hands tighter and tighter from behind, convulsively, he kept shrieking incessantly and without pause, his eyes goggling at everyone and his mouth wide open, his feet pounding on the ground as if he were beating a drum. Virginsky was so frightened that he himself began screaming like a madman, and in a kind of frenzy so vicious that Virginsky was the last person you’d expect it of, he began to wrench free of Lyamshin’s arms, scratching and pounding him as much as he could with his hands behind his back. Finally, Erkel helped him pull Lyamshin away. But when the terrified Virginsky leaped some ten steps to the side, then Lyamshin, on seeing Pyotr Stepanovich, suddenly began howling again and went straight for him. Tripping over the corpse…”.  Demons, truly.

Possibly the book’s most wild structural anomaly is that a central chapter, the confession of the book’s main antagonist, a rich playboy named Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, was considered too risque to publish at the time, and was written-around. But it’s now included as an appendix! Don’t miss it! Stavrogin has committed a terrible crime, and the reader is invited to contemplate forgiving him, or at least, to contemplate God’s forgiveness of him.

The crime, and its tacit sanction by the church, will play differently in modern times than it did when written, so this chapter will not be a moral touchstone for me the way, say, Alyosha Karamazov’s kiss is. (Though an argument about that would be interesting).  It’s understandable why this is the less-taught of Dostoyevsky’s great novels, but it was a surprise to me as one of his most-fun to read.


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