A tiny book excerpt about The Devils

5 July 2012 § 1 Comment

This post is a very short book extract, for Tom, who commented on my last post and said he was thinking of re-readingThe Devils. The comment notification arrived while I was in the library editing my chapter on Nikolai Stavrogin, and I thought the first couple of paragraphs of that chapter would stand nicely on their own as a blog post:


The Devils, (or The Demons, or The Possessed, depending on your translation) is more firmly rooted in its own time than Dostoevsky’s other major novels; the setting is quite definitely Russia of the 1860s, and it couldn’t possibly be anywhere else. It contains references to contemporary events and debates, and savage caricatures: Dostoevsky cannot resist poking fun at some of the major political movements of his time – the Slavophiles, the nihilists, socialists of various hues and, in the elderly Stepan Verkhovensky, the European romanticism and liberalism of his own youth. Several of the characters can be traced to real people, and there is a vicious and undisguised attack on his old enemy and former friend, Turgenev, in the character of Karmazinov, an attack which is so prolonged that it makes the reader quite uncomfortable. And if you aren’t familiar with all the fine details of 19th century politics and culture, the effect is a bit like that of the Literary Quadrille that takes place during the novel’s disastrous fete– you know that something’s being mocked but you’re not really sure of all the details.

It’s probably this specific sense of time and place that makes The Devils the toughest of Dostoevsky’s four major novels, and I confess that it was with some degree of trepidation that I picked it up to re-read it when writing this book. It had been a long time since I last read it, and I had but a vague memory of pages and pages of incomprehensible philosophising, followed by a melodramatic bloodbath in which most of the major characters are killed off in a few pages. It’s true that The Devils requires a bit more effort than the other novels, but it’s worth persevering, because beyond the satirical surface (parts of which are actually really funny), we return to the same ideas that thread their way through all of Dostoevsky’s writing: good and evil, personal salvation, and how to live a life that is not devoid of meaning. It’s also the home of Nikolai Stavrogin – hypnotic, seductive and absolutely, irredeemably evil.


I have plenty more to say about The Devils – on Nikolai Stavrogin as the successor to the superfluous men of Pushkin and Lermontov, on Herzen and Granovsky as the prototypes for Stephan Verkhovensky, on the clash of generations in the novel, and on the demonic aspects of Pyotr Verkhovensky, but it would get a bit unwieldy to put it all on here – and of course I do want people to buy my book when it comes out. But I am quite interested in Herzen at the moment, so he may get a separate piece on here before too long.


Tagged: ,

§ One Response to A tiny book excerpt about The Devils

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

What’s this?

You are currently reading A tiny book excerpt about The Devils at Notes from an Idiot.