The Devils (1871)

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Second time with Dostoyevsky after The Brothers Karamazov.

Effectively dealing with the undermining of ascendant and characteristic Russian “higher liberalism” – “liberalism without any aim whatsoever” (47) – by a group of reactive and destructive young nihilists, socialists, etc. At the centre (supposedly) of the plot is Mr Nicolas Stavrogin, a man whose superficial beauty masks potentially horrifying secrets in the manner of Dorian Gray:

Our dandies regarded him with envy, and were completely eclipsed in his presence. I was also struck by his face: his hair was just a little too black, his light-coloured eyes a little too calm and clear, his complexion a little too tender and white … he would seem to be a paragon of beauty,yet at the same time there was something hideous about him. (56-7)

This initial portrait follows 50 pages of introduction, which themselves focus on the pitiful but pitiable Stepan Verkhovensky, professor, admirer of S’s mother, and windbag exemplar of that “higher liberalism” in his ridiculous pretentiousness and grandiloquent proclamations (undercut frequently by his dearest associate, our narrator). V embodies the kind of baroque and waffly sociability of the town, punctured by S’s wordlessly mocking acts of iniquity, such as comically assaulting a beloved captain. David Magarshack’s fustily labouring translation from the 50s enhances the magnetism of S’s indecencies, as the relentless social pussyfooting around him becomes indistinguishably beige.

There’s a running theme in this early section – pre a significant congregation at which S makes a scene which precipitates agitation throughout the town and initiates plot momentum – dealing with Russia’s self-ignorance. Mrs S hatches the idea for a periodical omnibus which would preserves newsworthy events in the national memory, facts published in journals which “make an impression and are remembered by the public, but then forgotten.” (137; here one echo, among many, of The Secret Agent). These are mirrored by the reams of ineffectual political leaflets which are distributed by unwilling lackeys (275).

Result is that the political insurrections can bubble occultly. The first half is peppered with mysterious events, usually heralded by the narrator as then-inexplicable and summarised with a depiction of the confusion that follows. Increasingly frustrating; narrator’s feelings are ironically mine: “all this led me to believe that something had happened before my arrival, something I knew nothing about, and that, consequently, I was not wanted and that it was none of my business.” (143) V’s son Peter takes centre stage as the mob’s ringleader, exercising a pied-piper influence over the manipulable townsfolk. He stirs up trouble and disingenuously frames this in the same terms as the narrator – “all of you know something and … I’m the only one who does not know that something.” (207-8) He trades in ignorance as currency: he intentionally inflates S’s public persona (323) while himself under his spell.

The reentry of S, at that congregation, is deftly paced; this is definitely the point at which the air of mystery is most alluring in TD. By this point (190) I was eager for S to fill the screen, to sideline the increasingly indistinguishable extras. While we get an alluring section entitled ‘Night’ where we follow S like a shade visiting and bewitching his associates, the focus (contra my synopsis) shifts instead to PV’s cabal of Four Lions-esque nihilists (less funny obviously). At first they are empty but deadly (250) but as we spend more time with Virginsky, Shatov, Lyamkin and Kirilov they get less and less interesting and less and less memorable.

Reduced to a thin series of highlights: Mary Lebyatkin’s introduction is eerie and alluring; the fête is amusingly chaotic and a good centrepiece; Shatov’s assassination is suitably black. There was one moment in the entire book which I loved: PV’s pursuit of Kirilov, the atheistic would-be suicide. It descends into a terrifyingly wordless confrontation, in which K is driven to a kind of statuesque madness, as if paralysed before the possibility of accomplishing or failing in his mission to attain the status of a god through willed self-destruction. 619.

Writing about TD is tiring. Thinking back to The Way of All Flesh – perhaps I don’t have the attention-span or patience for these Victorian wedges any more. It’s fine; definitely not Karamazov (Elder Zossima gets a shoutout 268!). Stavrogin is interesting but unsatisfying; PV is pretty annoying; Kirilov is eventually the most alluring. The chorography is opaque and the social portrait stodgy. The interruption of peasants at the end is an unsatisfactory compromise: TD could certainly do with more life (more Alyosha K etc.). More in note. Next!

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