Sologub’s Petty Demon.

Years ago I read Andrew Field’s translation of Fyodor Sologub’s most famous novel, the 1907 Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon, also translated by John Cournos and Richard Aldington in 1916 as The Little Demon [Project Gutenberg]). I remember being impressed but not overwhelmed by it then; it seemed depressing and somewhat long-drawn-out. I have now finished reading it in Russian, and it feels like a different book — I understand why it made such a splash at the time, and why Stanley Rabinowitz linked it with Bely’s Petersburg as “the two greatest novels of the Symbolist period.”

Part of that, of course, is reading it in its original language; Sologub was famous as a stylist (and was an important poet as well), and I frequently felt compelled to read sentences out loud, a sure sign of good writing. Akim Volynsky wrote “Стихи меня поразили своею ясною простотою, какою-то неуловимою прозаичностью в тончайшем поэтическом повороте мысли” [His verses struck me with their clear simplicity, a kind of elusive prosaic quality in the most subtle poetic turn of thought], and that seems right to me; similarly, his prose is poetic in a subtle way, not blatantly like Bely’s. He uses adverbs as markers of emotional weather; the antihero, Peredonov, speaks and looks сердито [angrily], тупо [vacantly, obtusely], уныло [despondently], угрюмо [sullenly], испуганно [in a frightened way], and these repeated markers achieve an almost cinematic effect, comparable to that of Dostoevsky’s вдруг [suddenly] (see this post) and hard to translate for the same reason: English adverbs are more obtrusive and the repetition would sound bad. And even though the story of Peredonov’s madness and downfall is not a cheery one, the book is not depressing because good writing is never depressing. (Another testimony is on p. 45 of Johannes Holthusen and Dmitrij Tschiz̆ewskij’s handy little 1959 anthology Versdichtung der russischen Symbolisten: “Sologubs Bilder sind einem strengen Calcul unterworfen, seine Sprache ist präzise und besonnen, oft formelhaft wie mathematische Sätze oder Zaubersprüche” [Sologub’s images are subjected to a strict calculation/calculus, his language is precise and level-headed, often formulaic like mathematical theorems or magic spells].)

One reason I wanted to read it is that I’d been reading novels featuring witches who either were burned at the stake (Merezhkovsky’s Leonardo da Vinci) or escaped that fate by suicide (Bryusov’s Fiery Angel), and when I opened my copy of Мелкий бес the first thing I saw was the epigraph “Я сжечь её хотел, колдунью злую” [I wanted to burn her, the evil witch], which turned out to be the first line of a 1902 poem by Sologub himself. That was something of a red herring, though there is in fact a woman named Vershina who is called a “black witch” at one point and keeps luring Peredonov into her garden and persuading him to do things he doesn’t want to do, but even if it’s not part of the sorcery tradition of those early Symbolist years, it’s very much a part of the larger Russian literary tradition, and that’s another thing that kept impressing me as I read.

The only direct shout-outs I remember are to Pushkin (Peredonov says Mickiewicz was a greater poet, and he’s hung a portrait of Pushkin in his bathroom because of his low rank: “он камер-лакеем был”) and Chekhov (one character asks another if he’s read «Человек в футляре» [“Man in a Case”]), but the whole book is full of resonances. The basic theme of a tormented man sinking into paranoia goes back to Gogol’s “Notes of a Madman” and was developed by Sologub’s hero Doestoevsky in The Double and, of particular relevance, in The Brothers Karamazov, where Ivan loses his grip on reality and sees a devil — though there it is the Devil rather than Peredonov’s petty demon, which is a measure of the difference between Ivan and Peredonov. Bely will make use of it in Серебряный голубь [The Silver Dove] and Петербург [Petersburg], where Dudkin is visited by the Bronze Horseman, and Nabokov in Защита Лужина [The Defense]. The theme of the corruption of youth (in the person of the girlish Sasha) is dear to both Doestoevsky and Nabokov. And of course the tragicomic hell that is provincial city life is a perennial theme from Gogol (Dead Souls, The Government Inspector) on. The more Russian literature I read, the more echoes I catch and the more I appreciate it.

See Lizok’s review for more details on plot and characters (don’t miss her quoting “the worst love letter I’ve ever seen”!); I liked the novel so much I’ve decided to read his first one, the 1895 Тяжёлые сны [Bad Dreams], which (along with Merezhkovsky’s first novel and poetry by Bryusov and Balmont) kicked off the Symbolist era and Russian modernism in general. But first I’ll read some Chekhov as a palate-cleanser.

Addendum. Two quotes from W.C. Fields’s classic The Fatal Glass Of Beer that are oddly relevant to Sologub’s novel:

“He little thought they were demons, for they wore the best of clothes.”
“My Uncle Ichabod said, speakin’ of the city: ‘It ain’t no place for women, Cal, but pretty men go thar.'”

Comments

  1. SFReader says:

    OK, I vaguely recall reading about Sologub, but I haven’t read any of his works.

    So to refresh my memory I looked at Russian Wikipedia entry on Sologub, then turned to English Wikipedia article and….

    You wrote it!

    In 2008.

    I was so surprised, but then realized it’s only natural.

    Who else would.

  2. Heh. Yup, as I wrote back then: “I knew it would take a long time to do a proper job, so I put it off until I had no books to edit and could devote myself to it without guilt.”

  3. Oof, I’m sorry I don’t have Тяжёлые сны, too! (Two collections but no…) I’ll be watching for your Chekhov titles, though. I’d been planning to read a fair bit of Chekhov this spring (including Моя жизнь), inspired by a university visit that was to include visiting a Chekhov class. But of course the trip didn’t happen and I set APC aside; I think my head is ready for Chekhov’s subtlety now. “Good writing is never depressing” fits him, too.

  4. I’m approaching Chekhov via Donald Rayfield’s Understanding Chekhov: A Critical Study Of Chekhov’s Prose And Drama, which I’ve been wanting for a while and which my generous wife gave me for my birthday last year; it’s exactly what I hoped for, a close examination of Chekhov’s writing that lets me know which stories I need to read and how they connect to his life and each other. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

  5. mudbringer says:

    I wish I could interest you in reading through his collected stories, and telling us what gems you’ve found. Here’s one story I’m pretty sure would interest you: Мыслитель (best read in the original orthography).

  6. Well, eventually I’d like to read as many as possible, but there’s hundreds of them, so right now I’m being selective. The other day I read Художество, which I loved — I won’t soon forget the image of that lazy jerk Seryozhka glorying in the effect produced by his magnificent Иордань. He really is the perfect image of a certain sort of artist.

  7. Stu Clayton says:

    the book is not depressing because good writing is never depressing

    That’s a big claim, but certainly worth thinking about. So much depends on mood and age. When I originally read Die Blendung by Cannetti, I was fascinated and horrified. I could read only a few pages consecutively. The whole time, though, I was thinking “what a fabulous book”. Last year I tried to re-read it and just couldn’t. I did not want to go through all that upset again – and maybe it was all just in my imagination.

    The writers I go back to, over and over, are Dickens, Eliot, Trollope – 19C. And of course Sam’l Beckett for laffs.

    Maybe we could compromise on “if doing something is depressing, then stop doing it unless you’re being paid to do it and need the money”. This ain’t about ars longa, but rather life being too short.

  8. Well, I suppose I could have said “good writing is never depressing, although the story it conveys may be,” but that wouldn’t have been as pithy, now would it? But you’re right, of course, that there are splendid works of art one doesn’t want to revisit; a classic example is Grave of the Fireflies (火垂るの墓, Hotaru no Haka), a brilliant movie that wild horses couldn’t make me rewatch. Come and See (Иди и смотри) is another.

  9. SFReader says:

    Come and See (Иди и смотри) is another.

    Gave me nightmares for many years.

    That’s the kind of movie you don’t show twelve year old kids.

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