Dostoevsky’s Devils.

I spent most of the last month reading Dostoevsky’s Бесы, better known in English as The Possessed but more literally translated as The Devils (the title references both a Pushkin poem and Luke 8:32-36); it’s been several days since I finished it, but I haven’t been able to put together a coherent post, mainly because I haven’t been able to figure out quite what I think of it. So here’s a long, rambling post about a long, rambling novel. You have been warned.

Critical discussion tends to focus on the neat way in which all the lines of influence that cause the various catastrophic events can be traced back to Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, the self-important old Westernizer with whom the book opens: he is the neglectful father of Pyotr Stepanovich, the leader of the terrorist group; he is the tutor and spiritual father of Nikolai Stavrogin, the younger Verkhovensky’s idol; and he is the landowning aristocrat who casually sent his serf Fedka into military service, setting him on a track that ended with his escaping from Siberia and returning as a thief and murderer who plays a crucial role in the plot. There are all sorts of symmetries, religious allusions, political implications, and so on that can be laid out and admired ex post facto.

My problem is that none of this is apparent when you’re actually reading the book. It’s exactly the reverse of The Idiot (LH post): there the first part “carries the reader along seamlessly from the Prince’s meeting with Rogozhin on the train to the party where Nastasya Filippovna hurls the money into the fire,” and it’s only with the continuation that it starts bogging down in confusion; here it’s the first part that is (or was for me) a slog — a long section about the past and present relations of Stepan Trofimovich and his patroness Varvara Petrovna (Stavrogin’s mother), two of the most irritating characters in world literature, with occasional cryptic references to various younger people who will turn out to play important roles in the plot but who at this point are just names. You can’t tell Lyamshin from Lebyadkin, or Dasha from Marya. (As a matter of fact, there are two Maryas, Maria Timofeevna, the lame madwoman who turns out to be Stavrogin’s wife, and Marya Ignatievna, Shatov’s wife who shows up pregnant with Stavrogin’s child — the latter appears to be one character too many for most readers, since I never see a mention of her in criticism of the novel, and she is omitted from the otherwise comprehensive list of characters in the Russian Wikipedia article, even though she has an entire chapter to herself.) I kept thinking “Why am I supposed to care about this?”

I know that uncertainty is part of the theme of the novel, but so it was in The Idiot as well, and that gripped the reader from the start, as did Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky was perfectly capable of telling a good story while laying the groundwork for patterns that will become apparent only after you finish the book (as was Proust, as was Faulkner). Why the mess here? I think it’s because the book was conceived in messiness. Dostoevsky had been planning to write a magnum opus, The Life of a Great Sinner, that would sum up all his thoughts about God and man and how we should live, but then in 1869, under the usual money pressure and excited by reports from Russia about the horrible doings of students and terrorists, he decided to write a “pamphlet” in which he would stick it to the radicals, and the hell with literary art. But, being Dostoevsky, he couldn’t keep to that plan, and he wound up mashing the two together, with Pyotr Stepanovich as his Nechaev. It turned into a powerful and endlessly interesting novel, but a messy one that takes a long time to get going.

Critics also write a lot about the relation of the plot to the events of the day and of the characters to the representatives of the various political persuasions of the day, but I don’t give a damn about all that. Who cares whether Stepan Trofimovich is “really” Granovsky, or who the “original” of Stavrogin is? They’re either powerful characters or they’re not. As it happens, the one whose original is most obvious is the most useless, the one who could have been omitted with the greatest benefit: the novelist Karmazinov, a bitter parody of Turgenev (who not only preferred Western Europe to Russia but, an even greater sin, had lent the needy Dostoevsky money that he couldn’t repay). Turgenev shook his head sadly over the caricature and made the perfect response, saying Dostoevsky was the most unpleasant Christian he had ever met. At any rate, this would seem to be a good place to quote the last paragraph of David Magarshack’s introduction to his Penguin Classics translation (see this LH post for Magarshack and the pronunciation and origin of his name):

Dostoevsky’s spite and hatred not only of his opponents, but also of all imaginary ‘enemies’ of Russia, was perhaps entirely in harmony with his religious obsessions. In The Devils he was not able to overcome them, and this is a serious blot on a novel which, in spite of its structural and artistic blemishes, possesses a tremendous vitality, as well as moments of great tenderness. The novel is best regarded as a political melodrama (the stage at the end of it is literally strewn with corpses). It would be absurd to take Dostoyevsky’s political views seriously; but it would be no less absurd to overlook his moments of great inspiration, his amazing insight into the human heart, and his shattering criticism of those aspects of man’s character which profoundly affect human thought and behaviour.

A little harsh, perhaps — and it’s certainly not absurd to take Dostoyevsky’s political views seriously — but not an unreasonable viewpoint. I wrote in my review of Turgenev’s Smoke about “Dostoevsky’s intense focus on the situations and feelings of the moment,” and it is in such moments that his novels shine, they are what we remember. Furthermore, to quote Konstantin Mochulsky, “Dostoevsky’s heroes are born out of speech; this is a general law in his creative processes.” The further he gets from immediate situations and dialogic interaction, the more he settles for long narrations about what happened long ago, the less Dostoevskyan his books seem and the more they resemble regular, boring old realist novels.

On the matter of uncertainty, I’ll quote the wonderful Gary Saul Morson (and I again thank Lizok for introducing me to him); this is from his concluding chapter in The Cambridge Companion to Dostoevskii:

Consider: in The Devils we never learn whether Petr Stepanovich killed Fedka; whether the workers rebel; whether Petr Stepanovich is in fact a police agent; and, oddly enough, whether he is Stepan Trofimovich’s son (he points out that his mother had taken up with a Pole at the time, which Stepan Trofimovich almost confirms). The political significance of the novel obviously depends on several of these suggestions, and the very nature of what has happened depends on all of them.

Different readers will make different judgments about whether or to what extent that degree of uncertainty works, but it’s certainly an intriguing way to construct a novel.

Here are some useful quotes from W.J. Leatherbarrow’s “Misreading Myshkin and Stavrogin: The Presentation of the Hero in Dostoevskii’s Idiot and Besy“:

Here [in Idiot and Besy] Dostoevskii eschews the ‘invisible’ narrator employed in Prestuplenie i nakazanie [Crime and Punishment] in favour of a highly visible, personalized story-teller, whose distinctive character traits and narratorial eccentricities are foregrounded from the outset. […] In Besy, too, the reader is unsettled by a personalized narrator whose apparent ability to relate the tiniest detail of scenes he cannot have witnessed is offset by all-too-frequent protestations of ignorance. […]

The ‘literary’ reader, on the other hand, alert above all else to the fictionality of Stavrogin, will recognize that he is a highly ‘artificial’ character, ectoplasm summoned up from the European literary tradition and trailing clouds of literary allusion. […] Stavrogin is essentially a non-character, an ever-shifting and indefinite composite whose ‘meaning’ is derived from the readings and misreadings of others. […] The moral and psychological dissolution of Stavrogin, conceived in polemical terms as Dostoevskii’s attempt to expose the phenomenon of the Westernized Russian nobleman reduced to abstraction by loss of national identity, translates seamlessly into a narrative that denies the hero a coherent ‘reading’ and a confession, structured on lack of self-recognition, that is shipwrecked on its own dislocated syntax.

I’ll finish with some passages I marked while reading the novel. In the “wise serpent” chapter, young Verkhovensky says to Varvara Petrovna “чем хуже, тем лучше” [the worse things are, the better], only the second instance in the corpus of Russian literature of this famous saying (and the first, in Pisemsky’s 1869 Люди сороковых годов [People of the ’40s], is translated from French). In “Night (Continued),” the drunken Lebyadkin says “И солнце, говорят, потухнет в свою очередь” [the sun, too, they say, will go out in its turn], a rather startling intrusion of what must have been modern astronomy (when did it become known that the sun would burn out?). At the end of the “Everyone Waiting” chapter and throughout the early part of “Before the Festivity,” there are frequent references to the activities of the radicals calling them шалуны and using forms of the verb шалить ‘be naughty, play pranks’ (see my posts Shalost and Shalost II). At various points there are instances of some of Dostoyevsky’s favorite turns of phrase, like дважды два ‘twice two’ for something that’s obvious on the face of it and высунуть язык ‘to stick out one’s tongue’ for a display of proud contempt for the social niceties, as well as his favorite image of evil, the spider, and twice he repeats references from The Idiot, once to the bit in Revelations about how there will be no more time [времени больше не будет] and once to Pushkin’s «Жил на свете рыцарь бедный» [There once was a poor knight]. There’s a quote “вы говорите слово-ерс” [you use slovo-er-s when you talk] that gave me a thrill of delight, sending me back to my post on that topic. And finally, this touching speech near the end, when Stepan Trofimovich turns from a pretentious buffoon to a tragic hero (the translation is Magarshack’s):

Друг мой, я всю жизнь мою лгал. Даже когда говорил правду. Я никогда не говорил для истины, а только для себя, я это и прежде знал, но теперь только вижу… О, где те друзья, которых я оскорблял моею дружбой всю мою жизнь? И все, и все! Savez-vous, я, может, лгу и теперь; наверно лгу и теперь. Главное в том, что я сам себе верю, когда лгу. Всего труднее в жизни жить и не лгать… и… и собственной лжи не верить, да, да, вот это именно!

My friend, all my life I’ve been lying. Even when I spoke the truth. I never spoke for the sake of the truth, but for my own sake. I knew it before, but it is only now that I see it. Oh, where are my friends whom I have insulted with my friendship all my life? And all, all! Savez-vous, perhaps I’m lying even now. The trouble is that I believe myself when I am lying. The hardest thing in life is to live and not to lie, and — and not believe your own lie. Yes, yes, that’s it!


  1. With the development of sophisticated thermodynamics in the mid-nineteenth century, it became possible to estimate the ages of both the Earth and the sun, using the (approximately) known rates at which the bodies were losing energy. This was done in the 1850s and 1860s, most famously by Kelvin. If the source of the sun’s energy was gravitational, the gradual shrinkage of the star could support its present rate of output for tens or maybe hundreds of millions of years. The length of time that the Earth’s interior could have simply been losing energy to outer space was similar; if the planet started out molten and had cooled at its apparent rate for more than about a hundred million years, it would be too cold for life.

    These estimates were problematic, since it was known from geological evidence that the planet was billions of years old. Yet there were no known physical processes that could explain the rate at which bodies in the solar system were emitting heat; if the sun were as old as the dinosaurs, it seemed should have already collapsed in to a dead brown coal. The solution of the problem came with the discovery of nuclear reactions. Stars get their energy from nuclear fusion reactions, which are must more efficient that normal gravitational shrinkage; the Earth’s interior heat comes from the radioactive decay of isotopes.

  2. Thanks! So it really was up-to-the-minute astronomical news.

  3. I would frequently see references to this novel, in criticism and magazine writing, and it struck me when I finally read it that the references were always to the quarter of the novel near the end about the terrorist cell. Dostoevsky needed the messy first half of the novel to get to the great part of the novel, but I am not sure that we need it.

    It is interesting to see Dostoevsky at work, anyways.

  4. Dostoevsky needed the messy first half of the novel to get to the great part of the novel, but I am not sure that we need it.

    Exactly, and as usual I am happy to offer great dead authors my retrospective editing services.

    the references were always to the quarter of the novel near the end about the terrorist cell.

    Same thing with Leskov’s Некуда [conventionally “No Way Out”], as I said here. Critics are so used to obsessing about politics in Russian novels they ignore everything else.

  5. John Cowan says

    Surely it’s the not-so-great dead authors who need your services more, Hat.

  6. You’re welcome, Languagehat! And I couldn’t agree more with you and Tom about the need for editing.

  7. Surely it’s the not-so-great dead authors who need your services more, Hat.

    But improving their work would bring less improvement to the general welfare.

  8. ~Turgenev shook his head sadly over the caricature and made the perfect response, saying Dostoevsky was the most unpleasant Christian he had ever met.~
    Turgenev was in a very long quarrel with another unpleasant Christian, Tolstoy.

  9. ~Maria Timofeevna, the lame madwoman who turns out to be Stavrogin’s wife…~
    She pops up in Tarkovsky’s ‘Mirror’, proving, perhaps, that despite all the intelligent reader saw deeper into Dostoyevsky than politics.
    Here is that scene

  10. Thanks, I haven’t seen that movie for years and it may be my favorite Tarkovsky — I’ll have to watch the whole thing again soon.

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