Devils by Dostoevsky

When I first read Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, I came away with a list of books he’d mentioned that I was determined to read, and thirty or so years later I’ve finally got round to one of the last of them, Devils by Dostoevsky (also translated as Demons and The Possessed), having previously read — though a long time ago, now — Notes from the Underground, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. The thing that sold me on the book was that Wilson made it sound like a combination of thriller and existentialist exploration of the human condition. In the run-up to tackling it, I read a few short articles and watched an introductory video or two — it’s a long book, and I needed to supercharge my enthusiasm to get stuck into it — and everyone presented it in pretty much the same way: it’s about a nihilist/anarchist cell in a small, mid-19th century Russian town who commit a series of terrible crimes in the knowledge that a certain Kirillov has agreed to sign a letter taking the blame, before ending his own life.

But the nihilist/anarchist portion of the novel, though undoubtedly the best part of it, only takes up about a quarter of the book, if that.

Throughout reading Devils (in Michael R Katz’s translation from Oxford World Classics), I was constantly reminded of David Lindsay’s take on its author:

“Of all the writers, Dostoevsky is perhaps the greatest. Not one of his characters is real and life-like; they are simply carriers of emotions. This makes his books dull and boring. But after yawning through a hundred pages, suddenly a passage arrives which is not only pure gold itself, but which makes one realise that the previous hundred pages have been pure gold.”

I don’t know if I can agree with this entirely. Are his characters not lifelike? I remember thinking the same of Dickens, whose characters are basically caricatures, until I realised that most of the people I knew casually would absolutely work as Dickensian-style characters — and I’m sure the same is true of me from their perspective. (And who are we to say what is “lifelike” of a novel written a century and a half ago? Reading a classic novelist like Dostoevsky or Dickens, I always wonder if, in some subtle way, we’re getting a glimpse of how people genuinely were back in the nineteenth century. I particularly like, in Devils, how a character like Shatov can be so fiercely shy, that when asked a direct question he’ll stare determinedly at the ground for minutes then leave without saying a word, yet people still like him and he gets invited to all the social gatherings. Maybe people were generally more tolerant of a greater range of personality types in those days?)

I’d also disagree with Lindsay that, when the great passages come, they turn the previous ones into gold. With Devils, I seriously wonder if the bulk of the book really adds much to the bits I most enjoyed (the nihilist/anarchist bits). But that’s not to say it’s without any effect. The main cast of nihilist/anarchists don’t turn up until the end of part one of this three-part novel, but when they do, Dostoevsky’s narrator has had the chance to build them up with rumours and anecdotes, meaning they come loaded with a sort of star quality that instantly sets them apart. When they finally appear, it feels like things are getting underway at last. (And they do — for a bit.)

So, if it’s not merely about the nihilist/anarchist story, what is Devils about? It seems Dostoevsky wanted to write about two generations, and the effect that radical thinking has on both. The nihilist/anarchists are the second generation, the grown-up children of the earlier generation who start the novel, and whose story forms the bulk of the book. This first generation — including the parents of that second generation, though parents who haven’t done much, if any, actual parenting — are a set of wealthy, cultured, small-town nobility, officials, intellectuals and the like, who think of themselves as being fashionably radical. They’re typified by Stepan Trofimovich Verkhovensky, a man who sees himself primarily as a radical writer, to the extent that when there’s an outbreak of radicalism in the country, he panics and writes to the authorities to assure them he had nothing to do with it. He has, in fact, written very little — he made his living as a private tutor, and has since been supported by his patroness and former employer, Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, who provides him with living quarters, an income, and regularly pays off his gambling debts. The likelihood is that, when he writes to the authorities, they wonder who this nobody is. We get very little of Stepan’s actual ideas in the book — though I suspect there’s a lot of cultural context I’m not so much aware of, such as how radical his professed atheism is — but I’m assuming he (in his role as tutor rather than writer) is one of the main ways in which these ideas got passed to the next generation.

The second generation is typified by two young men. One is Stepan’s son, Peter Stepanovich Verkhovensky, who was raised elsewhere and has barely ever seen his father. Peter is something of a Steerpike, a schemer and manipulator who works his way into the favour of the gullible-but-influential, and who’s at the core of the “group of five”, the nihilist cell who, he tells them, are but one of many such groups seeded throughout Russia and Europe. Peter claims the orders he gives come from higher up, but (I can’t remember if it’s explicitly stated, or just hinted), the likelihood is he’s made the whole thing up — there’s only one cell, and he’s coming up with all the orders.

The other young man is Varvara’s son, Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, who was tutored by Stepan. Nikolai is the one man Peter cannot manipulate; he’s also the man all the nihilists and other members of that generation seem to instantly admire and look up to, even fall in love with in the case of the women. At some point in the past, it seems, he was the source of their ideals and became a hero to many of them. He lived life with a Byronic disregard for propriety — pulling an old general’s nose, kissing another man’s wife in public — and his confession (in a chapter that was suppressed in Dostoevsky’s time, as it was considered too shocking to print) points to a life of utter anomie: he seduced a girl whose age he can’t even be bothered to get right (first it’s fourteen, then it’s ten), and watched on as she sunk into despair and took her own life.

What is Dostoevsky saying about these two generations of would-be radicals? As far as Stepan goes, having lived through the events of the novel (including coming to the realisation that his patroness looks after him not because she respects him but because she sees it as an often burdensome duty), he decides to set out on his own in the world. Immediately, it’s clear this supposed radical intellectual is a hothouse flower, incapable of living outside the bounds of his coddled wealth. He’s soon confused, lost, catches fever and dies. That, then, is the first generation of these radicals: all mouth and no trousers, only lasting as long as it does because it has never tried to bring its ideas into contact with reality.

The second generation, however, did try to live by those ideals. What happens to them? If the soul of that generation is Nikolai Stavrogin, then the second, younger generation is already played out. By the time Nikolai comes into the novel, he’s exhausted emotionally, morally, and spiritually. What influence and impact he had was all in the past. Nothing remains for him but a rather offhand suicide after ruining one more woman’s life.

A selection from the “just put the title into image search” school of book cover design…

It might all sound a bit depressing, but the thing that made Devils so readable for me — and it really was a book I read in long chunks, and was eager to come back to — was just how wild, weird and funny Dostoevsky’s world is. To him, it seems, there’s no need for a generation of nihilists to disrupt the social order, because life, and people, are constantly doing that anyway. Everything, for Dostoevsky, is rooted in a fundamental irrationality, and is riddled through with paradox. I was thinking it would be easy to parody his way of introducing a character by presenting them as a bundle of contradictory statements, but then I found this — of Nikolai Stavrogin — and it did it all for me:

“…at first glance he seemed somewhat round-shouldered and awkward, but, in fact, he wasn’t round-shouldered at all, and was actually rather relaxed. He appeared to be an eccentric, but later everyone found his manners perfectly acceptable, his conversation always to the point.

“No one could say he was unattractive, yet no one liked his face… His expression was almost that of a sick man, but this was only superficial. He had a deep wrinkle near each cheekbone which gave him the look of someone convalescing after a serious illness. However, he was in perfect health, and had never been ill.

“He walked and moved about very hurriedly, yet was in no particular rush to get anywhere…”

Dostoevsky’s world is a Wildean paradox, but delivered with a desperate, wild-eyed stare and deep, passionate belief rather than an aesthete’s insouciance:

“My friend, the real truth always strikes one as improbable, don’t you know that? In order to make truth seem more probable, one must always mix it with some falsehood.”

Or this, from Peter:

“There’s nothing more cunning than to be oneself, because no one ever believes you.”

Or, from Kirillov the arch-Existentialist:

“Man is unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy; that’s the only reason.”

The best chapter in the novel has to be the meeting that occurs at about the halfway point, where a group of radical thinkers and students get together to discuss how society must be reformed. Things fall apart from the start, with no one understanding the voting process by which to decide who gets to speak. Then one man, Shigalyov, stands up and says he will deliver a series of lectures (twelve in all) outlining his solution to all social problems. It is, he insists, the only solution. However:

“I must declare in advance that my system is not yet complete… I became lost in my own data and my conclusion contradicts the original premiss from which I started. Beginning with the idea of unlimited freedom, I end with unlimited despotism. I must add, however, there can be no other solution to the social problem except mine.”

One sentence in Devils stood out to me as, potentially, a summary of the entire book, and perhaps of Dostoevsky’s worldview as a whole:

“General commotion ensued; then suddenly an extraordinary event occurred that no one could have anticipated.”

It’s easy to see why, at the start of the 20th century, British culture developed “Russianitis” — a craze for Russian novels. Dostoevsky in particular has a wildness, darkness, and deadly seriousness completely lacking from anything in 19th century British fiction. The closest the Victorians came, perhaps, was Lewis Carroll — but, for Dostoevsky, there is no distinction between Wonderland and the real world: the madness, nonsense, and anarchy is all here, now, and it’s by no means written for children.