Satire or Serious?
The Last Martini of Summer

Dostoevsky: Demons

When I finished this book a few weeks ago I wanted to turn back to the front and begin reading it again right away. I'm not going to, because there are too many other things I want to read. But I do want to return to it in time. This is not because I enjoyed it so much that I didn't want it to end (an experience I've had only a few times), but because I felt like I had missed something that might become clear on a second reading, and that a second reading might be more rewarding, even more enjoyable, than the first.

I made the same mistake with Devils that I did with The Brothers Karamazov: I read a couple of hundred pages fairly quickly, and then, because I'm never reading only one thing, I lost focus and went several weeks reading very little in it at all. By the time I got back to it in a serious way, I had begun to forget some of what was going on, and to have trouble keeping the characters straight (the chronic complaint of American and European readers, a result of both the relative complexity and general unfamiliarity of Russian names).

It was probably another hundred pages or so before I began to really get back a sense of coherent narrative flow. Even then, I had some trouble following what was happening: not the bare events, but their significance. Some of that is inevitable, for me at least, in a long and complex novel, since it's not possible for me to read for hours at a time. But I think it's worse with Dostoevsky than with some others. He is not obscure in the way that a 20th century poet is likely to be obscure, or in the way James Joyce is obscure--at the level of language, description, and action. One understands well enough what is happening on the stage from moment to moment--these two people have a conversation, that one starts on a journey, etc. But the motives and purposes are often obscure, to me at least. I frequently have the sense that I'm looking through some kind of fog, and in poor light. The psychology often escapes me. Opening and leafing through a few pages, I find this exchange.

"They're cunning; they had it all set up on Sunday...." he suddenly blurted out.

"Oh, no doubt," I cried, pricking up my ears, "it was all patched together, with the seams showing, and so badly acted."

"I don't mean that. You know, they left the seams showing on purpose, so that it would be noticed by...the right people. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't"

Well, neither did I. You might suppose that if you knew what had happened on Sunday, you would know what they meant. But you wouldn't necessarily. The events were straightforward enough, but the element of contrivedness, and the assertion that the contrivedness was itself contrived, and the identity of "the right people," are certainly not notions that had occurred to me on reading the account. Nor are they clarified in the rest of the exchange.

Much of the book consists of conversation, and much of that is filled with suggestions of innuendo and insult, remarked upon but not always explained, that are often obscure to me. In general I often felt, as with Karamazov, that many of the characters were, in the words of a friend, "just barely sane," though perhaps somewhat less so that in that work. 

The edition I read was the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, which is clear enough in its own right. It has an introduction by Joseph Frank, author of a five-volume biographical study of Dostoevsky and one of the great authorities on his work. The introduction closes with this:

For Demons is not only a novel that deals with some of the profoundest issues of the modern world, and indeed of human life--it is also a riveting page-turner, a great read, a thriller par excellence that is impossible to put down.

I don't know how many readers of the novel would agree with that. I certainly would not. And yet, as I said, I would like to read it again, because I recognize that it's a rich and profound book, and that my grasp of it is inadequate to say the least. I feel as I have often felt on hearing for the first time a symphony acknowledged to be great--Brahms's Third, for instance--but which did not immediately appeal to me: I didn't entirely get it, but I got enough to make me want to return to it. A second reading would be easier and no doubt bring more clarity, and an easier flow to the narrative--provided, of course, that I could stick with it and make the reading more of a piece.

To say a little about the story itself: this is Dostoevsky's most political novel, and although it was written almost a hundred and fifty years ago, it remains timely, because it deals in part with the nature of political ideology and its temptations, with the radical impulse to destroy everything and start anew, and the incompetence of the establishment in meeting the challenge. The fact that we have since then seen just such a demolition and starting-over only makes Dostoevsky's view of it seem more astute. 

But as always with Dostoevsky, it is the spiritual crisis of the age that is the essential matter. And in that respect the book was badly compromised by the refusal of its publisher to publish a critical chapter. The character Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin (I think I got that right) is a sort of would-be nihilist who cannot entirely get rid of his conscience. In the originally unpublished chapter, he goes to visit a monk and confesses a terrible crime. This chapter, "At Tikhon's", was considered too shocking to print, and although it was not lost, Dostoevsky did not restore it to any edition published in his lifetime. Apparently it has become the common practice in modern editions to include it as an appendix. If you haven't read the book, I recommend that you read this chapter in what was to have been its position, as Chapter 9 of Part Two. I did not, and Stavrogin made very little sense to me until I had. That is one of the things I'll have in mind the next time I read it.

I should mention something that might not be expected, which is that the book is very funny in places. One of the central relationships is that of the liberal father Stepan Trofimovich and his radical son Pyotor Stepanovitch. The latter is dangerous, and the former in the end gets more of our respect, but the opening chapters of the book involve some very sharp satire of the liberal who wants to think of himself as bold and dangerous but is actually perfectly tame.



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Dostoevsky's novels, like those of Dickens and Henry James, were written as serializations. I've always wondered how different their books might been if they'd come out first as books, rather than in monthly installments, often done in deadline mode.

I knew that, but it only just hit me that it means that all the original readers of Demons read it in pieces separated by long intervals--a month, I guess. Which makes me wonder about those readers. I'm sure it helped that they were Russian, but's easy to see why people waited eagerly for the next installment of a Dickens novel, but Dostoevsky?

Maybe it was just the fact that people were used to having novels published that way, and didn't really think anything of it.

I read Demons for the second time about a year ago. I must say I found it more interesting philosophically and psychologically than narrative-wise, but over the years I've learned to expect that from Dostoevsky.

I've come to the conclusion that 'Notes From Underground,' besides being a transitional work between the earlier material and the later great works, is also a sort of intro to the latter. I've read 'Notes' at least six times (combining print and audiobook) and it seems that if you get a handle on what he's saying there it makes understanding the later works a good bit easier.

I had come to this conclusion a few years back from various things I'd read from a number of critics, but it was confirmed to me recently through a friend who'd heard a talk on Dost. from a nun who also is an expert on Russian literature. He told me that that's pretty much what she said -- that 'Notes' is more than just a transitional work, but an introduction to the great novels, and a sort of thematic "key." She believes that anyone approaching Dost. for the first time should read 'Notes' before tackling the big novels.

Thanks for the pointer, Rob G. Of course I have 'Notes' and of course have not yet read it, so can only comment in general and on Karamazov, which I read two summers ago. I did not read the P/V or the Constance Garnett (moves over to the bookshelf) but instead the David McDuff Penguin edition. I found it quite enthralling all the way through, and as seems to happen with me and much very large classic lit books by the time I arrived at the end I felt I had sacrificed clarity of story for speed of reading and need for the conclusion. Brothers K does not have a satisfactory conclusion, so as I was headed out of town I picked up a smaller mass paperback Garnett version and kept reading. About 200 pages in I petered out but I did realize that even though it was Garnett all of it seemed to be sticking together a little better in my head. This probably had less to do with her, and more to do with the second reading. I don't have a point in this rambling except to say that I agree with you, Mac, about Dostoevsky. And also that I need to read 'Notes' and 'Demons' and perhaps re-read 'Brothers K' in the P/V. Thanks for finally getting to 'Demons'!

You're welcome. I do hope I can find a place in my reading sometime in the next five years or so to read it again.

I read Notes many years ago but don't remember much about it at all. It's short enough that I should be able to revisit it in the not too distant future.

"...more interesting philosophically and psychologically than narrative-wise..." Yes. I really can't see the page-turner aspect.

El G, you probably know this, but of interest in case you don't: Brothers K was supposed to be only the beginning of a huge work in which Alyosha would become more the focus. A shame that it didn't happen.

Is the "problem" with D primarily cultural, or is it that he isn't that great a writer from a literary standpoint? For instance, I found Tolstoy easier to read. Maybe he's not as profound philosophically, but he certainly is serious and more readable.

What I'm thinking of is Shakespeare. I mean, he is profound, but also very enjoyable/entertaining (once you get past the language barrier). A writer can give the reader a head start on doing the hard work of "getting" a piece by making the piece actually enjoyable.

One of the reasons I don't want to put a lot of effort into "getting" Brahms is that I don't find his more serious music very enjoyable. Beethoven, on the other hand, has both.

I've tried to read BK three times and never gotten past page 600 or 700. Maybe I need to try the other translation. My son left a copy of it when he moved out.

I don't know why I'm commenting on this thread. You are all way more literary than I'll ever be.

P.S. If I start BK I'm sure it will take a couple or three years for me to finish.

If I finish.

Which I doubt.

Yes, Tolstoy is definitely the better writer of the two, though Mac can of course disagree with me. Tolstoy is an amazing story-teller, while Dostoevsky is more into psychologically analyzing why humans do what they do. Getting to 600-700 of BK seems pretty close to the finish line to me!!

Why did you stop after 600 or 700 pages?! You were within sight of the end--I think it usually runs 800 or so, depending on the edition (obviously). The trial is one of the more interesting parts.

I'm surprised that you would find Beethoven more immediately attractive than Brahms. I would call them pretty much even, overall, in that respect, with a lot of variation from one work to the next. Have you tried Brahms's 4th?

Mac, do you have a particular recording of the 4th that you like? I'll try it. I just find Brahms a bit murky and turgid.

"Why did you stop after 600 or 700 pages?!" Live happens. It usually means Christmas break is over or something like that.

Like how I didn't finish Ivanhoe a couple of years back because I ran out of leisure time.

By the way, the 3rd movement of the 4th was ruined for me by Rick Wakeman.

I was thinking it was one of the movements from the 3rd that he ruined. :-) No, I don't have a particular recording. I'm not that sensitive to interpretation in classical music.

I'm getting ready to start a long overdue reread of Bros. K -- it's been something like 25 years. I'm going to read Marilynne Robinson's new "Gilead" novel Lila first, though. Bros. K ought to take me right up through Christmas.

I think I'm about to read Lila too.


I just started Gilead.

I think you'll find Brothers K pretty interesting, at the very least, Rob.

I liked it well enough the first time, but the only things I've gone back to since my first reading are the Grand Inquistor and some of the stuff related to Alyosha and Zosima.

I really like Gilead - one of my favorite novels of recent years.

I think I mentioned it before, but Rowan Williams's book on Dostoevsky is excellent -- Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction. Williams is not Orthodox, obviously, but he has an excellent handle on Orthodox thought and how it is present in F.D.'s work.

Those are not only the heart of the book philosophically, but some of the most enjoyable reading. I've wondered sometimes if Dostoevsky wouldn't have been just as well off to write philosophical dialogues instead of novels.

Yes, you've mentioned the Williams book. Kind of unlikely that I'll be able to fit a book of criticism into my reading anytime soon, but it does sound worthwhile. Dostoevsky's notion of Holy Russia saving the world seems pretty sad now. His fears proved more prophetic than his hopes.

Robert, one of the more enduring and beloved recordings of Brahms 4th is the one with Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic. One can hear it on YouTube, or buy it.

This is the first I've heard of the new Marilynne Robinson book. I can't say that I'm going to read it anytime soon -- I've been meaning to read Gilead for several years, without success -- but I am glad to hear that she's written a new one.

"without success"--meaning you just haven't gotten to it, or that you had a go at it and didn't finish it?

I just mean that I haven't got around to the book yet. I'm sure that once I start it, I'll enjoy it.

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