The Devils

Written by Fyodor Dostoevsky

(Penguin Classics, 1954, 704 pages)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

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For a great deal of this book I was under the impression that it was a sort of first sketch of what would become the nonpareil masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. But it is not only that. It might not even be that at all. As with all great works, it takes time to process its full significance. But it is a great work, despite some initial quibbles the reader might feel while reading it.

One of my quibbles was that it sometimes has the feel of a play. This is particularly so of the first of the three ‘parts’ which make it up. It is very heavy on dialogue and, save for the final third of the book, very short on ‘action.’ One does periodically wonder how long an author can make a book out of so little. Nevertheless, by the end, one is satisfied that the time was worth it: the long strands have been woven into something very great.

Let us begin with the title itself and move outward from there. Sometimes it is translated, The Demons, and sometimes The Possessed. I do not know which would be the most accurate of the Russian word, but have the feeling that The Possessed is too peremptory, thus leaving the reader with less freedom to investigate the subtle psychological disquisition the author is therein making.

Next, let us refer to Dostoevsky’s biography. The book is set in 1870. Merely fifteen years before that the author had been in prison and in exile in Siberia for anti-Tsarist political activity, having barely escaped execution. Quite understandably, the sentence had inflicted a heavy psychological toll on him, but, rather surprisingly, did not have the effect of hardening him in his political beliefs, which such punishments often do, but in dissuading him of them. He was to become rather ‘conservative’ by contrast. He turned his back on the atheist materialism of his prior socialistic leaning, to adopt Russian Orthodoxy. We see him contrasting these two positions in a variety of ways by means of the many and varied characters of The Devils.

Although I am quite convinced that I have not yet become conscious of all the novel was attempting to accomplish, clearly it is a powerful critique of his former beliefs. Let us bear in mind that although Dostoevsky had moved beyond them, his world had not, which we know from the fact that within two generations these ideas would destroy the Russian Empire altogether. fraIn The Devils, then, we have an insider’s view. And even while I bear in mind the novelist’s greatest modern interpreter’s, Joseph Frank’s, view that Dostoevsky had never been a hard-core believer in ‘the cause,’ The Devils provides a very accurate portrayal of the mindset of its adherents. Once or twice in the span of its 700-hundred pages is clearly stated the plan of the antagonists: to destabilize Russian society so as to make it ready for the new order the ‘devils’ have in mind. In the end, they succeed only in part, at least on the scale of the town in which the novel is set. What they effect more than anything, however, is their own self-destruction. Yes, they do real damage, but the poverty of their ideas is revealed in the fact of their greater self-destruction.

It is at once difficult to determine who the main character of the novel is. I would say that there are at least three main characters: Stepan Trofimovich, a fifty-something year-old retired intellectual; Vavara Petrovna, Stepan’s best friend, a wealthy, strong-willed woman; and her estranged, and, not to mention, strange, son, Nikolai Vsevolodovich. The list of significant lesser characters is too long to mention here, but certainly numbers around a dozen. It is quite difficult for a non-Russian to keep all of these names straight. Russians always use the double name, which includes the patronymic, the father’s name, as the second name. For example, among the significant lesser characters is included Pyotr Stepanovich, that is to say, Stepan Trofimovich’s son.

Some might say that as an essay on ideologies The Devils falls short of the sophistication of The Brothers Karamazov. I would disagree. The fact is, the book says less in a ‘triumphalistic’ manner of Christianity than Brothers Karamazov does. There isn’t in this work anything like the Legend of the Grand Inquisitor or the character, Father Zosima, for example, that might serve as a comforting idealization for Christian readers. Nevertheless, The Devils provides a far more life-like treatment of the motivations and characteristics of the anti-Christian position—nihilism or socialism, whatever you would like to call it—than can be found in Karamazov.

As with all of his mature great novels, Devils is a serious book. This does not mean that it is unremittingly dark. Of course, the point was to show the destructive nature of anti-Christian philosophies. This is a lesson we would do well today to heed. It never ceases to amaze me how historically illiterate we are today. It is too much for us to admit that the best civilization is in some sense Christian. We lack the ability to imagine a version of Christian culture other than Calvin’s Geneva, Philip II’s Spain, or 17th century Salem. This inability in us is precisely the fruit of the nearly two centuries of effort by the devils among us. It is cliché to refer to Dostoevsky as a prophet. It is always possible for any keen observer to see what he saw.

Chekhov: A Biography

Written by V. S. Pritchett

(Penguin Books, 1988, 235 pages)

Reviewed by Colin Kerr

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Anton Chekhov is not as well known today in the West as he has been. He is, nevertheless, widely acclaimed as the master of the short story. The relative unpopularity of the short story today might explain something of his neglect by us. Pritchett’s book is now about thirty years old. That doesn’t mean it’s obsolete, but it does, once again, indicate something of Chekhov’s obscurity.

Upon opening the book, the reader will right away be struck by the author’s writing style: short, choppy sentences. That’s not a criticism; it’s an observation. It’s not how I write, but it is appropriate, given the author’s goal in this book – to present an overview of Chekhov’s life and works. As such, Pritchett hits his mark, for better or for worse. Someone wishing to “really get to know Chekhov” will be unsatisfied. Someone wishing to “place” all of his individual works within the timeframe of his life will consider this book perfect. One might be apt to say that some lives are just not interesting enough to merit a full-length biography, but interest is in the eye of the beholder. If we take a hint from Pritchett, Chekhov was a unique and perplexing individual. After having read this book I can only say that, though he was not a “great man,” he had an irrepressible ability to see things in or about people that certainly merit recording. He did not write on the grand scale like the two most famous Russian writers, nor in the pleasing, florid style of Turgenev. And yet, one would be hard pressed to find more accurate presentations of basic human life anywhere in literature. He wrote well on the small scale. This is not a remark about his genre of preference, but about the type of story that interested him. Hardly anything great ever happened in his stories. One of his best, which I mentioned before in my review of the Twentieth Century Russian Reader, The Bishop, is simply about the death of a bishop, on an Easter in an insignificant locale. Perhaps the most dramatic event in one of his stories that we hear about in Pritchett overview concerns a baby who is killed by a woman in a fit of jealous rage.

No, Chekhov’s interest was in basic human psychology. There is more than a hint of the dismal and depressing here. I am reminded of Gorky’s My Childhood, etc. But, unlike Gorky, he is not making a social protest. He is simply describing life as he sees it. I like one of his literary maxims to which Pritchett makes mention: he was about describing things well, not about drawing conclusions for the reader. I like that. Instinctively, I know that to be correct about fiction.

An excellent economical overview of the life and works of the great writer. Neither more nor less than that.

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Anton Chekhov with Leo Tolstoy

My Reading Intentions for 2017

 

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I am always thinking about what to do next. The beginning of January, it seems, is the only time you are really allowed – even expected – to talk about your intentions.

I have lately discovered the glory of Audible. I am currently listening to Don Quixote, a book as long as it is important to the literary history of the West. It is just so great that I can knock this one off over the course of my lengthy commutes. After I am finished with this 40 hour book, I am planning on listening to donMilton’s Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained and then perhaps Herodotus’ Histories.  Audio books are a great way to get to know books that one might not otherwise have time for.

Most of my reading is going to be directed at Russian novels, though. This has to do with my research on Tolstoy, but also has to do with the late and somewhat unrelated fascination I have developed for 20th century Russian works. I plan to read such works as And Quiet Flows the Don (Sholokhov), which I plan to read very soon, Doctor Zhivago (Pasternak), as well as more works by Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov.

Although I am loath to think there is anything worth reading mannoutside of Russia, I want to expand my repertoire to include Thomas Mann and Kafka. I want to begin with Mann’s Doctor Faustus, but I have yet to decide which Kafka to read first – perhaps The Trial.

And, as you are well aware, I will keep all the subscribers of the Review in the know as to what I have discovered about the world of literature.