27 January 2011

Demons, at last

Concerned readers may be pleased or appalled to learn I have finally finished Demons. Dostoevsky may be a writer for young people - I remember the joy with which I first read The Idiot in my teens; recently I found it just about impossible.

Thinking about the book, I found myself wanting to say that at the end the central character finds comfort in the gospel ... but remembered that this character (Stepan Trofimovich) isn't usually considered the main character. In fact there are three principal characters, two of whom are father and son. Hmm.

It is possible to see this long book as a blasphemous parody of the Trinity. Dostoevsky blasphemous? Well, not entirely, because there is a fourth character, the narrator, who could therefore be considered an evangelist. I'll come back to this.

Very near the end of the book, though, Stepan Trofimovich finds comfort in the gospels, in particular in the parable of the demons and swine. It's significant, of course, because it ostensibly explains the title. In a post-Christian Russia, demons rush into the empty space where faith used to be. It's a notion we still hear today: once people have stopped believing in God, they'll believe in anything. When Stepan finds comfort in the Bible which he has for long ignored, we can read this as suggesting that Russia needs to return to its Christianity.

We could, but if that was all we needed to know, a lot of paper (700 pages) has been wasted. This reading is just too small. Even if we step outside the proper range of criticism and find that this is exactly what Dostoevsky (the man) would have said, it's not what the book says.

The role of the narrator is crucial. He's not particularly unreliable, but he is unrealistically knowledgable. There's occasional comment on the research he carried out in preparing to tell the story, but in general, he's presented as silently, invisibly present in every scene in the book. I think we can take this impossibility as a structural equivalent to the fact that the book is bigger than any summary can be. It's a way of saying that the book contains far more than Dostoevsky could have said. (But yet he did.)

14 January 2011


I'm almost ashamed that this post reveals how slowly I'm reading Demons, but here, on p 327, a young man has killed himself after wasting the family fortune, and the inquisitive ladies of the town have gone to see the body.
Generally, in every misfortune of one's neighbour there is always something that gladdens the observer's eye - and that even no matter who you are. Our ladies stared silently, their companions distinguished themselves by by sharpness of wit and a supreme presence of mind. One of them observed that this was the best solution and that the boy even could not have come up with anything smarter;

Two uses of the word "even" there, neither of which seems to fit. I suspect there's a word in the Russian that doesn't easily translate into English, like doch in German. It's a kind of modifier of the tone of the sentence, which in English would be rendered by inflection. P-V have translated it, but probably shouldn't have. They've produced awkward English sentences when - I bet - there's nothing awkward about the originals.

But while I'm here, let's note that Dostoevsky has no qualms about using fairly obvious plot structures. There's a duel, and we see the preliminaries with the narrator expressing sorrow that he has to recount what happened too quickly, but he then delays, to give a description of one of the duellers.

And there's also a strange, almost picaresque, structure, as in the scene I've quoted from. I feel fairly sure that the suicide has no importance in the plot, but it's a "state of the nation" vignette. It also, of course, delays the main plot movement, which, as I've realised, is what writing is all about.