Monday, 4 February 2013

Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky (5/5)

First published: 1872
Original title:
Бесы, transliteration: Bésy, ”demons”
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: Constance Garnett, 1916
Page count: 694

The back says: In 1869 a young Russian was strangled, shot through the head and thrown into a pond. His crime? A wish to leave small group of violent revolutionaries, from which he had become alienated. Dostoevsky takes this real-life catastrophe as the subject and culmination of Devils, a title that refers the young radicals themselves and also to the materialistic ideas that possessed the minds of many thinking people Russian society at the time.

The satirical portraits of the revolutionaries, with their naivety, ludicrous single-mindedness and readiness for murder and destruction, might seem exaggerated - until we consider their all-too-recognisable descendants in the real world ever since. The key figure in the novel, however, is beyond politics. Nikolay Stavrogin, another product of rationalism run wild, exercises his charisma with ruthless authority and total amorality. His unhappiness is accounted for when he confesses to a ghastly sexual crime - in a chapter long suppressed by the censor.

This prophetic account of modern morals and politics, with its fifty-odd characters, amazing events and challenging ideas, is seen by some critics as Dostoevsky's masterpiece.

I say: To say that I understood everything in this novel would be a blatant lie, because I didn’t. Far from it. I don’t know enough Russian history to make such claims. However, that didn’t take away anything from the pleasure I had of reading this. If anything, it’ll enhance the experience when I re-read this in the future,

because we all know I will.

This novel is confusing in a lot of ways, partly because there are so many different characters (as always with Dostoevsky) and partly due to the history issue and all the different philosophical and political ideologies. Oh, and the constant French that they never bother to translate so I have to read with Google translate by my side.

I hate that.

Once you get past those issues (hint: you don’t) this is an amazing story told in such an amazing way. One of the reasons I love Dostoevsky is due to his ability to entwine all the characters’ lives in the most detailed of ways, making every minute occurrence or utterance important in the coming events. He masterfully weaves in the history, philosophy and political views of the characters without it interfering with the flow of the prose. Yes, there are a few lot of monologues, but for someone who is interested in these subjects it’s a delight to read.

And there’s humour in here, as well.

So, what’s the story? In short it’s about Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky trying to start a segment of revolutionaries in the area. He is desperate to get Nikolay Vsevolodovich Stavrogin to join and tries pretty much everything from bribery to extortion to make this happen. At the same time we are introduced to all the other revolutionaries, as well as their families and other townspeople.

Basically, there’s one of every kind in here.

Anyone who knows me (or reads m reviews) knows that I love philosophy, and especially existentialism and absurdism, so this novel was all the more interesting to me because it was full of discussions about it. I really enjoyed reading the philosophy of Alexei Nilych Kirilov which was that a man can only be free when he no longer fears death, and he can only prove this by killing himself, and by doing so becoming a god. It’s very absurdist and my beloved Albert Camus discusses this in his essays. Another element that I really enjoyed was the ways in which Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky manipulated and played with everyone – it was fascinating how he got away with it.

The Devils (demons) in this novel are all the different –isms that the characters adhere to and that lead them astray in life. Wiki has an outline of them all (for anyone who cares to know more in depth) and I’ll just round off by saying that I could easily start reading this again right now, and I am looking forward to meeting all these people again.

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