The Devils by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Roger Cockrell

Okaaaaaaaayyyyy… I’ve reached the end of my marathon read of Dostoevsky’s masterly book, “The Devils”, and I have the book hangover to end all book hangovers! My marathon served me well, but I had to sprint at the end because I couldn’t stand the suspense and *needed* to find out what happened; I’d become so invested in the characters that they were at times more real than the reality around me – always the sign of a good book. I’ll try to string some coherent thoughts together, but forgive me if I babble a bit occasionally…

First up, it’s worth remembering that this is a BIG book; not only in size (my edition is 698 pages plus notes and extras) but also in its epic narrative sweep and in the range of events and ideas it takes in. It’s stuffed to the brim with fascinating characters, and I’ll only be able to touch on the main ones – so here goes with my impressions of “The Devils”.

Absolute freedom will come only when it doesn’t matter whether one lives or dies. That’s the whole aim.

The story is set in a provincial town and in simple terms tells of the dramatic events that take place when two prodigal sons return to the fold, bringing with them some very modern and disruptive ideas. The sons are Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky and Nikolai Vsevolodovich Stavrogin, men who have been associating abroad and whose parents are scions of the local social circle. Verkhovensky senior is Stepan Trofimovich, an educated gentleman and sometime tutor who in effect has been living off his dear friend, the separated and wealthy Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina, mother of the other returning son. Stepan Trofimovich had in fact been tutor to young Pyotr so the whole motley crew are deeply interwoven. Stepan considers himself a man of learning, having spent his twenty years sponging off of Varvara supposedly working; and Varvara herself enjoys being the local society queen bee. However, prior to the return of the prodigals, rumours starting seeping into town about events in Switzerland; romances are hinted at between Nikolai and Lizaveta Tushina, a local beauty also returning to the fold from Switzerland. And what of the mysterious revolutionary pamphlets which keep appearing? Add into the mix personalities such as the Lebyadkins, brother and sister; the mysterious Shatov; several other characters who make up the nebulous “our group”; the violent and wilful Fedka the convict; plus the local governor von Lembke and his status-conscious wife Yulia Mikhailovna, and you have the recipe for a brilliant and involved novel which follows the disruptive effect of a mix of revolutionary and personal politics on a provincial town.

People were in a strange state of mind at the time. A certain light-headedness became apparent, particularly among the ladies, and it would be wrong to say that this emerged only gradually. Several extraordinarily free-and-easy ideas were blowing about everywhere, as if carried on the wind. There was a light-hearted merriment in the air, which I wouldn’t say was always particularly pleasant. A certain mental derangement had become fashionable.

I’ve commented before, I think, that Dostoevsky tends to write very much in set pieces and “The Devils” is no different – which is not a criticism! The book is narrated in the main by one Anton Lavrentyevich G—v; a close friend of Stepan’s, he’s in many ways a minor character, yet he’s a thread running through much of the story, until the rush of the narrative kind of takes over from him at the end of the book. And the plot is a long and complex one, with many different strands and many different issues; there is critique of social-climbing and status; discussion of new ideas and the ‘women question’; debates on the existence or not of God; moral dilemmas; and of course, revolution, mayhem and murder. Nikolai and Pyotr are contrasting studies in evil – because both *are* evil, though in very different ways – and the development of their characters is chilling to watch.

… As a rule, the Russian people are never more entertained than by some uproarious social scandal.

As Cockrell’s foreword explains, Dostoevsky was initially inspired to start writing a short pamphlet after the real case of the murder of a student by a group of radicals. However, what started as a short work expanded, and ended up as what is really Dostoevsky’s discussion of the ‘Russian question’, the politics of his day, the way forward and the larger questions of what man should actually believe in. As so often, he chose a provincial setting to discuss his major issues; I suppose the shocking effect of the outsiders on a place away from the centre of things can be more spectacular, and he did love his drama. In fact, there are always elements of dramatic farce in Dostoevsky’s work (“The Gambler” springs to mind particularly, with its manic qualities); and he loves to create a story which inexorably builds to an explosive climax!

Dostoevsky in prison 1874 (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

And that kind of narrative is definitely on show here. Dostoevsky is masterfully in control of his material: after he’s established his protagonists (with some vivid – and often very funny – character sketches), hinted at events gone by and introduced the ideas of revolutionary goings on, he hits the reader with a number of dramatic revelations about what’s actually happened abroad. Of course, all of this is building up to a spectacular and marvellous set-piece; this is Yulia Mikhailovna’s fete in aid of governesses, which turns from farce to tragedy and takes up much of the start of part three of the book. However, as well as set-pieces, Dostoevsky is exceptional on characterisation, and his skill at gradually revealing the reality behind the masks of some of his protagonists was stunning. Verkhovensky in particular starts the book coming across as just a slimeball, but as the narrative goes on his real fanaticism is revealed and it’s frightening. Make no mistake, despite the wonderful humour (and I’ve never read a Dostoevsky without any) this is a very dark book that deals with dark topics.

A particular chapter springs to mind, entitled here simply “At Tikhon’s”. It was censored at the original point of publication and never saw the light of day in Dostoevsky’s time; and it *is* distressing, dealing as it does with abusive behaviour by Nicolai Stavrogin (although never in graphic detail). This edition reinstates the chapter at the point in the narrative where Dostoevsky originally placed it, and to my mind it’s essential to the plot, revealing as it does the real character of Nikolai – a debauched, degraded and dissolute person who has nothing to offer the world.

Of course, central to much of the book *is* moral discussion; that of the older generation like Stepan, and the younger group of revolutionaries. Dostoevsky’s aim seems to be to try to get to heart of both group’s beliefs and he in fact seems to find both wanting. It all boils down, I think, to the generational conflict which was such a topic in Russian literature; Turgenev, of course, springs to mind, and in fact Dostoevsky provides a funny, merciless and heavily satirical lampoon of his literary rival in the form of the famous novelist Karmazinov. However, the conflict is also that between the Superfluous Man (exemplified by Stepan) and the new generation of destructive, active men who want to change everything; the latter, however, have no more to offer than the older generation, and simply degenerate into evil wherever they go. And age is no barrier, as by his rejection of the revolutionaries, Nikolai in effect transforms himself into a superfluous man. Yes, “The Devils” is a clash of generations a la Turgenev, but with so much added fire, venom and disaster! The older generation are portrayed as blustering, out of touch idiots, convinced of their status in Russia and blindly believing they’re universally worshipped. The young are seen as mad or dangerous or deluded or simply hooligans. The generational divide never seems to change much, does it??

It is difficult to change gods.

This being Dostoevsky there is, of course, discussion of God and faith; and many of the characters are suffering from the loss of the latter. That disillusionment is what the author seems to think leads to the madness and depravity of many of the characters, although frankly the religious figures are not free from ridicule if Dostoevsky thinks they deserve it. No-one escapes from his relentless pen, neither the old fools nor the young madmen. Where Dostoevsky really excels, however, is in how he captures the mind of the extremist; there was passage after passage that struck a chord with me, and made me realise that little changes under the surface of progress; humans are much the same as they always were. I’ve already quoted one piece which stood out in an earlier post, but I could have pulled out so many – well, here are just a few:

He’s got this system of spying, in which all members of society watch one another and are obliged to inform on each other. Each belongs to all, and all belong to each. All men are slaves, and are equal in this slavery.

You see what happens when you slip in the reins for just a tiny little bit! No, this democratic rabble with their groups of five is of little use as a support; what we need is a single, magnificent, monumental, despotic will that relies on something external and premeditated then the groups of five will gently put their tails between their legs, and the subservience will come in useful when the occasion arises.

This’ll make you laugh: the first thing that everyone finds terribly impressive is a uniform. There’s nothing more powerful than uniform. I purposefully invent ranks and positions: I have a secretary, secret spies, treasurers, chairmen, registrars, their assistants – all much appreciated and splendidly endorsed.

I’ve found my own data confusing, and my conclusion directly contradicts my original idea, my starting point. Beginning with the idea of absolute freedom, I end with the idea of unlimited despotism. I should add, however, that there can be no solution to the social problem other than mine.

Talk about doublespeak and rampant cynicism; Dostoevsky knows human nature well and could recognise where things might end up. As Cockrell states in his foreword: “Dostoevsky went further than any of his predecessors and contemporaries with his insights into the psychology of terrorism, his depiction of what he saw as the catastrophic consequences of atheism and his prescient vision of a society driven to the brink of anarchy, with the spectre of totalitarianism waiting in the wings.” Prescient indeed! And if that doesn’t convince you, just read the chapter depicting the chaotically funny and shambolic meeting of revolutionaries who are all at odds and all with different beliefs and very probably couldn’t organise their way out of a paper bag. It’s hilarious and chilling at the same time; however, as always, when the general mass of people have had enough and start to take action, things begin to go awry. Stepan’s belief in art and beauty seems very naive when faced with the mob…

Don’t you know, do you really not know, that mankind can survive without the English, without Germany, most certainly without the Russian people, without science, without bread, but that without beauty it won’t be able to survive, for then there’d be nothing left to do on earth…

Well, I could go on and on about this wonderfully immersive reading experience but I’d end up risking doing a post almost as long as the book…. 😉 There are so many moments to enjoy in “The Devils”, from the narrator’s breathless and sometimes disingenuous take on events to Stepan’s petulant quarrels with Varvara to the marvellously worded puncturing of the pomposity of Russian society; particularly memorable is Dostoevsky’s fabulously worded description of Karmazinov’s writings (i.e. Turgenev) through the voice of the narrator, which I can’t reproduce here because it’s too long. However, suffice to say he simply dismantles the character’s writing and takes it to pieces in a cleverly done “Brutus is an honourable man” sequence! I got quite attached to the loquacious narrator (even though he can’t possibly have witnessed everything he relates) and on occasion, when discussing “our town”, his voice was very reminiscent of that of the narrator of Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The History of a Town” (which Dostoevsky slyly references at one point…) But there are tragic consequences for some participants that will break your heart, and I confess to becoming quite emotional at one small family’s fate. “The Devils” is most definitely a book of light and shade, deftly and expertly contrasting comedy and tragedy, and it’s quite obvious to see why it’s regarded as one of Dostoevsky’s masterpieces.

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872 © State Tretyakov Gallery

So that’s my response to “The Devils” and I know it’s a book that’s going to continue resonating with me for a long time. It’s a complex, immersive, rambling, thought-provoking, deep, funny and dark book which gets under your skin and inside your soul. My choice of heading for this post was deliberate, as the dramatic sequence of events in the book either changes or destroys pretty much all of the participants; no-one really gets out unscathed at all. Having lived in this book and alongside these characters for a month, the devastating end left *me* emotionally drained and exhausted; although reading “The Devils” didn’t kill me, it’s certainly changed me….


A word on the edition I read; this was a lovely new translation by Roger Cockrell, published by Alma Classics (who kindly provided a review copy – thank you). As usual, there was extra material, extensive notes and supporting information so an ideal version to pick. I have to applaud the translator for his epic undertaking and the narrative read wonderfully, as far as I was concerned; it felt authentically Dostoevskian to me! 😀