What on earth can you say about Dostoyevsky’s The Devils? The book is an absolute mess. Frequently you find yourself losing the threads of the plot. The amount of detail, relentlessly piled on – purposely, it appears to be part of the book’s style – is dizzying. You read in a constant state of wonder and exasperation: when will the author come to the point? I marveled that Dostoyevsky could keep it up.
This is my second reading of The Devils, which Dostoyevsky wrote mainly for money, and called his ‘tendentious’ novel. (He vowed to put all his energy into a serious last novel, The Brothers Karamazov.) My first impressions were that this is a comedy novel, full of buffoonery, mixed with equal parts political melodrama. At the time I thought it brilliant, even a top five novel amongst my favourites. I presumed a second reading would give me more of a grasp of what the novel is actually about, or trying to say. I’m still bamboozled.
The plot he basically took from contemporaneous real events. A so-called ‘gang of five’ plot various disturbances which they hope will culminate in the toppling of the state. They have been printing and distributing political pamphlets and writings on their ideology and political program. Four of the five murder one of their own who they suspect will squeal on them. It is this murder that basically creates the climax of the novel, yet most of the story (close to 700 pages) is pure, raw psychology. Every single confused, contradictory thought that has ever gone through your head whilst in the midst of some type of panic or crisis is described in the most comprehensive detail imaginable. That is the book’s great strength.
Here’s some paradoxical dialogue for you:
‘My dear friend, the real truth always sounds improbable, do you know that? To make the truth sound probable you must always mix a little lie with it. People have always done so.’
Why do I think it a comedy? Well, its campy, theatrical style for one. It’s almost like something out of Oscar Wilde. Surely Wilde would love the character of Mrs Stavrogin.
‘Mrs Stavrogin was of a straightforward and frankly proud disposition, with, if I may put it that way, a propensity for taking things by direct assault. And she always showed a preference for open warfare.’
Or there is this passage:
‘In a word, I am thinking of arranging a literary matinee, then a light luncheon, then an intermission, and in the evening of the same day a ball. We thought of starting the evening with tableaux vivants, but that apparently would be too expensive, and so there will be for the public one or two quadrilles in masks and fancy dress representing well-known literary movements.’
Oscar Wilde would have loved to have written this menacing novel, if only he had the powers to do so. Its light, frothy style – almost frivolous really – dances at the mouth of some terrible abyss. That abyss is murder and mayhem. From the literary salons of Mrs Stavrogin to the evil political machinations of Peter Verkhovensky, ideology soon leads to murder. What I don’t understand about this novel, however, is why Dostoyevsky married this flighty, gossipy style of narrative (it’s narrated in the first person by someone who was there at all these events, or later heard about them at second hand) with a story about political ruthlessness.
The only two other novels I can think of that work in a similar vein are Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children and Mary McCarthy’s The Group.
Read this book for its brilliant style and psychological scalpel knife.