Tuesday, December 15, 2015

He hated the steak itself - some trouble understanding Dostoevsky's Devils - we'd gaze at him for the rest of our lives and be afraid of him

Writing about Emma, I idly wondered if I should ever write about books I have only read once.  Now I will reinforce the idea by writing about a book I have read once and do not understand.

Of course he was “strange,” but there was much that was unclear about all of this.  There was some hidden meaning to it.  (Part I, Ch. 4.3)

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Devils (1872, tr. Michael Katz) was baffling.  It is the most chaotic Dostoevsky I have ever read, far more so than The Brothers Karamazov (1880), which I had thought was the outer limit for a functioning novel.  Maybe I was right.

“It always seemed that you’d take me off to some place where an enormous, man-sized evil spider lived and we’d gaze at him for the rest of our lives and be afraid of him.  That’s how we’d spend our mutual love.”  (II, 3.1)

Now, I love those lines.  I recently read a Dadaist novel, actually about Dadaists and their associates and ideas, A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas (1985), a deliberately crazy, random  book, but I do not think Vila-Matas got anywhere close to what this (crazy) woman says to her (crazy) lover as they argue about whether they should run away to Switzerland, split up, commit suicide, etc.

The Argumentative Old Git wrote a thorough catalog of the novel’s obstacles to understanding.  The inconsistent narrator, the seemingly random introduction of characters and the way major characters vanish for long stretches and minor characters suddenly take over the book “as Dostoyevsky’s attention is captured by other matters,” the unsettling shifts in tone as a comic novel lurches into terror, and range of semi-coherent and incompatible ideas.

“His sister?  His sick sister?  With a whip?” Stepan Trofimovich cried out, as if he himself had suddenly been thrashed with a whip.  “What sister?  Which Lebyadkin?”  (I, 3.5)

That is just what I had been asking at that exact moment.  How rare to be in such sympathy with a Dostoevsky character.

Some of these problems are artistic flaws, problems Dostoevsky would have fixed if he were the kind of writer who went back and fixed problems.  The abundance of ideas and points of view is not a flaw but a difficulty.  The weird narrator, too, or so I guess after one reading.

The best part of the novel, which jolts into movement about four hundred pages and really only occupies about 150 pages near the end, is about a small group of revolutionary anarchists who murder one of their associates.  A whole series of violent deaths precede and follow.  Critics frequently refer to Devils, but I do not remember ever seeing a reference that was not to this one part of the novel.   I understand: it is bloody and tense and although nightmarish it is coherent, and is thus memorable.

He counted every piece of steak Peter put into his mouth; he hated him for the way he opened his mouth, chewed his food, and smacked his lips over the fattiest morsels; he hated the steak itself.  (III, 4.2)

Randomness, or what looks like randomness, is very hard to remember.  The first four hundred and large chunks of the last three hundred pages of this novel are going to be darn hard to remember.

14 comments:

  1. Devils is like every Dostoyevski novel written, all at the same time. There's the romance plot, the religious plot, the revolutionary plot, the anti-revolutionary plot, the set pieces about this and that, the comic scenes, and God knows what I'm forgetting.

    Looking back, I might think that the two most important parts of the novel are the scenes building up to and including the big social event, the ball or whatever, and then the scene in the church, with the long written confession and the priest's sermon. I keep forgetting that the protagonist--if that's what he is--was a child rapist. Devils is a violent book, all the stops pulled, moving in every direction at once. Great stuff.

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  2. I can see now how the simple fact that the Karamazovs are brothers helps organize that novel compared to this one, where most of the characters are only incidentally connected. Amazed and impressed that Dostoevsky could keep it straight. "Straight" is not the right word.

    The ball is insane. The confession is wild, but what a complication that the chapter was originally censored. Stavrogin is quite different if that chapter is omitted. One more complication - imagining the two novels, the one with Stavrogin''s confession and the one without.

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    1. Himadri makes a good argument in a comment on my blog (I forgot that I wrote three posts about this novel) that the confession doesn't count because Dostoyevski knew the censors probably wouldn't allow it, though if you read D's Artist's Notebooks, you might be convinced that D didn't care about the censors, and that his imagined version of the novel contained the confession because D believed strongly in his own artistic vision, or just in his own opinions. He was a rabid fellow.

      I see that when I read the novel, I felt it was pretty well organized, at least for Dostoyevski. I remember frustrations with the author because any number of his scenes bog down with careful and drawn-out descriptions of detailed, repetitive action, as if every second that passed had to be accounted for. "Just get on with it," I kept mumbling. I wonder if it took him half an hour just to walk down the block, if he got distracted by everything he saw, lecturing the shopkeepers, the cats, the pigeons, the lampposts, forgetting where he was going in the first place.

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  3. As I understand it, Dostoyevsky was writing the novel even as it was being serialised, and the latter half of the novel was written in the knowledge that Stavrogin's Confession would not be part of the whole. How Dostoyevsky would have written it had he known otherwise is anyone's guess.

    The novel does go flying off in all directions, but given that chaos is what it is depicting, that seems quite apt: the form reflects the content. But to what extent this was a deliberate artistic strategy and to what extent this was a happy accident of a writer who preferred improvising to planning, is probably impossible to say.

    As ever, I find Dostoyevsky difficult to defend by any criteria of artistic merit I would apply to other authors: and yet, I cannot deny the impact he makes on me. He is a law unto himself, but trying to figure out what that law is is beyond me. It's fun trying though.

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    1. I sort of think of FD as a lot like the Expressionist painters. Maybe not beautiful, maybe often quite uneven, but almost always affecting and otherwise provoking. He was a weird cat, that Fyodor.

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  4. Dostoevsky "wrote" this one like he wrote The Idiot and Karamazov, pacing around his room while dictating to his wife, then, when he hit the right point sending the mass of it off to the magazine. Wild that it works at all.

    I am so at a loss with this book - "law unto himself," yes - that I can only answer, to the idea that it is well organized, "If you say so." I don't see it. Right now it looks like Dostoevsky at his messiest. But I don't see what I can't see, right?

    Some of those repetitive actions, including some dialogues, are serious problems. A few are disasters. No wonder no one mentions certain scenes, especially compared to Karamazov. They make no sense and no one would miss them.

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  5. Frankly, everything Dostoevsky wrote was probably a bit bonkers, but it was genius too. I started this one and got derailed - must go back to it...

    kaggsysbookishramblings

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  6. Derailment is a serious risk with this book. The "Where is this going?" question is a mystery for several hundred pages.

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  7. It's a vague and nonspecific answer, but I almost always felt when reading it that Devils moved constantly, had a building though bumpy momentum, toward some kind of vortex of lunacy. We were going someplace, Fyodor and I, and he knew roughly the way to get us there. Maybe sometimes he forgot the destination, but the train was still on the track, heading for madness. Part of that, I am sure, was paratextual knowledge, not contained in the book itself. So sort of like a companion taking you on a "shortcut" through various madhouses and parties on your way to his house. I'll have to read this one again. Mary's read it in, I believe, every English translation and declares it a laugh riot from start to finish. Not exactly my interpretation, but she's always seen Dostoyevesky as primarily a comic/satirical novelist.

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  8. That sounds like what I would call "badly organized."

    Dostoevsky is one of the writers who had to write in order to know what he wanted to write. Lots of writers are like this, but many of them take greater steps to go back and hide the process. Dostoevsky lets you see all of the steps, including the dead ends and backtracking.

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    1. Yes - it's almost like being in the writer's workshop. It's a very messy and untidy workshop, though!

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  9. I have always thought that Dostoyevsky was either the worst great novelist or the greatest bad novelist ever. His complete inability to practice what I call "scene control" is certainly one of his most frustrating qualities, yet brilliance often results when the reader works to unravel the scene and try to block it as if it were on stage. I have read all of the novels and some of the shorter works; I thought The Adolescent the most difficult to get through,and the one for "completers" only. Crime and Punishment is by far the most accessible. I haven't read "Demons" or "Devils" or "The Possessed" (whichever title it may go by) in years and years, but once again, Tom, you remind me that I must go back and re-read these great, deeply flawed works, since they still outshine almost all contemporary fiction...

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    1. When trying to rate and evaluate what I've read, my starting point tends to be "what impact did this have on me?" I then try to work back from that and figure out how and why it made the impact. With Dostoyevsky novels, the impact it makes on me is terrific, and yet, when I try to work back from there, I find it very difficult to understand the "hows" and the "whys", for, all too frequently, all I see is a godawful mess. And yet, even on repeated readings, it continues to make that impact. All too often, I just feel like throwing up my hands and saying "I don't know - I give up!"

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  10. I am long overdo to revisit Crime and Punishment. Next year, next year. You are right, Christopher - it has been useful to imaginatively move certain scenes onto the stage. Dostoevsky is basically acting them out as he dictates them.

    Why starting question is always "What is this?" Dostoevsky makes that question challenging enough that I do not always get past it.

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