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.