My rating: 5 of 5 stars
While this story of nihilist-socialist radicals run amok in provincial Russia is touted as Dostoevsky’s political novel, his pamphlet novel, there’s surprisingly little substantial ideological discussion or debate. Dostoevsky does send up the intellectual left in terms that remain amusingly relevant, from its notorious circular-firing-squad social dynamics to the feckless radical chic of social elites. But the novel instead emphasizes the emptiness of its radical conspirators. They desire to burn and negate, ostensibly on the theory that universal destruction will clear the ground for a better future—but clearly, in the case of the frightening sociopath Pyotr Stepanovich above all, their nihilism is undertaken for its sake and its own pleasure, as an end in itself, since they are a lost generation with literally nothing to live for. The older generation of radicals—the Frenchified Voltaire-reading “liberals of the ’40s” represented by Pyotr’s father Stepan Trofimovich—look on in horror because this ferocious and murderous counter-Enlightenment is not what they’d had in mind, even though, the novel argues, their materialism and atheism necessarily brought it about by removing the metaphysical bulwarks against nihilation. Ironically, as Joyce Carol Oates points out, the novel suggests at its conclusion that the nihilists’ initial project wasn’t entirely wrong: their destructiveness will purge Russia of nihilism, as Christ drove the demons from their human victim into the Gadarene swine, and therefore lead to spiritual regeneration.
Demons is formally bold, narrated by a self-effacing and facetious participant in the events, a member of the radical circles, one who reports in great detail—and often in an inappropriately comic tone—on intimate events he could not possibly have witnessed, but only when it suits him. This has the effect of holding the events of the novel at a distance, so that we never get close enough to the characters to grasp their motivations fully; hugely important events—Stavrogin’s love affairs with Darya and Liza. e.g.—happen offstage and come to us by hearsay. The novel is oblique and sometimes confusing, like a tragedy narrated by Laurence Sterne. Like the off-center camera angles in a horror movie, these strance narrative choices reinforce the novel’s sense of a world gone wrong.
A last note on the novel’s “tragic hero” Stavrogin. Printed in an appendix is the suppressed chapter in which he confesses an unspeakable crime to a monk; this is much the most harrowing and horrifically memorable thing in the novel, even though Dostoevsky never restored it to the text after the editor of the magazine in which Demons was serialized refused to publish it. But even with that chapter, Stavrogin never really comes into focus—he is a centerless self, afflicted with spiritual lassitude, which he self-medicates with sin and crime as if to pinch himself awake—and I didn’t quite believe that he was a great one brought low, as in classical tragedy. He does remind me somewhat of Macbeth—a gifted man who seems to sleepwalk into a life of degradation largely because the world he lives in is visited by a storm of evil. This sense of fatedness makes him tragic, but to me he lacks the persuasive gravity, the anguished willfulness, of Raskolnikov or Ivan Karamazov.