One of the noteworthy reading things I did in 2015 was to go back to Dostoevsky after years and years away. I did it with one of his late works, and definitely among the best things he ever wrote, Demons (alternatively translated as The Possessed). It’s a major novel of his coming in at over 700 pages, and possibly the book of his that has aged the best.
Demons concerns itself with the machinations of would-be revolutionaries in the middle of Russia’s 19th century, which, effectively, are petty members of the nobility of those who manage to exploit them to lead a nobility-like life. The plot centers around an attempt to foster a revolution in a small Russian town, and earlier this year I compared it to Krasznahorkai for the way in which the townspeople become caught up in their own madness, with predictably tragic results. This is a book that argues against nihilism by showing you just how awful that philosophy ends up being in pretty much everybody’s hands.
Possibly the most interesting thing about this book is the manner of its telling, which is through an outsider who observes the events from a distance and eventually becomes caught up within the machinations. The voice modulates quite a bit, from ironic to horrified to confused and distraught, and because the narrator only has so much knowledge you, the reader, get a very direct taste of the weirdness and perfidy on display in this story. It’s one of those stories that oftentimes feels bizarre, simply because you cannot fathom the motivations of the characters, even though you are aware that they are extraordinarily calculating and acting according to very clear motivations, albeit known only to themselves.
The book is fascinating both for its character portraits, whose insights into the nature of humanity are valuable to this day, and for what truth it manages to uncover about humanity as a political animal. In my read the book remains shocking and very humorous, and it does give a certain amount of historical insight into a period that remains very much relevant for Europe and Russia as historical entities. There is also one very outstanding scene where a puffed up “famous” novelist is entirely removed of his dignity, which I found very satisfying and will be very satisfying to many of you.