Many years ago I read a lot of Dostoevsky—the books I chose to read were what you would call his “greatest hits,” i.e., Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov. I read these books so long ago that now it’s almost as if I didn’t read them at all. I’m such a completely different reader and thinker that I feel like I’d need to experience them again to really claim that they are part of the reading I do these days.
But anyway, the point is that my experience with Dostoevsky is ancient, and for a long time I held off reading any more of him (perhaps unduly influenced by Nabokov’s heavy scorn). So I think it’s noteworthy that I recently came back to him. I was curious to see what sorts of impressions he would make on me now, and I was also interested to read something completely different from what I had been reading. (I think a massive 19th-century Russian novel is going to be pretty different from whatever you happen to be reading at the moment.)
The book of Dostoevsky’s I chose was Demons. I wanted something sizable that would live with me for a while, and I didn’t want to re-read something of his I’d already read. So my choices were pretty much either that or The Idiot.
I chose Demons because it seemed to better suit my mood at the time, and also because a couple of years ago I had seen Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy, which is very much like Demons in some significant ways. The Coast of Utopia may be the very best work Stoppard has ever done. It’s all about the Russian revolutionary class in the mid-19th century—that is, about their rampant Francophilism, the many competing political doctrines that no one can really settle on (not least of which because no one really knows what they mean in practice), the Tsarist repression, etc, etc. It’s kind of Stoppard’s master statement on idealism in politics and the human quest for a more perfect society. It’s an extraordinarily compelling work, that rare piece of literature that seems to have equal amounts of insight into the personal and the historical (and their intersections). (And the main character of the first play in the trilogy is a literary critic. So how could I not be taken?)
Demons covers similar territory—that is, revolutionary politics, idealism, human attempts to build a better social order, etc—and I was interested to see how Dostoevsky’s depiction of the revolutionary political class in Russia at the time compared with Stoppard’s. Obviously, there are some big differences here: Dostoevsky was writing contemporaneously with these developments, whereas with Stoppard it was all well over a century in the past. Dostoevsky was a Russian, whereas Stoppard is an Englishman of East European extraction. And Dostoevsky wrote novels, whereas Stoppard is a playwright.
Demons did prove to be an interesting counterpoint to The Coast of Utopia, but that’s ot what I would like to talk about here. For what I did not anticipate with Demons was how much it would reference another beloved contemporary author: Laszlo Krasznahorkai. With hindsight, this realization is not much of a surprise: Dostoevsky is always interested by the ways in which (and reasons why) the baser instincts of humans are allowed to be released into action, and he also is interested in the social systems of control that attempt to keep those base instincts in check. This is, of course, precisely what we find in books like Satantango, The Melancholy of Resistance, and War & War, which give us exacting accounts of how human order gives way to chaos and disaster. And, unsurprisingly, if you look at interviews with Krasznahorkai, you will find him listing Dostoevsky as an influence. Jonathon Sturgeon also perceptively referenced Demons in his review of Seiobo There Below.
In many ways, Demons feels very much like a book Krasznahorkai might have written. It is all about an incident in a provincial town in Russia, where the prevailing order gives way to social chaos, which then enables arson and murder. At first, the sizable book (nearly 700 pages in my edition) seems to be a shaggy tale, darting about here and there for no clear reason. It’s only after a couple hundred pages that you begin to see that Dostoevsky is carefully introducing us to several of the key nodes crucial to maintaining order in the fabric of society in the town. He is also introducing us to the individuals who will eventually become responsible for tearing down that order. Dostoevsky is sensitive to what motivates everyone to act as they do, what are their prevailing interests, what codes they live by, what ideas influence them, what people they are susceptible to. All of this is in service to showing exactly how order is maintained, and then showing how it can be made fragile and eventually fall apart. The action of the book climaxes about 500 pages in, where the provincial power brokers are subjected to unimaginable indignities by the townspeople, which then opens the door for escalation, which eventually leads to chaos and destruction.
I don’t want to muck through the parallels here with Krasznahorkai in painful detail, but I think it’s safe to say that if you are familiar with his work, you should be able to note some of these parallels based on the short description I’ve provided. I find Demons a fascinating counterpoint because of course so much is different: Krasznahorkai is working in a communist (or even post-communist) environment, whereas Dostoevsky is pre; the two writers have very different approaches as regards characterization, structuring, the level of allegory they will tolerate, their stances on the role played by spirituality, and of course their ultimate interpretations of what this all means and how it is possible. And then, not least of all is the very different approach of each writer to the sentence and the paragraph.