The Devils by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

A long book and quite hard going, in some ways. But, in the end, the intensity of it is overwhelming.

A friend of mine described Russian literature as ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ and this book is an example of what he means. It is about a group of revolutionaries and what they get up to in a provincial town in Russia in the late 1800s. Everyone is emotionally a bit unstable and everything is dramatic. The author does not dwell on the ideologies involved; he simply distinguishes between the revolutionaries, who are a mix of the deranged and the cynical; the ‘progressives’, who are liberals; and the reactionaries who are, essentially, the intellectually stunted and isolated people of provincial Russia at the time.

The introduction to my Penguin edition explains that the book is two projects that Dostoyevsky brought together and the join does show, a bit. The first part is written in very disingenuous style, as if the narrator is very naive. But this changes when the focus moves from the petty provincial nobility to the revolutionaries and it becomes more of a report of events.

The role of the narrator is ambiguous; it is not clear where his loyalties lie.

It is a very good study of the psychology behind the application of ideology to real life situations. Humanity is too crooked a timber to fit into systems of belief, without provoking great…well, inhumanity.


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