I recently typed up some notes on truth-telling in writing – its importance, I suppose. I just realized its mad importance. I’ve been reading Dostoyevsky’s “The Devils” and it’s been a long time since I ached to read after I put the book down. I’m flying through it. It began as a rather silly, cute character sketch of a sloppy poet and his benefactress in their old age, and it’s quickly growing more and more sinister. I laughed a lot at the beginning at the familiar hilarity and the biting satire, but now my laughs are the guilty, slightly frightened kind. The story quickly grew sinister, and seemingly innocent eccentricities are swinging wildly to and fro. Kavrogin exerts a terrifying influence without even trying – almost Lucifer incarnate! And Peter Verkhovensky is despicable. I desperately hope Shatov will not be killed, and Mary the Cripple – I hope she returns. She is interesting and could be the catalyst for a new development.
I think the reason it grows so creepy is that at the beginning, you don’t catch much of a glimpse of the narrator. It seems like a typical Dostoyevsky novel, where the narrator is omniscient and bodiless, observing the events around him with complete reliability and scientific accuracy. But then, the narrator begins to get a personality, and you realize slowly that he is writing the book post facto. Many things are shrouded in shadow. He often says “we all understood it later” or mysterious hints like that, and even the most innocent-seeming events seem to gain hidden darkness. That characterizes the novel well.
The people are not totally normal or totally weird. The mad nihilist Kirilov is introduced as a highly irritable fellow – you see his sinister side over a cup of tea, when he grows all deliberate and dreamily detached talking about how he longs for the day when all will think suicide and living is the same, when God and fear have been banished forever. Peter Verkhovensky seems normal enough – incredibly rude, though – until he madly worships Kavrogin, when his glib tongue rattles off insane visions of grandeur. You have the ambitious socialite Mrs. Kavrogin and her friend Mr. Verkhovensky representing some petty ridiculousness that doesn’t make you uncomfortable at all. Then, Lisa’s past, her tormented soul, begin to be unpacked, and even she, a socialite, is surrounded in sinister shade. Everything is thrown in and out of the light so frequently, that the reader grows quite dizzy, wondering if there really is something rotten in the state of Denmark, or not. Liputin is just boringly a liar. Peter Verkovensky is chillingly a liar. I should make a list of foils. The funny thing is, you never get an accurate look at who exactly the narrator is. He gives the relations of all the other characters in great detail – their parents, their histories, their personalities – but he never describes himself. But from the way he writes, I see he takes delight in tantalizing readers.
These nihilists – some of them bite people’s ears, others are not philosophically entangled but in it for the thrill of revolution. Verkhovensky is a rabble rouser. Kavrogin is a psychopath. Kirilov and Shatov are both fiercely independent but in different ways. I don’t really get Shatov, to be honest. He just seems to get mad a lot and not trust anybody. Yet he’s lovable, for all that. Kirilov is most unlovable. He just drinks tea 24/7. Kavrogin is so magnetic and charismatic he can enchant an entire town. I wonder if he will become a dictator. But I think he’s too nihilistic and aimless and bored and existentialist.