Starting on Monday, April 18, at Project D, Publishing Perspectives’ examination of the four major novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, we will begin reading The Possessed, or as it’s called in our preferred translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Demons. Described by Joseph Frank as “probably the greatest novel ever inspired by a revolutionary conspiracy,” it is most likely the work of Dostoevsky that speaks most directly to our concerns in the 21st century.
But it much more than that. Again, in the words of Joseph Frank, “ . . . Demons is not only a novel that deals with some of the profoundest issues of the modern world, and indeed of human life –- it is also a riveting page-turner, a great read, a thriller par excellence that is impossible to put down. Great literature AND a page-turner. You know you’re not going to want to miss this one. We hope you’ll join us for the group read of Demons beginning April 18th.
SOMEHOW IT HAS HAPPENED — no one knows quite how, or why — that the incidence of violence and robbery has doubled. Arsonists’ fires have ravaged towns and villages, and in some places there is even disease: plague, and the threat of a cholera epidemic. The manager of a factory in the town of Shpigulin has shamelessly cheated the workers, and working conditions are very poor; subversive leaflets have appeared, urging the overthrow of the existing order; the idle, prankish company that routinely gathers in the Governor’s mansion is becoming involved in adventures of an increasingly reckless kind. (They are called the Jeerers or the Tormentors.) The historic Church of the Nativity of Our Lady is plundered and a live mouse left behind the broken glass of the icon. Fedka, the escaped convict, a former serf who was sold into the army, many years before, in order to pay his master’s gambling debt, roams the countryside committing crimes—not just robbery but arson and murder as well. The police seem unable to find him. “Strange characters” appear—a human flotsam that comes out of nowhere to plague society. Madmen erupt. Women become obsessed with feminism. Generals transform themselves into lawyers, divinity students speak out rudely, poets dress themselves in peasant costumes. The son of the province’s most wealthy landowner has contracted a marriage in jest, it would seem, after a night of drinking — with a woman of the very lowest social order, who is both lame and demented. A nineteen-year-old boy has committed suicide and a party of pleasure-seekers crowds into the room to examine him: one of the ladies says, “I’m so bored with everything that I can’t afford to be too fussy about entertainment — anything will do as long as it’s amusing.” It seems that a number of people in the area have taken to hanging and shooting themselves. Is the ground suddenly starting to slip from beneath our feet? Is the great country of Russia as a whole approaching a crisis? Demons begin to appear, licking like flames about the foundations of order; a Trickster-Demon springs out of nowhere and, very much like the gloating Dionysus of Euripides’ The Bacchae, wants only to sow disruption, madness, and death. “We shall proclaim destruction,” Peter Verkhovensky tells his idol Stavrogin, “because — because . . . the idea is so attractive for some reason! And anyway, we need some exercise.” Joyce Carol Oates, “Tragic Rites in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.”