Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (translated either as The Possessed or The Devils) is my first completed book for the Russian Reading Challenge. The Possessed is, at various times, fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny, suspenseful, very loud, heavily psychological, and a little slow. I tested it out as beach reading – it’s the season here in Maine – and found it’s best on a cold, windy day when you have a thick towel to wrap around yourself.
Here’s a short summary of The Possessed: a circle of would-be revolutionaries wreaks havoc in the Russian provinces. Dostoevsky being Dostoevsky, and the book being 600 pages long, things are far more complicated. There are numerous subplots concerning love, murder, atheism, and provincial society.
My feelings about the book are mixed. I loved the narrator’s slightly sardonic voice and how he filtered the distinct voices of many other characters. Both Verkhovenskiis are well-drawn, and it is interesting to watch certain characters hold power over others. The book feels very prophetic because the activists place themselves higher than laws. They also bumble in some of Dostoevsky’s more satirical passages: their disorganized meeting is hilarious, and they can be quite vain. One cell member loves to mooch food.The Possessed, for me, had as many low points as high points. The book first appeared in serial form, which may account for certain technical inconsistencies. Introductions to characters took dozens of pages, and many of their supposed intrigues were, for me, boring, too hysterical, and lengthy. (FWIW, I was glad to learn that Nabokov didn’t like that material much, either.) By contrast, several (but not all!) deaths occur so quickly that you could almost miss – or mistake – them by blinking. I’m also not partial to religious epiphanies at novel’s end.
Despite all that, I’m glad I finally got around to reading and finishing The Possessed after having been required to read only excerpts in a college course about Russian history in literature. Although I wondered back then what I was missing – but had little time to wonder much since War and Peace and Fathers and Sons, among others, was also on the syllabus – I now understand my professors’ wisdom. The most famous Possessed passages about people, God, morals, and ideology can be read and understood apart from the hundreds of pages about society parties and love.
Still, most everything in The Possessed does link together – the revolutionaries think they can effect change by destabilizing high society – and it’s interesting to watch Dostoevsky juggle a huge cast of people, ideas, and literary techniques. Even if the result is a bit messy or murky, there should be something of interest to most readers. Cross-posted at Russian Reading Challenge.