Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Back to Classics: Sologub’s Petty Demon

The Writer: Fedor (Fyodor) Sologub

Work and Date: Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon), dated June 19, 1902, in my book.

Why it’s important: A classic novel of Russian symbolism or decadence (your choice!). The unpleasant traits – general loutishness, corruption, and lack of morals -- of the main character, Peredonov, inspired a new Russian word, передоновщина (peredonovshchina or peredonovism).

Background information and criticism: Time magazine’s review dated September 7, 1962, gives a decent summary of the book. Andrew Field’s translation, which Time was evidently reviewing, includes a helpful introduction and background notes. Searching on Google or Google Books for Sologub and “petty demon” brings up a fair bit of academic criticism, and first pages on JSTOR (e.g. Murl Barker and Harry Snyder) provide a good sampling of critical thought about the book.

IMHO:

I loved The Petty Demon when I read it 20 years ago in grad school, and I loved it so much this time around that I didn’t want to finish the book. And what’s not to love? A book about the sacred and profane that includes literary allusions, puns, and a suspected hex or two, plus tragicomic portrayals of provincial пошлость (poshlost’, a combination of vulgarity, banality, and ignorance) is my kind of book.

Plot basics: Peredonov, an anti-intellectual, cruel, and paranoid schoolteacher, wants to be promoted to school inspector. His girlfriend Varvara, who has the body of a nymph and the head of a sinner, tells him that if she marries him, a princess will get him the inspector job. Peredonov and Varvara are a fun pair: in their leisure time they enjoy drinking and tearing at the wallpaper to irk the landlady. Meanwhile, one of Peredonov’s favorite students to abuse, the androgynous Sasha, becomes involved with the older Liudmila, a lover of perfume, clothes, and beauty who calls herself a pagan and also loves church rites and the crucifix.

The miracle of The Petty Demon is that Sologub so skillfully combines humor with drear, including Peredonov’s fear and toska, that horrible Russian longing that resembles angst. When he’s not inflicting physical or psychological pain on someone, Peredonov is capable of wandering around in a state where he feels that nature is reflecting his toska and fears, though Sologub writes that Peredonov misses out on the more Dionysian and elemental aspects of nature because, essentially, he sees only his own pettiness. Sologub concludes that paragraph by writing: “Он был слеп и жалок, как многие из нас.” (“He was blind and pathetic, like many of us.” (translations are mine)) Moments like these, where Sologub sets aside the more grotesque realism displayed in much of the book, felt particularly symbolist to me because they contrast the earthly “here” with something more mystical and spiritual.

Then there’s the funnier side. Here’s the worst love letter I’ve ever seen, which Peredonov writes to the aging princess he thinks could help him:

Я люблю вас, потому что вы – холодная и далёкая. Варвара потеет, с нею жарко спать, несёт, как из печки. Я хочу иметь любовницу холодную и далёкую. Приезжайте и соответствуйте.

“I love you because you are cold and distant. Varvara sweats, it’s hot to sleep with her, she radiates like a stove. I want to have a cold and distant lover. Come here and be that.”

Then he wonders if he did the right thing to send it. Sologub soon compares Peredonov to a corpse, and a bit later Peredonov sees the princess as the queen of spades or hearts and tosses a deck of cards in the fire. (Subtext alert: Pushkin’s “Queen of Spades”) Yes, Peredonov’s paranoia extends to inanimate objects: his history also includes writing denunciations of queen cards and, in a fit of pique, he hacks up a table because his nemesis – the недотыкомка (nedotykomka, an untouchable or unproddable thing), his personal petty demon of an apparition – was hiding there.

Peredonov’s use of words is often hurtful, which feels particularly significant in a symbolist novel. To be sure, he’s hardly the only gossip in town: everyone thrives on rumor and clichés Sologub calls dead words. Peredonov’s nasty gossip contrasts with the poetry he claims to like, but his respect seems limited to possessing pictures of Adam Mickiewicz and Pushkin. Of course the Pushkin picture’s place is in the сортир, the bathroom or outhouse. Peredonov also doesn’t seem at all familiar with Chekhov.

I could write much, much more about lots of things, like religion and literary allusions, but I’ll limit myself to a few of Sologub’s names – Peredonov seems rooted in remaking Don, as in Quixote, and other names, some Gogolesque, have significant roots: Skuchaev (boredom), Khripach (wheeze), and Pyl’nikov (dust).

I also want to briefly mention the decadent Liudmila’s corruption of Sasha’s youth, which [Spoiler warning!] crescendos at a masquerade party where Sasha, dressed as a geisha, wins the costume prize for women. The crowd then tries to unmask Sasha but an actor saves him – yes, an actor, a person whose job is to be masked – by carrying him out and not revealing his identity.

Summary:

The Petty Demon is a little-known Russian classic that presents a dim but very funny view of humankind’s inability to appreciate knowledge, beauty, and the divine. Although Sologub stuffs the book with plenty of characters, events, and, yes, symbols, the novel never feels too heavy, either in volume or in theme. Sologub said in the introduction to the second edition of The Petty Demon that he wrote the book about his contemporaries, but the book still feels awfully relevant in the 21st century.

Photo by Karl Karlovich Bulla: Sologub at home with his wife, Anastasiia Chebotarevskaia, 1910s.

2 comments:

  1. Yeah, that's a heck of a book. (Incidentally, most of the Wikipedia entry on Sologub is my work; I wrote about it here, and there's an interesting discussion of his name in the thread.)

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  2. Thank you for mentioning this, Languagehat. It really is a heck of a book, on many levels. The more I thought and wrote about it, the more I wanted to think and write about it.

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