Tag Archives: Dostoevsky

The Presentation of Evil in Literature: Panyushin, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Raymond….

Russian journalist Valery Panyushin, who writes for Kommersant,  recently spoke on Radio Kultura. I’m paraphrasing a translation here in which Panyushin states that there are “two basic cultural traditions in Europe. One is called, conditionally, the ancient Greek, and the other is called, conditionally, the christian.”

Panyushin argues: “the ancient Greek tradition presupposes evil exists simply as a mistake of the good whereas christianity presupposes that evil exists in and of itself, by itself.”

Panyushkin says that he “loves Pushkin, Tolstoy, Nabokov and Pasternak,” but admits that he has “a very difficult relationship with Dostoevsky and … Platanov, because in them, evil exists, it’s not simply a mistake of the good. It really exists and maybe they are right, but this makes me very sad and I rarely reread them while I reread Tolstoy every year.”

This excerpt from the radio broadcast got me thinking. When I read Dostoevsky’s The Demons a few years ago, I found it extremely disturbing, so much so that I delayed dipping into Dostoevsky again.

Then I started to think of other books I had really enjoyed but that I found disturbing. The Derek Raymond novel He Died With His Eyes Open immediately came to mind. He Died With His Eyes Open deals with some evil, horrible people. The book is incredible but at the same time, it got under my skin.  I turned the last page, and I felt that I needed to recover before starting the second Factory novel in the series. Is this what Panyushin means?

Derek Raymond’s fourth novel, I was Dora Suarez is notorious for being both his best and his most “repulsive” work. I have yet to read it, but it’s reviewed over at Pechorin’s Journal. Raymond (real name Robin Cook) said this about the toll of writing the book:

Writing Suarez broke me; I see that now. I don’t mean it broke me physically or mentally, although it came near to doing both. But it changed me; it separated out for ever what was living and what was dead. I realised it was doing so at the time, but not fully, and not how, and not at once.

He added:

If you go down into the darkness, you must expect it to leave traces on you coming up–if you do come up.

So according to Raymond, writing about evil also comes with a price. Reminds me of Nietzsche’s epigram:

Whoever fights monsters, should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you (Beyond Good and Evil Epigrams and Interludes 146 )



Filed under Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, On Writers, Raymond Derek

Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky Pt II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is divided into two sections- I: Underground and II: Apropos of the Wet Snow. The first section is set in the 1860s when the narrator has retired on a small inheritance and is now forty years old. The second section is set  in the 1840s. Dostoevsky stated that he considered Gogol to be one of the major influences on his work, and that comic connection is apparent in Apropos of the Wet Snow–one of the funniest, meanest things I’ve read in some time. It’s also this second section that led to a split of opinions and some lively debates at home. But more of that later.

In Apropos of the Wet Snow, the narrator is twenty-four years old.  He is employed and claims that his life is “already gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.Indeed it’s through this character’s social interactions that his many problems become clear. While he spends most of his time at home reading, his “debauchery” takes place at night. In one of the episodes described by the narrator, an unknown officer causes him a great deal of distress:

“I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently-with no warning or explanation-moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could even have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me.”

The narrator enraged by his treatment then stalks the officer with some notion of revenge. I’m not going to spoil this for any potential readers out there, but the narrator’s attempts to get noticed, strike back or somehow or another get even with the insult is hilarious.  In dealing with the officer, the narrator builds the insult in his mind, and he builds his revenge in a similar fashion. As the narrator obsesses on the officer and the insult, the revenge becomes more fanciful.  

In one of the sections of Part I Underground, the narrator discusses the “mouse” who seeks revenge, and it’s in the impassioned details that he seems to go a bit overboard:

“The wretched mouse, in addition to the one original nastiness, has already manged to fence itself about with so many other nastinesses in the form of questions and doubts; it has padded out the one question with so many unresolved questions that, willy-nilly, some fatal slops have accumulated around it, some stinking filth consisting of its dubieties, anxieties, and, finally, of the spit raining on it from the ingenious figures who stand solemnly around it like judges and dictators, guffawing at it from all their healthy gullets. Of course, nothing remains for it but to wave the whole thing aside with its little paw and, with a smile of feigned contempt, in which it does not believe itself, slip back shamefacedly into its crack. There in its loathsome, stinking underground, our offended, beaten-down, and derided mouse at once immerses itself in cold venomous, and above all, everlasting spite.”

So when I arrived at Part II and read of the narrator’s tireless attempts to enact “bold” revenge on an officer who sees him as less than an insect, it was easy to understand that the narrator is the “mouse” in pathetic and hilarious action. This creates an interesting result, for as readers we now understand that the narrator is still chewing over this incident from the distance of twenty bitter years. Dostoevsky’s decision to place the two sections of Notes From Underground out of chronological sequence is brilliant. We first see the middle-aged narrator as a lonely, bitter and thwarted human being who bitches about his smelly servant. Then through Apropos of the Wet Snow, we see the narrator as a young man with many problems, scheming of ways to not pay his servant. The nonlinear structure of Notes From Underground reminds me of A Hero of Our Time.

In another section, the narrator details an evening spent with some other young men, old “schoolfellows”  of his acquaintance. They treat the narrator “as something like a quite ordinary fly.” Hearing of a planned farewell party for another old schoolfellow, Zverkov,  the narrator invites himself along–in spite of the fact that he’s obviously not welcome and he doesn’t have the necessary funds to contribute to the evening’s meal. Shamelessly, he invites himself, gets drunk, and makes a complete arse out of himself.

Another major section concerns the narrator and a young prostitute named Liza. The narrator tells Liza the tale of a consumptive prostitute who was worked by her madame until she died. The tale, ladled on with thick detail about the typical brief shelf life of a prostitute, would seem to take the shape of a morality lecture with the narrator hinting that Liza should get out of the whorehouse while she still can:

“At any rate, in a year, you’ll be worth less,” I went on gloatingly. “So you’ll go from here to somewhere lower, another house. A year later–to a third hose, always lower and lower, and in about seven years you’ll reach the Haymarket and the basement. That’s still not so bad. Worse luck will be if on top of that some sickness comes along, say some weakness of the chest…or you catch cold, or something. Sickness doesn’t go away easily in such a life. Once it gets into you, it may not get out. And so you’ll die.”

But the narrator isn’t out to save Liza’s soul; he has another much more devious plan in mind while he waxes on about love. It’s this section of the story that led to the Great Debate at home. I argued that the narrator set the stage for a game in which–no matter the outcome–he could not lose. When Liza arrives at his flat, he’s either going to get free sex or having broken through her hard, self-protective shell, he’ll wallow in the enjoyable prospect of robbing Liza of any illusions she may have of ever being loved or being treated like a human being. Either way the narrator wins. Free sex or glee at the manipulation and humiliation of another human being.

The ‘other’ argument was that the narrator ‘missed’ the opportunity for love–an idea which does not fit the cynicism of Apropos of the Wet Snow.

Finally, while Notes From Underground isn’t the Dostoevsky novel we all hear about, this was a wonderfully funny and extremely entertaining read.


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Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky Pt I

“Finally: I’m bored, and I constantly do nothing. And writing things down really seems like work. They say work makes a man good and honest. Well, here’s a chance at least.”

A few years ago, I read Dostoevsky’s The Demons, and while I enjoyed it  tremendously, I also found it rather unsettling–especially for bedtime reading. I knew that I should plough my way through Dostoevsky but decided I needed to recover before I picked up another volume. Recently I was ready to take the next step and selected Notes from Underground. My Vintage edition is translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

First a word on the translators. The more books in translation I read, the more I am convinced that translators are an unappreciated but wildly dedicated lot. Pevear and Volokhonsky, a husband and wife team, breathe life into Russian classics that needed a bit of a shake-up. When it came to picking an edition, I didn’t hesitate to select their translation of Notes From Underground.

The novel, narrated by an unnamed man, is divided into two distinct parts I: Underground and II: Apropos of the Wet Snow. The first section Underground takes place in the 1860s while Apropos of the Wet Snow takes place twenty years previously in the 1840s. While on one level the book’s two sections represent the regression of an individual, on another level the sections chart the changing sociopolitical landscape of Russia as it spirals from the “sentimental, literary 1840s” towards “the rational and utilitarian 1860s.”

The first section, and indeed the entire novel is encompassed by its anti-hero’s “dialectic of isolated consciousness” (a wonderful term from Richard Pevear). When the book begins, the forty year-old narrator, a former civil servant has retired on an inheritance of six thousand roubles. He lives in a “wretched, bad” room located in the outskirts of Petersburg and has a “bad smelling” female servant. The narrator speaks of his past as a bureaucrat where he wielded his petty power like some despot:

I was a wicked official. I was rude, and took pleasure  in it. After all I didn’t accept bribes , so I had to reward myself at least with that. (A bad witticism, but I won’t cross it out. I wrote it thinking it would come out very witty; but now, seeing for myself that I simply had a vile wish to swagger–I purposely won’t cross it out!) When petitioners would come for information to the desk where I sat–I’d gnash my teeth at them, and feel an inexhaustible delight when I managed to upset someone. I almost always managed. They were timid people for the most part: petitioners , you know. But among the fops there was one officer I especially could not stand. He simply refused to submit and kept rattling his sabre disgustingly. I was at war with him over that sabre for a year and a half. In the end, I prevailed. He stopped rattling.

The first part Underground is only 41 pages in my edition, and these pages are divided into 11 short chapters. This first section is basically 41 pages of rambling, self-interruptive, sometimes contradictory arguments as the narrator, who seems to be one of those people who has theories for everything, rambles bitterly on in isolation. In this diatribe about Free Will for example, the narrator introduces the imagined opposing arguments of the ‘other’ side:

“Ha, Ha Ha! but in fact, if you want to know, there isn’t any wanting!” you interrupt with a guffaw. “Today’s science has even so succeeded in anatomizing man up that we now know that wanting and so-called free will are nothing else but…”

Wait, gentleman, I myself wanted to begin that way. I confess, I even got scared. I just wanted to cry out that wanting depends on the devil knows what, and thank god, perhaps for that, but I remembered about this science and … backed off. And just then you started talking.

While the narrator may sound like a nut-job, the narration is part confessional, part self-justification and part political and philosophical argument. If this sounds boring, well it isn’t. It’s brilliant, it’s funny, and it’s an incredibly perceptive rendition of how people gather up and then hone theories and philosophies over the years. This section of the book essentially forms the narrator’s philosophy about life and human nature, and since he’s a man whose entire social life is glaringly absent, all his thoughts and imagined dialogues are committed to paper. This is a novel that’s best read and savoured in small segments.

There’s the sense that the narrator, now that he has our attention, simply won’t let go. This is the sort of person who traps his victims in the corner at parties, or perhaps someone who will gather an amused audience at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.

Pevear states that Notes From Underground is generally considered the “prelude to the great novels of Dostoevsky’s last period,” and he explains that although Dostoevsky never mentions this in the text, Notes From Underground is the author’s answer to Chernyshevsky’s  What Is to Be Done. Pevear states that Dostoevsky “originally intended to write a critical review of What Is to Be Done  but that instead the “response had to take creative form.” What Is to Be Done became the seminal novel for revolutionaries, and even Lenin pinched the title when he wrote his revolutionary tract in the early years of the 20th century. The foreword discusses the passages in Notes From Underground which “target” both the artistic and ideological aspects of Chernyshevsky’s novel with Pevear arguing that Chernyshevsky is the “embodiment” of “giftlessness.”  Pevear then further connects the dots of Russian literature by mentioning Nabokov’s The Gift. It’s entirely possible to read Notes From Underground and miss the Chernyshevsky connection, so this is a foreword you won’t want to miss.

While the narrator argues about several things (my favourite is chapter 11 in which the narrator waxes on about “people who know how to take revenge,” ) another crucial segment discusses human nature and the fact that people do not always choose to operate in their own self-interest–this a direct challenge to the ideas of Chernyshevsky:

Man really is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is, he’s by no means stupid, but rather he’s so ungrateful that it would be hard to find the likes of him. I, for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: ‘Well gentleman, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending those logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!’ That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he’d be sure to find followers: that’s how man is arranged. And all this for the emptiest of  reasons, which would seem not even worth mentioning: namely, that man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one can want even against one’s own profit, and one sometimes even positively must (this is my idea now). One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness-all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil.”

Notes from Underground (even the title is a challenge to Chernyshevsky) gave me yet another view of its author, and the book created some lively discussions around my house. While I could go on and on quoting the text, here’s a few lines:

 And what if I put you away for some forty years with nothing to do, and then come to you in the underground after forty years to see how you’ve turned out? One cannot leave a man alone and unoccupied for forty years, can one?

To be continued….


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Demons by Fyodor Dostoevsky

“There is something horrible, dirty and bloody on your soul.”

Fyodor Dostoevsky based his powerhouse novel Demons on a real-life murder case that occurred in 1869 involving a student named Ivanov. Dostoevsky’s brother-in-law was personally acquainted with the victim who was lured into a park and horribly murdered by a group of his fellow revolutionaries led by Sergei Nechaev. Nechaev, ostensibly dedicated to revolutionary activities, used a range of tactics–including blackmailing friends–in order to rope them into his revolutionary organization.

Demons is a vast, complex novel that examines Russian society through a large cast of characters. Dostoevsky’s novel begins with the introduction of Stepan Verkhovensky–a middle-aged, would-be intellectual whose early claim to fame is that he wrote an inflammatory, revolutionary tract or two decades early. Stepan fancies himself as a scholar and a radical, and he’s encouraged in this idea by his wealthy patroness, Varvara Stavrogin, the widow of a general. The relationship between these two has worked quite well for years, but when the novel begins, the relationship is about to enter a tumultuous stage. After a visit from a St. Petersburg friend, the indomitable Varvara has illusions of herself as a society hostess and she drags Stepan off to St. Petersburg. Here, she “invented a costume” for Stepan, her resident pet dissident, with the intention of holding radical meetings in her salon, and she eventually even establishes a radical political magazine. After Varvara’s endeavors fail abysmally, she returns to the provinces, and her disgruntlement falls squarely on Stepan.

Varvara’s son, the elegant and cold lady-killer Nikolai Stavrogin returns to his mother’s estate after some years of absence. At the same time, Stepan’s estranged son, Pyotr also shows up, and these two young men are part of a secret circle of conspirators whose radical ideas include plotting the deaths of the Tsar and his family. Absolute abandonment of all moral codes of behaviour, and total blind obedience is demanded from the group’s members. Pyotr is a master manipulator who convinces his followers that one of the members of the secret society, Shatov, is about to inform against them. While Pyotr has his personal reasons for destroying Shatov, he enjoys playing the puppet master and manipulating everyone else to commit the crime.

Demons is not without its problems. It’s wildly discursive, and Dostoevsky is not concerned with standard forms–as a result there are some loose ends. Most of the characters are extremely unlikable, and while the first section of the novel is surprisingly funny, the novel soon assumes dark, ominous tones. Varvara is a major character for the first part of the novel, and then, frustratingly, she all but disappears from the pages until the very end, but in the meantime, Dostoevsky ‘replaces’ her with a doppelganger in the form of the character of Yulia, the vain wife of the new governor. But in spite of its flaws, it cannot be denied that Demons–with its intricate demonstrations of the complexities of human relationships–is anything less than brilliant, and the new smooth translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is pure joy to read. Dostoevsky seems to delight in illuminating the absurdities of his characters’ many weaknesses. There’s Kirillov, the structural engineer who frets about exercise and health while being obsessed with the notion of suicide as the ultimate act of free will, and there’s the new governor who is alternately flattered and manipulated by Pyotr’s attention. But above all the absurdities and pettiness of human nature, Pyotr–one of the greatest literary personifications of evil ever created–is seen as a chilling precursor of the Bolsheviks–a man who contemplates the deaths of millions as a political expediency, and who, with perfect ease, ensnares everyone with an intricate net of deceit. If you are interested in reading more about Nechaev, I recommend Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich.


Filed under Dostoevsky