Exiled to four years in Siberia, but hailed by the end of his life as a saint, prophet, and genius, Fyodor Dostoevsky holds an exalted place among the best of the great Russian authors. One of Dostoevsky’s five major novels, Devils follows the travails of a small provincial town beset by a band of modish radicals - and in so doing presents a devastating depiction of life and politics in late 19th-century Imperial Russia. Both a grotesque comedy and a shocking illustration of clashing ideologies, Dostoevsky’s famed novel stands as an undeniable masterpiece.
©1992 Michael R. Katz (P)2013 Recorded Books
"Devils" (formerly translated as "The Possessed," and sometimes translated as "Demons") is one of Dostoevsky's four great long novels, the others being "Crime and Punishment," "The Idiot," and "The Brothers Karamazov."
First, don't by the version narrated by Patrick Cullen and titled "The Possessed." The narration is poor and the translation is the outdated one by Constance Garnett.
"Devils" is a very political novel and was intended to be so. In order to appreciate it, you should do a little research on the 1869 murder by the Russian revolutionary Nechayev. One of the two lead characters, Peter Stephanovich Verkhovensky, a creepy Charles Manson type, is based on Nechayev. The Wikipedia article on "Demons" is short and informative. It also helps to know a little about Dostoevsky's background because several elements are autobiographical. Last, you might want to print a list of characters because, like all Russian novels, the many patronymic names can be confusing, especially if you're listening. If you do these things you'll experience the full effect.
The plot centers on some brutal, political murders. The setting is the run-up to the Bolshevik Revolution. Lenin and company didn't come out of nowhere. Trouble had been brewing in Russia for some time. "Devils" places events in context. Like all of Dostoevsky's works, the plot is deeply psychological, though there is quite a bit of dry humor and irony (items that are often missed in Dostoevsky's works because the original translator, Constance Garnett, tended to homogenize his phrases). If you're into this thing, "Devils" is a gripping novel.
The narrator is the very accomplished George Guidall. I've listened to many of his readings, such as his outstanding performances in "Crime and Punishment" and "Don Quixote." George is perfect for "Demons." His sharp characterizations, timing, and overall feel are perfect. He has a Slavic background and takes great pride in reading the Russian greats.
Last, I can't say enough good things about this 1992 translation by Russian Studies Professor Michael R. Katz of Middlebury College. Professor Katz reinserts Dostoevsky's intentionally quirky sentence structure which was sadly washed out by earlier translators. I've read that some critics think Doestoevsky wasn't a great stylist as was Tolstoy and others. In my opinion, that's only because early translators failed to pick up his nuances. Dostoevsky was a very careful writer. Many of his supposedly awkward sentences, when carefully translated, reveal great wit and style. I compared Professor Katz's translation to others, such as the acclaimed translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky, and feel that Professor Katz's is the best going.
"Devils" is a great listen if you're willing to put in the time and effort.
The theme for this novel, which depicts some of the radical political movements that sprang up in late 19th Century Russia, is based on the Gospel account of the devils who asked Christ to expel them from a demon-possessed man into a herd of pigs. That is an interesting premise, but in my opinion did not lead to a particularly interesting novel. While Dostoevsky’s skill as a great writer in terms of depicting scenes and personalities are displayed throughout the work, in my view he applied his skills to a story lacking likable or interesting characters and without a clear or coherent plot line. Apart from a peasant woman one encounters near the end of the story, none of these characters appear to have good common sense. Many are detestable people. All the main characters are superficial and confused. The plot lacks a clear beginning, middle and end. It simply ends in a muddle, with the main characters either dead or unaccounted for. Frankly, I was glad to be finished with it, and have no intention of returning or recommending it to anyone I know.
In fairness, there may be something here for readers interested in how Russia could have fallen prey to the Communist extremists of 1917. If the violent scheming and political confusion depicted in this book are an accurate indication of the temper of the times in Russia during that period, the country was prey to all manner of extremist political movements.
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