A book that needs several introductions: Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

After reading my seventh Dostoyevsky novel, I realized I still don’t really understand his writing. Not at first, and not on my own, anyway. Luckily, classic novels usually come with an introduction. I ended up perusing three introductions to Demons (I like to check out different translations, and later decided to borrow an edition to read on my phone). Here’s a quick guide, to help you choose an edition that works for you.

Just don’t ask me to recommend the best translation. I read about 80% of Demons in the Maguire translation, which was great until I came across a typo, and about 20% in the Pevear and Volokhonsky. I don’t get the P&V hate, though they are awfully fond of using formal and old-fashioned language (in the very first sentence, they use “hitherato” where Maguire used “until then”.)

Penguin Classics Edition

  • Translated by Robert A. Maguire in 2008 (he died in 2005, the translation was finished by editor Ronald Meyer)
  • Introduction by Robert L. Belknap (2008)
  • Introduction focuses on how to read Demons, especially the form and structure of the book

My main struggle with Dostoyevsky is that he tries to do so much in his later novels, and the plots are all tangled up. In Demons, the main “chronicle” doesn’t even start till well after page 200. The narrator is a minor character but sometimes the point of view seems to change to omniscient. I felt lost. Belknap helpfully relates each of the three parts of Demons to general “type” of story – the society novel, the anti-nihlist novel, and the psychological novel. No wonder I had so much trouble in the middle! Society novels (or comedies of manners) and psychological novels exist in all times and across genres, while the anti-nihlism stuff is pretty specific and harder to relate to (or maybe I just don’t read political novels).

This introduction is straightforward and helped me understand several points that would otherwise have been lost in the many, many plots and characters.

#Demons21 participant Adam Moody also read this edition, and provides a great review, just as illuminating as these intros, including a discussion of relating Dostoyevsky to what’s going on in modern America, which is hard not to do.

Everyman’s Library Edition

  • Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 1994
  • Introduction by Joseph Frank (2000)
  • Introduction focuses on how and why Dostoyevsky wrote Demons

This introduction frustrated me, even though I found it really interesting. Frank uses all kinds of primary sources to illustrate how Demons came to be; its beginnings as a “pamphlet novel” about nihlism and extremism, its merging with another planned novel about athiesm, and how its publication was delayed by a dispute over a controversial (and icky) chapter in which a character makes a disturbing confession. This was all fascinating stuff, and helped me understand why Dostoyevsky wrote Demons, but it didn’t help me much with my understanding of it. If this was the only introduction I read, I think I’d still be confused by how the novel itself works.

I guess if I want to really get into Fyodor’s life, I should read Frank’s five volume, 2,500-page biography… or maybe just the 984-page abridged version.

Vintage Classics Edition

  • Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in 1994
  • Foreword by Richard Pevear (1994)
  • Introduction focuses on the themes and literary devices used

Pevear’s introduction is probably the most balanced of the three, incorporating some literary theory and “how to read” type clarification like Belknap’s intro, and some of the same biographical details like Frank’s. It was also my least favourite, because it was trying to do a bit of everything, and because Pevear loves to use fancy words (I had to look up “adumbrated” among other words.) I appreciated his discussion of the title (Constance Garnett translated it as The Possessed, Pevear explains his reasoning for going with Demons) and the meaning behind the character names (Dostoyevsky never chooses names randomly!)

I also don’t find Vintage Classics’ geometric cover designs very attractive, so there’s that.

I’m glad I read all three of these introductions, and will continue reading Russian literature this way. Maybe one day I’ll be able to read Dostoyevsky and just “get it,” but that day is not today! Maybe after my tenth novel?

2 comments

  1. BJY

    I remember there was a strange time in my life when I was totally fascinated and enthralled by Stavrogin and Raskolnikov. In an inexplicable and strange way, I miss the person I was then.

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