The Devils – A User’s Guide

What’s it about?

What amounts to a terrorist cell in mid-nineteenth century Russia and its effect on a small fictional town of Dostoyevsky’s invention.

The novel follows a group of characters that live in the town and the complex web of their relationships. Like real people, they do all kinds of crazy things under pressure that are shocking and astonishing. At turns, the book is also very funny.    

How difficult is it?

Nowhere as difficult as its reputation would have you believe. Let’s face it: almost no one reads these things outside of a university course anymore. And that’s for two reasons: 1. They’re scared off by the reputation of the writer, and 2. You have to concentrate.

It is, by modern standards, ‘slow’. That said, Dostoyevsky is like riding black diamond trails or deadlifting twice your bodyweight. It’s not for everyone (apparently), but such people hardly make use of the fact they’re alive. I mean, go back to Instagram, you vegetables.

What’s in it for me?

If you’re looking for a modern, filmic equivalent of the experience, I’d nominate the films of Martin Scorsese, especially the big ones, like Raging Bull and Taxi Driver.

The Devils deals in all the major themes and big emotions; bloody and intense. By the time you’ve made it through, he’ll have gripped you and wrung you out like a sponge. 

Like deadlifting twice your bodyweight or riding black diamond trails, The Devils is deeply exhilarating. The drama is profound and intense. Dostoyevsky’s knowledge of people is nothing short of brilliant and uncanny.

It’s like being lifted up by your dad so you can look through the telescope to see the miracle that stands just beyond the reach of your everyday vision.

And, I’d argue, the spectacle of those eternal stars and constellations is something you never lose sight of, once you’ve seen them. They are always a part of your worldview, just beyond the banality of the streetlights and traffic signs of everyday life.

Why is it considered difficult?

You have to be patient. A good way to reconcile yourself to this is to remember just how funny and insightful your everyday conversation is.

If you think about it, people reveal so much about themselves in the course of everyday action and conversation. Dostoyevsky is a master of charting this kind of thing.

The other aspect of reading a novel of this size is that it delivers a massive payoff. It’s one thing to read about significant events and experiences; it’s something else to bear intimate witness to the broad arc of lives.

In this sense, a novel like The Devils is very different to most of what is written in the modern age as a pony is different to a horse.

It’s a demonstration of how significant every life is. It’ll return you to a profound sense of your own existential significance, and how we are all cut from the profundity of that cloth.

…I feel like you’re trying to talk me into this.

You’re right – I am.

Look, if you were travelling, you’d go to see the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids, right? Those buildings, as anyone who has walked through them can attest, are more than just stones, lines and angles.

Novels are built from emotions and psychology, and are viewed through the kaleidoscope of language. Like architecture, they channel emotions and create experiences.

Dostoyevsky’s name may be on the door, but what you meet in there is you.

OK, so what do I have to do?

In short, don’t be a bitch. You’re going to have to be patient. It’s been twenty years since I last read Dostoyevsky, and I decided to take him on again now because I knew that, courtesy of COVID, I was going to have long stretches of dead time for weeks on end.

Just like any kind of preparation, you have to make an agreement with yourself that you’re going to read for thirty or sixty minutes a day and you’re going to do it every day for a couple of weeks at least. The book is not difficult as much as it is detailed.

The thing to remember with Dostoyevsky is that a significant amount of the drama transpires verbally – through conversation. His characters generally follow a line of logic. You get their names once to begin with and then it’s up to you to keep track of who is saying what. It takes a bit of getting used to.

Like any kind of intense, demanding physical discipline, Dostoyevsky will make your mind, your soul, and your humanity, bigger, faster, stronger.

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