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Monday, April 15, 2013

Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
p. 1872

  The idea of a political avant garde existing alongside an artistic avant garde seems like a particularly 19th/20th century concept from the perspective of 2013.  Sure, Al Queda and their cohorts fit the description of "political radicals" but you could hardly call a bunch of Muslims hiding out in caves a political "avant garde."  They are like the opposite.

 In the United States, we've got the tea party movement and again, while they are certainly best described as "radicals" they are hardly avant garde. Again- they are like the opposite. The fact is that the people who are potentially politically avant garde are now well ensconced inside the capitalist industrial complex, whether they are professors, grad students, culture industry employees or independent professionals.

  Dostoyevsky was the first novelist to really dig into this 19th century political avant garde.   His contemporaries might include a character here and there on the margins of a multi-plot Victorian Novel but it was up to Dostoyevsky to bring the now well known figure of the feverish (figuratively and literally) Russian intellectual/political conspirator to life.  Dostoyevsky's radical milieu in Demons:  A group of alienated Russian upper class communist/nihilists; is completely without parallel in contemporaneous depictions of society by other Novelists.

  At the same time, Dostoyevsky also features a disorienting and confused first person narration that foreshadows modernism.  Of all the 18th and 19th century novels I've read in the past several years, this was the first one where I had to go online to answer questions like "Who is the narrator?" "What is the plot?"  This kind of narrative confusion is often ascribed to ALL Russian novelists, but if you've actually read Turgenev and Tolstoy you will understand me when I say Dostoyevsky's technique out paces both in its ability to disorient.

  The Russian novelists are interesting because I believe them to be the first loose group of Novelists to break out of a provincial literary scene and into the limelight to be hailed as geniuses.  This is something that happens again and again and again throughout the 19th and 20th century in a variety of Art disciplines: studio arts, novels, films, etc.  Some small group of Artists come from the margins and rewrite how the main stream thinks about their artistic discipline.  So the Russian Novelists of the mid 19th century, being first, are of particular interest.

  Many of the novels on the 2001 list of 1001 Books To Read Before You Die between 1870 and 1900 are Russian novels.  So there will be a lot of discussion of Russian novelists on this blog for the foreseeable future.

  Demons was actually what I would call a tough read- I didn't particularly enjoy it and had trouble staying focused, but I was certainly cognizant of what Dostoyevsky was bringing to the table in terms of plot, theme and style.

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