“The Little Demon” by Fyodor Sologub

The Little Demon by Fyodor Sologub, translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin Classics  

 

In her introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Little Demon, Pamela Davidson writes:

Neither in Russian Orthodox demonology nor in folk tradition was there much emphasis on the towering figure of Satan in splendour.

Rather, she continues, Russian devils tend to be small, petty creatures, “little demons”, proliferating in a multiple of guises.

One gets this sense of the pettiness of the demonic on Russian literature also. Not for the Russians the magnificence and tragic grandeur of Milton’s Satan, nor the spectacle that is Dante’s Inferno: when Gogol set out to depict inferno, he depicted a dull, provincial town, dirty and petty and corrupt and stagnant, peopled only by souls that were morally dead. This provincial town has haunted Russian literature ever since. It is the town from which Chekhov’s three sisters long to escape to Moscow; it is the town the microcosm of which is the horrendous “Ward 6” of Chekhov’s story; it is the setting of Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, and also Demons (another work featuring petty little demons); it is the town that forms the setting of Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family, where, once again, it stands for Hell itself. And Russian demons are, as Pamela Davidson says, always small and petty, like the Devil who appears to Ivan Karamazov in the guise of a shabbily dressed gentleman, or the little demons Father Ferapont sees elsewhere in the same novel. And evil, too, is mean and petty and nasty: Raskolnikov imagines he is another Napoleon, when, in reality, he is simply a sordid axe-murderer in a sordid tenement. There is nothing grand or magnificent or charismatic about the Russian concept of evil: it is just mean and nasty and petty – though none the less destructive for being so.

Sologub’s The Little Demon (I believe the title may also be translated as The Petty Demon), written in the 1890s, presents a vision of evil that is very much in this tradition. The setting is once again that Gogolian provincial backwater from Dead Souls, and, once again, it is a hellish place. The principal character, the schoolmaster Perodonov, is obviously mad, and, indeed, is often recognised as such; but the rest of the town is only slightly less mad than he. Despite being, by any reasonable standard, stark raving bonkers, he is judged an eligible bachelor, and there’s an entire line of women desperate to trap him into marriage. His live-in mistress even commissions her friend to forge letters as part of an elaborate plan to marry him.

The lunacy deepens as the novel progresses. Peredonov, convinced that there is a concerted campaign to slander him, goes round the houses of various officials to convince them of his probity, and of his patriotism. He also goes round the houses of various students in his class, insisting that they had behaved badly, and encouraging the parents to have their child flogged. In one particularly grotesque sequence, the mother is ready to flog her child, but the father, much to the mother’s frustration, refuses; she then tells Peredenov that she will call him when her husband – the “tyrant”, as she calls him – is out, and that they could then flog the child together. The scene where they actually do this was cut by the author in the final published version, but is printed here as an appendix: it is among the most disgusting things I have read. After the two of them flog the boy together in turn – Peredonov taking over from the other once she has become too tired flogging him – they collapse in each other’s arms in sexual ecstasy.

Peredonov also sees a strange demonic being materialising. This is referred to by Sologub as a nedotykomka,  which, Pamela Davidson informs us in the introduction, is an obscure dialect word that “has the same meaning as nedotroga, a ‘touch-me-not’: an object that cannot be touched or a person of touchy and irritable disposition (like Peredonov)”. This creature is clearly an emanation from Peredonov’s fevered mind, and is hence an aspect of his psyche, and Ronald Wilks, perhaps rather confusingly, underlines this by translating nedotykomka as “the little demon” of the title. This nedotykomka starts appearing frequently to Peredonov, whose mind, never too stable to begin with, seems to collapse entirely. The aristocratic princess who he imagines is his benefactor he soon starts picturing as a grotesque and withered crone, but has erotic fantasies about her anyway. Then, imagining that the pack of cards is spying on him, he cuts out the eyes of the Jacks, the Kings, and the Queens. He then identifies the Princess with the Queen of Spades, and finds himself forced to burn the entire pack.

There develops also a very strange sub-pot, concerning the lad Sasha, aged about 14 or so, who has girlish good looks. Peredonov, presumably attracted to him sexually, insists that he is a girl, and tries to have him expelled from the boys’ school. Later, a young lady, Lyudmilla, develops a fixation on him – a fixation that is described with imagery of lurid eroticism – and, although they never consummate her passion, she delights in having him close to her, undressing him, getting him to put on women’s clothes. And Sasha himself, so apparently pure and innocent, finds himself strangely affected:

He wanted to do something to her, be it pleasant or painful, tender or shameful – but what? Should he kiss her feet or beat her long and hard with supple birch twigs?

It is all strikingly grotesque, but I must admit that I couldn’t help wondering what all this was leading towards. This depiction of the banality of evil – to use Hannah Arendt’s famous expression – remains, for all its strangeness, earthbound: there is none the poetic flights of fancy of Gogol, nor the humanity and melancholy of Chekhov, nor the visionary intensity of Dostoyevsky. Nor is there any trace of tragic despair that we find in Saltykov-Schedrin’s Golovlyov Family. At the end of Gogol’s Government Inspector, the mayor turns to the audience to tell them they are laughing at themselves; in a similar vein, Sologub tells us in the preface to the second edition:

It is true that people love to be loved. They are pleased if the loftier, nobler aspects of their souls are portrayed. Even in villains they wish to see some signs of goodness, the so-called “divine spark” as it was called in days of old. That is why they cannot believe it when confronted with a picture that is true, accurate, gloomy and evil. They want to say, “He’s writing about himself.”

No, my dear contemporaries, it is of you that I have written my novel…

For this is how Sologub sees humanity. Madness, sordidness, stupidity, paranoia, sadism – that’s all there is. Gogol’s dead souls were in need of redemption, and he even tried- albeit unsuccessfully – to depict that redemption; but here, redemption is not even to be thought of: the very concept is meaningless. And there isn’t even a sense of sadness that this should be so.

Much though I admired and wondered at the strangeness of Sologub’s imagination, I cannot say I was satisfied with this vision. I appreciate that in saying this, I am introducing a very personal note that has no place in objective criticism, but sometimes, a personal reaction is so strong that it becomes impossible to keep it hidden. If this is all humanity is, it isn’t worth anything; it’s certainly not worth writing novels about. If I want to see how cruel and gratuitously sadistic humans are, I need only read the news: there is evidence enough these days for cruelty and gratuitous sadism wherever one looks, and, even for eternal optimists such as myself, the temptation to believe only the worst of humanity becomes powerful indeed. This temptation needs, I think, to be resisted: the view of mankind as irredeemably wicked and debased and worthless leads but to the genocidal fury of Gulliver, and to “Exterminate all the brutes” of Colonel Kurtz.

Perhaps I was not in the right frame of mind for this book. I might, perhaps, on another day, have found myself engaged by the black humour, and capable of entertaining, if not necessarily accepting, Sologub’s unrelieved pessimism. This time, for whatever reason, I couldn’t: the novel cut a bit too close to the bone, and, by the end, I felt that the vision it presented was merely reductive. Perhaps other readers will fare better with this novel than I did.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Jonathan on October 9, 2014 at 11:48 pm

    I loved this book when I first read it and it’s been on my ‘to re-read’ list ever since. I don’t remember it as being overly pessimistic….but then I am a pessimist, so maybe it’s relative. The thing that struck me when I read it was the surrealism; it was intensely visual.
    After I read this book I tried to find other work by Sologub in English but had no luck. I wonder if it’s still the same.

    Reply

    • Hello Jonathan, I think this is far and away Sologub’s most famous work. I’d be surprised if any of his other work were even to be available in English!

      Its pessimism – as I saw it anyway – is, it seems to me, in the utterly unrelieved drabness in its presentation of humanity. the human qualities on display are venality, hypocrisy, cruelty, nastiness, violence, sadism: there’s not the slightest hint of anything approaching generosity or nobility of nature. Even the question of redemption seems out of the question; humans simply aren’t up to it.

      I must confess that i increasingly find myself unable even to entertain, let alone accept, such a view of humanity, but that probably says more about me than about teh novel.

      All the best, Himadri

      Reply

    • It is Sologub’s best-known prose work, no doubt, although not his only novel, – but I think it’s fair to say that Sologub was above all a poet, one of the foremost poets of the so-called Russian Silver Age.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Mark on October 10, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Hi again Himadri,

    This most recent post of yours goes right to the heart of some things I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, namely pessimism and misanthropy and despair (which are not necessarily the same things).

    Firstly, let me say, I haven’t read Sologub’s book. I thought my survey of Russian literature from Pushkin to Grossman had been pretty comprehensive, from an English-language point of view, but somehow this book has completely passed me by. However, since reading your post I have placed my order.

    Pessimism is very much in the air at the moment. As you may know, earlier this year the HBO mini-series True Detective brought the name of Thomas Ligotti to a lot of people’s attention for the first time (arousing mixed feelings in those of us who are long-time admirers of his). Ligotti is a cult writer of horror stories, mainly of the cosmic variety. But in 2010 he published his book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, an ultra-pessimisitic treatise or manifesto which argues that life, especially (but not exclusively) human life is “MALIGNANTLY USELESS” (his capitals) and that consciousness, which Ligotti views as a blindly malevolent mutation, has been and remains a catastrophe for the human race. Ligotti argues that the first person to discover the true nature of consciousness – i.e. that it is monstrous and treacherous – was Tolstoy, but that he retreated from the discovery in terror and lapsed into fraudulent simplicity.

    Summarised like this, the book might sound merely cranky, especially given its title. In fact, whilst very dark indeed, it isn’t merely cranky at all, but scholarly, erudite and beautifully written. I have read that after True Detective borrowed from it liberally (some say plagiaristically) that The Conspiracy Against the Human Race was briefly outselling Ayn Rand’s wretched book Atlas Shrugged in the United States. Since, for many Americans, Atlas Shrugged, is second only to the Bible in their lives, that’s quite an achievement.

    I’ve read Ligotti’s book twice over the last three years or so, and I’ve read Swift and Schopenhauer and E. M. Cioran and several other pessimistic and misanthropic writers. It’s interesting to note that while pessimists are usually anti-natalist (i.e. they believe people should refrain from reproducing) they almost never advocate suicide, rightly recognising that it is horrific and counterintuitive for most of us.

    And this brings me to my crucial point: for the duration of our lives we are stuck here, alive on Earth, conscious, suffering ourselves, surrounded by the suffering of others (and this year, with regard to world affairs, has been truly appalling in terms of human suffering). In a certain mood, especially a readerly one, pessimism appeals to me, I am seduced by it. I can muster up scorn and despair and wrath and apocalyptic fantasies with the best of them. Human beings are empty and wicked and not in control of themselves I think to myself, and I seek out books that confirm my perspective. But this vision of life isn’t enough for me. Aesthetically, I enjoy it, but the political part of my brain says: “What about hope and compassion?” By definition, pessimists have no hope to offer and if they have anything to say about compassion then for me it gets lost in the mix.

    I find this impossible to resolve within myself – I love dark, pessimistic works of literature and philosophy and so I have duly ordered Sologub’s book. Unlike you, I don’t mind reading about how cruel and sadistic and unredeemable human beings are. But when I look up from my book and think about how we need to act in the real world, despair is not what I prescribe – that would be generosity and compassion.

    It’s a perplexing fault line. As any true pessimist would say, we lack free will and are not in control of ourselves. I can’t help thinking, though, that my failure to marry my aesthetic and my political persuasions is a real failing on my part.

    Sorry for the length of this comment, Himadri. You pushed some buttons for me with this latest piece.

    All the best,

    Mark

    Reply

    • Hello Mark, I have certainly heard of Ligotti’s book, although, I am embarrassed to add, I haven’t read it. I cannot therefore argue against his specific points. But for me, this utterly dark view of humanity actually offends my aesthetic sense. I realise that sounds precious, but our aesthetic sense is, I’d argue, of vital importance, and by no mean an affectation. If we were entirely to lose our aesthetic sense, then we’d forfeit not merely the ability to appreciate music or a sunset: we’d lose even the attachment to each other. Everything we value, we value for aesthetic reasons; if we were to lose that, we wouldn’t value anything at all. Suicide, far from being horrific or counter-intuitive, would become the logical end, and a consummation devoutly to be wished.

      I do feel that the temptation to see humanity as malignant and useless and irredeemably depraved is a temptation that needs to be resisted, even if it this view of humanity were true. And I don’t think it is true, I really don’t. The very fact that we have an aesthetic sense at all, that allows us to become attached to certain things and to certain people, strongly indicates to me otherwise. But no doubt someone like Ligotti would claim that I am merely sticking my head in the sand, too afraid to face reality. Well, maybe. But if that is indeed the case, then, given how much I stand to lose if I were to take my head out of the sand, I am happy to keep it in.

      But as I say, I really do not think that is the case. There can be no proof either way on this matter, and it comes down, as so many things do, to the question of individual temperament. My own temperament is such that I do not think Ligotti’s view is true, but am frightened that it might be; and if it is true, then I don’t want to know about it. It is not perhaps a position of any intellectual integrity, but sometimes the price of intellectual integrity can be too high.

      I think I’m off to read a bit of PG Wodehouse now…

      All the best,
      Himadri

      Reply

  3. Posted by Mark on October 14, 2014 at 11:17 pm

    I think there’s much in what you say, Himadri; and, as I suggested, I have my own struggles and problems with pessimism, though they are not aesthetic. (Sporadically, I’m very bad at engaging my moral sensitivities when it comes to art & literature – they just seems to hang back in abeyance.) In any case, I’m not sure I agree with you that ultra-pessimism is incompatible with a strong aesthetic-moral sense. Ligotti makes the point that our knowledge of the supposed malignant uselessness of human life can only ever be theoretical, never truly first hand – we can’t really perceive it directly precisely because we are human and therefore bound by our delusions. We believe – even if it is in nothing – but we can’t know. In that sense, a pessimist is perhaps just as subject to attachments and preferences as anyone else. (Ligotti makes several references in Conspiracy to his own aesthetic loves – all pessimistic, of course.)

    In Ligotti’s favour, I should also say that you and he are in total agreement – he repeatedly makes the point in his book that pessimism cannot be proved, but is chiefly a matter of temperament. Generally speaking, his argument is more subtle than you might imagine. That said, I do think his book has the capacity to drive one a tiny bit mad with despair.

    PG Wodehouse, eh? For me, when I need a bit of cheering up, I usually turn to Max Beerbohm. The delightful Seven Men and Two Others usually does the trick.

    Sologub’s book has arrived and has been inserted into the ever-teetering “To Read” pile.

    All the best.

    Mark

    Reply

  4. Even though I haven’t read this book, I think you’re exactly right about unrelieved pessimism. Writers like Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Shakespeare, Chekhov et al can present us with real slaughterhouses of stories, absolute bloodbaths, but the narratives are broken up by comedy and kindness because there is more to life than death, and more to experience than pain.

    I hadn’t thought about the smallness-in-scale of Russian devils until this post. Sure you’re right, though. Even the Grand Inquisitor in Karamazov is a petty little man while he condemns Christ a second time, addressing him in the familiar, all fear and smarm beneath his miter. That absurd little devil in Ivan’s room is essentially the same character in a different hat.

    Reply

    • Hello Scott,
      I have been reading and re-reading “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter (and teh couple of chapters leading up to it) for many years now, and I still am not sure what to make of it. I think I need to write a post on the matter. You may ask why I should write a post on something I don’t by my own admission understand – but how am I to know what I think about something if I don’t write it down first? (That’s not really a paradox: I do find that the very attempt to set down my thoughts in words and sentences helps me clarify my own thoughts to myself.)

      The figure of the Grtand Inquisitor is Schiller’s: he appears in Schiller’s play “Don Carlos”, and also in verdi’s operatice version. he is, an old and wizened man, and in many ways, a petty man, as you say. But nothing is quite as it seems: as well as being petty, he is also tragic. He sincerely believes that he is taking on himself the burden of humanity, and isprepared to do it. We may judge him as evil, but as soon as we try to make any value judgement about it at all, we find ourselves in all sorts of mazes. I don’t know … some day, I’ll try to gather together all my thoughts on the matter and see where it all gets me.

      I think Sologub’s novel would have been more to my taste had I approached it in a frame of mind different from the one I can’t help having these days. As it is, I felt that the view of humans as irredeemably wicked and mean and nasty and petty is all too easy to arrive at; and it is because it is so easy that it must be resisted. But that is, of course, a very subjective impression that has no place in objective literary criticism.

      All the best for now,
      Himadri

      Reply

  5. […] sure to read the Argumentative Old Git on Sologub’s The Petty Demon (Мелкий бес, written beginning in the 1890s, published 1905-07). I was surprised to learn […]

    Reply

  6. I’m starting to be suspicious of Wilks’ approach to translating this novel. Just one example. Wilks writes for Sologub: “Her face became calm and cheerful once more, just as if Sasha hadn’t been kneeling and kissing her bare feet a few moments ago.” But in “kissing her bare feet” Sologub uses three Old/Church Slavonic words (two nouns and a verb) associated with a “high”, Biblical, poetic or archaic style. There’s not a hint of that in the translation.

    Before I get too boring, one more example, Lyudmila to Sasha: “My darling boy, my idol, my little god, just let me admire your beautiful shoulders – only for one moment.” Rhythmically, it’s well executed but the “little god” is plain wrong. It’s a three-part invocation: “darling” (one word in Russia); “my idol” (the double “eye” in English is unfortunate); a “god-like youth” in a lofty register – there is nothing “little” or diminutive about that divine youngling. Lyudmila then reverses the ascent from a mere darling to a divine adolescent, using a diminutive form of “shoulders”, human and tender.

    Sologub was a major, first-rate poet, even though he has been somewhat overshadowed by those who followed him – he was born a little too early for the Silver Age. The Petty Demon is not only a prose work by an accomplished poet but is the first in a string of poet-authored novels and novelettes, with Kuzmin’s Wings, Bely’s Petersburg, Pasternak’s Luvers’ Childhood and Konstantin Vaginov’s Goat Song following within the next 25 years. The preface says that Sologub wrote many volumes of “finely polished poetry” but that misses the point completely – Sologub’s mastery of form was widely acknowledged as was, say, Valery Bryusov’s, but “polished” is a misleading introduction for a poet called, in admiration or in rejection, “a sorcerer” and “a shaman” by his prominent peers.

    Pamela Davidson calls the novel’s language flat and impoverished, and I suspect that’s how it comes across in Wilks’ version, but the original Russian is far more varied and flexible than “flat and impoverished” may suggest.

    I tried to say more about the novel in this discussion of The Petty Demon at XIX Vek in February.

    (BTW I agree that Russian devils were not Titans, but with one exception: Lermontov’s Demon.)

    Reply

    • Hello Alex, and welcome,
      You’re not being “boring” at all: far from it – not knowing Russian myself, I welcome comments on how language is used in the original work, and how it is translated. I too have doubts about this translation, despite not knowing Russian myself: to translate “nedotykomka” as “little demon” when the expression refers to something quite different in the title seems to me an odd decision indeed.

      And yes, the language in the translation did come across as “flat and impoverished”. Of course, the fictional world depicted is also “flat and impoverished”, but I do find it hard to believe that any significant work of literature can be produced with language that is “flat and impoverished”, any more than a significant painting can be produced with colours that are, say, “dull and insipid”: for language is surely the basic building block of literature, as colour is of painting. I did know that Sologub was also a poet, and am curious about what kind of poet he was: I would hazard a guess that he was not a lyrical poet.

      From my acquaintance with this book, albeit through a translation that possibly does not do full justice to the work, it does, I admit, seem a work very alien to my sensibilities. That need not in itself be a problem: one does not approach literature merely to have one’s thoughts and feelings confirmed. But siometimes, the gap between the author’s sensibilities and the reader’s is too large to be adequately bridged, and I can’t help feeling this was the case hereBut I’d certainly be interested in getting hold of a different translation.

      Best wishes,
      Himadri

      Reply

      • “…I would hazard a guess that he was not a lyrical poet.” It depends on the definition, but by most, he probably was. I thought of translating literally a few of his poems but so far have managed only one:

        “Why am I growing?”
        The snow maid asked me.
        “I know I will melt, and soon,
        As soon as I spot a cheerful flock,
        I will melt and ring down the stones,
        And you will forget me.”

        “Snow maid, soon you will find
        Melting is easy –
        will melt, will find, will die without reproach,
        will fall fast asleep.”

      • Thank you very much for this. This reads very well as a poem in English. (I think all translations of poetry have to read well a poems in the target language – otherwise they fail at the first hurdle.)

        This is frankly most unexpected. From my acquaintance with The Little Demon (albeit in translation) I’d never have guessed that Sologub was capable of writing a poem such as this. This seems to indicate that he deliberately kept his lyrical gifts well hidden when writing The Little Demon. How very extraordinary!

        I do hope you will continue to translate Sologub’s poetry. This translation of yours has come to me as a very pleasant and a very welcome surprise.

        Best wishes, Himadri

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