Is The Devils a Psychological Novel?

I was thinking, if I ever got around to writing a post about Dostoevsky’s The Devils, it would be on its status as a psychological novel. Dostoevsky is, of course, the great example of the psychological novelist in literary history (see, his Wikipedia page). But, reading The Devils, he didn’t seem to me at all a psychological novelist in the sense that I’d use the term – in, say, a Proustian sense: that he spends endless pages examining himself / his narrator / his characters psychologically – the way, that is, I’d expect a novelist today to write, if I were to call him psychological. He did not seem, that is to say, a psychological novelist in the way that is often used against him – you know, by the kind of people who like to say that we shouldn’t be copying the work of a novelist of the 1870s; we should be trying to copy ones from the 1920s and 30s.

What I think is meant by Dostoevsky being a psychological novelist, is that his characters are often to be found in extreme states of mind; and it is these states of mind which are examined – and not – and here’s the rub – from the inside, but from the – outside.

And what’s more, these characters who possess these states of mind aren’t entirely consistent either in the states of mind they possess: their states of mind appear – for a supposed c19th realist (though Dostoevsky is about as realist in his way as Dickens) – remarkably protean, impossible to pin down or properly examine – you know, in the way that literary characters only became in the c20th, after Heisenberg’s observations of the nature of quantum particles. Peter Verkhovensky and Nicholas Stavogin, it is impossible to get a grasp on either of them, they are always in some elusive, what the hell is driving them to do what they do. In fact, with The Devils, not merely are the individual characters within the book impossible to pin down, but the events that take place too seem remarkably uncertain.

In the c19th, of course, narrators were omnipotent [ed. or, at least, “omniscient”?]. So what are we to make of the narrator of The Devils? His position is tangential to the events he is describing: he is acquainted with the characters who undertake these events, but does not take part in them himself. Perhaps from this he sounds quite godlike. And yet, often he doesn’t seem entirely clear about what events have taken place; he is certainly unclear about why, and manages to come up with very little motivation or explanation for any of it. – I’m not entirely assured that Dostoevsky even believes in motivation: people merely act, without much knowing why – hence, like the Gaderene swine, they are possessed by devils. The entire force of the novel is predicated precisely on the idea that the narrator can’t see into the minds of his protagonists – and the author doesn’t seem to have much of a better idea either.

As I say, I was thinking of writing about this – but I didn’t; but then I happened to read Nathalie Sarraute’s essay From Dostoievski to Kafka, in which she claims – completely crazily, of course – that Dostoevsky’s characters are these same protean forms that I found, endlessly shifting in their emotions, in their characters (she sees the process reach its culmination in The Eternal Husband); – and that Kafka entirely ripped this off from him. – Oh, all right, she doesn’t go that far, she says: “Across the immense territories opened up by Dostoievski, Kafka drew a path, a single, long narrow path: he advanced in a single direction, and followed it to the end.” (His was the genius of specialisation, of obsession – such is the dead-end of all the avant-garde – see Schopanhauer as quoted by Vila-Matas in Bartleby & Co.). And besides, Kafka was also ripping off Walser and the entire Yiddish / Hasidic tradition.

Of course, Sarraute sees what interests her: we can see Sarraute’s characters in Dostoevsky’s, if we like (on the supposition, at least, that Sarraute even has characters). But that, I’m afraid, is beyond the scope of this post.

On a technical writing point: Often poor and inexperienced writers will come unstuck with a first person narrative. When they want a narrator to witness a scene, they can think of no reasonable justification for their presence. This can lead to all kinds of laughable absurdities. But Dostoevsky in The Devils provides a remarkable solution to this problem, a solution which only a truly great man could come up with: – that is, he gives no justification whatever. Sheer genius!


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