April 16, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 22: The Devil


the devilTitle: The Devil

Author: Leo Tolstoy

First published: 1911 (i.e. posthumously. The Devil was written in 1889)

Page count: 100

First line: “A brilliant career lay before Yevgeny Iertenev.”

Well, with that opening line, you know how things are going to end up, or at least how they are going to be before they can be allowed to end. In fact, The Devil has two alternate endings, the second written a full 20 years after the first, but I’ll leave you to discover in what manner they differ. Either way, they don’t alter the sense of an ending the beginning so definitely gives.

And look at that page count, too. A round hundred pages seems like the perfect length for a novella, doesn’t it? There is something exquisitely, even exemplarily novella-ish about The Devil, in that it focuses not so much on one person, or on one person’s life, as on one impulse within that person, or one external material force on that life. The whole of Russia – the social system, and the moral system built on top of it – is implied and implicated in the story, but never explored. The stage is set, and once set it won’t be struck, and the few characters we find upon it are sufficient.

That stage, which gives us a rural estate with fertile land, water meadows and a sugar factory, is completely surrounded by forests. You might work in it, or pop off into it for illicit sex, but you could never make your way through it to reach the rest of the world. The rest of the world is absent. All we have is here, and now, and the novella.

Tolstoy’s protagonist is Eugene Irtenev, who leaves a career in St Petersburg to take ownership of the family estate after the death of his father, living there with his mother. The internal impulse that drives the plot is sex – sex as a basic human imperative. Prior to finding the right woman to marry, Irtenev needs someone to take out his natural male desires on. He sees this as a purely practical issue of physiological hygiene – “not for the sake of debauchery but merely for health’s sake”.

The external force that brings to bear on him is Stepanida, a local married peasant he is set up with for this very purpose, who is quite happy to disappear into the forest with him now and then. She accepts the money he offers, but the financial motive doesn’t seem particularly important. Nor does she have any real love or lust for Irtenev. Rather she likes sex as much as he seems to need it (subtle sexism at play, possibly), and you can add to that a certain cock-snooking attitude to her husband, who, she is sure, is up to something similar in town, where he works and stays.

The general healthiness of the sex is emphasised both by Tolstoy’s description of Stepanida, and in her association with the natural world.

She stood there, in a white embroidered apron, a red-brown skirt, and a bright red kerchief, barefoot, fresh, firm, and handsome, and smiling shyly.

Those same bright, black eyes, and that deep voice, saying, “ever so long,” that same scent of something fresh and strong, and that same full breast lifting the bib of her apron, and all this in that hazel and maple thicket, bathed in bright sunlight.

(Which reminds of Irving Berlin, in The Fox and The Hedgehog, saying of Tolstoy that “his universe has no dark corners, his stories are luminous with the light of day.”) Compare that thicket with the farm shed where Irtenev has his last – failed – assignation with her, towards the end of the book. It’s pouring with rain, the thatch of the shed roof is leaking, and the only sign of her is her footprints in the mud outside.

He sat for a long time in the shed and left it exhausted and crushed. He delivered the medicine, returned home, and lay down in his room to wait for dinner.

That’s near the end of the book. All that happens between, really, apart from a small amount of business to do with the estate, and Irtenev’s father’s debts, and the bickering of his mother and mother-in-law is that, yes, he gets married – to a bright, reasonably well-appointed girl who, though she loves him, doesn’t respond with the same natural impulse and, when she falls pregnant, suffers difficult pregnancies, including a miscarriage.

That’s what makes this story particularly novella-ish. It is so focused. There is much that could happen in it, that doesn’t. The wife could find out. Stepanida’s husband could find out. She could become pregnant with his child. (Well, maybe she does; there is certainly a child, but nothing is comes of it.) Tolstoy concentrates all his powers on the simple question of the war in Irtenev’s breast: the natural desire for the peasant woman, and his terrible guilt and despair at what he desires. There is not even any religious angle – he doesn’t go crying to the priest; there is not, I think, any religion in the book at all. He just knows or feels that his impulse – his need – is wrong.

This has got to lead somewhere, of course, for the book to have an ending, and how it gets there is by Irtenev deciding that the wrongness of the whole situation is not to do with him, but with her.

“Really she is – a devil. Simply a devil. She has possessed herself of me against my own will.”

The book ends with madness, and a dictum on madness, that to my surprise links the book back to the last three:

And indeed if Yevgeny Irtenev was mentally deranged everyone is in the same case; the most mentally deranged people are certainly those who see in others indications of insanity they do not notice in themselves.

Now, this is the first thing of Tolstoy I have read (I know, I know) and what surprised and cheered me most of all about it was the book’s attitude towards sex. Considering the received idea of Tolstoy as a Schopenhauerisch ascetic, the portrayal of Stepanida is overwhelmingly sympathetic. She takes up with someone else after Irtenev cuts it off with her, and he makes a slightly snide comment at that, but that’s messed-up Yevgeny, not Tolstoy. This is a first, and untutored, response. It could be that I’m misreading Tolstoy, and that he genuinely did want us to see, with Irtenev, the woman as a devil, but it seems pretty clear to me that if there’s a devil anywhere it’s inside Irtenev.

It’s an easily read book, the perfect length and density for its story. Even with its choice of endings, it could not be otherwise, and it shows up my avoidance of Tolstoy as the foolishness it surely is. (Why is this, I wonder? He’s less hip and tortured than Dostoevsky, yes, and less refined and ironical than Chekhov. Perhaps it’s not just happiness that writes white, by greatness, too. Could you imagine a novel, or a novella, that’s so perfect it doesn’t need to be read? Is this that novella? Well, nearly. Not quite.)


Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.