I have a love-hate sort of relationship with Leo Tolstoy. Maybe that's putting it too strongly. I loved War and Peace and loved Anna Karenina. If someone were to say Tolstoy is one of the greatest writers of all time I wouldn't argue with you. It's not the writer I have a problem with, more the man. And I know this is unfair. A writer should be judged on their work and normally I can look beyond the failings or shortfalls of the person, but for some reason Tolstoy rubs me wrong. So it was with a little trepidation that I began reading The Devil. I was expecting to be critical of the novella, to not like it perhaps, or be annoyed by it. And while it has Tolstoy written all over it (and that should be a good thing, right?), I must say I very much liked the work. I found myself glued to the pages (though perhaps shaking my head at a few things) and now find myself contemplating picking up some other work by him.
What I know about Tolstoy probably is not a lot, and what I know are the less admirable and odder things. How he treated his wife Sophia for example. They had a passionate but tempestuous relationship. It started passionate and became tempestuous anyway. How would you like to read the diaries of your partner, for example, detailing his sexual history? Sophia had thirteen children, though around number five she almost died during childbirth. He became more eccentric in later life and radical in his political beliefs wanting to give away his property. At the end of his life he had actually abandoned his family, and he died shortly after gathering the nerve to leave.
The Devil was considered scandalous by Tolstoy. So much so that he hid the manuscript in the upholstery of a chair so Sophia wouldn't find it, and it was not published during his lifetime. Considering Tolstoy's reputation, and the fact that he himself had a child by one of the peasant women on his estate, I'm not surprised. The story is one of sexual obsession. I think I know who or what the devil is (in my thinking it is the desire/obsession that pushes Yevgeny to his final tragic act), but I wonder if it's who/what Tolstoy had in mind?
"A brilliant career lay before Yevgeny Irtenev. He had everything necessary to attain it: an admirable education at home, high honours when he graduated in law at Petersburg University, and connexions in the highest society through his recently deceased father; he had also already begun service in one of the Ministries under the protection of the minister. Moreover he had a fortune; even a large one, though insecure."
It's Yevgeny's desire to set the estate to rights, pay off his father's debts and restore it to its former grandeur. But he's a young man, only twenty-six, strongly built and "fullblooded", respected and desirous to be respectable. But there is one torment for Yevgeny. Not a prude and one who has lived the life of a healthy young man, it's not romance he is after, but a satisfaction of his physical desires. He doesn't want to live the life of debauchery, but what does a respectable young man do in this case? He looks for a married woman, living on an estate other than his own to have an affair with. He asks his father's huntsman to look for the right woman and set up their rendezvous.
In Stepanida he finds what he needs, an attractive young woman whose husband is often away to the city and quite pliable.
"It did not enter Yevgeny's head that these relations of his had any importance for him. About her he did not even think. He gave her money and nothing more. At first he did not know and did not think that the affair was known and that she was envied throughout the village, or that her relations took money from her and encouraged her, and that her conception of any sin in the matter had been quite obliterated by the influence of the money and her family's approval. It seemed to her that if people envied her, then what she was doing was good."
And so the relationship continues, and to Yevgeny's thinking it's mutually beneficial. But when he decides to marry, he puts an end to it. Although not the woman his mother would have chosen for him, Yevgeny has selected his own bride--not based on the idea she would be a suitable match (an heiress who could help the estate), but really almost a random choice. He is simply ripe for marriage, and so "he fell in love because he knew that he would marry." Liza is not particularly pretty, but she's intensely faithful. Whatever he might lack in love for her, she makes up for in her regard for him.
"She was also proud of him and felt emotional about him and herself and her love, and quite melted and felt fain from love of him."
Liza throws herself into pleasing Yevgeny--"guessing what he liked, and then doing just that thing, whatever it was and however difficult it might be." While Yevgeny does not feel raptures of love for his wife, he settles comfortably into their marriage and partnership. However happy he believes he is, his thoughts return over and over again to Stepanida. Chance encounters begin to tempt him. It's as though another power is moving him and time and again he has been saved only by the good fortune of having someone come along to stop him from being unfaithful. It's not love that is guiding him, but a powerful sense of attraction, an obsession for this woman. He begins to understand just what pushes a man to the edge.
"Really she is--a devil. Simply a devil. She has possessed herself of me against my own will."
This is where Tolstoy and I part ways. The last quote smacks of too much of (almost religious) fervor--demonizing the woman for tempting the man, as if he has no control over his passions. That aside, there is much to think about in this story. Does Tolstoy blame the woman or is it only Yevgeny thinking these thoughts? As always another closer reading might make it clear in my mind. Even Tolstoy by this time admits (as his character says) that he is deranged.
Two endings are given, so the reader can make up their mind which suits the story best, though as you may expect neither is a particularly happy ending. Being such a conflicted individual as Tolstoy was, perhaps he really was in the most ideal situation to be writing such stories--they are certainly coming from experience. You have to appreciate an author who can create such complex, conflicted and flawed characters--much as in real life. Short in length this story is juicy in the moral ambiguities of life and relationships. And you do have to admire Tolstoy's mastery of storytelling.
I've set Nikolai Leskov aside temporarily in favor of de Maupassant's The Horla. The Leskov is a "picaresque" novel, which wasn't quite grabbing me, so better to move on to one of the others and come back to it later. A story with a good psychological edge sounds just the ticket at the moment.