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A Devil's Vaudeville: The Demonic in Dostoevsky's Major Fiction.

A Devil's Vaudeville: The Demonic in Dostoevsky's Major Fiction. By W. J. Leather-Barrow. (Northwestern University Press Studies in Russian Literature and Theory) Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press. 2005. xi+211 pp. $75-95. ISBN 978-0-8101-2049-5.

The subject of W. J. Leatherbarrow's latest contribution to Dostoevsky studies, the demonic in Dostoevsky's fiction, may seem like an obvious and oft-examined one, but Leatherbarrow has produced a fine, thorough volume that not only draws together and consolidates existing scholarship but also elaborates on and moves beyond it with some strong assertions of its own. Leatherbarrow is conscientious in his detailing of work already done in this area and at pains to acknowledge debts to other scholars whose thesis or theoretical framework he follows at times, but there is plenty that is new here to satisfy any Dostoevsky enthusiast. Leatherbarrow grounds his study on a basis of cultural history, examining the semiotic markers of demonism in Russian folk belief as well as Orthodoxy. He points to the significance of, for example, liminal spaces, laughter, and a variety of physical characteristics in the folk tradition; he contrasts the grandeur of the Western Romantic image of Satan with the petty mediocrity of the Russian folk demon. He also considers the demonic implications inherent in the act of creating a work of fiction--a falsehood--an important undertaking in any study of a writer as self-conscious as Dostoevsky.

The first chapter draws together a number of Dostoevsky's shorter post-Siberian works, including The Gambler, Notes from Underground, The Meek Girl, and The Dream of a Ridiculous Man (but sadly, not Bobok; and later, A Raw Youth is also once again omitted from detailed study). Leatherbarrow links these works by the theme of 'the electricity of human thought', the ensnaring web of pride that arises from solitude and that draws men into such demonic behaviour as risk-taking and attempting to impose narratives on others. Here Leatherbarrow offers an original and very pleasing analysis of The Gambler's Mr Astley, highlighting the ambiguities and demonic associations surrounding this character more usually regarded favourably in the critical literature, and he posits him as a 'particular kind of devil' overseeing the evil of Roulettenburg (p. 47). Also of note in this chapter is the fact that Leatherbarrow's argument lends support to Edward Wasiolek's hitherto lone voice in proclaiming the Ridiculous Man's dream a blasphemy and his subsequent life one of self-interest (pp. 64-65). However, although Leatherbarrow is cautious in his endorsement of this view, signalling the generic ambiguities of the tale in its wider setting of The Diary of a Writer, he does not explore this in depth and thus fails to consider the importance of the Ridiculous Man's selfless act of tracking down the little girl he originally spurned.

Leatherbarrow having clearly established his methodology at the outset, the next chapters on Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Devils run along similar lines, tracing with commendable meticulousness an elaborate network of demonic symbols. He distinguishes each novel by a particular theme; in the case of Crime and Punishment he emphasizes the aesthetic confusion associated with demonism and thus underlines the importance of beauty in Dostoevsky's moral matrix. As an example of the accessibility and wide application of Leatherbarrow's study, it is worth noting that students may find this chapter useful for its elucidation of the motives for Raskolnikov's crime, which offers a clear explanation of how the various theoretical elements marry. The chapter on The Idiot is strong, and adds weight to the camp of critics who find Myshkin a failed 'positively beautiful man'. Leatherbarrow examines not only the more obvious issues of Myshkin's temptation by the demons of sexuality (Rogozhin) and intellectual pride (Ippolit), but also provides a subtle and interesting analysis of Myshkin as a blasphemous creator, who 'authors' the other characters according to his own agenda, most tragically Nastasia Filippovna when he plays with Rogozhin's knife, thus inviting him to cut open the pages of his pre-written narrative of their fate (pp. 113-14).

The final chapter on The Brothers Karamazov deals with the theme of the demonic implications of the art of fiction (p. 144). Leatherbarrow treats a variety of narratives in the novel, including those of Ivan Karamazov, the rhetoric of Dmitry's trial officials, and the controversial Book Six of Zosima's life and teachings. He accurately pinpoints the demonism at the heart of Ivan's intellectual postures, but misses a consideration of the ambiguity of Christ's kiss given to the Inquisitor. Leatherbarrow asserts that the kiss 'is intended implicitly to condone [the Inquisitor's] rejection of divine justice in favour of man's' (p. 153); but surely it is also possible that Ivan's Christ here escapes the narrative control of his author and expresses the active love and forgiveness preached by Zosima? Leatherbarrow goes on to argue that the problematic genre of Book Six, inserted as it is into a realistic novel whose genre is more conducive to the demonic, scuppers Dostoevsky's religious purpose and is made to seem to belong through 'artistic sleight-of-hand' (p. 176). Leatherbarrow's argument is more compelling than Sergei Hackel's similar thesis ('The Religious Dimension: Vision or Evasion? Zosima's Discourse in The Brothers Karamazov', in New Essays on Dostoevsky, ed. by Malcolm V. Jones and Garth M. Terry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), pp. 139-68); however, readers would do well to remember Caryl Emerson's brilliant study of the story of Zosima's Mysterious Visitor, which she posits as an indispensable part of the refutation of the Grand Inquisitor ('Zosima's "Mysterious Visitor": Again Bakhtin on Dostoevsky and Dostoevsky on Heaven and Hell', in A New Word on 'The Brothers Karamazov', ed. by R. L. Jackson (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2004), pp. 155-79). Presumably this was published too late for Leatherbarrow to take account of it.

University Of Leeds Sarah Hudspith
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Author:Hudspith, Sarah
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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