Demons is and is not a story of a failed revolution. In it Nicolai Stavrogin and Pyotr Stepanovich are part of a terrorist cell that implodes. But terrorism here is like a twin scoop ice cream. Stavrogin's flavour is the thorough scoundrel. He terrorises innocent people because he can and because he has no regard for his own self. People like him are truly dangerous. Pyotr undoubtedly also is a scoundrel but because he is a fastidious nihilist who stops at nothing for the masterplan whatever that is. He wants to bury the ruling class and raise up a fresh new world order. That's what many firebrand youths hoped for with the coming of the first world war. They learned that war brings little but grief. A new world order is also what the pre-and-post October 1917 socialist revolutionaries across Europe fought for but that pig did not fly either. Idealism is of course not the sole preserve of the left. When the neo-cons tried to shock and awe their way to a new world order, it (hello!) surprisingly blew up in their faces.
This book predates (almost) all of that. And for all the references to the Book of Revelations there is no way Dostoyevsky could have foretold the soviet era like some people claim because he like us all is neither seer nor prophet. But as a reasonable (and religious) man he probably learnt from history that those who would push through their agendas with blood only summon the divinities of disaster. In any case the book is based on a true story and there was no need for the author to stargaze.
What's the book like to read? It's funny in parts. It's philosophical and political. It might ramble on from time to time but eventually the main action and dialogues dazzle even brighter because you least expect them there. The notes that come with this translation are copious but almost always necessary. Not all the characters are necessary to the story but equally not all the inhabitants of earth are vital for history. The writing is sure and unhurried and at the very end one agrees it is a classic. Stepan Trofimovich (Pyotr's father and for me the standout character) is a masterful depiction of how a man of above average ability gets broken by his own ego and by "society". In the end there's nothing but eternal darkness. And I think at the end that's what Demons is about - the human ego. There is something wistfully farcical about humans running to and fro believing in their rationality, their spirituality, their uniqueness, their ideology, their life and career plans, their insurance plans, their contract with the universe, their physical beauty etc und so weiter when we are nothing but living organisms on a random planet where life and living are serious farces. There's no reason for us to be here despite what the feel-good books say. We make the reason for our existence and invent all the exclamation marks to make it meaningful.
The best and most frightening part of the book is the appendix, the chapter Dostoyevsky's publisher refused to publish. It's Stavrogin's confession to a crime that is as chilling as it is vivid. Whatever edition you read make sure it has this addendum.
I bought this new translation of the book based on a recommendation in the Times. I had read a penguin copy (called The Devils) about 10 years ago. I should state that I only lasted to the end of chapter 4, before researching the various versions available. The main issue with this translation is that it loses the sense of being there, by the use of modern language phrases. i.e. "mistep", there are plenty more. Not being up to the level to read in the original Russian I cannot say whether it or the older ones are more faithful to the original. This translation seems to jar every now and then, with sentences being disjointed. The Constance Garnett (circa 1916)version just reads better and seems to be of the time, I found it easier to create a mental picture of the scenes described in hers. I would guess that the use of an all American academians has not helped weed out that which is out of place to British - English speakers. Personally I would look out for her translation.
My 3rd Dostoyevsky novel and it's absolutely brilliant. The story starts a bit slower than Crime & Punishment and the Idiot but it's well worth sticking too. The last third of the novel is as good as anything I've read. Also the appendix at the end is something that will stay in my memory for a long time. Yes this book is a hard read, but that makes it all the better & worthwhile to finish.