THE HOT OUTPOURING of the Russian literary samovar is not everybody's cup of tea. For casual readers in particular, and restrained Western taste in general, it can be too dark, too wild and too bitter a brew. Yet it is precisely a Slavic lack of restraint and a brooding sense of evil's presence in the world that give the great Russian novelists their widely remarked dramatic powers, and place them ahead of everyone else in a less remarked achievement: the creation of unforgettably grotesque characters. From Mikhail Saltykov's hypocritical Yudushka ("Little Judas") Golovlev, to Ivan Goncharov's chaise-longue lizard, Ilya Oblomov, whose lumpish name has become a Russian household word for will-less sloth, Russian writing throbs with the howls and sneers of a whole menagerie of literary monsters.
Compulsive Caramels. Of them all, none is more monstrous or more acridly etched than Ardalon Borisych Peredonov.
A glutton and compulsive sucker on caramels, Peredonov is the anti-hero of Fyodor Sologub's classic, The Petty Demon, a glittering fantasy that had enormous success in Russia when it came out in 1907 but has not been widely read elsewhere. (This deft translation is the first time it has been reissued in the U.S. since 1916.) A poor schoolteacher in an ugly 19th century provincial town, Peredonov hopes to be appointed inspector of schools through the intercession of his vulgar mistress Varvara with a powerful princess.
At first he seems a run-of-the-mill monster. "Should I give her one or not?" he asks himself in perplexity over whether to offer a caramel to the young ward of a friend. With petty but apparently motiveless malignancy, he hires some hooligans to humiliate one of his girl friends by smearing her gates with tar—a sign that she has lost her virtue.
Devilish God. As it becomes clear that Peredonov will never make school inspector, it is also evident that Peredonov's meanness is not merely savage comic realism but cosmic symbolism. Author Sologub, as a leader of the highbrow Symbolist and Decadent literary movements of the 1895. insisted that the moralistic realism of earlier Russian decades was dead. Art should be mystical, symbolic, fantastic. But in rejecting realism. Sologub rejected the real world too, believing, like the Manichaeans, that physical things are the creation of a devilish God.
To reflect this in The Petty Demon, Sologub torments Peredonov with a symbol of his own and the world's baseness, embodied in the shifting form of a bogy-like hallucination called a nedotykomka—"a person one can't touch." At first Peredonov tries to catch and destroy the nedotykomka. But his rage to destroy it—like all petty human rage and resentment, according to Sologub—is part of the dark inheritance from Cain. It becomes a rage to destroy everything. Peredonov is doomed.
Monstrous Irony. With a flexibility of tone rare among Russian writers and a poetic skill rare anywhere. Sologub blends with Peredonov's downfall a perverse but strangely idyllic love affair between a young woman and a schoolboy. Most of the villagers in the book are little better than Peredonov himself; the only ones who seem radiantly immaculate are the lovers. Clearly, in Sologub's world, this cannot last. Peredonov viciously denounces the pair as depraved, but when he kills a man, his charges against them are branded the lies of a madman. No matter; the damage has been done. In a monstrous irony, Sologub makes it clear that the lovers, not by their love but by the lying and deceit they used to protect themselves from Peredonov's slanders, have been permanently tarnished.
As "Peredonovism" (greediness, egotism, pettiness and lechery), Sologub's gloomy symbol became part of the Russian language. But the fame of his creature brought the author only temporary comfort. The bearers of the hammer and sickle did not take to Sologub's fin de siècle literary notions. After the 1917 Revolution, Sologub's works were put on the Soviet index. He died, penniless and in despair, in 1927. It was only four years ago that the Soviet Union finally permitted The Petty Demon to be reissued—in a small printing of authors prudently labeled "enemies of the nation." Yet Sologub's target was no one nation. "Each of us who has carefully examined himself," he wrote in 1908. "will discover unquestionable streaks of Peredonov."