Given their penchant for cramming their stories and novels full of devils and demons, you’d think the great progressive Russian writers were trying to stake themselves a corner of the Halloween market. Consider, for example, something like Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita,’’ with Lucifer appearing as a dandy, or Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,’’ in which Satan taunts rationalist Ivan’s faith in a dream.
But then there is Fyodor Sologub’s under-read “The Little Demon’’ from 1907, a novel that reigns supreme — or anti-supreme, if one prefers — in the black arts game. And in holding up a darkly comic glass before his countrymen.
Sologub was a provincial teacher, and so is Peredonov, a character who is neither hero nor antihero, but rather his own brand of nasty. And his own brand of hilarious. He does everything “sullenly,” “gloomily,” “crossly,” and all with a violent, nihilistic bent, sort of a cross between Johnny Rotten and Eeyore. Alternating descriptions of rural life with Peredonov’s increasingly sadistic hallucinations, Sologub tracks his amoral protagonist’s descent into madness even as he pursues job promotion and is viewed as a model citizen.
At first, Peredonov’s problem seems simple: He wishes to wed, even though he can’t stand anyone, and then he gets paranoid that his boss is speaking out against him. So he begins making the rounds in his small town, paying visits to the mucky-mucks of society that he can’t stand. The mayor advises a change of job might be salubrious and suggests the church. “I’m scared of the incense,” Peredonov counters. “It makes me feel sick and gives me a headache.”
Few characters have ever been so paranoid as this one. Fueling this is the fact that he’s a born blurter, with no problem voicing his concerns outright, as though everyone shared them. In one early sequence, a friend brings out each of his three sisters in a kind of fraternal pimping, as Peredonov evaluates each as a potential wife. But it all comes across as if he is comparing livestock. Of course, this is the sort of stuff going on in a dozen heads at any given time on any subway car, but Peredonov works himself up into a lather of worry and stress over it — and everything else.
The constraints of everyday life can only be embraced so long in the mind of such a character before the phantasmagoric takes over. Peredonov likes the seedier side of life, even preferring grubby students to clean ones, and as his sense of himself as one possessed by forces beyond himself deepens, Peredonov starts to ruminate on every style of kink and degradation. He has a caning fetish, a foot fetish, a veritable fetish of fetishes.
The world of the town around him remains static and humdrum, which only makes everything more unnerving when an actual female demon turns up. But in Peredonov’s topsy-turvy brain, a demon becomes a symbol for his particular natural order in a morally bankrupt society.
When it was first published the public assumed, inevitably, that Sologub was writing about himself in fictionalized form, airing his most robust fantasies. But the author wasn’t having any of it, and declared, “No, my dear contemporaries . . . it is about you.” Bang on. Not only just then, but now, too, each time we chortle and wince as we read along to the anti-adventures of our sub-antihero, pondering the disconnect between what appears right in the world and what appears right in the mind.
Colin Fleming is the author of “Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep’’ and “Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories.’’