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Fyodor Sologub: Мелкий бес (The Petty Demon)

Though this book was completed by 1902, Sologub did not publish it will 1907, when it had considerable success. It paints a portrait of a small Russian town and there is virtually no character in it (and there are a lot of characters) who comes out unscathed from Sologub’s satire. The main character is Ardalyon Borisych Peredonov, a teacher in what is called a gymnasium in the English text, roughly equivalent to a British grammar school or US high school. He is not a very good teacher. His headmaster considers him lazy and inefficient. His pupils mock him and find his arbitrary discipline unfair. (Peredonov liked it when boys cried, particularly if he had caused them to cry and then confess.) He shares a rented flat with his cousin, Varvara Dmitrievna Maloshina (Varya). He makes it clear that they are not first cousins (marriage between first cousins was illegal) but second cousins. They are not married and, as Peredonov is keen to point out, she is his cousin, not his mistress. Varya works as his cook and housekeeper, poring over cookery books to find suitable food for him. Peredonov is very greedy and very partial to sweet things. She is eager to marry him, feeling that being a wife is better than being a cook and housekeeper. He, however, is somewhat reluctant to marry her. Indeed, as a gymnasium teacher, he is a very eligible bachelor and, during the course of the book, quite a few people propose their young (and not so young) female relatives as a suitable wife for him and he, indeed, considers several. However, he does have a very good reason for marrying Varya. She used to work for the Princess Volchanskaya. Apparently, she has promised Varya that, as she has good contacts in the Ministry of Eduction, she will help Varya’s husband (but not a man who is merely her cousin or fiancé) to get a promotion to schools inspector, a position that Peredonov eagerly covets.

Peredonov does not particularly like his job or his headmaster who, he feels, is prejudiced against him. The headmaster is indeed prejudiced against him but for his incompetence and for no other reason. As well as being petty, incompetent, vicious, self-centred, lazy and racist (The Poles are stupid. They only know how to swagger about and The Jew can always dupe a Russian, but a Russian can never dupe a Jew.), he is also ambitious but neurotic. He feels that there are rumours going around the town doing him down and it is this, as much as anything else, that is preventing him from being made an inspector. As a result, he decides on two courses of action. The first is to change his outward behaviour. He had previously, for example subscribed to liberal reviews and bought liberal books to impress visitors that he was a liberal. (He has no views on politics and no interest in politics and nor does he read books.) However, he realises that having an apparently liberal outlook will not help his chances, so he destroys all the books and reviews, starts going to church regularly and generally changing his demeanour. This does not stop him from his usual activities of gambling (he always loses), playing billiards and drinking with friends. The second course of action is a visit to all the notables of the town, such as the mayor and police chief. He speaks to them about the alleged gossip against him. None of them has heard any of this gossip but promises to refute it if they do and to help him unmask the culprits. He even offers some names, without any evidence whatsoever. Of course, Sologub takes advantage of these officials to satirise them

Meanwhile, Varya is concocting a plan with one of the people Peredonov has accused of slandering him, Grushina. Grushina is to write a letter, forging the princess’s writing and signature, confirming that the princess will intervene on Peredonov’s behalf, once the couple are married. Meanwhile, Peredonov is considering other propositions. His friend, Rutilov, has three sisters he wishes to marry off. Peredonov is introduced to all three and all three have to tell him why they would make a good wife. He considers all three, accepts all three and rejects all three. His friend, Volodin, who is penniless, has the opposite luck, having been turned down by numerous women. Things start getting difficult at school. Peredonov has been making a habit of visiting parents and guardians of various pupils and telling them that their child is badly behaved and is in need of a good whipping. Not surprisingly, this is not generally a well accepted practice and some complain to the headmaster. The headmaster is more and more feeling that Peredonov is going insane and plans to have him examined by doctors but this is delayed because of bureaucratic inefficiency. (But the officials were in no hurry. That was why they were officials.)

There is one sub-plot, involving one of Peredonov’s pupils. The ever ready to gossip Grushina tells Peredonov that one of his pupils is really a girl. He does not live with others but with a female guardian. He is always crying and does look somewhat feminine. This rumour is spread and soon reaches the ears of the rest of the town, including the headmaster, who is convinced that this is more evidence of Peredonov’s insanity. However, Lyudmila, one of the Rutilov sisters, takes to the young man in question, Sasha, and she is convinced that he is not female, even though she does dress him as a geisha for a costume masquerade. In the meantime, Peredonov is showing more and more evidence of neurosis, paranoia and having hallucinations.

As a social satire, this book works very well. Sologub pulls no punches and Peredonov became a standard type in Russian literature, not least, I would imagine, because the unpleasant teacher is something many have experienced. The women eager to marry, the pompous town officials, the relatives trying to marry off their female relatives, the drinking and debauchery, all are mocked by Sologub. He later claimed that he himself – he had been a teacher and, later, a school inspector – was not the model for Peredonov. However, he did say Several people even think that by peering closely into ourselves, each of us will find the unmistakable characteristics of Peredonov inside. He even goes on to mock his critics. There were many rumours that he was to write a sequel, to which he commented that Peredonov may well have had a later career in literary criticism. There was no sequel.

Publishing history

First published in Russian in 1907 by Shipovnik,
First English translation by Martin Secker/Knopf in 1916