The obvious comparison that jumps out is to Gogol. There is a similar dark humor, and a similar cynicism, but those affinities are mostly superficial. While Gogol had larger than life archetypes as characters (the pathetic bureaucrat, the obsessive gamesman, the skinflint), Sologub’s characters are resolutely small and detailed. They hardly succeed at signifying anything other than their own pettiness. The Little Demon was written in 1907, but has nothing of the upcoming Russian futurists about it (though his poetry sure does), nor the power of premonition of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, nor the contemporary feeling of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg. It is more parochial than Gorky. The Little Demon has the claustrophobia of a hellish vision of a small village beyond which no one’s thoughts ever go.
The hero, Peredonov, is a nasty little man, an abusive schoolteacher whose ambition is to become inspector of schools, through the connections of his fiancee Varvara. Unfortunately, Varvara, terrified of Peredonov dumping her for a less repellent woman, has been in league with the old spinster Grushina and has fabricated her connections. Grushina forges letters from a princess in St. Petersburg to Peredonov. Varvara keeps up the charade with increasingly unbelievable antics until Peredonov marries her, by which point Peredonov is quite paranoid, and partly with reason, since most of the people around him really do loathe him and gossip about his peccadilloes. But by the end, he has become completely crazy, unwilling to believe what everyone else knows–that the letters are fakes–and instead chasing after fabricated plots, setting fire to ballrooms, and eventually turning on his dense friend Volodin and slitting his throat, all the while spurred on by the “petty demon” of the title, which taunts him and eggs him on. The hallucinations and unreality is similar to that of Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” but there is no redemption, no moment of clarity, only oblivious dark.
In the context of the surroundings, stripped of any nobility, Peredonov occupies a role in his environment similar to that of Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, written in 1840, seemingly as a rebuff to Pushkin’s more romantic view of Russia. Pechorin was the cynical, brash opportunist who was no more moral than the pompous nobles around him, but is incredibly successful at exploting them. Lermontov implied that the logical end of Pechorin’s mindset was an ennui-laden fatalism, but Sologub seems to have another answer: paranoia and compulsive scheming can arise just as easily when those around you are too dumb to even act predictably in their own self-interest.
Sologub fills up the book with other grotesquely picaresque anecdotes, which aren’t as shocking as they might be because the characters are so flat. Three shrill sisters, a pompous windbag headmaster, a succession of increasingly dull officials. But one story stands out and nearly takes over the book, though it’s only tangentially connected with Peredonov’s tale, and that’s the story of Lyudmilla and Sasha. Sasha is a young, persecuted student who Peredonov, in another incomprehensible scheme for promotion and fame, attempts to claim is a girl, and Lyudmilla is a shallow, nasty woman who becomes infatuated with him, driven by dreams of being the queen of a palace full of boys whipping each other. Lyudmilla dresses him up in girl’s clothes, pinches him, induces him to foot-worship, and eventually seduces him. Unlike Peredonov, Lyudmilla manages to completely cover up the affair when his aunt hears about it, with Sasha playing along perfectly.
The material is unnerving if not shocking; it’s of such a base nature that Peredonov’s insanity looks fuzzy in comparison. And Sologub seems to relish it more than the rest of the plot, devoting more and more time to the details of their meetings. (That and the general misogyny, misanthropy, and prurience suggest that Sologub was not a nice man.) Lyudmilla even picks up some pagan pretenses that she initially uses to justify her perversions to Sasha. It could be trash, but Sologub goes a ways towards justifying it by painting them in opposition to Peredonov. While Peredonov runs amok, Sasha and Lyudmilla maintain (or even, in Sasha’s case, establish) their public decency by falling back on a secret vice. The implication is that Peredonov failed because his addiction was public achievement. Sasha and Lyudmilla are undoubtedly doomed as well, but they are doomed in the way that Frank Norris’s McTeague was doomed: tolerated if not respected, they’ll go along until their private life destroys their public life. McTeague eventually abandons his dentistry practice for the promise of gold, but Sologub is a bit lighter than Norris. Sologub gives his characters their private pleasure, while in McTeague, there is clenched-teeth misery only let loose when a young boy urinates in public and humiliates his whole family, in an expression of unbelievably repressed (and oppressed) rage.
That’s not to say that Sologub is sanguine, but the two main plots of Peredonov and Sasha/Lyudmilla strengthen each other. Peredonov would just be a madmen amongst dullards, and Sasha and Lyudmilla would just be perverse caricatures, but each is a reaction to the other, as Charles Bovary’s failures make Emma’s futile dreams deeper. I will not go into detail about how the two aspects, one public and deranged, one private and devious, reinforce each other and how that might apply to the past and future history of Russia, but I’d say there’s something there.