Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky Pt I

“Finally: I’m bored, and I constantly do nothing. And writing things down really seems like work. They say work makes a man good and honest. Well, here’s a chance at least.”

A few years ago, I read Dostoevsky’s The Demons, and while I enjoyed it  tremendously, I also found it rather unsettling–especially for bedtime reading. I knew that I should plough my way through Dostoevsky but decided I needed to recover before I picked up another volume. Recently I was ready to take the next step and selected Notes from Underground. My Vintage edition is translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

First a word on the translators. The more books in translation I read, the more I am convinced that translators are an unappreciated but wildly dedicated lot. Pevear and Volokhonsky, a husband and wife team, breathe life into Russian classics that needed a bit of a shake-up. When it came to picking an edition, I didn’t hesitate to select their translation of Notes From Underground.

The novel, narrated by an unnamed man, is divided into two distinct parts I: Underground and II: Apropos of the Wet Snow. The first section Underground takes place in the 1860s while Apropos of the Wet Snow takes place twenty years previously in the 1840s. While on one level the book’s two sections represent the regression of an individual, on another level the sections chart the changing sociopolitical landscape of Russia as it spirals from the “sentimental, literary 1840s” towards “the rational and utilitarian 1860s.”

The first section, and indeed the entire novel is encompassed by its anti-hero’s “dialectic of isolated consciousness” (a wonderful term from Richard Pevear). When the book begins, the forty year-old narrator, a former civil servant has retired on an inheritance of six thousand roubles. He lives in a “wretched, bad” room located in the outskirts of Petersburg and has a “bad smelling” female servant. The narrator speaks of his past as a bureaucrat where he wielded his petty power like some despot:

I was a wicked official. I was rude, and took pleasure  in it. After all I didn’t accept bribes , so I had to reward myself at least with that. (A bad witticism, but I won’t cross it out. I wrote it thinking it would come out very witty; but now, seeing for myself that I simply had a vile wish to swagger–I purposely won’t cross it out!) When petitioners would come for information to the desk where I sat–I’d gnash my teeth at them, and feel an inexhaustible delight when I managed to upset someone. I almost always managed. They were timid people for the most part: petitioners , you know. But among the fops there was one officer I especially could not stand. He simply refused to submit and kept rattling his sabre disgustingly. I was at war with him over that sabre for a year and a half. In the end, I prevailed. He stopped rattling.

The first part Underground is only 41 pages in my edition, and these pages are divided into 11 short chapters. This first section is basically 41 pages of rambling, self-interruptive, sometimes contradictory arguments as the narrator, who seems to be one of those people who has theories for everything, rambles bitterly on in isolation. In this diatribe about Free Will for example, the narrator introduces the imagined opposing arguments of the ‘other’ side:

“Ha, Ha Ha! but in fact, if you want to know, there isn’t any wanting!” you interrupt with a guffaw. “Today’s science has even so succeeded in anatomizing man up that we now know that wanting and so-called free will are nothing else but…”

Wait, gentleman, I myself wanted to begin that way. I confess, I even got scared. I just wanted to cry out that wanting depends on the devil knows what, and thank god, perhaps for that, but I remembered about this science and … backed off. And just then you started talking.

While the narrator may sound like a nut-job, the narration is part confessional, part self-justification and part political and philosophical argument. If this sounds boring, well it isn’t. It’s brilliant, it’s funny, and it’s an incredibly perceptive rendition of how people gather up and then hone theories and philosophies over the years. This section of the book essentially forms the narrator’s philosophy about life and human nature, and since he’s a man whose entire social life is glaringly absent, all his thoughts and imagined dialogues are committed to paper. This is a novel that’s best read and savoured in small segments.

There’s the sense that the narrator, now that he has our attention, simply won’t let go. This is the sort of person who traps his victims in the corner at parties, or perhaps someone who will gather an amused audience at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.

Pevear states that Notes From Underground is generally considered the “prelude to the great novels of Dostoevsky’s last period,” and he explains that although Dostoevsky never mentions this in the text, Notes From Underground is the author’s answer to Chernyshevsky’s  What Is to Be Done. Pevear states that Dostoevsky “originally intended to write a critical review of What Is to Be Done  but that instead the “response had to take creative form.” What Is to Be Done became the seminal novel for revolutionaries, and even Lenin pinched the title when he wrote his revolutionary tract in the early years of the 20th century. The foreword discusses the passages in Notes From Underground which “target” both the artistic and ideological aspects of Chernyshevsky’s novel with Pevear arguing that Chernyshevsky is the “embodiment” of “giftlessness.”  Pevear then further connects the dots of Russian literature by mentioning Nabokov’s The Gift. It’s entirely possible to read Notes From Underground and miss the Chernyshevsky connection, so this is a foreword you won’t want to miss.

While the narrator argues about several things (my favourite is chapter 11 in which the narrator waxes on about “people who know how to take revenge,” ) another crucial segment discusses human nature and the fact that people do not always choose to operate in their own self-interest–this a direct challenge to the ideas of Chernyshevsky:

Man really is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is, he’s by no means stupid, but rather he’s so ungrateful that it would be hard to find the likes of him. I, for example, would not be the least bit surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: ‘Well gentleman, why don’t we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending those logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!’ That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he’d be sure to find followers: that’s how man is arranged. And all this for the emptiest of  reasons, which would seem not even worth mentioning: namely, that man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one can want even against one’s own profit, and one sometimes even positively must (this is my idea now). One’s own free and voluntary wanting, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness-all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil.”

Notes from Underground (even the title is a challenge to Chernyshevsky) gave me yet another view of its author, and the book created some lively discussions around my house. While I could go on and on quoting the text, here’s a few lines:

 And what if I put you away for some forty years with nothing to do, and then come to you in the underground after forty years to see how you’ve turned out? One cannot leave a man alone and unoccupied for forty years, can one?

To be continued….

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky Pt I

  1. You’ve convinced me. I should read this. I would love to have been a fly on the wall in your house when you were discussing these issues.

    Did you read the Foreword before or after you read the novel?

  2. I used to not read the forewords of books at all as I was too impatient to get down to business. Now I read them first, and I find a range of quality. Pevear always writes stellar stuff in his forewords, and to be honest I wish more publishers would be content with letting the translators have the spotlight as they seem to have stuff to say about the work at hand–whereas some of the intros (by non translators) seem little more than fluff–at least in some of the copies I’ve read lately.

    Part II will cover some of the debates that took place here.

  3. Nick

    My version wasn’t as good as I don’t remember the foreword to be of any help. The challenge to Chernyshevsky completely escaped me, but then, my knowledge of Russian history is really poor.

    I’ll definitely switch to Pevear and Volokhonsky for my next Russian purchases, as i’ve heard so much good from their translations, and now from their forewords too!+
    Thanks, I’m waiting for Part II.

  4. I just bought The Double and the Gambler with the same translators.

    What Is to Be Done is sitting on my shelf unread–one of the many I plan to get to one of these days…

  5. Spectacular. Have you read the Chernyshevsky at all?

  6. I bought What Is to Be Done some time ago (last year?) when I read that it was a pivotal novel. Haven’t got to it yet, and I must say that Notes from Underground put me off if anything. It’s that ‘giftlessness’ thing.

  7. Pingback: MostlyFiction Book Reviews » CONCRETE by Thomas Bernhard

  8. leroyhunter

    Finished part 1 this morning, hope to finish part 2 tonight or tomorrow.

    I’m taking it that the fact that much of the narrator’s rambles make no sense is in itself part of the attack on Chernyshevsky….?

    Yes, the revenge stuff struck me as well. Plus the image of the self gnawing on itself until the pain becomes a pleasure. I kept thinking of how people describe Bernhard, that interiority and unrelenting quality of the thought / speech. Powerful stuff.

    • Apparently (from what I’ve read) Chernyshevsky’s book has a very particular style: a monologue on an issue of one radical policy after another with the plot secondary.

      I think of Dostoevsky’s narrator as someone who thinks he’s got it all figured out, but the problem is that he’s figured it all out in complete isolation (step away from the loony). If he discussed his ideas, he’d probably discover some fallacies or someone would pelt him with rotten tomatoes.

      A few years back, I knew of (although we never met) a man who had big dreams about building a huge project. He mortgaged his home and was up to his eyeballs in debt: surveyor bills, architectural plans, lawyer bills, plus he’d paid over a mill for the land. He had it all worked out in finite detail. The problem was that in order to complete his mega-plans, he wanted some adjacent property. Part of what he planned to take was mine. He never once came to talk to me–never once offered to buy it–never once sat down with lawyers. In return for taking my land, I was going to get a parking space. I think I was supposed to be happy about this. He went bankrupt. Champagne tastes on a beer budget.

      I often think that Dostoevsky would have loved that story. He would have loved the idea of that man figuring out this spectacularly bright future with the key players (the people who actually owned the land he wanted) getting the shaft. At what point did he come up with the solution to take the land? At what point did he think people would roll over for that? It boggles the mind. I tend to think that he became more and more deluded as the debt piled up. But hey, it worked for him–at least for a while.

      I read one Bernhard Concrete and loved it.

  9. leroyhunter

    That’s quite a story. Reminds me of Daniel Plainview’s machinations, except in this case the guy didn’t get to drink your milkshake. Yes, the question “what was he thinking?” is the obvious one – sounds like he could have done with a little more project management input and a little less megalomania.

    It’s glib of me to say “it doesn’t make sense”, it’s more accurate as you suggest to think of a mind cut off and arguing with itself, convincing itself of opposing propositions in the absence of any other context. The “profit” stuff is quite logic-warping, despite regular appeals to (and then subsequent rejections of) logic itself.

    • The man in question should have made all the negotiations up front. He didn’t and I expect it was because he didn’t have the $. So instead of bailing, he just plunged ahead with what ‘worked for him.’ I’m sure the longer he chewed it over, the more it made sense to HIM. It’s nutty on the outside. I was literally handed blueprints which showed my land as part of his project and then there was my parking space….with a little sign.

      I didn’t even bother getting excited. It was too absurd. It was more a question of : what the fuck’s this?

      So when I think of this story, I think of Notes from Underground with the man in question muttering in his cellar or his garage and repeating the story until it seemed it would work.

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