Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky Pt II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground is divided into two sections- I: Underground and II: Apropos of the Wet Snow. The first section is set in the 1860s when the narrator has retired on a small inheritance and is now forty years old. The second section is set  in the 1840s. Dostoevsky stated that he considered Gogol to be one of the major influences on his work, and that comic connection is apparent in Apropos of the Wet Snow–one of the funniest, meanest things I’ve read in some time. It’s also this second section that led to a split of opinions and some lively debates at home. But more of that later.

In Apropos of the Wet Snow, the narrator is twenty-four years old.  He is employed and claims that his life is “already gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.Indeed it’s through this character’s social interactions that his many problems become clear. While he spends most of his time at home reading, his “debauchery” takes place at night. In one of the episodes described by the narrator, an unknown officer causes him a great deal of distress:

“I was standing beside the billiard table, blocking the way unwittingly, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and silently-with no warning or explanation-moved me from where I stood to another place, and then passed by as if without noticing. I could even have forgiven a beating, but I simply could not forgive his moving me and in the end just not noticing me.”

The narrator enraged by his treatment then stalks the officer with some notion of revenge. I’m not going to spoil this for any potential readers out there, but the narrator’s attempts to get noticed, strike back or somehow or another get even with the insult is hilarious.  In dealing with the officer, the narrator builds the insult in his mind, and he builds his revenge in a similar fashion. As the narrator obsesses on the officer and the insult, the revenge becomes more fanciful.  

In one of the sections of Part I Underground, the narrator discusses the “mouse” who seeks revenge, and it’s in the impassioned details that he seems to go a bit overboard:

“The wretched mouse, in addition to the one original nastiness, has already manged to fence itself about with so many other nastinesses in the form of questions and doubts; it has padded out the one question with so many unresolved questions that, willy-nilly, some fatal slops have accumulated around it, some stinking filth consisting of its dubieties, anxieties, and, finally, of the spit raining on it from the ingenious figures who stand solemnly around it like judges and dictators, guffawing at it from all their healthy gullets. Of course, nothing remains for it but to wave the whole thing aside with its little paw and, with a smile of feigned contempt, in which it does not believe itself, slip back shamefacedly into its crack. There in its loathsome, stinking underground, our offended, beaten-down, and derided mouse at once immerses itself in cold venomous, and above all, everlasting spite.”

So when I arrived at Part II and read of the narrator’s tireless attempts to enact “bold” revenge on an officer who sees him as less than an insect, it was easy to understand that the narrator is the “mouse” in pathetic and hilarious action. This creates an interesting result, for as readers we now understand that the narrator is still chewing over this incident from the distance of twenty bitter years. Dostoevsky’s decision to place the two sections of Notes From Underground out of chronological sequence is brilliant. We first see the middle-aged narrator as a lonely, bitter and thwarted human being who bitches about his smelly servant. Then through Apropos of the Wet Snow, we see the narrator as a young man with many problems, scheming of ways to not pay his servant. The nonlinear structure of Notes From Underground reminds me of A Hero of Our Time.

In another section, the narrator details an evening spent with some other young men, old “schoolfellows”  of his acquaintance. They treat the narrator “as something like a quite ordinary fly.” Hearing of a planned farewell party for another old schoolfellow, Zverkov,  the narrator invites himself along–in spite of the fact that he’s obviously not welcome and he doesn’t have the necessary funds to contribute to the evening’s meal. Shamelessly, he invites himself, gets drunk, and makes a complete arse out of himself.

Another major section concerns the narrator and a young prostitute named Liza. The narrator tells Liza the tale of a consumptive prostitute who was worked by her madame until she died. The tale, ladled on with thick detail about the typical brief shelf life of a prostitute, would seem to take the shape of a morality lecture with the narrator hinting that Liza should get out of the whorehouse while she still can:

“At any rate, in a year, you’ll be worth less,” I went on gloatingly. “So you’ll go from here to somewhere lower, another house. A year later–to a third hose, always lower and lower, and in about seven years you’ll reach the Haymarket and the basement. That’s still not so bad. Worse luck will be if on top of that some sickness comes along, say some weakness of the chest…or you catch cold, or something. Sickness doesn’t go away easily in such a life. Once it gets into you, it may not get out. And so you’ll die.”

But the narrator isn’t out to save Liza’s soul; he has another much more devious plan in mind while he waxes on about love. It’s this section of the story that led to the Great Debate at home. I argued that the narrator set the stage for a game in which–no matter the outcome–he could not lose. When Liza arrives at his flat, he’s either going to get free sex or having broken through her hard, self-protective shell, he’ll wallow in the enjoyable prospect of robbing Liza of any illusions she may have of ever being loved or being treated like a human being. Either way the narrator wins. Free sex or glee at the manipulation and humiliation of another human being.

The ‘other’ argument was that the narrator ‘missed’ the opportunity for love–an idea which does not fit the cynicism of Apropos of the Wet Snow.

Finally, while Notes From Underground isn’t the Dostoevsky novel we all hear about, this was a wonderfully funny and extremely entertaining read.

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18 Comments

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18 responses to “Notes From Underground by Dostoevsky Pt II

  1. I down loaded a free copy of this book off amazon… I don’t know when I’ll have time to read it but I appreciate that you introduced me to it!

  2. It may be a good place to start for Dostoevsky. I started with The Demons but had to write out a cast of characters in order to keep everyone straight. Some parts of the Demons were a bit grim. Notes from Underground is very funny–esp part II.

    Anyway, now I know I have to read more–yes the famous stuff but the lesser known works too.

    • You know that Demons is based on a true story, don’t you? It helps to know that, and that’s what drove me to the book in the first place. Loved Demons but I’ll admit it traumatised me–the slow dread build to the murder….

      I read parts of a Dostoevsky bio yesterday and the author said that part of Notes from Underground are direct hits at “What is to be Done.” (If you’d read What is to be done, you’d recognise a sort of parody in Dostoevsky, per the writer). So I am going to have to read that soon.

  3. My favorite book by Fyodor, and indeed, the only one I can still read. I read it again a year or two ago.

    Did you mention the theme of the Crystal Palace? It’s a wonderful demolition of the pretensions of British Victorian materialism.

    As a boy, I longed to emulate the Underground Man. It was my ambition to be a petty bureaucrat, nameless and stewing in horribly acid mental juices. Camus’ Mersault is a later incarnation, with all the passion drained out of him, isn’t he?

    The book is truly funny, but it’s one where I think Fyodor really hits the mark with his social satire and criticism.

    I really don’t get your conclusion here:

    The ‘other’ argument was that the narrator ‘missed’ the opportunity for love–an idea which does not fit the cynicism of Apropos of the Wet Snow.

    Isn’t that the point, always the point, with Dostoyevsky? People miss, or absolutely run from their opportunities for love. That’s why the Grand Inquisitor can tell us that it would be necessary to kill Christ again if he returns. The cynicism is the Underground Man’s, not Dostoyevsky’s. I think the author’s view is that his creation is a pathetic and sad creature. You are right that he arranged it so that he “could not lose,” but that’s why he loses, always!

  4. No I didn’t mention the Crystal Palace in the review.

    re: the last point. My interpretation is that the narrator set up Liza so that whatever happened he won. If she took the money, he humilated her by employing her as a prostitute. If she refused the money, then he got a freebie. I was told I was too cynical and the episode showed that the narrator turned away from the opportunity of love. I didn’t see the narrator worrying about love at all except as a means to break through Liza’s shell.

    Yes this is the narrator’s cynicism–not D’s. And I agree the narrator is rather a sad creature–but not totally unaware of his loathesomeness either.

  5. Whenever I visit your blog I find reviews of books I should have read, but have so far failed to do so. The trouble is if I were to add them all to my TBR pile they would probably take me some years to get through them (the Balzac alone!).

    However, this one sounds as compelling as any and I will probably buy it along with A Hero Of Our Time.

    I am not new to Dostoevsky by any means and rate C&P as a pivotal read – but then so does everyone else!

  6. Tom: In my case I am getting round to the books I always wanted/intended to read. I used to read a lot more new stuff than I do these days. Some of this is continued disappointment in many of the new books out there–whereas my delight in the classics is consistent.

    I also review for http://www.bookreview.mostlyfiction.com and that helps to keep up with some of the new titles. I am trying to work my way through my neglected shelves–although that doesn’t always work.

  7. So many websites- now another – Mostly Fiction. Its really interesting – and has been going since 1998 – about two years after I discovered the Internet. I read two or three books each week – and am only scratching the surface

  8. I’ve been reviewing for Mostly Fiction for years. I really like it as we reviewers “volunteer” for books. Joining has encouraged me to stretch a bit as reader, as I end up choosing books I probably wouldn’t normally find. These are copies sent to the site owner for review from publishers and then distributed to the reviewers. Sometimes a book isn’t for me (even though it sounded as though it was), and then I just pass as I don’t want to spend hours and hours reading a book I don’t like.

  9. leroyhunter

    After an unplanned hiatus I got to finish this Guy, and I’d agree with what you say about the translation and introduction 100%. Great work by P&V, one of the results of which is that their version of Tolstoy’s short fiction gets bumped right to the top of the TBR.

    As to the book itself, I really enjoyed it, part 2 especially. You laugh, cringe and are appalled by the narrator in turn. I would tend to agree with the “other” argument about the Liza episode, I thought there was a self-pitying self-awareness alongside the cynicism and cruelty. Whatever, the narrator rationalises everything to himself so comprehensively that even if he recognises the “lost opportunity” he’s quickly able to cover it up in bile and the assumption of heroic “victory”.

    I didn’t enjoy Crime & Punishment at all when I read it years ago but this restores my interest in Fyodor. Maybe I’ll try Demons next.

  10. leroyhunter

    I didn’t know that Guy…an historic event or something from Dostoevsky’s own life?
    Have you thought of reviewing Demons?

    • The event (book) is reviewed here too as well as the novel. Bakunin and Nechaev by Paul Avrich. It’s only short but will blow your mind. It helps to read it first as then you know a bit of background and where Dostoevsky was coming from.

  11. leroyhunter

    Don’t know if you’ve seen this; the quote made me think it might tickle your fancy:
    “[This] novel..is a lacerating exposition of the logic of identity that looks backward to Dostoyevsky, forward to Simenon, and beyond to the confessional literature, whether fiction or fact, of our own day.”

    http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/a-posthumous-confession/

    I’ll take a look at the Avrich as a precursor to The Demons.

    • Coincidentally I am currently reading this book. Halfway through.

      • leroyhunter

        Ah…of course, I see it up above now. Sorry, not paying attention…

        • Not at all. Thanks for thinking of me. I’m halfway through and it doesn’t really make me think of Simenon that much. It’s mostly interior dialogue from an egotist. So far I don’t like it nearly as much as Dostoevsky or Bernhard (the closest I’ve found to Dostoevsky). I like it in its own right, but it is problematic to compare a book to others as it raises expectations.

  12. leroyhunter

    Look forward to your verdict. The Dostoevsky / Simenon comparison is probably too good to be true. Interesting to see how Coetzee fares as a translator, though.

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