“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….