Notes from the Underground


Cons: style, content, etc.

My Russian-born, Russian-literature-loving violin teacher, Odelia Erdos, first introduced me to the standard Russian literature question: “Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy?” As a high school student I had not yet read Turgenev, but was already able to answer: “No! Gogol!”

I recently was disappointed reading a new translation of Dead Souls, and prompted by the movie adaptation with Jesse Eisenberg of Dostoyevsky’s novella “The Double,” read it, and reluctantly went on to (re?)read “Notes from Underground.” I would now answer the “eternal question”: “No, Turgenev!” and still prefer the fictions of Nikolia Gogol (1809-52) (and the stories of Alexander Pushkin [1799-1837] and A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov [1814-41]) to the fictions of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-81), knowing that many lovers of literatures, including Mrs. Erdos admired Dostoyevsky very much. (Her answer was “Dostoyevsky” over Tolstoy. She read them in Russian, whereas then I had to read both in translations by Constance Gannett who made them sound the same, that is, in her style (as Joseph Brodsky complained, “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”*). I now have the more accurate 2009 Penguin Classic translation by Ronald Wilk with an illuminating exposition of Dostoyevsky’s philosophy by Robert Louis Jackson.)

I feel that I am in danger of drowning in some of the multipage paragraphs of tortured musings of “Notes from Underground” as in the earlier (1846, pre-Siberia) “The Double”. If only I could read them as satire rather than self-lacerating dread! (as I am able to do in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, influenced though Ellison surely was by “Notes from Underground”)

“Notes from Underground” was published in 1862 in two installments in Dostoyevsky’s magazine Epokha (Epoch). Though both are in the voice of a painfully socially inept retired (at age 40) and unnamed minor civil servant in St. Petersburg, I don’t see the first part as having a narrative, even sort of alternatingly rambling and strangled account of the second part. Rather, it is an attack on rationalist utilitarian philosophy, in particular What Is to Be Done? by Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky, an 1863 response to Turgenev’s 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. Part One derides utopian visions (Chernyshevsky ‘s Crystal Palace, an example that will return at the end of Part Two).

Part 2: “Apropos of the Wet Snow” recalls humiliations: first an officer who moved the narrator out of his way without acknowledging him, a dinner party of some 30-something men who had been schoolmates (an event whose starting time has been changed without telling the narrator and moves on from where it moved onto before he arrives at the second venue) and a hysterical (very male hysteria) account of first interrogating then lecturing a young prostitute named Liza. The debacle of the party is very similar to the one into which the awkward low-level bureaucrat protagonist of “The Double” barged into and through.

Near the cessation (the novella cannot be said to have an ending) of the memoir, the narrator provides an auto-critique that I endorse:

“It seems that writing them [the notes from underground] in the first place was a mistake. At least I felt ashamed the whole time I was writing this tale. That means it is not literature, but corrective punishment… Telling a long story bout how I missed out on life in my corner through moral decay, through lack of human contact, through losing the habit of living and through my narcissistic, underground spite—God, that’s of no interest! A novel needs a hero but I’ve deliberately gathered together all the features of an anti-hero”… one less interesting to me than those of later writers like Camus and Sartre, all the more since the narrator then expands from “I” to “we.”

*In The Translator and the Text, Rachel May frames translations into English of Russian literature “less as a substitute for the original works than as a subset of English literature, with its own cultural, stylistic, and narrative traditions.”

(Photo of Dostoyevsky at the end of 1862, long in the public domain)

Leave a Reply