Review: Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

“I am a sick man … I am a wicked man,” begins this taut little novel from 1864. Our narrator is an unnamed 40-year-old living in (St) Petersburg, retired from civil service after coming into a minor inheritance. He is also, significantly, an orphan, once sent to boarding school by “distant relatives”. His sickness and wickedness mean he now lives “underground”, a metaphorical and psychological state of separation from society. By his account, he has been wicked for 20 years. But what is this sickness that he speaks of? We have to read on to find out.

Notes From Underground is a novel in two parts. The first is a frame, a diatribe for an imagined audience, explaining the state of our underground man’s mind. On and on he goes, waxing about romanticism, civilisation, suffering and wanting. He imagines his audience heckling him, telling him to shut up, but on he goes.

It is a complicated novel, and can be read on any number of levels. Superficially it is perhaps a satire of the evils of bureaucrats and professionals, too smart and bored for their own good, determined to inflict their unhappiness on others. “I was a coward and a slave,” he tells us. Our narrator is that loneliest of creatures, a smart man surrounded by idiots. “No one else was like me, and I was like no one else,” he says, committing the fallacy of unique experience. While others go around dedicating themselves to “profit” and achievement, our underground man is cursed with the understanding that this is futile. “I,” he declares, “Quite naturally want want to live so as to satisfy my whole capacity for living, and not so as to satisfy just my reasoning capacity alone”.

But Dostoevsky is also railing against bigger things. Chiefly, the rationalism that gripped 19th century society. According to these men, natural laws “need only be discovered”, and then a perfectly efficient and profitable society could be achieved.

You don’t have to go very far to see that Dostoevsky has a point here. Not too far in the future would be the Russian revolutions, and several other European attempts to create perfect societies. The same century birthed the scientific racism and technological efficiency that would lead to the Holocaust, and the exploitation of fossil fuels that would alter our atmosphere. The idea that people are fundamentally rational continues to haunt us, particularly in economics, despite the 2002 Nobel Prize awarded to Daniel Kahneman and Vernon Smith for their work on irrationality. We know climate change (insert any other modern ill) is bad, and fossil fuels cause it, but we just can’t seem to do anything about it fast enough. Activists are starting to wake up to this, and starting to use methods that engage our irrational side, namely telling stories. As always when reading classics, it’s somewhat depressing to find someone was onto this over a hundred years ago.

The only responsible thing to do, then, is nothing – “conscious inertia!” our narrator cries. One of the joys of this novel is that, like all good satire, Dostoevsky has serious things in mind. He leads you along the philosophical garden path, nodding and hmm-ing along at all his insights. Hang it, maybe it is better to do nothing!

But in the second part, “Apropos Of The Wet Snow”, we find out what started our narrator on this path to revelation, a memory “that now refuses to be gotten rid of”. This part has actual plot and other characters. Our hero, in his mid-20s, inflicts himself on his former schoolfriend Simonov, and invites himself to dinner, where he makes an utter and hilarious fool of himself. At this point I was still kind of on his side. But later he follows them to a brothel, and ultimately ends up tormenting one of the poor girls. To what end? Simply because “without power and tyranny over someone, I cannot really live”. He is not violent towards her, but his behaviour is truly despicable. And he knows it, at the time, and 20-odd years later when he is writing. For all his bravado, this is a man who knows he has learned something terrible about being alive.

Why is he like this? Notes From Underground seems in part an investigation of the idea that hurt people hurt others. Our narrator is an orphan, and seems to have known little love. It is significant that the only person he can find to torment is a young woman who is also a sex worker, alienated from her own home and family. It suggests a ruthless pecking order of power and suffering. But, just as the novel seems to be descending into the abyss, it offers a brief glimpse of something good, a way out if only it could be nurtured.

Where does this leave us? Our underground man seems to have discovered a truth of “living”, but at what cost? Faced with a choice between living by the skin of ones desires, and abiding by the “natural laws” of society, perhaps it would be better just to be a mindless drone. It is a bleak vision. Of course, Dostoevsky doesn’t really want to give us an answer, he just wants to prod and provoke. But no matter what it says about society, Notes From The Underground is a compelling, vital study of what it is to be alive.

Gay rating: not gay, although if Dostoevsky hadn’t pointed out otherwise, I would have said the underground man has a very queer sensibility

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