Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky


My edition was translated by Kyril Zinovieff & Jenny Hughes.

The first half of the book is basically a massive existentialist rant by an unnamed narrator, and the second half is more of a story from his life which illustrates what he has been ranting about. I haven’t read a good book with an angry voice in ages. The first half is a bit harder/slower to read than the second, but they’re both brilliant in different ways.

The narrator’s voice is great. He is cynical and angry, and has a narcissism that only very thinly veils his uncertainty and self-loathing. It’s almost as though he is constantly predicting and assuming what his audience/reader will say, and so constantly backtracks and contradicts himself.  He often attributes this contradiction, in his narcissistic moments, to being a ‘higher being’ and incredibly intellectual, but it seems to stem more from being acutely unsure of himself, combined with an awareness of what others may be thinking of him.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this, particularly in his rant. The narrator argues that man doesn’t act on reason alone, but often does things that go directly against their advantage, as this is sometimes the only way they can exert their free will. And also that people (including himself) find ‘delight’ in their suffering, and like to moan about pain, such as toothache, to share and spread their pain to others because of the pointlessness of the pain they feel.  It’s hard to do it all, and his character, justice without writing an essay about it, but if you have any interest or knowledge of philosophy you’ll find a lot to think about in this short novel.

I did find myself wishing I knew more about Russian history as in places I could see he was making specific metaphorical points but I had no idea what they were about. I plan to read more Dostoevsky in the future (Crime and Punishment has been on my TBR for ages), so I’m going to try and brush up a bit beforehand to try and get the most out of it.

In the introduction to my edition, there’s an interesting note from the translators. They said that the title should actually be ‘Notes from under the floorboards’ (the literal translation of the Russian), not ‘the underground’. According to them, in 1864 (when it was first published), the space beneath the floorboards was the space inhabited by rats and (in Russian folk legend) “the abode of devils, demons, evil spirits and other representatives of what Russians call the Unclean Power (Nechistaya Silda): creatures more sinister even than conspirators, insurgents or revolutionaries.”  The difference between ‘under floorboards’ and ‘underground’ is perhaps insignificant in English, but, given the way the narrator talks about himself, the literal translation has more meaning. I can imagine the narrator thinking of himself as a kind of sinister rat. (They kept the title as is, simply because that is how the book is known to English speakers).

The translators also talk about the difficulties of translating from Russian, particularly as Dostoevsky invented a number of words (including ‘anti-hero’), and often used the subtleties of Russian grammar to express mood, subtleties that don’t exist in English grammar. My fascination with the nature of translation continues…

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2 Responses to Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

  1. Pingback: February Reads | mischief and miscellany

  2. Pingback: 10 best books of 2014 | mischief and miscellany

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