I have to admit that Notes from the Underground boggled my mind and I’m still a bit unsure what to make of it. My experience with Russian writers is sadly limited: to being made to read Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons in high school and a failed attempt at Dostoyevky’s The Idiot several years ago. I therefore have next to no Russian points of reference to which I can tie my reading of Notes from the Underground. While they’re not strictly necessary and I suppose there are references that come from other cultural backgrounds (existentialism for instance), I do think they would have been helpful, for example in understanding some of the symbolism during the first half of this striking novella.
The structure of Notes from the Underground is unusual to begin with. The first half is a sort of philosophical treatise, written by the nameless protagonist, a former civil servant in St Petersburg. He has retreated from society and has spent 40 years living in his “Underground” world of cynical bitterness and self-destruction. The following quote sums it up:
“It is clear to me now that, owing to my unbounded vanity and to the high standard I set for myself, I often looked at myself with furious discontent, which verged on loathing, and so I inwardly attributed the same feeling to everyone.”
And so, the first half of the novella outlines the protagonist’s world view, in which people are ungrateful, inconsistent, and stupid, and there is no way out of this dimwittedness. Another quote:
“all ‘direct’ persons and men of action are active just because they are stupid and limited. [...] To begin to act, you know, you must first have your mind completely at ease and now doubt left in it.”
The idea behind this is that the simple-minded act more easily and in a more convinced way because they’re more easily convinced of their actions being right, since they don’t reflect as much. From an emotional point of view, this thought struck me as arrogant, because it allows the non-activist to comfortably sit on the fence and claim the intellectual high ground while leaving others to do the “dirty work” on behalf of humanity. On the other hand, has anyone not experienced that the more you delve into an issue, reflect on it and do research, the more gray-scaled rather than black and white it becomes, and the more difficult it is to take sides?
Back to the novella after this little excursion, the second half of Notes from the Underground shows the reader how the narrator got to his point of societal denial forty years later. The point of the exercise of the second half, the first part tells us, is to show “whether one can, even with oneself, be perfectly open and not take fright at the whole truth”.
And open he is. The second part of the book is a tale of self-degradation, depreciation and self-inflicted unhappiness propelled by a drive towards complete self-destruction. The protagonist does everything in his power to alienate everyone in his life, colleagues, (potential) friends, even a potential partner, a desperate girl from the countryside who has ended up at a dire St Petersburg brothel. He willingly – or unwillingly, because he is fully conscious of what he’s doing, but simply cannot escape it – and steadily moves towards his own personal, psychological, and financial ruin. When he invites himself to the dinner party of a few former classmates who evidently despise him (and he despises them), for instance, he torments himself:
“‘What possessed me, what possessed me to force myself upon them?’ I wondered, grinding my teeth as I strode along the street [...] But what made me furious was that I knew for certain that I should go, that I should make a point of going; and the more tactless, the more unseemly my going would be, the more certainly I would go.”
It’s very difficult to describe how I felt about Notes from the Underground. The protagonist’s brutal honesty, self-hatred and determined self-degradation is very difficult to handle, but again I wonder whether we don’t all have such streaks sometimes. Notes from the Underground impressed me both in terms of format and content. It’s definitely not a comfortable or easy read, but nevertheless I thought it was excellent. I think what helps is that it’s a manageable length. If it were longer, it might very well become unbearable. As it is, it’s enough to make the reader very uncomfortable, but in a highly masterful way.
German title: Aufzeichnungen aus dem Kellerloch
Spanish title: Memorias del subsuelo
* Apparently, the title has been translated both as Notes from Underground and Notes from the Underground. My translation, from Project Gutenberg, did have the article.