Novella: “Notes from Underground”

by look i have opinions

“Notes from Underground” or “Notes from the Underground” (“Записки из подполья” in the original) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; translated by various

Found on Gutenberg.org here—translator unspecified, but I’m pretty sure it’s Constance Garnett’s version, of which there is an excellent recording here; also collected in White Nights and Other Stories

44,305 words in the English version linked below

My favorite part is the last few lines, in which the author/editor seems to be having a dig at the narrator. He’s not the sort of man who can let a good closing line stand. He undermines his own effect every time.

There’s something very appealing to me about this pointlessly angry, pointlessly tormented type of antihero. It must be because I sometimes share his sense that no meaningful action is possible, that to behave naturally and passionately is a form of stupidity, and that all emotion is playacting. It’s also because I like having a chance to laugh at myself. Of course the narrator’s description of “the man of action” is ridiculous. Of course he’s envious, especially when he says he isn’t.

I don’t know how to answer the argument apparently going on here. All arguments against rationalism and happiness strike me as worse than pointless; our antihero would say it’s like bashing one’s head against a solid wall out of pure spite. But the attitude that he and Dostoyevsky seem to argue against is something more culturally specific and insidious, something I’ve probably absorbed only in a very different form. I don’t have a solid grasp of it.

Edited to add that this really is a great opening paragraph:

“I am a sick man…. I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it, and never have, though I have a respect for medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine, anyway (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am superstitious). No, I refuse to consult a doctor from spite. That you probably will not understand. Well, I understand it, though. Of course, I can’t explain who it is precisely that I am mortifying in this case by my spite: I am perfectly well aware that I cannot ‘pay out’ the doctors by not consulting them; I know better than anyone that by all this I am only injuring myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t consult a doctor it is from spite. My liver is bad, well—let it get worse!”

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