“I am angry, I am ill and I’m as ugly as sin….”
     Song from Under the Floorboards – Howard Devoto (Magazine)

For some reason, Dostoevsky seems to be regarded as “difficult” (or so someone said to me last week). I will confess to having more of his work unread than read on my shelves, but the volumes I have read didn’t give me any real trouble – truth be told, I was thoroughly absorbed in “Crime and Punishment” when I read it (in the David Magarshack translation).

“Notes from the Underground” is considered one of his pivotal books, and I read this a couple of years ago – a library copy. So when I chanced upon a Hesperus Press edition, I snapped up a copy for myself. Luckily it turns out to be translated by my linguist of the moment, Hugh Aplin, and has a foreword by Will Self – both plus points as far as I’m concerned…

NFTU is not an easy book to describe. Although it’s only 140-odd pages long, it packs a lot into those pages. The work is split into two parts – the first, simply titled “The Underground”, takes the form of a monologue by the protagonist who is usually known simply as The Underground Man. UM is apparently addressing two other unnamed and unspecified “gentlemen” and he rails and rants against society, morals, the beautiful and the sublime, pain, suffering and life itself. The second section, “Apropos of the Sleet”, takes us back to when UG was in his twenties and still just about a functioning member of society. It relates events in his life that have effectively caused him to go ‘underground’ and in this part of the book much more is revealed of his character. However, the opening words really tell you all you need to know about the UM:
“I’m a sick man….. I’m a malicious man. An unattractive man, I am. I think I’ve got something wrong with my liver. Still, I know damn all about my  sickness and don’t know for sure what it is I’ve got something wrong with.
The first thing that you have to get to grips with in this short novel is the singular voice of the narrator – discursive and very individual, it is obvious that he has a highly subjective viewpoint. We see everything through the prism of his sensibility and there is no denying it – he rambles. UM identifies himself as being 40 years old and having been living “like this” for 20 years now – thus during the events of the second half of the book he is obviously a young man of 20. Formerly a Collegiate Assessor, he now seems to cower in the corner of a dark cellar, seeing no-one and railing against the world. The flow of his thoughts is hard to follow at first but I found it suddenly clicked in – the excellent translation here by Aplin gives a rhythm and an identity to the voice. UM seems to think that the world has done him many wrongs, and his major grievance seems to be with the concept of “the beautiful and the sublime”, a philosophical outlook that was very prevalent at the time Dostoevsky was writing. UM refuses to accept that Russians can have any real appreciation of this and condemns those who ‘fit in’ and accept the “two and two make four” (i.e. the everyday). There are several sections to this first part and they each deal with a different aspect – suffering, reason and logic, intertia and so on.

“Apropos of the Sleet” is a completely different kettle of fish, however. UM takes us back to his early days, and we learn that he has no real family (presumably an orphan?) and is sent off to a school he hates by distant relatives. From the start he is a misfit, unable to deal with normal social situations or make friends with other pupils. His regular pattern of behaviour is displayed here – he is either convinced he is superior to others and looks down on them; or is convinced he cannot do anything and is paralysed by his inability. Throughout the book his behaviour oscillates between these two extremes and he finds it impossible to relate to anyone in a normal fashion.

UM tells us of his relationship with his servant Apollon; he gatecrashes a private dinner of some old school acquaintances and behaves appallingly; the evening ends with UM in a brothel where he encounters Liza, a young prostitute. Her curiosity about him prompts him into a long, involved and in places very cruel diatribe where he tries to persuade her that her life is not normal and she will end up ill and neglected and die young. Having reduced her to near hysterics, then gives her his address and tells her to call on him, holding out a glimpse of hope to her which we know will never come to anything. After days during which UM torments himself, Liza finally calls and he breaks down and reveals himself for the flawed mess that he is. Oddly enough, Liza seems able to deal with his weaknesses being revealed to her, and leaves in a state of relative sanity – while the UM presumably begins the downward spiral that ends in his state at the start of the book.

Whew! NFTU certainly packs a punch! There’s a lot to get your head round as a reader but it is very rewarding. In some way the form of the novel is very modern, the first section being almost a stream of consciousness reflecting the addled state of UM’s mind. It’s fascinating to see how the structure of the highly formal, extremely status conscious St. Petersburg society of the 1800s would have affected a man who nowadays we would probably call unstable. But in many ways he can be seen as a rebel, refusing to accept most people’s definition of normal behaviour, becoming obsessed with people and things, retiring from his job and withdrawing rather than participating in the real world. There is much in the book about his dreams – his fantasies serving as a substitute for real life as he can control them in a way that he cannot control reality. And the UM has very little faith in humanity and its ability to progress or be satisfied.

Fedor Dostoevsky by Vasily Perov, 1872
© State Tretyakov Gallery

So, Dostoevsky – a difficult read or not? Yes and no. This isn’t a straightforward book and it can be hard to follow the UM’s streams of reasoning at times. But if you want more than a simple story, something thought-provoking which will send you off investigating theories and philosophies – yes, this book could be one for you.