Notes from Underground.

I must have read Dostoevsky’s novella Notes from Underground in college (in English), since bits of it seemed familiar as I was reading it in Russian, but I’d essentially forgotten it, and god knows what I might have made of it back then, with my ignorance of Russian literature (not to mention of life itself). I’m sure I was told that it was “existentialist,” and I retained a sense that it was a protest against rationality, but of course it’s much more than that. It apparently originated in plans to revise The Double (see this LH post), and a pleasing remnant of that is that the boss of the Underground Man, Anton Setochkin, was Golyadkin’s boss in the earlier book; more immediately, it was a response to Chernyshevsky (see this post). William J. Leatherbarrow, an excellent Dostoevsky scholar (with an excellent name), summed that aspect up in his little Twayne book on the author:

It is perhaps the greatest critique of narrow intellectualism and overrefined consciousness ever written, as well as a disturbing rejection of the ideals of the Enlightenment. Yet, as was always the case with Dostoevsky’s mature work, the universal philosophical significance of Notes from Underground required the impetus of immediate polemic to give it form. It was intended as a refutation of the ideas of Nikolay Chernyshevsky (1828-89), a leading materialist philosopher, whose works — including the essay The Anthropological Principle in Philosophy (1860) and the novel What Is to Be Done? (1863) — had generated considerable interest by their assertion that the apparent complexity of human behavior could be explained on the basis of scientifically determinable principles. A disciple of Bentham and Mill, Chernyshevsky held that self-interest was a primary impulse in human nature, but that through the exercise of reason it could be made to coincide with the interests of society as a whole. He used the image of the Crystal Palace, built in London to house the 1851 World Exhibition, as a symbol of the future rational, technological utopia. Chernyshevsky’s faith in rational self-interest, so clearly derived from Enlightenment ideals, offended Dostoevsky by stripping man of his mystery, by defining his behavior as the inevitable outcome of scientific law, and by depriving him of a soul and moral freedom, the two aspects of his being which, according to Christianity, could alone bring him to salvation. The hero of Notes from Underground was conceived as the rotten apple in Chernyshevsky’s barrel, an exaggerated incarnation of the perversity which is in all men, and which dissolves the foundations of all rational utopianism.

The book is in two sections, “Underground” and “A Propos of the Wet Snow,” and even though the second is by far the longer (as you can see from this online translation), it tends to be the first part that criticism focuses on; it is, after all, the philosophical part, with the ranting about the Crystal Palace and how 2+2=4 is the beginning of death. But if that were all there were, it would be a bloodless book that would not have the disturbing effect it does (it’s the first of his books to have really shaken me emotionally) — to my mind, the heart of the story is when (after the endless, excruciating scenes of his forcing himself on his former friends who want nothing to do with him and trying to provoke a duel) Liza the prostitute responds to his frantic insults by embracing him and offering him unconditional love, and it is his rejection of this offer that leaves him the dry, howling husk of the first part (which takes place twenty years after the second).

I must say, though, it’s hard for me to approach that section in the proper spirit, not that I even know what the proper spirit would be. Already by the 1860s the “romantic/intellectual guy wants to redeem young prostitute” thing was a hopeless cliché, and Dostoevsky is mocking it mercilessly. Still, when the protagonist is mansplaining prostitution to a prostitute, I don’t get the sense that the author sees this as being as inherently absurd and insulting as I do; Liza is presented as being just as naive as the Underground Man takes her to be, and she seems just as shaken to the core as he intends her to be. I really don’t think it was possible for nineteenth-century male authors to see prostitutes with anything like a clear eye (and now that I think of it, the “nineteenth-century” part is probably an unnecessary restriction).

At any rate, it’s a powerful book that will never be exhausted no matter how many critical cannons are brought to bear on it, and it’s a worthy herald of the longer and even more powerful novels to come. And now for something largely unrelated, although you’ll see it resonates with the Liza story. In the chapter after the one on Notes from Underground, Joseph Frank in his magisterial biography Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time describes the hell Dostoevsky went through after his wife and his brother died in rapid succession and he was plunged into endless debt and his attempt to recover emotionally by liaisons with women, one of whom had a remarkable life:

Dostoevsky first heard of Martha Brown from the man with whom she was then living, a minor contributor to Epoch named Peter Gorsky. He was one of the numerous denizens of St. Petersburg’s literary Grub Street who clustered around the various publications, eking out a beggarly existence on the edge of destitution and often supplementing their literary labors with manual work. […]

Her real name, which Dostoevsky may never have learned, was Elizaveta Andreyevna Chlebnikova, and she was the wayward daughter of a landowning family (her maiden name had been Panina) who had received some education and could write a literary Russian. An adventurous existence had taken her over most of Western Europe in the company of various men—a Hungarian, an Englishman, and a Frenchman, among others. On first setting foot in England, without a penny and ignorant of the language she had tried to take her life in despair and was saved by the police. For some weeks she lived under the bridges of the Thames among other vagabonds. Thanks to the zeal of various missionaries concerned to save her soul, she acquired English rapidly; and a charitable Methodist pastor, impressed by her knowledge of the Bible and ability to recite the Lord’s Prayer in English, took her to live with his family on the Isle of Guernsey. With the blessing of her patron, she married a sailor named Brown, and she then lived (one assumes as Mrs. Brown) in Weymouth, Brighton, and London. When or why the marriage ended is unknown; equally obscure is what brought Martha Brown back to Russia, where, as she remarks, many people no longer thought she was Russian at all.

She would seem to have been destined to encounter Dostoevsky.

Incidentally, I’m now going to take a break from the 19th century and turn to a novel I’ve been wanting to read for years, Boris Zhitkov’s 1929-41 Viktor Vavich (Pasternak said it was the best thing that had been written about the 1905 Revolution). After that, I’ll probably move on to Leskov’s controversial 1864 Nekuda [No way out].


  1. Curiously, there’s a reference to Chernyshevsky in the first chapter of Viktor Vavich, but the system won’t let me post Cyrillic quotes.

  2. That is curious — I look forward to encountering it!

  3. Johnson’s Dictionary defined Grub street somewhat self-referentially as “originally the name of a street in Moorfields in London, much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems; whence any mean production is called grubstreet.”

  4. I always assumed that the small, dirty name “grub” contributed to the use of Grub St. as a metaphor.

  5. I like “temporary poems”!

  6. Fanny Burney said that Johnson had never set foot in Grub Street himself. This definition fits nicely with his definition of lexicographer as ‘a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words’.

    I think temporary poems are what we now call occasional poems, ones written for a specific occasion and then (usually) forgotten.

  7. Sure, but it’s a clever way of putting it.

  8. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Better than occasional, which always makes me think that it’s only a poem sometimes.

  9. Heh.

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