My Sunday Guardian column of November 11
“I am a sick man…I am a wicked man”. That’s how Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground starts, with an ellipsis that’s one of the most commented upon in literature. Here was a new voice appearing on the page with the immediacy of speech, self-important, embittered and unreliable.
Echoes of the underground man’s rant can be heard to this day. They’re in the work of Philip Roth, notably in his Portnoy’s Complaint and Sabbath’s Theatre. They’re in the novels of Thomas Bernhard, dripping with contempt, mainly against his country of Austria and its people. They’re in parts of Saul Bellow, especially those cantankerous letters in Herzog. They’re in Howard Jacobson, puncturing pretensions by the sackful. And they’re in the work of Louis-Ferdinand Celine – whose prose style clearly inspired Roth, despite the former’s alarming anti-Semitism.
Most such novels are monologues, with the central character pouring out his grief and disdain to an imagined audience. They’re essayistic, dealing with harsh truths, the ones that we often brush under the carpet. (If you’re looking for likeable characters and well-developed plots, stay away.) It’s a form that The Matrix’s Agent Smith would have taken a shine to, with his whingeing about the planet: “I hate this place, this zoo, this prison, this reality—whatever you want to call it”.
Even Eeyore and Marvin the Paranoid Android owe a little something to Dostoevsky’s original ranter, whose voice first emerged from under the floorboards in 1864. In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche wrote that the novel “cried truth from the blood”; later on, the existentialist brigade was quick to claim it as an early prototype of their own thought.
Rant apart, Notes from Underground is also unusual for its structure. The first part, set in the narrator’s present, takes aim at utilitarian theories and Enlightenment notions of progress during the author’s time; the second part, more novelistic, describes incidents that happened earlier -- incidents that contributed to the narrator’s going underground. The first is the ‘what’; the second, the ‘how’.
The initial section, in fact, underlines the view that the more specific you are, the more universal your appeal can be. On many occasions, the narrator mocks people and notions that Dostoevsky wanted to lampoon – in particular the ideas of Nikolay Chernyshevsky – and though knowledge of these might lead to a richer appreciation, it isn’t necessary know all about the Russia of his time to feel the force of the writer’s argument.
The unnamed narrator, a former civil servant in St Petersberg, has several unflattering observations to make about fellow humans. “The best definition of man is: a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful,” he asserts. He taunts himself with the “spiteful and utterly futile consolation that it is even impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something”. (Those of you who have harboured the same suspicion at one time or another, raise your hands.)
In the more novelistic second part, which moves back sixteen years, there are episodes of frantic and comedic run-ins with former schoolmates during which the narrator reveals more of himself than he’d like. He then spends time with Liza, a young prostitute (a precursor to Crime and Punishment’s Sonya), when his impetuousness, petulance and vanity are even more on display. There’s a feverish pace to this section in contrast with what’s come before, mirroring the narrator’s state of mind. Here, too, one finds a critique of bookishness: Quixote-like, Dostoevsky’s narrator is full of fanciful notions, gleaned from the books he’s read, of how the world ought to operate.
All these years later, his words still resonate. What is to be done, he asks, “if the sole and express purpose of every intelligent man is babble—that is, a deliberate pouring from empty into void”? Void or not, such babble is a welcome change from all those novels content to simply record reality in the form of domestic dramas – but that’s a rant for another time.