Friday, 30 June 2000

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Notes From Underground (1865)

Translation: C.J. Hogarth, adapted by A.D.P. Briggs
Edition: Everyman
Review number: 533

Notes From Underground is a strange book, probably more at home in the late twentieth century than in the mid nineteenth, which immediately precedes Dostoyevsky's great novels and which is, indeed, something of an experiment on which the psychology of those novels builds.

In structure, it appears to be some autobiographical notes written by a recluse who lives underground. The first part explains something of his philosophical outlook on life, the second recounts a discreditable incident. Like some of the central characters of the later novels, the narrator of Notes From Underground verges on the edge of madness, though he is certainly a less subtle creation than Dostoyevsky's greatest. There are autobiographical elements too, particularly in the narrator's relationship with the church.

Notes From Underground is closely related to the genre of books of personal revelation, of which the most famous example is Rousseau's Confessions. It also contains elements of parody, with a pseudo-academic footnote on the first page, and a motto of bad poetry at the head of the second part. It ridicules the ideas of the now mercifully forgotten History of Civilization in England by Thomas Buckle and contains lengthy attacks on rationalism, especially the idea that all human ills can be cured by a mathematical understanding of the intellect.

The first person description of insanity and self loathing, the psychological introspection and the apparent disconnectedness of the two parts are distinctly modern in feel, along with the throwaway ending ("This is as good a place as any to stop."). Even so, the analysis of human nature is neither as deep nor as immediate as in Dostoyevsky's great novels.

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