"Notes From Underground" by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Forget Constance Garnett -- the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation makes the most cryptic of existential cult classics stranger, funnier and more alive than ever

By Allen Barra

Published May 27, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

There are a handful of books that have the power to create secret societies among their readers, books that make you feel like a cult member. I don't just mean the popular "subversive books" such as "Catcher in the Rye" or "The Trial" or "Catch-22." However personal our relationship to them, they are all comfortable literature-class staples. I mean books that are accepted classics but that some teachers shy away from, if only because they can't be served up (as even the great earthshaking fictions of Tolstoy can) in neat little packages of meaning.

I mean books that even if you studied them in college didn't quite seem to fit. Books you probably stumbled across on your own or through a close friend, and after you read them, you felt you had been drawn to them, as if by a tractor beam in a sci-fi movie. Albert Camus' "The Stranger" is one of these; so is Robert Musil's "The Man Without Qualities." For the most part, such books were lumped together under the heading of "existential," whether the label applied literally or not.

The heavyweight champion of "existential fiction" is Dostoevsky's "Notes From Underground." (In recent translations, it's no longer "the Underground.") As anyone who has read it can attest, it's one of the oddest little books in all of literature (110-120 pages in most editions, a novella, really). It's divided into two parts, the first a roughly 40-page exposition featuring a nameless character whom we have come to refer to only as "Underground Man" ranting away about everything that society holds dear in what V.S. Pritchett once called "an amazing performance of bad humor." ("I will not introduce any order or system," the unnamed narrator says in the new edition from Everyman's Library, "whatever I recall, I will write down.")

The second part, about twice as long, is a narrative in which U.G. Man tries to assert himself along the lines of the nihilist principles expressed in Part 1. He succeeds only at humiliating himself further. The former college classmates he nurses grudges against and even the total strangers he tries to pick fights with don't consider him important enough to be insulted. In the last few pages, he turns to a prostitute, Liza, whose simplicity and sincerity expose to us, if not entirely to UGM, the shallowness of his own philosophy.

That's it. Not much of a synopsis for a classic. You certainly can't get a sense of it from CliffsNotes; you have to be there. As the great Russian scholar D.S. Mirsky wrote in his "History of Russian Literature," "Notes From Underground" "transcends art and literature, and its place is among the great mystical revelations of mankind." I found that quote from Mirsky when I was 18 and made a beeline for the book. I should have read the rest of the passage, which I didn't get around to doing until years later. "It cannot be recommended," he wrote, "to those who are not either sufficiently strong to overcome it or sufficiently innocent to remain unpoisoned. It is a strong poison, which is most safely left untouched."

He got that right. I first read "Notes From Underground" on a crosstown bus; it shook me up so much I missed my stop and walked four miles home in a daze. You can't, I would find, read "Notes From Underground" at 18 and go on studying pre-law. Later, I would feel myself bonding with other souls who had similar reactions. W.H. Auden, for one, who, when he first read Dostoevsky, found himself exclaiming, "My God, this man is bonkers!" Nietzsche, who drank deep from its poison, thought the book had "the voice of blood in it."

I shudder to think what Auden's or Nietzsche's or my own reaction would have been had we first read "Notes From Underground" in the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky in the new Everyman's Library edition. When I was growing up, the great Russian writers were only available in translation by an Englishwoman named Constance Garnett, about whom I know nothing except that she made Russians sound like Edwardian Englishmen. (I don't know any Russian, but even as a freshman in college I knew something about bad English.)

The 1970s brought Penguin Classics and Dostoevsky translations from another Englishwoman, Jessie Coulson, which were only a mild improvement, often sounding like something translated from Russian to Esperanto to English. Dostoevsky's Underground Man is one of the first characters in literature infected with the modern disease of alienation, but rendered in such stilted English prose, it's amazing that he seemed modern at all to us.

Pevear and Volokhonsky have translated seven of Dostoevsky's novels, including "The Brothers Karamazov" (for which they were awarded the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize). This is the fourth version of "Notes From Underground" I have read, and for the first time I can hear what Pevear calls in his introduction its "striking language, unlike any literary prose ever written; its multiple and conflicting tonalities; the oddity of its reverse structure, which seems random but all at once reveals its deeper coherence."

Let's compare some passages from Coulson's translation for Penguin Classics with Pevear and Volokhonsky's interpretation. First, the novella's famous opening lines:

"I am a sick man ... I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver." (Coulson)

"I am a sick man ... I am a wicked man. An Unattractive man. I think my liver hurts." (Pevear and Volokhonsky)

Pevear and Volokhonsky found a little joke that other translators missed. Underground Man doesn't trust his own instincts enough to be sure whether his own liver hurts.

Here's a famous passage often quoted in support of Underground Man's (and by extension, Dostoevsky's) supposed anti-intellectualism:

"But all the same, I'm firmly convinced that not only a great deal, but every kind, of intellectual activity is a disease." (Coulson)

"But all the same, I am strongly convinced that not only too much consciousness but even any consciousness at all is a sickness." (Pevear and Volokhonsky)

P&V find something a great deal scarier than anti- intellectualism, namely the idea that consciousness itself is responsible for the human malady.

That made the next passage, in which UGM proclaims his shame at his own intelligence, seem like a contradiction:

"First of all, I am cleverer than anyone else around me. (I've always thought myself cleverer than anybody I knew, and sometimes, if you will, believe me, I've felt quite ashamed of it ...)" (Coulson)

"First, because I am more intelligent than everyone around me, and, would you believe, I've even felt slightly ashamed of it ...") (P&V)

By removing the "If you will" and changing "believe me" to the rhetorical "would you believe," P&V show us that the UGM's humility regarding his own intelligence is a sham.

This passage was a big favorite among early slackers, offering as it did a perfect rationale for seeing one's own inferiority complex as a sign of superiority:

"I repeat, and repeat empathically: all spontaneous people, men of action, are active because they are stupid and limited. How's this to be explained? Like this: in consequence of their limitations, they take immediate, but secondary, causes for primary ones, and thus they are more quickly and easily convinced that they have found indisputable grounds for their action ..." (Coulson)

"I repeat, I empathically repeat: ingenious people and active figures are all active simply because they are dull and narrow-minded. How to explain it? Here's how: As a consequence of their narrow-mindedness, they take the most immediate and secondary causes for the primary ones, and thus become convinced more quickly and easily than others that they have found an indisputable basis for their doings ..." (P&V)

So it isn't just the men of action to whom UGM feels superior, it's also "ingenious" people as well; in other words, anyone who actually accomplishes something.

This passage was much favored by those of us who believed that having read "Notes From Underground" provided an indication of our own higher consciousness:

"This impressed them ... they were all gradually beginning to realize that I was already reading books they could not read and, knew about things (not entering into our specialized course of studies) they had never even heard of. They regarded this fact with savage derision, but morally they accepted defeat ..." (Coulson)

"This made an impression ... They began little by little to realize that I had by then read such books as they were unable to read, and understood such things (not part of our special course) as they had never even heard of. This they regarded wildly and derisively, but morally they submitted ..." (P&V)

"Morally they submitted" sounds so much more appropriate than "morally they accepted defeat."

Then there was this enigmatic denouement that we didn't entirely understand, but felt that somehow it was aimed at us:

"We are born dead, and moreover we have long ceased to be the sons of living fathers; and we've become more and more contented with our condition ... Soon we shall invent a method of being born from an idea." (Coulson)

"We're stillborn, and we have long ceased to be born of living fathers, and we like this more and more ... soon we'll contrive to be born somehow from an idea." (P&V)

Even a superficial reading of those two passages shows you why Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation is superior. They say more in fewer words. Freed from the tedious clutter of stilted and pompous language, "Notes From Underground" pulses with life and even some sardonic humor. Certainly one important aspect of the novel now comes into clearer focus, which is that Dostoevsky, a devout Christian and a political conservative, was not advocating nihilism but mocking it.

Vladimir Nabokov once cautioned Edmund Wilson to "remember that not all Russians love Dostoevsky as much as most Americans do." I hope, then, that Pevear and Volokhonsky will not be offended if I say that in their translation Dostoevsky has never seemed more American.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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