Didn’t we all have fun with Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 What Is To Be Done? And we have not even gotten to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s parodistic novella written a year later, Notes from the Underground, as it is commonly known, or Memoirs from a Mousehole as Nabokov charmingly calls it. The little book otherwise lacks charm. It begins with a thirty page rant by a madman, which is followed by sixty pages of a narrative of self-destruction and self-loathing culminating in a particularly vile act. It is the finest of Dostoevsky’s comedies, I think, an early masterpiece of the comedy of humiliation.
Notes from the Underground also swallows What Is To Be Done? whole and transforms it into something new. Knowing both books, it is beyond my capabilities to read one book independent of the other. Dostoevsky is, obviously, the greater artist and thinker, but the books enrich each other.
Perhaps I should mention that just like the original Russian readers I have always read the books together. Strike the part in italics for the truth, but I do know that Michael Katz’s 1989 edition of What Is To Be Done? was a brand new book when I bought and read it, which must have been just after I read Fathers and Sons and Dostoevsky and Nabokov’s Chernyshevsky-bashing The Gift. I have been looking for a cluster of books like this ever since. I did not understand at that point the extent to which Dostoevsky kept returning to the argument in his major novels, how characters with Chernyshevsky in their blood inhabit all of Dostoevsky’s major novels.
I have expressed skepticism and perhaps mockery of Dostoevsky’s art and ideas, but it is exciting to watch him at work.
The underground man, as I take him, is one of Chernyshevsky’s rational egoists intellectually, but is emotionally a bundle of neuroses, prejudices, and impulses (“caprices,” to use Chernyshevsky’s word). He is a Chernyshevsky character with a human personality, with a soul. It is like on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; you remember. So Dostoevsky is attacking Chernyshevsky by taking his ideas to their illogical end.
This seems to be the heart of a century of critical debate about the novel, by the way. Is the underground man mocking Chernyshevsky; does he agree with but also rebel against Chernyshevsky; or is he simply Dostoevsky’s mouthpiece? I pick the middle option, the more subtle one. In addition, is the underground man crazy, or really, how crazy is he, or more accurately, why is he so crazy?
You probably think, gentlemen, that I want to amuse you. You’re wrong about that, too. I’m not at all the cheerful fellow I seem to be, or that I may seem to be… (I.2, 5)
Like Chernyshevsky’s narrator, the underground man argues with and mocks his imaginary readers. Other images and scenes recur. I will write about them. Why else did I read these books if not to write about the parallel scenes where the protagonists bump into an officer on the street?
Maybe the next post will be all quotations, to balance this one. Notes from the Underground is almost too quotable. It is a distraction.
Page references to the Norton Critical Edition, Second Edition, translated by Michael Katz.