‘I am a sick man… I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts.’
So begins Notes from Underground, the misanthropic memoir of a retired civil servant.
Dostoevsky has to be the archetypal weighty author we all wish we’d been reading when we bump into someone we know on the Tube (as we try to slip My Booky Wook 2 into our bag unseen).
I died a thousand deaths when I saw Dostoevsky on my reading list. I would never have got round to reading any of his work without being strong-armed by my tutor. BUT, Notes from Underground is a joy. It’s modern and it’s funny – the unreliable narrator is caustic and self-loathing but sickeningly vain. He’s emasculated and servile yet he takes a perverse pride in his own infirmity. The revenge fantasies he harbours and executes are so trifling and inconsequential, I lurched wildly between pity and laughter.
The nameless narrator is conceited, considering himself well-read. He aspires to the ‘romantic and lofty’ he’s glimpsed in literature, but his mean, gauche ways condemn his desires to remain always confined within the four dank walls that house him.
You may recognise the voice of this perverse hero in Magazine’s Song From Under The Floorboards – have a listen and try to tell me you don’t think Howard Devoto’s been dipping into the Dostoevsky. #intertextuality
Notes from Underground is so beautifully written it makes your toes cold, the relentless St. Petersburg winter is so real. The language is elegant (‘Apropos of the Wet Snow’). Also it’s incredibly funny – who’d have thought Dostoevsky was so MEGALOLZ? Plus, for those among you who (like me) don’t have much time to read/are lazy/intimidated by dense Russian literature: it’s not very long, a mere 130 pages. So, impress people on public transport and enjoy.
Notes from Underground is available in this lovely edition from Vintage with an introduction by Richard Pevear.