If you’ve never read this book, it’s worth picking up. If you have read it, it’s worth picking up the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation so you can read Richard Pevear’s introduction. He positions Notes from the Underground as Dostoevsky’s answer to his idealogical rival, Chernyshevsky, a utilitarian socialist who supposedly inspired Lenin to become a revolutionary. Pevear reads Notes as both an idealogical answer to a rational utopia (people are passionate, and don’t always do what’s rationally best for them) as well as an artistic answer. For Chernyshevsky, the form of a novel is merely a vehicle for expressing content, whereas for Dostoevsky the content emerges from the form. Hence, the formal oddness of Notes: the reverse chronological structure, etc. The commentary about form and content brings to mind O’Connor’s thoughts on being a Catholic novelist. In Mystery and Manners, she argues the Catholic novelist shouldn’t use a novel as a mere vehicle to present Catholic content. Rather, whatever worldview you have (Catholic or otherwise) will emerge from the form, and your job as the artist is to get the form right. In her case, form meant close observation.
Notes is organized into two sections: (1) The narrator in the present, middle aged and disillusioned, and (2) the narrator in his 20s, awkward and idealistic. While the second part reminds me of myself at 18, the first part of the novel is more interesting. One of the more interesting passages is the anecdote of the toothache. The narrator explains he might enjoy having a toothache, and that people enjoy toothaches because it gives them something to gripe about. The anecdote illustrates our satisfaction with our discontents. You might think of Frank in Revolutionary Road, unhappy with his job but strangely satisfied with the status quo. His wife offers him a chance to get out, and he can’t take it. World literature, and human beings at large, are plagued by this condition, and that small anecdote is a great psychological insight on Dostoevsky’s part.