Peter Heinegg

The insufferable, anonymous narrator of Notes From Underground (1864) is the first great example of Dostoyevsky’s genius for creating paradoxical witnesses to Christianitytwisted, truth-telling unbelievers like Svidrigaylov in Crime and Punishment, Ippolit in The Idiot, Shatov in The Possessed and the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov. Unlike Dostoyevsky’s edifying or even saintly characters (Prince Myshkin, Alyosha Karamazov and others), the doomed figures embody, not apologias for faith, but indictments of godless modernity. Too honest and clear-sighted to settle into the unreflecting egoism of the world around them, too proud or perverse to confess their sins and accept salvation, they come to grief (often through suicide), but not before providing brilliant, involuntary state’s evidence for Prosecutor Dostoyevsky’s case against the evils of his/our time.

The narrator of Notes From Underground is a one-man wrecking crew, taking on Enlightenment rationalism, utopian socialism and dehumanizing materialism. (His arguments are not weakened by our after-the-fact knowledge of the horrors wrought by Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot and other crazed ideologues.) The catch, of course, is that the narrator’s wisdom is useless because he is morally paralyzed, bedeviled by his unrelenting self-consciousness. (Again, Dostoyevsky supplies an orthodox Christian perspective: left to our own devices, we are irredeemably lost.) This terribly lonely isolate, a sort of proto-Prufrockian buffoon, lacks the nerve to get over his own absurdity by daring to love. When love does literally knock on his door in the form of Liza (the harlot with a heart of golda cliché that Dostoyevsky always adored and sometimes transcended), the Underground Man brutally insults her and dashes back into his joyless mouse hole. Incapable of either making an unselfish commitment or shutting up, he babbles on until his editor loses patience and pulls the plug on him.

Dostoyevsky’s anti-hero has one of the most unforgettable voices in modern literature (I’m a sick man, a malicious man; It’s indecent to live past forty; Reason amounts to perhaps one-twentieth of life). His rants about the cruelty of history (with a jab at the American Civil War), about suffering as the origin of consciousness, about the supposed 19th-century eudaemonistic imperative to treasure one drop of your own fat above the lives of 100,000 other people, and others link him to contemporary writers as different from him as Flaubert and Nietzsche, as well as successors like Kafka, Beckett, Sartre, Camus and even Ralph Ellison. The Underground Man is indispensable.

Unfortunately, this new translation by the celebrated team of Robert Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky is not. Flat, awkward, relentlessly unidiomatic, it may well be the least appealing version now on the market. The Underground Man should stun us with his mordant, growling, witty tone. Instead the translators have him deliver stuffy, d.o.a. lines like, Perhaps to me alone in the whole office did it constantly seem that I was a coward; There’s something chieferin it; Love meant to tyrannize and preponderize morally, and so forth. Pevear and Volokhonsky often render Russian phrases literally, which leads to such clinkers as to lie like a horse, such excellential benignity, literaturized, jack (for van’ka, meaning cabby), wantings (for khoteniya, desires or wants, as in Our wantings are for the most part mistaken according to a mistaken view of our profit). What were P. & V. thinking? Since they are dealing with a virtuoso monologist, didn’t they ever try reading their work out loud? Well, at least the book has a decent introduction and notes. And it has to be admitted that Notes From Underground is a hard text to translate.

The unforgettably nasty-eccentric narrator manages to be both irritating and weirdly fascinating, coarse and highly literate, lachrymose and acidly funny, infantile and amazingly shrewd, an impossible obsessive-compulsive type more than a little reminiscent ofwho else?Fedya Dostoyevsky.

So far no English translatornot the brave pioneer Constance Garnett, nor Ralph Matlaw, nor Andrew MacAndrew, nor Jessie Coulson, nor any of the resthas succeeded in capturing the peculiar accents and flavor of the Underground Man. Still, even amid this crowd of devoted-but-flawed competitors, Pevear and Volokhonsky have to be seen as bringing up the rear. Judging by the gigantic volume of translations they have been churning out (not only of Dostoyevsky, but of Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov and more), it looks as if they ought to take a break or at least slow down. In any case, with or without them, that weird guy muttering in the basement just won’t go away.

Peter Heinegg, a frequent reviewer, is a professor of English at Union College, Schenectady, N.Y.