Pieces of Meat - Notes from Underground: Dostoevsky

I first discovered Dostoevsky just as I was getting into junk. His book Crime and Punishment, with its anti-hero Raskolnikov wandering the slums of St Petersburg, I transferred to the streets of London where I was trudging around looking for dope in a coat that no longer worked.

Whilst waiting for dealers at bus stops or down alleys, I would think of murder and morals and ethics and warmth. I was unshaven and distracted – preoccupied with thoughts of what would become of me.

Two years later, in the midst of addiction, on the needle but stable in my habit, I found Notes from Underground. I picked it up for 50p or something in a Cancer Research charity shop. I was looking for pin-striped jackets.

I am a sick man... I am a spiteful man. An unattractive man. I think that my liver hurts. But actually, I don't know a damn thing about my illness. I am not even sure what it is that hurts.¹*

And in just that opening paragraph the world seemed to make a little more sense. I somehow felt that my existence had been validated. It was the key which unlocked a certain part of me, permitted me to be able to externalize an internal dialogue I had struggled with all my life. It also set in motion a feeling of rhythm... rhythm for words and how they should be arranged and strung together. That the book was only a translation of the original didn't matter. I had never read such poetical prose before. Without one swear word, or shocking event, it felt edgy and subversive and dangerous.

I travelled centuries with Notes from Underground. Discovered a poetry within it which I had been searching out for a long time. A chain of thought that was solitary and severed from any political or social ideas that were out on offer. With Dostoevsky I lost politics and found philosophy, a more personal kind of politics with no social agenda, just ones understanding of the world and ones place within it.

Come now, can a man who has presumed to seek out enjoyment even in the very sense of his own degradation have any amount of self-respect?¹

Notes from Underground, aside from any other facet of its brilliance, is a book that constantly poses questions – important, petty, sometimes nonsensicle, often unanswerable questions. With each paragraph there is a universe of stuff to think about: an accusation, a dilemma, a lie. This book forces one to think, to delve into oneself and others. To question motives, philosophies, structures, codes. In 153 pages (a long short story by today's standards) it is an enormous work. It is a work condensed to bursting point. It is a work that can force some to pick the pen up and others to throw theirs away.

I don't profess to understand Notes from Underground, well, not as it was probably intended anyhow. But I don't think I've ever understood any artist or work of art, not really. All I understand is what the book meant and continues to mean to me, what it taught me and what it inadvertently showed me. And that was....

Well, I don't know.... I never quite figured that one out.

Read Notes from Underground here

Free e-book download: Notes from Underground

Reviews of Ginsberg's Notes from Underground

¹ Translation copyright © 1974, Mirra Ginsburg. Bantam Books.
* Ginsburg's translation is the best I have come across. In terms of the original, I can't say, but certainly as a book in English it is by far superieur to the free download.


_Black_Acrylic said...

A wonderful book, and you did it justice with your review. Must have been about 10 years ago I read it, and I'm unsure if it was the Ginsburg translation. I should probably go seek it out.

Memoirs of a Heroinhead said...

Hiya Ben,

Even now I open that book and am still amazed at what's inside. I think for me, it was one of those books which came along at the correct poin in my life and took on enormous significance. It also led to me reading most the other Russian greats and some not so greats. I also really enjoy Lermontov, but cannot say his works touched me in any great way.

Anyway, great to see you back here. I really hope you're well and must send you a mail (I think I owe you one).

All My Wishes, Shane. x

JoeM said...

This is the best sort of literary criticism - rather, appreciation - the personal.

I sometimes think it would be great if people just enthused about what they really liked and why and shut up about the rest.

You should send this as a Day to DC's, he's always looking for stuff, and it fits in that 'format'.

I read Crime and Punishment in my teens and remember how sensually evocative it was, evocative also of paranoia. Be interesting to read it again now.

It's great that these books are available on the Internet.

Sarcastic Bastard said...

Great review, Shane. I've never the read the book, but now I'd like to.

Hope all is well.



The Pseudo-Impostor said...

Shane, read it when a teenager too. My favourite quotes:

"It seemed clear to me that life and the world somehow depended upon me now. I may almost say that the world now seemed created for me alone: if I shot myself the world would cease to be at least for me. I say nothing of its being likely that nothing will exist for anyone when I am gone, and that as soon as my consciousness is extinguished the whole world will vanish too and become void like a phantom, as a mere appurtenance of my consciousness, for possibly all this world and all these people are only me myself".

"Perhaps it was owing to the terrible misery that was growing in my soul through something which was of more consequence than anything else about me: that something was the conviction that had come upon me that nothing in the world mattered. I had long had an inkling of it, but the full realisation came last year almost suddenly. I suddenly felt that it was all the same to me whether the world existed or whether there had never been anything at all: I began to feel with all my being that there was nothing existing. At first I fancied that many things had existed in the past, but afterwards I guessed that there never had been anything in the past either, but that it had only seemed so for some reason. Little by little I guessed that there would be nothing in the future either".

Dostoyevsky: The Dream of A Ridiculous Man

*** ******** said...

i recently read it online this past summer actually. at times i did find the protagonist one of interest. his vague ramblings give the reader room to place themselves well within the character.

Unknown said...

couldn't agree with you more, there seems to be a tribe of us that are intrinsically drawn to the dark powers that bleed out of certain artists, your list of influences, so far known, are shared humbly from the deep south of africa

Gledwood said...

I was reading The House of the Dead until I lost the fcking thing in my OWN house. I also Used to Read It while waiting for my dealer. While there still WAS gear to score.

Certainly as a title The Insulted and the Injured (2 the's) has to be an all time classic. Just as a title. Never read the book.

Crime and Punishment is v well written. I disagree that Raskolnikov was "in intellectual rebellion against society" as has been stated; how the fuck would intellectual rebellion draw you to murder? The prostitute Sonya is particularly well drawn. Interestingly, as is Nancy in Oliver Twist. And Dickens's characters can be annoyingly cartoon-like.

EM Forster criticized Dostoyevsky for having no flat characters because they sometimes are needed (in the background). What crap. At least Dostoyevsky's characters come over as real people. Not symbols, as I've heard said (Wikipedia). He portrays character from the inside, not the outside.

O well I might try reading that one you mentioned. Notes from Underground. I used to think that and House of the Dead were different translations of same thing. House of the Dead is a prison book. Thai prison style. Big rooms. Overcrowding. No privacy. Lots of contraband.

No fucking heroin though!

پویان.ر said...

hi amazing blog and nice post...I'm searching for the painter of the painting on the cover of notes front underground but no results on the web can you help me?