Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 4, 2013

Notes from the Underground (1864), by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, narrated by Simon Vance

Notes from the Underground

I finished this audio book today, but I think I need to listen to it again to make sense of it properly.  (I’ve already listened to the first CD twice.)

The first part of the book sets the tone: it’s more like a work of existentialist philosophy than a novel. The narrator rambles on in a long monologue, and (perhaps because it was an audio book) I was never sure to whom he was addressing this monologue, if indeed it’s meant to be addressed to anybody. He contradicts himself at every turn and denies statements that he’s just made, and he’s often very angry. He’s deeply cynical, and he’s got a very low opinion of everyone else, but also of himself. He gets bogged down in a long argument about logic, reducing it to simplistic mathematical equations such as 2 + 2 = 4, to which his rejoinder is that people don’t act from logic but from a desire to act as individuals whether that’s a good thing or not.  His ramblings are rebuttals of various philosophical schools of thought, but since he ridicules everything in a caustic tone, and goes out of his way to be confusing, it’s not like the reasoned and reasonable works of philosophy that you might have read elsewhere.


Stuff actually happens in the second part of the novel.  He’s living ‘underground’ in response to the corruption of the world above, using the word ‘underground’ with two meanings, i.e. he’s literally living underground in a basement apartment, but also in a quasi-subversive way in the sense that he’s rejected working in the world as a normal person of his class would.  This part of the story relates his failures as a human being, but again, it’s not told as a mature reflection but rather as a series of self-inflicted humiliations told in rather incoherent anecdotes in which he alternately blames others and then himself.

It begins with his irrational reaction to an encounter with an officer, who moves him aside when he’s in the way as if he has a right to unimpeded movement. He is profoundly offended by this condescension.  He plots revenge, weasels around to recreate the encounter so that he can stand his ground this time, and is even more offended when the officer doesn’t even notice when they bump into each other.

Next, he gets into an argument at a dinner party.  It’s being held to farewell someone that he hated when he was at school, he rants and raves and tells them how much he hates them, and they get fed up with him and go off to a brothel without him.

Then he meets a prostitute called Lisa.  He picks a fight with her too, telling her that her future is meaningless, but  she is impressed by his intellectual gymnastics and falls for him.  He gives her his address, but is then embarrassed by the poverty of his apartment, so when she turns up he is very cruel to her, mocking and sneering at her and denying everything that he said before.  He gets himself into an hysterical rage, and weeps on the sofa so she takes pity on him.

No sooner has Liza embraced him tenderly than he starts up all over again, insulting her by shoving a five rouble note at her which she throws away and then leaves.   He dashes out after her but can’t find her, and then he ruminates about how insulting her was like a purification, finally recognising that he has just acted in the same despicable way as the rest of society.

Although we don’t know much about the underground man except that he’s a middle-aged retired public servant, he seems to act more like an alienated adolescent than an adult to me, but his distress is in response to the society in which he finds himself.  Dostoyevsky wrote this story in 1864, two years before Crime and Punishment so perhaps he was trying out themes of irrational behaviour.  (I’ve only read his later works, not any of his earlier ones.)  It’s a long time since I read Crime and Punishment but I remember the style…

As a portrait of impotent rage, Notes from the Underground is masterful.

BTW I visited the Dostoyevsky Museum in St Petersburg last year on my trip to Russia.  Somehow I had always imagined him in a miserable garret, but his apartment was actually quite big.  See my travel blog.    

Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky,
Title: Notes from the Underground
Translator: not listed on the cover
Publisher: Hovel Audio, 2009, first published in 1864
ISBN: 9781596447912
Source: Personal Library



  1. My only experience with Dostoyevsky has been a recent reading of Crime and Punishment. That book annoyed me, and it sounds as if this one would also. Should I go on to The Brothers Karamazov?


  2. Interesting. I’ve always heard this spoken of as an amazing book. I still would like to read it but it no longer sounds so very spectacular.


  3. Just glanced through sorry lisa I have this and have read it years ago but will be rereading it next year for sure ,all the best stu


  4. Hmm, I think Dostoyevsky is an acquired taste, and this one is definitely challenging. But interesting too, in the way that its ideas niggle away in the brain. I don’t regret reading it, but I’d hesitate to recommend it especially if you haven’t read much Russian lit…


  5. Thank you for a comprehensive review which took me back to a distant time when I was young and naïve, and Notes from Underground king-hit me with its demolition of the utilitarian world view that treats humans as automatons who live according to logic, portraying us instead as fickle, unreasonable beings who often act against our own interests. I remember it as disturbing, difficult and exciting.


    • Yes, all of that, I’d agree:)
      Literature of the Angst-ridden is very good for us when we are young and naïve, because we tend to think we are alone in the world, and lo! we find an author who has expressed our very souls!


  6. ‘Notes From Underground’ influenced me a lot when I was teaching myself to write fiction – well, it’s an ongoing learning experience, but I’m talking about a long time ago. The book was my introduction to the idea of the unreliable, but convincing narrator. ‘Notes From Underground’ begins, you’ll remember, with the narrator warning readers not to trust him at all, that he’s a liar. After telling us he’s spiteful and unpleasant, he says on the next page, ‘I was lying just now when I said that I was spiteful’, and so on it goes..The contradiction, which I found fascinating, was that, in spite of all the warning, I believed what the narrator told me, because of some hard-to-define but substantial authority. i spent ages trying to imitate this technique – of course unsuccessfully, but it taught me heaps.


    • That’s the genius of it, I reckon, to make an unreliable narrator convincing even though he’s warned you not to trust him…
      It must be terrible difficult to pull off, and even harder for the translator to convey.


  7. I tried to read this sometime last year, but unfortunately didn’t get past the first 100 pages or so. I sill have it on my shelf and hope to return to it sometime. Lucky you for being able to visit the Dostoevsky museum!


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