Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

The awkward aspect of reviewing translated books is that if you need to read it in translation you can't know how closely a given version adheres to the original. So, I've always used a fairly simple standard: good translations are those that render a book readable and enjoyable, whether it was or not in its own language. Of course, even this standard is not infallible, because a translation that was colloquial a hundred years ago may seem antiquated and obscure now. In my experience, it seems that the great Russian novels have always made for some tough sledding, perhaps because nearly every one we had available until a few years ago was translated by Constance Garnett, raising the possibility that her work had become dated. At any rate, in recent years the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has undertaken a series of widely acclaimed new translations of works by Tolstoy, Gogol and Dostoevsky. Though no more capable of determining whether they capture the original, I can say they've made the Russian masters comprehensible.

Notes from Underground was originally published in two installments in the January and February 1864 issues of The Epoch. Where Crime and Punishment has always bothered me because Dostoevsky left the redemptive message of the book a seeming afterthought, here he inverts his story so that the biographical notes of his Underground Man appear in the second part, while the lessons life has taught him appear in the first. As Mr. Pevear's enormously helpful Introduction explains, those lessons are Dostoevsky's answer to a book that was well-known and enormously influential in his time, but unread in ours: What is to Be Done? by N. G. Chernyshevsky. An advocate of "rational egoism" and utilitarianism:
The nature of Chernyshevsky's hero and his ideas may be deduced from the following passage:

Yes, I will always do what I want. I will never sacrifice anything, not even a whim, for the sake of something I do not desire. What I want, with all my heart, is to make people happy. In this lies my happiness. Mine! Can you hear that, you, in your underground hole?

This is the voice of the healthy rational egoist, the ingenuous man of action. Dostoevsky took up the challenge.
Dostoevsky's anti-hero answers from the hole by pointing out that man is not ultimately rational, and, therefore, any rational political edifice--no matter how perfect in the imagination--is unrealistic and doomed to failure in practice. The underground man first describes the rationalist faith, analogizing to the famed Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in London:
You are confident that man will...voluntarily cease making mistakes and, will-nilly, so to speak, refuse to set his will at variance with his normal interests. Moreover: then, you say, science itself will teach man (though this is really a luxury in my opinion) that in fact he has neither will nor caprice, and never did have any, and that he himself is nothing but a sort of piano key or a sprig in an organ; and that, furthermore, there also exist in the world the laws of nature; so that whatever he does is done not at all according to his own wanting, but of itself, according to the laws of nature. Consequently, these laws of nature need only be discovered, and then man will no longer be answerable for his actions, and his life will become extremely easy. Needless to say, all human actions will then be calculated according to these laws, mathematically, like a table of logarithms, up to 108,000, and entered into a calendar; or, better still, some well-meaning publications will appear, like the present day encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be so precisely calculated and designated that there will no longer be any actions or adventures in the world.

And it is then--this is still you speaking--that new economic relations will come, quite ready-made, and also calculated with mathematical precision, so that all possible questions will vanish in an instant, essentially because they will have been given all possible answers. Then the crystal palace will get built.
But, unlike the Marxists, Freudians, Darwinists, Utilitarians, and various other economic, biological and rational determinists who were to make such a bloody hash of the ensuing century, the underground man sees the fatal flaw that mars all their merely mental constructs:
Man really is stupid, phenomenally stupid. That is, he's by no means stupid, but rather he's so ungrateful that it would be hard to find the likes of him. I, for example, would not be the least surprised if suddenly, out of the blue, amid the universal future reasonableness, some gentleman of ignoble, or, better, of retrograde and jeering physiognomy, should emerge, set his arms akimbo, and say to us all: "Well, gentlemen, why don't we reduce all this reasonableness to dust with one good kick, for the sole purpose of sending all the logarithms to the devil and living once more according to our own stupid will!" That would still be nothing, but what is offensive is that he'd be sure to find followers: that's how man is arranged. And all this for the emptiest of reasons, which would seem not even worth mentioning: namely, that man, whoever he might be, has always and everywhere liked to act as he wants, and not at all as reason and profit dictate; and one can even want against one's own profit, and one sometimes even positively must (this is my idea now). One's own free and voluntary wanting, one's own caprice, however wild, one's own fancy, though chafed sometimes to the point of madness--all this is that same most profitable profit, the omitted one, which does not fit into any classification, and because of which all systems and theories are constantly blown to the devil. [...]

You see: reason, gentlemen, is a fine thing, that is unquestionable, but reason is only reason and satisfies only man's reasoning capacity, while wanting is a manifestation of the whole of life--that is, the whole of human life, including reason and various little itches. And though our life in this manifestation often turns out to be a bit of trash, still it is life and not just the extraction of a square root.
Here is the truth upon which the entire Age of Reason crashes, that the capacity to reason is only one aspect of the human mind and not the primary one, that human nature is immutable, no matter how much one might wish that behavior would yield to rationality.

Not, of course, that Dostoevsky wished humanity would succumb to cold reason. As Malcolm Muggeridge says in A Third Testament:
Dostoevsky was a God-possessed man if there ever was one, as is clear in everything he wrote and in every character he created. All his life he was questing for God, and found Him – if indeed he ever did other than fitfully – only at the end of his days, after passing through what he called “the hell-fire of doubt.” Freedom to choose between Good and Evil he saw as the very essence of earthly existence; better even to choose Evil than to have no choice. The Devil, he insists, has a necessary role in our human drama, though without him there can be contentment and well-being of a kind, amounting to Tolstoy’s dream of happiness in earthly, mortal terms, which was to Dostoevsky deeply abhorrent. This is the dream, too, of all authoritarians, temporal and ecclesiastical...
Or, as Dostoevsky himself puts it here:
You believe in a crystal edifice, forever indestructible; that is, in an edifice at which one can neither put out one's tongue on the sly nor make a fig in the pocket. Well, and perhaps I'm afraid of this edifice precisely because it is crystal and forever indestructible, and it will be impossible to put out one's tongue at it even on the sly.
He needn't have worried. The crystal palace of Reason has been ground to bits and those who made a fig--which the translators' notes explain was "a rude gesture made by inserting the thumb between the closed fingers of the fist....widely used in Russia, especially by intellectuals during the Soviet period, as an expression of dissent"--have been more than vindicated.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Fyodor Dostoevsky (2 books reviewed)
Russian Literature
Fyodor Dostoevsky Links:

    -Fyodor (Mikhaylovich) Dostoevsky (1821-1881) (kirjasto)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wes Marlan, )
    -FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY (1821-1881) (Guardian)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 - 1881) (little blue light)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 - 1881) (the Internet Public Library Online Literary Criticism Collection)
    -Fyodor Dostoevsky (Wikipedia)
    -CARICATURE: Fyodor Dostoevsky (David Levine, NY Review of Books)
    -International Dostoevsky Society
    -ETEXT: Notes from the Underground
    -ETEXT: Crime and Punishment
    -ETEXTS: Works by Fyodor Dostoevsky (CCEL)
    -VIDEO: The Grand Inquisitor - John Gielgud (A rare version 1975 of The Grand Inquisitor from Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov produced by the Open University.)
-PODCAST: How Dostoevsky’s Exile in Siberia Led to Four of the Greatest Novels in Literature: Kevin Birmingham Guests on the Book Dreams Podcast (Book Dreams, April 14, 2022)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky’s Dangerous Gambit: The divine hiddenness at the core of a masterpiece. (Ryan Kemp, 12/08/23, Hedgehog Review)
    -ESSAY: Why Does God Allow the Innocent to Suffer?: Not all of life’s questions can be answered rationally. Dostoyevsky points to another way. (Peter Wehner, NOVEMBER 3, 2023, Plough)
    -ESSAY: Ivan Karamazov’s Meth Lab: Dostoevsky’s Theology in Breaking Bad (Sophia Belloncle, 10/27/23, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: Notes From the Underground Shines a Light on The Genealogy of Morals (Richard Cocks, 4/01/23, Voegelin View)
    -ESSAY: The Grand Inquisitor and the Voice of Freedom: Dostoevsky's tale reveals the perennial value of freedom, set against the perverse claims of social engineering. (Mihail Neamtu, 3/03/23, Law & Liberty))
    -ESSAY: Dear Vladimir Putin: If You’ve Read Dostoevsky, You’ve Tragically Misunderstood Him: Austin Ratner on Russian Imperialism and Misreading The Brothers Karamazov (Austin Ratner, 10/20/22, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky and the Pleasure of Taking Offense (Anthony Eagan, June 17, 2022, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: The Master of Petersburg and the Martyr of Style: Dostoevsky and Flaubert should be studied together as progenitors of the modern novel. (John G. Rodden, 11 Feb 2022, American Purpose)
    -ESSAY: Youthful Cynicism and Dostoevsky’s Case for Hope: Why do we choose to believe in a framework where suffering and violence are the most fundamental reality of the world? How can pain and grief coexist with the small joys that we experience daily? (KATERINA LEVINSON, 2/15/22, Public Discourse)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky’s 200th Birthday and His Living Legacy (Sainowaki Keiko, 1/24/22, Nippon)
    -ESSAY: Encountering the Spirit of Revolutionary Negation: Fyodor Dostoevsky's Demons continues to illuminate a path forward amidst our debilitating contemporary crisis. (Daniel J. Mahoney, 1/03/22, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: The Grand Inquisitor: On Dostoyevsky’s immersive polyphony and neologisms (JULIA KRISTEVA, 1/03/22, BookForum)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky at 200: An Idea of Evil: Radical yet reactionary, the Russian literary giant remains a bundle of paradoxes. (CATHY YOUNG, DECEMBER 31, 2021, The Bulwark)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky’s Favorite Murder: The author of “Crime and Punishment” had a love-hate relationship with the true-crime obsessions of his era. (Jennifer Wilson/December 28, 2021, New Republic)
    -ESSAY: Crime, Punishment, and Columbo (Thomas Hibbs, December 22, 2021, Pundicity)
    -PODCAST: Kevin Birmingham on How Dostoevsky Came to Write Crime and Punishment: In Conversation with Andrew Keen on Keen On (Keen On, November 18, 2021)
    -ESSAY: 5 books Dostoevsky considered masterpieces (VALERIA PAIKOVA, 4/09/21, Russia Beyobd)
    -ESSAY: Fyodor Dostoevsky: philosopher of freedom (Gary Saul Morson, January 2021, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: A God-Possessed Man: Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) (Malcolm Muggeridge, A Third Testament)
    -ESSAY: Ivan Karamazov’s Mistake (Ralph C. Wood, December 2002, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Kant's Aesthetics in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (David A. Goldfarb, Mid-Atlantic Slavic Conference)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky's nihilism (RAVI VYAS, 9/02/01, The Hindu)
    -ESSAY: Awakening from Nihilism: The Templeton Prize Address (Michael Novak, August/September 1994, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Tragic and Comic Visions in the Brothers Karamazov (Joyce Carol Oates)
    -ESSAY: Encountering Dostoevsky (Jessica Hooten Wilson, 2/20/20, Law & Liberty)
    -INTRODUCTION: Dostoyevsky Stricken: A God-possessed man reacts to suffering. : From the foreword to The Gospel in Dostoyevsky: Selections from His Works (Malcolm Muggeridge, Plough)
    -ESSAY: Fyodor Dostoevsky (Katharena Eiermann, Realm of Existentialism)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Notes from Underground (Spark Notes)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Middlebury's Notes from the Underground Study Guide (Jen Marder, Mike Meyer, and Fred Wyshak)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Study Guide for Notes from the Underground (Paul Brians, Department of English, Washington State University)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Dostoevsky: Notes from the Underground (Professor George Mitrevski, Department of Foreign Languages at Auburn University)
    -LECTURE: Lecture on Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (Dr. Gary R. Jahn)
    -Researching The Brothers Karamazov (Dartmouth College)
    -STUDY GUIDE: Middlebury's Brother Karamzov Study Guide
-ESSAY: Of Course True Crime Fans Are Guilty: For Fyodor Dostoevsky, that was the point (KEVIN BIRMINGHAM, NOV 24, 2021, Slate)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: The Eyes of Another: Dostoevsky’s masterpiece, ‘Crime and Punishment,’ offers a radical reinterpretation of guilt and redemption. (Marilyn Simon, 31 Jan 2023, Quillette)
-ARCHIVES: dostoevsky (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (Allen Barra, Salon)
    -REVIEW: of Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky (Peter Heinegg, America)
    -REVIEW: of The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by David McDuff (A.S. Byatt, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky, The Miraculous Years 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank (A S Byatt, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Resurrection from the Underground: Feodor Dostoevsky. By René Girard. Translated by James G. Williams (Andrew J. McKenna, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of DOSTOEVSKY: The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 By Joseph Frank (MICHAEL SCAMMELL, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet 1871-81 by Joseph Frank (Michael Wood, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871 by Joseph Frank (J.M. Coetzee, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Richard Pevear, and translated by Larissa Volokhonsky (John Bayley, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Stir of Liberation, 1860-1865 by Joseph Frank (V.S. Pritchett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859 by Joseph Frank (V.S. Pritchett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: V.S. Pritchett: The Dostoevsky Labyrinth (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky: Reminiscences by Anna Dostoevsky, translated and edited by Beatrice Stillman, and with an introduction by Helen Muchnic (V. S. Pritchett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: John Bayley: Idealism and Its Critic (NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of An Existentialist Ethics by Hazel E. Barnes (Philippa Foot, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor M. Dostoevsky,  Dostoevsky: The Major Fiction by Edward Wasiolek (Helen Muchnic, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky's Occasional Writings selected, translated, and introduced by David Magarshack (Helen Muchnic, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Encountering Dostoevsky (jessica hooten wilson, 2/20/20, Law & Liberty)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts Into Tears by László F. Földényi (James Wood, The New Yorker)
    -REVIEW of The Idiot (Clancy Martin, Book Forum)
    -REVIEW: of Lectures on Dostoesvky | Joseph Frank (Heidi White, Forma)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky in Love: An Intimate Life By Alex Christofi (Donald Rayfield, Literary Review)
    -REVIEW: of Dostoevsky in Love (Albert Wald, University Bookman)
-REVIEW: of The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece by Kevin Birmingham (David Stromberg, American Scholar)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Ian Thomson, The Observer)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Maureen Corrigan, NPR)
    -REVIEW: of The Sinner and The saint (Jennifer Wilson, New Republic)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Jake Bittle, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of Sinner and the Saint (Christopher Sandford, Hedgehog Review)
-REVIEW ESSAY: A Spouse Divided: Two new biographies delve into Dostoyevsky’s relationship with his long-suffering wife (REBECCA PANOVKA, 12/17/21, BookForum)

    -FILMOGRAPHY: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (
    -FILM SITE: Notes from Underground (directed by Gary Walkow)

Book-related and General Links:

    -AUTHOR SITE: The American University of Paris | Faculty | Richard Pevear
    -AUTHOR SITE: Richard Pevear (Random House)
    -ESSAY: Dostoevsky's View of Evil: An abridged version of the introduction to Pevear and Volokhonsky's translation of Dostoevsky's novel (Richard Pevear)
    -PROFILE: Tolstoy's Translators Experience Oprah's Effect (EDWARD WYATT, 6/07/04, NY Times)
    -PROFILE: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volohonsky: Russian-to-English translators turned Oprah stars (Alex Abramovich, Newsday )
    -ARCHIVES: "richard pevear" (Find Articles)