- Series: Barnes & Noble Classics
- Paperback: 464 pages
- Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics; Reprint edition (June 1, 2008)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1593081243
- ISBN-13: 978-1593081249
- Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1.2 x 7.8 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #832,517 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Notes from Underground, The Double and Other Stories (Barnes & Noble Classics) Paperback – June 1, 2008
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Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
From Deborah A. Martinsen's Introduction to Notes from Underground, The Double and Other Stories
Master psychologist, social critic, and metaphysical thinker, Dostoevsky continually surprises readers with his dramatic and penetrating insights into the human mind and heart. The stories collected in this volume span most of Dostoevsky’s career, yet their protagonists are similar—all of them solitary men living in St. Petersburg, Russia’s capital from 1712 to 1917. St. Petersburg was Tsar Peter the Great’s planned city, his “window on the West.” Yet Peter achieved his vision at great human cost. Located on hostile swampland, this “Venice of the North” was built on the bones of the laborers who hauled granite to shore its riverbanks and canals. Popular rumors of Peter as Antichrist warred with the official version of Peter as world builder and gave rise to a myth of duality that came to surround the city as well as the tsar.
By the mid-nineteenth century, when Dostoevsky began his writing career, Aleksandr Pushkin and Nikolay Gogol had already immortalized St. Petersburg’s duality in verse and prose. In Pushkin’s narrative poem The Bronze Horseman (1833), a devastating flood symbolizes the revolt of the elements against the city and its inhabitants. The flood serves as a backdrop for the conflict between the impersonal, imperial state and a humble individual who loses everything, including his mind, as a result of the natural disaster. Gogol’s St. Petersburg tales focus more on the city as Russia’s administrative and social capital and highlight the disjunction between its attractive appearance and its cruel realities. Dostoevsky evokes his predecessors’ contributions to the myth and provides additional psychological and philosophical depth. St. Petersburg, in the words of the underground man in “Notes from Underground,” “is the most abstract and premeditated city on the whole earth.” In the tradition of Dickens and Balzac before him, Dostoevsky makes his city emblematic of Western urban civilization and also of Russia’s self-consciousness vis-à-vis the West.
The protagonists of these collected stories are all St. Petersburg loners whose isolation marks their alienation from human community and what Dostoevsky called “living life.” They are narcissists who suffer from shame and feel excluded from communities to which they long to belong. They feel inadequate and out of place. They fear rejection or failure, and choose isolation as a defense against their fears. In “The Double,” Golyadkin, whose name derives from the Russian word for “naked” or “insignificant,” voices shame at his very identity: “What a little fool you are, what a nonentity [Golyadka]—that’s the kind of last name you have!” The St. Petersburg dreamer calls himself a “type . . . an original . . . a ridiculous man!” The underground man calls himself “sick,” “spiteful,” “unattractive.” The pawnbroker refuses to defend his regiment’s honor for fear of appearing “stupid.” The dreamer of the final story in this collection calls himself “ridiculous.”
By exposing his protagonists’ deep sense of personal shame, Dostoevsky gives readers a key to understanding their stories. We see that their solitude is their major defense, but not their only one. They also protect their fragile egos by objectifying themselves, dreaming, rationalizing, dominating others, and adopting a shell of numbing indifference. In deploying these standard defenses against shame, they become not only realistic, nineteenth-century St. Petersburg “types” but also our contemporaries.
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In college, I took a reading and writing intensive Dostoyevsky class that surveyed all of his major works with the notable exceptions of the long(er) one Brothers K and the Idiot. I learned a lot from my professor, not only about Dostoyevsky, but about how to be a scholar and critical thinker and indeed human being. It is too bad that much of it washed off over time... But my professor wrote one of the leading critical articles of Dostoyevsky criticism of the 20th century, so I learned a lot from her about how to read Dostoyevsky. I believe we used the Constance Garnett translation for many of the books, but I am not sure if I read this particular edition.
One important and obvious but actually rarely completed aide to understanding Dostyoeveky is to wade through the morass of biographical and textual criticism, footnotes, historical background information, and intellectual debates of the era. Dostoyevsky does not write books; he composes symphonies. But the beauty of his books stems quite often from the diligent reader recognizing a faint refrain and following it through in all of its variations and twists and turns and interactions with his very confusing and interesting and sometimes mutually contradictory theses. One critic described his writing as consisting of "idea-voices." But to understand these one must understand how and why the characters say what they do, who they represent or caricature, and why Dostoyevsky has them say what they say.
There is no better example of this than Notes from Underground, the prototype novel of the "antihero). Garnett's translation is lovely and includes just the right character inflections and details that in other translations clang to the ground in awkwardness like dropped pots at a fancy dinner party.
So, if you do attempt to undertake reading Dostoyevsky, it is important to understand that it is an investment of not only time and energy but elan vital and critical thought and a tremendous emotional investment. To fail to do this is to only read the books at a surface level and grasp little or nothing and butcher something very beautiful. But provided that you are willing to do this, this is the write translation and these are the right size books to get started.
Notes From the Underground, one of the greatest short novels of all-time, portrays one man in the depths of despair. A vivid depiction of the dark side of human nature, Notes is a great classic that perfectly evokes the feelings of isolation, despair, narcissism, and paranoia that continue to afflict the mass of men. The Double is another interesting story. Though an early work and not as well-crafted, it manages to put a new spin on the doppelganger phenomenon. In it, Dostoyevsky very skillfully portrays one man's lonely descent into madness -- and manages to be screamingly funny while doing so. White Nights is a brilliant short work, beautifully written, a testament to the eternal, if occasionally capricious, nature of love. The Meek One is a very dark story that examines the roots of suicide. The Dream of a Ridiculous Man offers a unique take on the nature of evil.
I should take time out here to note how wonderful these Barnes & Noble Classics Editions are. They offer a wide range of supplementary materials to the readings, of interest to both the general reader and the Dostoyevsky reader, not to mention the literary scholar. These include: a short profile of the author, a timeline of his life, a substantial critical introduction, effective but not overlong notes, an offering of critical opinion and commentary on the text, and even a list of discussion questions. Not least of all, they are extremely affordable. I highly recommend this volume to anyone looking to get into the author, and also to dedicated fans looking to have all of these stories in one place.