Forty years ago - to the year in fact - the various novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky were must-reads on many an Irish undergraduate’s list. I can still see the venerable black spines of freshly-minted Penguin Classic editions of Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov and The Possessed, shiny blocks of paper pressed almost seamlessly together on the shelves of Dublin stores like Hodges Figgis, APCK bookshop or Easons.
Why did 18-year-old guys particularly seem to want to read Dostoyevsky? Well, Crime and Punishment was a complete page-turner, a big book that was surprisingly easy to read (in English translation obviously). It told the story of Raskolnikov, the original existential hero and, as it happens, murderer of an old woman. Does he get away with the brutal act was a pertinent question, but what was going on in his mind was what fascinated.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) was a master of psychology and alienation, so that late adolescents - and Doors fans - would find common ground with his unsavoury characters, spouting out their radical opinions about the human condition and everything that was wrong with contemporary life.
A core concern in the writer's vast ouevre is the nature of free will, but it was all rendered into compelling human dramas - Dostoyevsky was, first and foremost, a great story-teller.
Dostoyevsky must be still cool - or at least publishers are sure he can be still - as there at least four different paperback editions of the author’s 1864 novella Notes From Underground currently circulating in English. Sometimes it’s called Notes from Underground, sometimes Notes From the Underground, depending on the translator. Penguin Classics pair it with The Gambler, another novella; another edition pairs it with a number of short stories from the great Russian.
One of the editions features a foreword from the high profile and generaly cool English novelist Will Self. Canongate’s recently published edition - one in its series of Canongate `canons' - boasts "a radical new translation’ by Natasha Randall. The work includes an introduction by DBC Pierre, who won the Booker Prize with Vernon God Little in 2003, a tale of another maladjusted young outsider.
“Nietzsche’s writings, Freud’s theory of neurosis, Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Bellow’s Herzog, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, perhaps Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and half of Woody Allen’s work wouldn’t have been the same without the existence of this ornery, unstable, unmanageable text,” wrote one admirer of Notes From Underground in The New Yorker recently. He described the 150-page novella as “the fictional confession of a spiteful modern Hamlet. "
Notes From Underground is the story of a 40-year-old ex-civil servant living in St Petersburg who, addresses the reader directly to give his idiosyncratic take on his life to date. “I was a spiteful civil servant,“ declares his unnamed protagonist. “ I was rude and I found pleasure in it. I did not take bribes, you see, and consequently I had to reward myself with something.” (Good grief, you think, but you do read on.)
He reflects on his sickness - he thinks he may have liver disease - refusing to go to see a doctor, because he doesn’t trust the profession. Instead he goes back in his mind 20 years, and recalls his youth, and the party at at which he got drunk and behaved abominably.
It seems no matter where he went before he hid away underground, as it were, this maladjusted indidual created social embarassment. He recalls his one chance at genuine love, when he fell for a prostitute. But disgust at himself for falling in love with the young lady overwhelmed his attraction to her.
“He (Dostoyevsky) was a sensitive man, as sensitive as a synapse, and deeply affected by life, “ writes DBC Pierre in his short introduction to Notes From Underground. “He was insecure, by turns aloof or withdrawn, and the one thing he almost certainly shared with the Underground Man was torment – while he wrote this book, his wife lay dying, he was almost broke, having gambled his livelihood away, and his appeal as a writer was waning.” DBC is a huge fan of the work. “Don’t read it because it’s great – read it because you don’t’ have to,” he urges.