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Fyodor Dostoevski’s “Memoirs from a Mousebole” (1864)


By Vladimir Nabokov

The story whose title should be “Memoirs from Under the Floor,” or “Memoirs from a Mousehole” bears in translation the stupidly incorrect title of Notes from the Underground. The story may be deemed by some a case history, a streak of persecution mania, with variations. My interest in it is limited to a study in style. It is the best picture we have of Dostoevski’s themes and formulas and intonations. It is a concentration of Dostoevskiana. Moreover it is very well rendered in English by Guerney.

Its first part consists of eleven small chapters or sections. Its second part, which is twice the length, consists of ten slightly longer chapters containing events and conversations. The first part is a soliloquy but a soliloquy that presupposes the presence of a phantom audience. Throughout this part the mouseman, the narrator, keeps turning to an audience of persons who seem to be amateur philosophers, newspaper readers, and what he calls normal people. These ghostly gentlemen are supposed to be jeering at him, while he is supposed to thwart their mockery and denunciations by the shifts, the doubling back, and various other tricks of his supposedly remarkable intellect. This imaginary audience helps to keep the ball of his hysterical inquiry rolling, an inquiry into the state of his own crumbling soul. It will be noticed that references are made to topical events of the day in the middle of the 1860s. The topicality, however, is vague and has no structural power. Tolstoy uses newspapers too—but he does this with marvelous art when, for example, in the beginning of Anna Karenin he not only characterizes Oblonski by the kind of information Oblonski likes to follow in the morning paper but also fixes with delightful historical or pseudo-historical precision a certain point in space and time. In Dostoevski we have generalities substituted for specific traits.

The narrator starts by depicting himself as a rude, waspish man, a spiteful official who snarls at the petitioners who come to the obscure bureau where he works. After making his statemnt, “I am a spiteful official,” he retracts it and says that he is not even that: “It was not only that I could not become spiteful; I did not know how to become anything: either spiteful or kind, either a rascal or an honest man, either a hero or an insect.” He consoles himself with the thought that an intelligent man does not become anything, and that only rascals and fools become something. He is forty years old, lives in a wretched room, had a very low rank in the civil service, has retired by now after getting a small legacy, and is anxious to talk about himself.

I should warn you at this point that the first part of the story, eleven little chapters, are significant not in what is expressed or related, but in the manner it is expressed and related. The manner reflects the man. This reflection Dostoevski wishes to fix in a cesspool of confessions through the manners and mannerisms of a neurotic, exasperated, frustrated, and horribly unhappy person.

The next theme is human-consciousness (not conscience but consciousness), the awareness of one’s emotions. The more aware this mouseman was of goodness, of beauty—of moral beauty—the more he sinned, the deeper he sank in filth. Dostoevski, as so often happens with authors of his type, authors who have a general message to deliver to all men, to all sinners, Dostoevski does not specify the depravity of his hero. We are left guessing.

After every loathsome act the narrator commits, he says he crawls back into his mousehole and proceeds to enjoy the accursed sweetness of shame, of remorse, the pleasure of his own nastiness, the pleasure of degradation. Delighting in degradation is one of Dostoevski’s favorite themes. Here, as elsewhere in his writing, the writer’s art lags behind the writer’s purpose, since the sin committed is seldom specified, and art is always specific. The act, the sin, is taken for granted. Sin here is a literary convention similar to the devices in the sentimental and Gothic novels Dostoevski had imbibed. In this particular story the very abstractness of the theme, the abstract notion of loathsome action and consequent degradation is presented with a not negligible bizarre force in a manner that reflects the man in the mousehole. (I repeat, it is the manner which counts.) By the end of chapter 2 we know that the mouseman has started writing his memoirs in order to explain the joys of degradation.

He is, he says, an acutely conscious mousey man. He is being insulted by a kind of collective normal man—stupid but normal. His audience is mocking him. The gentlemen are jeering. Unsatisfied desires, the burning thirst of parching revenge, hesitations—half-despair, half-faith—all this combines to form a strange morbid bliss for the humiliated subject. Mouseman’s rebellion is based not upon a creative impulse but upon his being merely a moral misfit, a moral dwarf, who sees in the laws of nature a stone wall which he cannot break down. But here again we flounder in a generalization, in an allegory, since no specific purpose, no specific stone wall is evoked. Bazarov {Fathers and Sons) knew that what a nihilist wishes to break is the old order that among other things sanctioned slavery. The mouse here is merely listing his grudges against a despicable world that he has invented himself, a world of cardboard instead of stone.

Chapter 4 contains a comparison: his pleasure, he says, is the pleasure of a person with a toothache realizing that he is keeping his family awake with his moans—moans that perhaps are those of an imposter. A complicated pleasure. But the point is that the mouseman suggests he is cheating.

So by chapter 5 we have the following situation. The mouseman is filling his life with bogus emotions because he lacks real ones. Moreover, he has no foundation, no starting point from which to proceed to an acceptance of life. He looks for a definition of himself, for a label to stick upon himself, for instance a “lazy-bones,” or a “connoisseur of wines,” any kind of peg, any kind of nail. But what exactly compels him to look for a label is not divulged by Dostoevski. The man he depicts lives only as a maniac, as a tangle of mannerisms. Dostoevski’s mediocre imitators such as Sartre, a French journalist, have continued the trend to-day.

At the beginning of chapter 7 we find a good example of Dostoevski’s style, very well rendered by Guerney revising Garnett:

“But these are all golden dreams. Oh, tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble because, being enlightened and understanding his real advantage, he would see his own advantage in the good and nothing else, and we all know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests, consequently, so to say, through necessity, he would begin doing good? Oh, the babe! Oh, the pure, innocent child! Why, in the first place, when in all these thousands of years has there been a time when man has acted only from his own interest? What is to be done with the millions of facts that bear witness that men, consciously, that is, fully understanding their real interests, have left them in the background and have rushed headlong on another path, to meet peril and danger, compelled to this course by nobody and by nothing, but, as it were, simply disliking the beaten track, and have obstinately, willfully, beaten another difficult, absurd path, seeking it almost in the darkness? So, I suppose, this obstinacy and perversity were pleasanter to them than any advantage.”

The repetition of words and phrases, the intonation of obsession, the hundred percent banality of every word, the vulgar soapbox eloquence mark these elements of Dostoevski’s style.

In this chapter 7 the mouseman, or his creator, hits upon a new series of ideas revolving around the term “advantage.” There are, he says, cases when a man’s advantage must consist in his desiring certain things that are actually harmful to him. This is all double talk, of course; and just as the enjoyment of degradation and pain have not been easily explained by the mouseman, so the advantage of disadvantage will not be explained by him either. But a set of new mannerisms will be arrayed in the tantalizing approximations that occupy the next pages.

What exactly is this mysterious “advantage”? A journalistic excursion, in Dostoevski’s best manner, first takes care of “civilization [which] has made mankind, if not more bloodthirsty, at least more vilely, more loathsomely bloodthirsty.” This is an old idea going back to Rousseau. The mouseman evokes a picture of universal prosperity in the future, a palace of crystal for all, and finally there it comes—the mysterious advantage: One’s own free unfettered choice, one’s own whim no matter how wild. The world has been beautifully rearranged, but here comes a man, a natural man, who says: it is merely my whim to destroy this beautiful world —and he destroys it. In other words, man wants not any rational advantage, but merely the fact of independent choice—no matter what it is—even though breaking the pattern of logic, of statistics, of harmony and order. Philosophically this is all bunkum since harmony, happiness, presupposes and includes also the presence of whim.

But the Dostoevskian man may choose something insane or stupid or harmful—destruction and death—because it is at least his own choice. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons for Raskolnikov’s killing the old woman in Crime and Punishment.

In chapter 9 the mouseman goes on ranting in self-defence. The theme of destruction is taken up again. Perhaps, says he, man prefers destroying to creating. Perhaps it is not the achievement of any goal that attracts him but the process of attaining this goal. Perhaps, says Mouseman, man dreads to succeed. Perhaps he is fond of suffering. Perhaps suffering is the only origin of consciousness. Perhaps man, so to speak, becomes a human being with the first awareness of his awareness of pain.

The palace of crystal as an ideal, as a journalistic symbol of perfect universal life in aftertime, is again projected on the screen and discussed. The narrator has worked himself into a state of utter exasperation, and the audience of mockers, of jeering journalists he confronts, seems to be closing in upon him. We return to one of the points made in the very beginning: it is better to be nothing, it is better to remain in one’s mousehole—or rat hole. In the last chapter of part one he sums up the situation by suggesting that the audience he has been evoking, the phantom gentlemen he has been addressing, is an attempt to create readers. And it is to this phantom audience that he will now present a series of disjointed recollections which will, perhaps, illustrate and explain his mentality. Wet snow is falling. Why he sees it as yellow is more emblematic than optical. He means, I suppose, yellow as implying unclean white, “dingy,” as he also says. A point to be noticed is that he hopes to obtain relief from writing. This closes the first part, which, I repeat, is important in its manner, not matter.

Why part two is entitled “Concerning Wet Snow” is a question that can be settled only in the light of journalistic innuendoes of the 1860s by writers who liked symbols, allusions to allusions, that kind of thing. The symbol perhaps is of purity becoming damp and dingy. The motto—also a vague gesture—is a lyrical poem by Dostoevski’s contemporary Nekrasov.

The events our mouseman is going to describe in the second part go twenty years back to the 1840s. He was as gloomy then as he is now, and hated his fellow men as he does now. He also hated his own self. Experiments in humiliation are mentioned. Whether he hated a fellow or not, he could not look into a person’s eyes. He experimented—could he outstare anybody? — and failed. This worried him to distraction. He is a coward, he says, but for some reason or other every decent man of our age, he says, must be a coward. What age? The 1840s or the 1860s? Historically, politically, sociologically, the two eras differed tremendously. In 1844 we are in the age of reaction, of despotism; 1864 when these notes are set down is the age of change, of enlightenment, of great reforms as compared to the forties. But Dostoevski’s world despite topical allusions is the gray world of mental illness, where nothing can change except perhaps the cut of a military uniform, an unexpectedly specific detail to meet at one point.

A few pages are devoted to what our mouseman calls “romantics,” or more correctly in English “romanticists.” The modern reader cannot understand the argument unless he wades through Russian periodicals of the fifties and sixties. Dostoevski and the mouseman really mean “sham idealists,” people who can somehow combine what they call the good and the beautiful with material things, such as a bureaucratic career, etc. (Slavophiles attack Westerners for setting up idols rather than Ideals.) All this is very vaguely and tritely expressed by our mouseman, and we need not bother about it. We learn that our mouseman, furtively, in solitude at night, indulged in what he calls filthy vice, and apparently for this purpose he visited various obscure haunts. (We recall St. Preux, the gentleman in Rousseau’s Julie who also visited a remote room in a house of sin where he kept drinking white wine under the impression it was water, and next thing found himself in the arms of what he calls une creature. This is vice as depicted in sentimental novels.)

The “out-staring” theme is then given a new twist: it becomes the out-jostling theme. Our mouseman, apparently a small slender chap, is thrust aside by a passerby, a military man over six feet high. Mouseman keeps meeting him on Nevski Avenue, which is Petersburg’s Fifth Avenue, and keeps telling himself that he, mouseman, will not give way; but every time he would give way, would step aside, letting the gigantic officer stalk straight past. One day Mouseman dresses up as if for a duel or funeral, and with heart going pit-a-pat tries to assert himself and not step aside. But he is flung aside like an india rubber ball by the military man. He tries again—and manages to retain his balance—they run into each other full tilt, shoulder to shoulder, and pass each other on a perfectly equal footing. Mouseman is delighted. His only triumph in the tale is here.

Chapter 2 starts with an account of his satirical day-dreams and then the story at last is launched. Its prologue has occupied forty pages in Guerney’s translation, counting part one. On a certain occasion he visits a certain Simonov, an old schoolfellow. Simonov and two friends are planning a farewell dinner in honor of a fourth schoolfellow Zverkov, who is another military man in the story. (His name is derived from “little beast” zveryok.) “This Zverkov, too, had been at school all the time I was there. I had begun to hate him, particularly in the upper grades. In the lower grades he had simply been a pretty, playful boy whom everybody liked. I had hated him, however, even in the lower grades, just because he was a pretty and playful boy. He was always poor at his lessons and got worse and worse as he went on; however, he left with a good certificate, since he had influential people interested in him. During his last year at school he came in for an estate of two hundred serfs, and as almost all of us were poor he took to swaggering among us. He was vulgar in the extreme, but at the same time he was a good-natured fellow, even in his swaggering. In spite of superficial, fantastic and sham notions of honor and dignity, all but very few of us positively groveled before Zverkov, and the more he swaggered the more they groveled. And it was not from any interested motive that they groveled, but simply because he had been favored by the gifts of nature. Moreover, it was, as it were, an accepted idea among us that Zverkov was a specialist in tact and the social graces. This last fact particularly infuriated me. I hated the abrupt self-confident tone of his voice, his admiration of his own witticisms, which were often frightfully stupid, though he was bold in his language; I hated his handsome but stupid face (for which I would, however, have gladly exchanged my intelligent one), and the free-and-easy military manners in fashion in the forties.”

The first of the other two schoolfellows is Ferfichkin, a comedy name; he is of German extraction, a vulgar swaggering fellow. (It should be noted that Dostoevski had a kind of pathological hatred of Germans, Poles, and Jews, as depicted in his writings.) The other schoolfellow is yet another army officer, Trudolyubov, whose name means “diligent.” Dostoevski here and elsewhere has the eighteenth-century comedy tendency to apply descriptive names to people. Our mouseman, who as we know likes to court insult, invites himself.

” ‘It’s settled then—the three of us, with Zverkov for the fourth, twenty-one rubles, at the Hotel de Paris, at five o’clock tomorrow,’ Simonov, who had been asked to make the arrangements, concluded finally.

” ‘How do you figure twenty-one rubles?’ I asked in some agitation, with a show of being offended. ‘If you count me it won’t be twenty-one but twenty-eight rubles.’

“It seemed to me that to invite myself so suddenly and unexpectedly would be positively graceful, and that they would all be conquered at once and would look upon me with respect.

” ‘Do you want to join, too?’ Simonov observed, with no appearance of pleasure, seeming to avoid looking at me. He knew me through and through.

“It infuriated me that he knew me so thoroughly. “‘Why not? I’m an old schoolfellow of his, too, I believe, and I must own I felt hurt at your having left me out,’ I said, boiling over again.

” ‘And where were we to find you?’ Ferfichkin put in rudely.

” ‘You never were on good terms with Zverkov,’ Trudolyubov added, frowning.

“But I had already grabbed at the idea and would not give it up.

” ‘It seems to me that no one has a right to form an opinion upon that,’ I retorted in a shaky voice, as though something tremendous had happened. ‘Perhaps that is just my reason for wishing it now, that I have not always been on good terms with him.’

” ‘Oh, there’s no making you out—with all these refinements,’ Trudolyubov jeered.

” ‘We’ll put your name down,’ Simonov decided, addressing me. ‘Tomorrow at five o’clock at the Hotel de Paris.’ ”

That night the mouseman dreams of his school days, a generalized dream that would not do in a modern case-history. Next morning he polished his boots after his servant Apollon had cleaned them once already. Wet snow is symbolically falling in thick flakes. He arrives at the restaurant and learns that they had changed the dinner hour from five to six and nobody had troubled to inform him. Here begins the accumulation of humiliations. Finally the three schoolfellows and Zverkov, the guest, arrive. What follows is one of the best scenes in Dostoevski. He had a wonderful flair for comedy mixed with tragedy; he may be termed a very wonderful humorist, with the humor always on the verge of hysterics and people hurting each other in a wild exchange of insults. A typical Dostoevskian row starts:

” ‘Tell me, are you … in a government office?’ Zverkov went on being attentive to me. Seeing that I was embarrassed, he seriously thought that he ought to be friendly to me, and, so to speak, cheer me up.

“‘Does he want me to throw a bottle at his head?’ I thought, in a rage. In my novel surroundings I was unnaturally ready to be irritated.

” ‘In the N——office,’ I answered jerkily, with my eyes on my plate.

” ‘And ha-ave you a goo-ood berth? I say, what ma-a-de you leave your original job?’

‘What ma-a-de me was that I wanted to leave my original job,’ I drawled more than he, hardly able to control myself.

Ferfichkin went off into a guffaw. Simonov looked at me sarcastically. Trudolyubov left off eating and began looking at me with curiosity.

“Zverkov winced, but he tried not to notice anything.

” ‘And the remuneration?

” ‘What remuneration?

“I mean your sa-a-lary?

‘Why are you cross-examining me?’ However, I told him at once what my salary was. I turned horribly red.

‘It’s not very handsome,’ Zverkov observed majestically. ” ‘Yes, you can’t afford to dine at cafes on that,’ Ferfichkin added insolently.

“‘To my thinking it’s very poor,’ Trudolyubov observed gravely. ” ‘And how thin you have grown! How you have changed!’ added Zverkov, with a shade of venom in his voice, scanning me and my attire with a sort of insolent compassion.

“‘Oh, spare his blushes,’ cried Ferfichkin, sniggering. ” ‘My dear Sir, allow me to tell you I am not blushing,’ I broke out at last:

‘Do you hear? I am dining here, at this cafe, at my own expense, not at other people’s—note that, Mr. Ferfichkin.’

‘Wha-at? Isn’t everyone here dining at his own expense? You seem to be——’ Ferfichkin turned on me, becoming as red as a lobster and looking me in the face with fury.

“‘We won’t go into tha-at,’ I mimicked in answer, feeling I had gone too far. ‘And I imagine it would be better to talk of something more intelligent.

‘ “‘You intend to show off your intelligence, I suppose?

‘”‘Don’t upset yourself; that would be quite out of place here.

‘”‘Why are you jabbering away like that, my good Sir? eh? Have you gone out of your wits in your office?

‘” ‘Enough, gentlemen, enough!’ Zverkov cried authoritatively.

‘How stupid all this is!’ muttered Simonov. ” ‘It really is stupid. We’ve met here, a party of friends, for a farewell dinner to a comrade, and you carry on a fight,’ said Trudolyubov, rudely addressing himself to me alone. ‘You invited yourself to join us, so don’t disturb the general harmony.’

“… No one paid any attention to me, and I sat crushed and humiliated.

“‘Good Heavens, these are not the people for me!’ I thought. ‘And what a fool I have made of myself before them! . . . But what’s the use! I must get up at once, this very minute, take my hat and simply go without a word—with contempt! The scoundrels! As though I cared about the seven rubles. They may think. . . . Damn it! I don’t care about the seven rubles. I’ll go this minute!’

“Of course I remained. I drank sherry and Lafitte by the glassful in my discomfiture. Being unaccustomed to it, I was quickly affected. My annoyance increased as the wine went to my head. I longed all of a sudden to insult them all in a most flagrant manner and then go away. To seize the moment and show what I could do, so that they would say: ‘He’s clever, though he’s absurd,’ and . . . and … in fact, damn them all! . . .

” ‘Why, aren’t you going to drink the toast?’ roared Trudolyubov, losing patience and turning menacingly to me. . . .

” ‘Lieutenant Zverkov, Sir,’ I began, ‘let me tell you that I hate phrases, phrasemongers, and men who wear corsets—that’s the first point, and there’s a second one to follow it.’

“There was a general stir.

” ‘The second point is: I hate loose talk and loose talkers. Especially loose talkers! The third point: I love justice, truth, and

honesty.’ I went on almost mechanically, for I was beginning to shiver with horror myself and had no idea how I had come to be talking like this. T love thought, Monsieur Zverkov; I love true comradeship, on an equal footing and not—h’m! I love—but, however, why not? I’ll drink your health, too, Monsieur Zverkov. Seduce the Circassian girls, shoot the enemies of the fatherland, and—and here’s to your health, Monsieur Zverkov!’

“Zverkov got up from his seat, bowed to me, and said:

” ‘I’m very much obliged to you.’ He was frightfully offended and had turned pale.

” ‘Damn the fellow!’ roared Trudolyubov, bringing his fist down on the table.

” ‘Well, he ought to get a punch in the nose for that,’ squealed Ferfichkin.

” ‘We ought to turn him out,’ muttered Simonov.

” ‘Not a word, gentlemen, not a move!’cried Zverkov gravely, checking the general indignation. T thank you all, but I am able to show him myself how much value I attach to his words.

‘ ” ‘Mr. Ferfichkin, you will give me satisfaction tomorrow for your words just now!’ I said aloud, turning with dignity to Ferfichkin.

” ‘A duel, you mean? Certainly,’ he answered. But probably I was so ridiculous as I challenged him, and it was so out of keeping with my appearance, that everyone, including Ferfichkin, was prostrate with laughter.

” ‘Yes, let him alone, of course! He’s quite drunk,’ Trudolyubov said with disgust. … I was so harassed, so exhausted, that would have cut my throat to put an end to it. I was in a fever; my hair soaked with perspiration, stuck to my forehead and temples.

” ‘Zverkov, I beg your pardon,’ I said abruptly and resolutely. ‘Ferfichkin, yours, too, and everyone’s, everyone’s; I have insulted you all!

‘ ” ‘Aha! A duel is not in your line, old man,’ Ferfichkin got out venomously through clenched teeth.

“It sent a sharp pang to my heart.

” ‘No, it’s not the duel I’m afraid of, Ferfichkin! I’m ready to fight you tomorrow, after we’re reconciled. I insist upon it, in fact, and you cannot refuse. I want to show you that I am not afraid of a duel. You’ll fire first and I’ll fire into the air.’ . .

“They were all flushed; their eyes were bright; they had been drinking heavily.

I ask for your friendship, Zverkov; I insulted you, but—’ ‘Insulted? You insulted we? Understand, Sir, that you never, under any circumstances, could possibly insult me.

”And that’s enough for you. Out of the way!’ concluded Trudolyubov. . .

“I stood there as though they had spat upon me. The party went noisily out of the room. Trudolyubov struck up some stupid song. . . . Disorder, the remains of the dinner, a broken wineglass on the floor, spilt wine, cigarette ends, fumes of drink and delirium in my brain, an agonizing misery in my heart and finally the waiter, who had seen and heard all and was looking inquisitively into my face.

“‘I’m going there!’ I cried. ‘Either they’ll all go down on their knees to beg for my friendship or I’ll give Zverkov a slap in the face!’

After the great chapter 4 the mouseman’s irritation, humiliation, etc., become repetitious, and soon a false note is introduced with the appearance of that favorite figure of sentimental fiction, the noble prostitute, the fallen girl with the lofty heart. Liza, the young lady from Riga, is a literary dummy. Our mouseman, to get some relief, starts the process of hurting and frightening a fellow creature, poor Liza (Sonya’s sister). The conversations are very garrulous and very poor, but please go on to the bitter end. Perhaps some of you may like it more than I do. The story ends with our mouseman emitting the idea that humiliation and insult will purify and elevate Liza through hatred, and that perhaps exalted sufferings are better than cheap happiness. That’s about all.