“You cannot take a man who was all struggle,” wrote Tolstoy of Dostoyevsky, after his great rival’s death, “and set him up on a monument for the instruction of posterity.”

To which struggle exactly was Count Tolstoy referring? Certainly not the liberal cause that had condemned Dostoyevsky to spending four years in a Siberian labor camp and six more as a soldier in the army. In his mid-20s Fyodor Mikhailovich had fallen under the charismatic influence of the revolutionary Nikolay Speshnev and joined his secret society. Immediately he was anxious: Speshnev had lent him a large sum of money. How could the young writer ever repay this “Mephistopheles of my own” and escape this compromising situation? Three days after being arrested and placed in solitary confinement, Dostoyevsky tells us, he felt an enormous sense of relief and serenity. Later he would remark: “Penal servitude saved me.”

Such moments of relief, of internal conflict resolved in extreme well-being, feature prominently in Dostoyevsky’s work. Usually they follow a dramatic surrender of pride on the part of a powerful personality: A murderer confesses, or the great man kneels before the holy hermit or the innocent prostitute, though never before having passed through agonies of uncertainty and rebellion. Notes From Underground (1864), however, is unique among Dostoyevsky’s writings in that it begins with a struggle that is long over and that has ended in failure: “I am a sick man…. I am a wicked man,” our anonymous narrator opens his hundred-page monologue. More than any of his other works, this will be Dostoyevsky’s justification for a life that is all struggle.

Notes is organized in two parts: a long statement of the narrator’s present situation and vision of the world; and an account of a dramatic incident in his past. The voice speaking describes himself as a minor civil servant who has retired on the back of a modest inheritance. In short, a nobody. His illness and wickedness, we soon learn, are the result of “consciousness,” which is always and in every form “a sickness.” It led him to be acutely sensitive to the good and the beautiful while interminably choosing to act in an ugly and repulsive fashion. This painful contradiction caused the narrator years of unhappy struggle as he tried to reconcile egoism with moral sensibility. But at last he is worn out, he has “lost any wish to struggle.” More intellectually feverish than ever, he gnashes his teeth in obscurity, consoling himself with the thought that “it had to be so,” that “this perhaps was my normal condition.”

The circumstances in which Dostoyevsky wrote this disturbing incipit are worth bearing in mind. Discharged from the army in 1859 at age 37, he had brought his new wife to St. Petersburg and begun publishing, together with his brother Mikhail, a political and literary magazine, Time. The magazine was successful, the writer’s career on the rise, but his marriage was unhappy. Maria Dimitrievna suffered from tuberculosis and frequently accused her husband of being “a rogue and a rascal and a criminal.” Perhaps to be worthy of her accusations, Dostoyevsky began an affair with the 23-year-old Apollinaria Suslova and took time out to travel in Europe, where he discovered the joys of roulette.

In 1863 the censors closed Time, plunging the Dostoyevsky brothers into dire financial trouble. But while waiting for permission to reopen, Fyodor again set out to travel in Europe, despite the fact that his wife was now seriously ill. Claiming he needed to consult Western doctors about his epilepsy, he headed for Paris, where his young mistress was waiting. The beloved Suslova, however, now decided that there would be no more sex between them. They would travel to Italy as friends, not lovers. Holier than the average adulterer, Dostoyevsky went along with this, while making frequent attempts to get the girl back between the sheets. She refused, but generously lent him money to get home when the gambling bouts left him penniless.

After three months away, then, Dostoyevsky returns to Russia to find his wife is at death’s door and his brother desperate to gather material for the new magazine that the censors have given permission to publish: Fyodor Mikhailovich must write something, at once. The time for renunciation has come, but Fyodor is still so close to the spree…

Notes From Underground, the book that emerged from these exigencies, written in haste as his wife was dying, is remarkable for the way the polarities of good and evil are simultaneously present throughout but without any possibility of the narrator’s taking a firm stand either way; instead he offers a perverse, self-lacerating enjoyment of their simultaneity and incompatibility: “These influxes of ‘everything beautiful and lofty,'” he tells us of his more noble thoughts, “used also to come to me during my little debauches…and yet they did not annihilate the little debauch…on the contrary, it was as if they enlivened it by contrast and came in exactly the proportion required for a good sauce. The sauce here consisted of contradiction and suffering, of tormenting inner analysis and all these torments and tormenticules lent my little debauch a certain piquancy, even meaning.”

Yet it would be a mistake to think of Notes as primarily a private document. One of the consequences of a strict censorship that made direct statements on many issues impossible was that Russian fiction in this period was always understood as a disguised form of political debate. So no sooner has Dostoyevsky established the perverse psychology of his narrator than he starts to use the phenomenon of his unhealthy egoism to launch an attack on the recent novel What Is to Be Done? by the revolutionary theorist Nikolai Chernyshevsky, an attack that takes up the whole first part of the book.

A word must be said here on Dostoyevsky’s idiosyncratic style when entering the political fray. Throughout the nineteenth century a fierce debate raged in Russia between westward-looking reformers and czarist conservatives. At issue were the condition of the serfs, the authority of the czar. In his editorial for the opening issue of Time in 1861, Dostoyevsky makes the strange claim that what will distinguish his paper from others is that, unlike his political opponents, he is really convinced of what he is saying, even if it may sound as though taken from a “copybook of maxims.” In the following editorials he goes on to attack the ideas of the Westernized liberals, while sympathizing with their generous spirit, and to support the conservative ideas of the czarist camp while attacking their reactionary harshness. The terms of public debate are thus undermined. No idea can be judged without consideration of the mentality that anchors it in reality.

Needless to say, this peculiar approach exercised no political influence, completely confused the censors and was partly responsible for the decision to close down Time in 1863. So as Dostoyevsky embarks on his first piece for the new magazine, he is determined that there be no mistake: He absolutely and implacably opposes the revolutionary Nikolai Chernyshevsky.

Chernyshevsky was an optimist proposing an ethics of rational egoism. Far from struggling with irreconcilable opposites, the characters in What Is to Be Done? show how a person’s real self-interest, when properly understood, is always compatible with the general good. Thus the two young heroes of the novel, who are in love with the same woman, are able to sort out their problems without pain or conflict. Thus, if everybody acts selfishly and in his or her own interest (properly understood), society can be reorganized to the benefit of everyone.

At first glance the target seems too easy to be interesting. “Oh, the babe!” our underground narrator exclaims, having summarized Chernyshevsky’s position, “Oh, the pure, innocent child!” And he raises the objection that if one’s best interests can be determined by reason and if one then inevitably acts in accordance with those interests, all one’s actions can be predetermined, a state of affairs man instinctively resists. He himself, the narrator claims, frequently and deliberately acts against his best interests, since the highest good is not happiness or material wealth but simply this freedom to do as and how one wishes. As a result of this argument, the first part of the book is often taken as a defense of free will over determinism, even if that means accepting unhappy and unattractive phenomena like our sick and spiteful narrator.

But Notes is a much more radical and disturbing document than that. For Dostoyevsky had the immense good fortune that the enemy of the moment provided him with the stimulus for an exploration of the very possibility of speaking of selfhood and self-interest at all, something that must have been much on the author’s mind after his own erratic behavior of recent months. Here the monologue form is crucial. “I am a wicked man,” the narrator declares. But only a few moments later he claims: “as a matter of fact, I was never able to become wicked.”Indeed, “I never even managed to become anything: neither wicked nor good, neither a scoundrel nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect.”

One observes here, as ever, Dostoyevsky’s tendency to see only opposite and mutually exclusive alternatives, all equally impossible for our narrator, since, whichever way he leans, his brain is “swarming” with “opposite tendencies.” There were thus two related struggles in his past: one between good and evil, selfishness and renunciation, and, through that, the struggle to become someone. It is because our narrator has failed in both struggles that he must remain anonymous. Selfish, he has not a self worthy of a name. “An intelligent man of the nineteenth century,” he defends himself, “must be and is morally obliged to be primarily a characterless being.”

Character, the narrator argues, is consolidated in action, good or bad, but the corrosive nature of intellectual thought constantly undermines the basis of action, because one senses its futility. Imagining someone who is able to act, to take revenge, for example, the narrator remarks:

Well, sirs, it is just such an ingenuous man that I regard as the real, normal man…. I envy such a man to the point of extreme bile. He is stupid…but perhaps a normal man ought to be stupid, how do you know? Perhaps it’s even very beautiful. And I am the more convinced of this, so to speak, suspicion, seeing that if, for example one takes the antithesis of the normal man, that is, the man of heightened consciousness, who came, of course, not from the bosom of nature but from a retort (this is almost mysticism, gentlemen, but I suspect that, too) this retort man sometimes folds before his antithesis so far that he honestly regards himself, with all his heightened consciousness as a mouse and not a man. A highly conscious mouse, perhaps, but a mouse all the same, whereas here we have a man, and consequently…and so on….

Such self-deconstructing reflection not only ridicules centuries of Enlightenment optimism, but opens a wound in the reader’s relationship with the narrative voice. Who is it really who is speaking? Since the man who doesn’t act has no real relationship with anyone (he admits that the “gentlemen” he addresses are fictitious, mere rhetorical constructs), since he constantly contradicts himself, since he is often not sure himself whether he is lying or not, we begin to feel that he is no more than a voice stretched across time. At moments of ellipsis–and there are many–he simply ceases to exist.

The style of Notes reinforces our doubts. It is dense with references to scenes and rhetoric from well-known novels of the recent past. This is taken from Gogol, that from Pushkin or Turgenev. The narrator begins to dream, but then realizes he is fantasizing something he read somewhere. He frequently refers to his bookish imagination, suggesting that his mind can inhabit well-worn but contradictory positions without having any investment in them. Or, worse still, without knowing whether he has any investment in them. The statement reminds us of Dostoyevsky’s perception that his political opponents often put forward positions without really believing in them. At this point, as with the Hollywood habit of quoting interminably from previous movies, we have the growing and very modern concern that every statement put before us comes wrapped in a sticky layer of parody. Nothing can be taken seriously except the absence of a convincing seriousness, something inevitable once a reliable identity has been lost. In such a situation, the “struggle” is toward truly holding a position, any position, even if it seems taken from “a copybook of maxims.”

When not falling into quotation, Dostoyevsky’s underground voice invents neologisms and syntactical tics all its own. Language is either private to the point of excluding the listener or so worn out and public as to mean nothing. This puts the translator under considerable pressure. In his introduction to the new Everyman translation Richard Pevear attacks the tendency of other translations to normalize the book’s style, claiming that he and his translation partner, Larissa Volokhonsky, have done all they can to reproduce its idiosyncrasies. Our problem is that the idiosyncrasies of the original arose from the Russian language and in a Russian context. Their meaning, or undermining of meaning, depended on the readers’ recognition of a quotation, on the perceived distance between a specific tic and normal usage. Where context is all, translation is arduous. Pevear’s aims are admirable and the new text always intriguing, but there are times when its oddly shifting registers seem more to do with literal translation than creative prose. If nothing else, however, the unevenness alerts us to Dostoyevsky’s anticipation of Modernism. When a writer’s voice could be confidently public without seeming parodic, such difficulties did not arise.

Aside from the roulette table, another form of gambling in which Dostoyevsky indulged was that of the anomalous publishing contract. Two years after finishing Notes From Underground and while working on Crime and Punishment, he took an advance to write a novel of more than 160 pages. If he didn’t deliver by November of the same year, he would have to pay a huge fine, and if he didn’t finish by December, the publisher could have all his work for the next nine years completely free. Why had Dostoyevsky agreed to such mad terms? Why did he wait till four weeks before the deadline to begin writing?

The answer, as with his roulette playing, seems to have been his need to feel that he was chosen, that he was a great and not an ordinary man. This, after all, is Raskolnikov’s obsession in Crime and Punishment. If he won at roulette, if he finished his book in time, then God had chosen him, he had an identity. If not, then he could cease to struggle. The book he wrote, or rather, for speed’s sake, dictated, was The Gambler, which is to say, the man who risks in order to become someone.

The narrator of Notes also dreams of being a writer. Once he actually wrote something, but the publishers turned it down. “I found this quite vexing. There were times when I was simply choking with spite.” Denied recognition, his dreams became vaguer: “I blindly believed then that through some miracle…all this [his squalid life] would suddenly extend, expand; suddenly a horizon of appropriate activity would present itself, beneficent, beautiful, and, above all, quite ready-made…and thus I would suddenly step forth under God’s heaven all but on a white horse and wreathed in laurels.”

But the great transformation never occurs. Unlike his creator, the narrator is not chosen and does not go on struggling to be so; denied “God’s heaven,” he remains underground, unknown, secret, multiple. The question that the second part of the Notes poses is: In the modern urban world of individuals “cut off from the soil,” which is to say, from the obvious roles offered by traditional communal relationships, what becomes of the proud and ambitious ego without the redemption of celebrity? “A secondary role was incomprehensible to me,” the narrator tells us, “and that was precisely why, in reality, I so calmly filled the last. Either hero or mud, there was no in between.”

While the first part of the Notes is all argument, the second is all narrative. The story is simple and schematic. Going back to a time when the narrator was 24, we are given, one by one, his encounters with an anonymous army officer, with his boss, with his old school friends, with his servant and with a woman. In each case, our antihero tries to establish a relationship that would offer the gratification of recognition and identity, or, failing that, at least the exercise of power.

The army officer, a man of superior social status, casually shoves the narrator out of his way at a billiard table without paying him any attention. Insulted, the narrator pathetically and comically seeks to create a situation where he can bump into the man and force him to fight a duel, something that would amount to a recognition of equality. When he does finally pluck up the courage to bump into him, the officer still pays no attention, but at least our anonymous sufferer can pride himself on having acted in some way.

Unable to live in a completely solipsistic world “for longer than three months at a time,” he goes to visit his boss, who

lived in four little rooms, low-ceilinged… of a most economical and yellow appearance. The host usually sat in the study, on a leather sofa in front of the desk, along with some gray-haired guest…. They talked about excise, negotiations in the Senate, salaries, promotions…. My mind would grow dull, I’d break into a sweat…paralysis hovered over me; but this was good and beneficial. On returning home, I’d put off for a while my desire to embrace the whole of mankind.

This is barely more satisfactory than the encounter with the officer. But the narrator has an old school acquaintance, Simonov, whom he sees and occasionally hits up for a loan. One day at Simonov’s he meets two other old schoolmates, who are arranging a small farewell dinner party at a hotel for a fourth acquaintance, Zverkov. Irritated that he hasn’t been invited, the narrator insists on inviting himself.

The evening is a comic masterpiece and, for the narrator, an unmitigated disaster. Zverkov, in his small way, is a celebrity, an army officer with a modest fortune. Despite his mediocrity, his three friends worship him. He is someone. Immediately, the only relation that the narrator of Notes can imagine with Zverkov is one of competition; he must force his friends to grant him the same status. He gets drunk, insults them, challenges Zverkov to a duel and is laughed at and finally ignored. When the others set off to end the evening in a brothel, the narrator borrows money to chase after them, alternating fantasies of self-abasement where he begs forgiveness with equally crazy plans to slap Zverkov’s face and force him to a fight. Arriving at the brothel, it is to find that his friends have disappeared. At once it’s clear that this development was just an excuse on Dostoyevsky’s part to bring our narrator into the presence of a woman.

One day, recounts Leonid Grossman in his biography of the author, while Dostoyevsky was dictating The Gambler to his young copyist, Anna, he told her that he was at a crossroads in life and had three choices: “to go east, to Constantinople or Jerusalem and remain there for ever; to go abroad for roulette and give himself up entirely to gambling; or to seek happiness in a second marriage. Anna advised him to take the last course.” Not long afterward, Dostoyevsky proposed to the girl.

What do these three choices signify? “Constantinople or Jerusalem” would appear to be the way of renunciation, sainthood; gambling abroad, the way of debauchery. But in the middle, for the man who, however hard he struggles, can choose neither of those extremes, lay a form of salvation, another way of being chosen and achieving identity: the love of a woman.

As Notes approaches its climax, the reader is given a distressing instance of the right ideas coming from the wrong mouth. Waking from a drunken stupor beside the girl he has paid for and used, the narrator proceeds to persuade her that she must get out of the brothel at once. She is beautiful, she could have love and respect and marriage and children. Instead, what awaits her as a prostitute are contempt, disease, poverty, death by consumption. Using trite words that sound “as if from a book,” he creates a heartbreaking picture that soon has the girl sobbing with regret. This is precisely the result he was aiming for. With no intention of helping, he has demonstrated his power to hurt, something he couldn’t do with his less vulnerable friends. “It was the game, the game that fascinated me.” But then he adds: “not just the game, however.”

Here is the key to the whole book. Dostoyevsky is interested in the way ready-made visions adhere, or fail to adhere, or worst of all, half-adhere to the mind. The narrator plays a hideous trick on the young prostitute. But his “game” is only successful because he starts to believe in it. He is attracted to the girl. The hackneyed idea of saving a prostitute has got the better of him. His rhetoric becomes more convincing and dangerous. He gives her his address. Somebody is now in a position to step into his solipsistic world and make it real.

The denouement is as painful as it is farcical. Some days later the narrator is engaged in a comic argument with his servant when Lisa arrives. He is refusing to pay the servant his salary, trying to force him to recognize a relationship of subservience that goes beyond the exchange of cash. The servant is having none of it. He will only work if he is paid. Into the room steps the woman who has been selling herself for money, but is now asking for a recognition that goes beyond money. Terrified by this reality, the narrator tells her he was only fooling in the brothel. He breaks down in hysterics. Despite his disgraceful behavior, the girl responds to his suffering. She comforts him. She is offering love. He has been chosen. This is his moment, his chance to come out from the autism of the underground. But he is not equal to the responsibilities of reality. He has sex with the girl, then thrusts money into her hand and asks her to go. She rejects the money and leaves. Totally confused, he runs after her to beg forgiveness. “Never before had I endured so much suffering and repentance; but could there have been even the slightest doubt, as I went running out of the apartment, that I would turn back halfway?”

In any event, Lisa has gone. Without a self, the narrator is left with a few rubles in his hand and a mind doomed to raking back and forth across these moments for decades to come. In a conclusion that is distinctly Beckettian, he tells us he has had enough, he must stop his pointless reflections. In his authorial voice Dostoyevsky adds the postscript: “However, the ‘notes’ of this paradoxalist do not end here. He could not help himself and went on.”

If the nineteenth century was the time when it became clear that any political future lay in the collective choice of the people, it naturally became necessary to discover who these people really were. This was the great task of the novel of the period. Yet the more the modern individual was losing, in the impersonal throng of the industrialized city, those traditional roles imposed by the old rural communal life, the more the suspicion arose that perhaps character was not so easily defined at all. Perhaps it was infinitely malleable. From the rented tenement rooms of the big European and American cities the most disturbing texts began to appear. In Berlin in 1845 Max Stirner wrote The Ego and Its Own, in which he argued that there was no need to be morally bound by old promises if you no longer wished to adhere to them, or rules if you didn’t agree with them: The only thing that mattered was how much power you had to do as you wanted, now and now and now. In 1853 Melville invented a character who took a strange form of power by simply responding to every order and invitation with the refrain, “I would prefer not to.” In 1868 the nadir of negativity was attained when Lautréamont published his Chants de Maldoror, which celebrates with utter complacency the atrocious crimes of a serial killer. Like Notes From Underground, the text is disconcerting for its juxtapositions of quite different styles, so that it becomes hard to discern a consistent identity behind the overall production. This was Pulp Fiction over a century before Tarantino.

But it was in the monologue Dostoyevsky created for Notes From Underground that the characterless character found his proper literary form, the man who talks endlessly of himself because there is no self, who imagines his listeners because he has none, internalizing the whole world and fantasizing impossible successes from the safety of complete non-engagement. Imitations, adaptations and ambitious developments of this voice produced some of the finest works of the twentieth century, from Céline to Beckett and Bernhard. But at the time Notes was written, few were impressed.

There is a reflection to be made here on a profound split in modern consciousness. To take on board the implications of Notes From Underground is to undermine any political debate predicated on the existence of people with stable selves who can make responsible decisions. Officially, such ideas must never be accepted. In reality, the amount of money spent pushing people from one camp to another with inane slogans and meaningless manifestoes suggests that the chosen ones who enjoy power know these facts all too well. In any event, we can take the date of the publication of Notes as the moment when ready-made visions and packaged ideals have been declared absolutely necessary, but only as a means of manipulation, or a form of mental comfort:

I took comfort in that even then, and am of the same mind now. That is why we have so many ‘broad natures’ who even with the ultimate fall never lose their ideal; and though they wouldn’t lift a finger for their ideal, though they are inveterate bandits and thieves, all the same they respect their original ideal to the point of tears and are remarkably honest in their souls.

If a world of idealists who are “remarkably honest in their souls” yet behave exactly as they choose is in any way recognizable to the modern reader, then the polarities that tense Dostoyevsky’s narratives are still very much with us, even if the struggle against this state of affairs was long ago abandoned.