“Notes from the Underground” is one of the few enthusiasms from my adolescence that still gives pleasure (I am talking about intellectual enthusiasms here). For an unloved, misunderstood 16 year-old, it was a fine revelation to discover that someone else in the world was as cranky and self-pitying as I was. My infatuation with the book is still evoked by one word, “spiteful”. “I am a sick man…I‘m a spiteful man.” Has there ever been a finer opening line? I recently discovered that my old copy of “Notes” had disappeared, and I bought a copy of the latest translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. You can imagine my horror when I opened the book and found that they decided to get rid of “spiteful”. Now the Underground Man says “I am a sick man…I am a wicked man.” “Wicked” doesn’t work at all. Where is the envy and bitterness? Where is the craven need to simultaneously despise and debase oneself before colleagues and acquaintances? “Spiteful” summons all of the delightful perversity of the book. “Wicked” just says he wasn’t a nice guy.
Dostoyevsky would agree with me I’m sure, although I can’t prove it since I don’t know a word of Russian. Therefore I’m referring this question to Elif Batuman, the brilliant, funny, beautiful author of “Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Love Them”. If you haven’t discovered her yet, a good introduction is her blog, which is the best written I’ve ever encountered.