Sunday, March 24, 2013

Review: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Title: Notes from the Underground
Author: Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Genre: Classics
Publisher: Penguin Classics
First published: 1864
Pages: 142

Rating: 6 out of 10

This small yet deeply written book is a haphazard rant of nonsense to some readers, less so if you are familiar with philosophy, Russia, and Dostoevsky himself.
A friend recommended this to me, but warned that I should read up on the content before I actually got around to the book. And so began a brief, yet enlightening, exploration of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and some brushing up on basic philosophy, sociology, and Russian politics in 1860's. I have to say, all of this background work was indeed very helpful. Perhaps not everyone will be willing to put that much effort into reading one book, but I have to say, you will get a much more rich, comprehensive understanding of this unusual book if you do.

The book is narrated by an unnamed character, who calls himself the "Underground Man." It doesn't take the reader long to see that our anti-hero is pathetic, contradictory, and extremely irritating. He is insufferably arrogant, believing the world to revolve around himself. He laments all of the woe that has befallen him, but we very quickly see that he gets a certain pleasure out of his suffering, or rather, out of people noticing his suffering. His comments on the moans of a man with a tooth-ache, growing louder and louder and increasingly pitiful so that no one could possibly escape noticing his condition, are a perfect example. The narrator actually believes that everyone has nothing better to do than notice and anguish over his every misfortune.

In the second part of the book, the Underground Man is more the focus, instead of his views. He tells us a few stories from his life, which even further bring to life his self-centered character.
There is a officer who, every day, crosses paths with our narrator in the street. Every day, the narrator steps aside to let the officer pass. This is such a very small instance that no one would remember it, or even make any note of it. However, in the narrator's pride, he builds up an entire, involved story about how the officer is slighting him, pretending not to recognize him every day, and thinks day and night about not letting him pass one day. It is built up and built up, until one day, finally, the narrator fails to step aside. The two men bump shoulders, and that is that. I felt confident that the officer never even noticed, and that the entire thing had been in the Underground Man's head, but he says triumphantly "I knew that he was pretending!"

Another similar instances is when the narrator forces some former friends to invite him to a dinner (where he insults all of them and ruins their night), or where he becomes involved with a woman, whom he falls in love with.
We see him destroy any shred of kinship still felt between him and his friends, and we see him destroy all love that the girl may have had for him.

This book is a sputtering, mad, crazy rant of anger and misguided thinking, and yet it is also remarkably well structured. In all of its crazy veering off subject, the random allegories, and the contradictions that the narrator voices over and over, Dostoevsky obviously has a purpose and a vision to his work.

Although it never left me breathlessly racing through pages, this book did occupy my thoughts for awhile after I read it, and the narrator was interesting in how utterly unlikable he was.

If approached with a readiness to look deeper into this book than what is immediately apparent, Notes from Underground is worth the read.