Monday, December 9, 2013

Review: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Notes from the UndergroundNotes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I suspect I'd get a lot more out of reading this book if I knew more about philosophy. I'm only vaguely familiar with existentialism, of which this book is considered a forerunner. While the first half of the book is very heavily grounded in philosophy, that part is only leading up to the story encapsulating the narrator's life.

Oddly, I found the first half of this book easier to understand than the narrative section. In the first half, the narrator, who identifies himself only as Underground Man (though we're probably supposed to recognize him in some Dostoyevsky contemporary), expounds on human nature, happiness, assumptions, logic vs. emotion, and life in general. The narrator is an unhappy man, and finds a kind of comfort in being unhappy.

In the second half, he tells us how he got to be that way, and illustrates his philosophies. He's a civil servant who deliberately chose a profession that doesn't pay as well to get away from his classmates. His classmates' biggest sin appears to be not appreciating his genius, so he invites himself to a going-away dinner for a classmate who, the narrator feels, doesn't deserve how much people like him. The dinner is beyond his means, and he's badly underdressed for it, but he goes, anyway. His mood isolates him from the others, turning the night into an increasingly uncomfortable one for the narrator.

He winds up at a brothel, where he takes his frustration out on the prostitute by telling her all the ways her chosen lifestyle is going to ruin her. His harangue eventually makes her cry, and he invites her to visit him at his humble abode so he can continue to convince her of the error of her ways. When she does, he heaps yet more cruelty on her, leaving them both deeply unhappy. And yet, he's somehow satisfied with the course of events.

The Underground Man fits into the rest of what I've read of Dostoyevsky's, as a villain whose mind we're deep inside. We don't need to guess at his motives, as we do with other antagonists; we're right there. Some of his thoughts, nonetheless, escape me, but his behavior is consistent throughout. The Underground Man is petty, peevish, both egotistical and terribly self-conscious, and baffling to anyone who is outside his perspective.

This is not a pleasant story to read, but it reveals a lot about the philosophy behind Dostoyevsky's stories. I would've liked to have read this in a literature class, so I could dig deeper into its themes and perhaps follow up with its influences and books it inspired. There's a lot more to this story than one cursory reading can cover.

I listened to this on audio, narrated by Norman Dietz. He captured the Underground Man's gloomy outlook well, I thought, and his narration was clean and understandable.

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