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Book Review: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

posted on 19 May 2009 | posted in Books


Book Review: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky This is the second book I've read from Fyodor Dostoevksy (Crime and Punishment being the first) - and already he is one of my favourite authors - up there in strange company with Martin Amis and Will Self.

Notes From Underground is timeless - it was written in 1864 but is still highly relevant to modern times since the narrator concerns himself with the subject of human psychology.

I liked the immediacy of the first person narrative, and the narrator himself does away with any niceities right from the start:-

I will not introduce any order or system. Whatever I recall, I will write down.

The first part of the book is a rant seemingly written off the cuff, even questioning himself as he writes his notes as to whether what he's saying (or trying to say) is quite right. And when he's at his most confident, he can't stop holding up his views to (imagined) external scrutiny : the narrator begs questions from invented "gentlemen" whom he refers to throughout the first part of the book. These "gentlemen" he views as the orthodoxy, and he "debates" them about reason, desire, and reality (which he refers to as "two times two equals four"):-

"For pity's sake," they'll shout at you, "you can't rebel: it's two times two is four! Nature doesn't ask your permission; it doesn't care about your wishes, or whether you like its laws or not. You're obliged to accept it as it is, and consequently all its results as well. And so a wall is indeed a wall... etc,. etc." My God, but what do I care about the laws of nature and arithmetic if for some reason these laws and two times two is four are not to my liking? To be sure, I won't break through such a wall with my forehead if I really have not got strength enough to do it, but neither will I be reconciled with it simply because I have a stone wall here and have not got strength enough."

So reality can go to hell he tells the orthodoxy.

Then there's suffering, and Underground Man argues that man often takes pleasure in suffering. He even admits to the pleasure of wallowing in his own misery. In fact, he states (toward the end of the book) that suffering is often found in "living life":-

....we've reached a point where we regard real "living life" almost as a labor, almost a service, and we all agree in ourselves that it's better from a book. And why do we sometimes fuss about, why these caprices, these demands of ours? We ourselves don't know why. It would be the worse for us if our capricious demands were fulfilled. Go on, try giving us more independence, for example, unbind the hands of any one of us, broaden our range of activity, relax the tutelage, and we... but I assure you: we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage.

These are the words of the younger Underground Man in part two, when he has the chance to "score" himself a nice woman. He can't seem to handle it, so deliberately sabotages the opportunity. It's classic low self-esteem. And we learn when and where his esteem was kept low prior to this scene. At work, and in the company of his peers.

Dostoevsky describes very accurately the psychological games people play - the pecking orders, passive aggression, the subtle behaviours deploying disrespect only visible to the intended target - it's all stuff we suffer through, and worry about, in 2009.

There's a fine line between philosophies that offer insight, and ones that are deep and meaningless. I would put Dostoevsky firmly in the former category. He doesn't mince his words, and this "Underground Man" is likely Dostoevsky himself speaking from the heart.