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Have you read Notes from Underground?

23 Jul

Bear with me, Readers. I read this book not too recently, and thus my memory of what precisely happens it’s quite vague. However, if I decided to make a review of it it’s because I do remember it is quite a powerful book, for it left a lingering existentialist question in my soul, that I yet have to answer today. And you know a book it’s really good when you remember the sensation, despite the oblivion shrouding your memory…

It’s really pointless to give a description of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s life and persona. There’s a reason why he’s so famous, both in Russia and around the globe: he’s one of the best novelists ever in the whole literature history! Introducing him would be quite…nonsensical. However, some background will help us unravel a bit more of the philosophy behind his work. But beware: it won’t be a happy.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Vasily Perov - Портрет Ф.М.Достоевского - Google Art Project.jpg
Dostoyevsky lived in the 19th century, and had quite a rough childhood with his religious family. As he grew up, he joined a merry group of socialists that, as you can expect, was eventually disbanded, arrested and sentenced to death by the government in turn. But because God knew our dear Fyodor would do a terrific job at writing, He decided to change his fate and modify at last minute his sentence to another merry trip of forced hard labour at Siberia. He came back to St. Petersburg 10 years later, and man, he sure hated the new world he saw, after he came back from the shilling hell. But let’s resume by saying that this little experience at Siberia molded his philosophy and seated his future writings, for he became quite an…interesting man ever since. What with his affairs, his gambling addictions… Goodness, who would have known that such a frosty place like Siberia can be hell on earth…

Anyways, he’s best known for being the author of classics just as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, which apparently wasn’t finished completely. Surely you might have read one of these, or even one of his other works, like Demons and The Idiot, which all encompass one philosophical idea rooting back to bitterness of life, the hypocrisy of society or, why not, to Christian themes, to which the author was fond of. Notes from Underground is not a far less known work, but I am sure that, if the name Dostoyevsky pops up, people might think immediately on the first two titles and not on this one. Such a pity…

Anyways, now that you know, it’ll be easier to resume Notes from Underground.

Notes from Underground

One of Dostoyevsky’s shortest works, the first part is dedicated to quite an amusing existentialist rambling done by the nameless narrator, whom we rapidly assume’s quite a grouchy man with some temper problems. We come to know his philosophy, his exposition of human wickedness, our inherent mediocrity, and, of course, the doomed condition that, no matter what do, we will never overcome our unhappiness. Or in short: how we humans are losers by nature and creatures predestined to fall despite our best efforts. All of this is written with an acid and sarcastic tongue that will immediately burn some sensitive positive tummies, mostly of those who happen to be avid believers of Oprah’s positive philosophy and readers of Paulo Coehlo’s self-help techniques in his narrative.

The second part is the actual start of his narrative. Now we come to meet the still nameless narrator and his rather mediocre life. See, we immediately see he’s been obsessed over many things ever since he was young, ranging from his own flaws to the other people’s flaws, in some herculean attempt to prove what a big piece of trash life is. There’s no precise story in this part, but rather a recollection of memories that showcase his socially inept demeanor. We see him, for example, obsess on bumping into a man who previously, and in an unconscious way, shoved him out of the way when he was walking. The narrator, who takes this as a gesture of aggression, seriously considers taking revenge by bumping him later just to start a fight and prove he’s no coward, and when he finally does it…well, would you harm a man who bumped you on the street? Really.

Another obsession of his is to belittle other people in a fit against society. It happens when he meets with his college “friends” (the narrator doesn’t really have friends, but they kinda invite him to a birthday party just because they have no choice…it makes sense on the context) and tries to impose himself as a superior being during a rather awkward reunion, and again when he meets a young prostitute whom he humiliates through comments of her uselessness. This exposition might sound rather mean when I explain it, but trust me, when you read the novel, it suddenly turns quite deep and interesting. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s greatest talent is to make you think on humanity through all kinds of characters, and this narrator’s one of his best creations.

The prose is exquisite. It’s not poetic per se, but it is not realistic either. It’s, literally, just the ramblings of an old mediocre man who truly has no idea of what humility—or banality—is. Dostoyevsky’s grandeur makes it possible to makes all of this rambling not only bearable and credible, but also intriguing, attracting and, moreover, powerful. It does leave you thinking. It does! Every word he chooses rains above you as an icy shower, and every scene can be disgusting and sickening, but in a well-crafted way—in a way that you do feel and empathize with the man’s paranoia and gloominess, despite all the monstrosity that can bloom from deep inside of his heart. This is philosophy; a pure, well-crafted story that showcases a whole philosophical opinion through several scenes, and in a very humane and interesting one. So don’t worry: there won’t be any preachiness in the book. Just sheer awesomeness.

It is fast paced. Its length’s excellent. It won’t bore you, but you’ll crave for more after you’re done reading, because you’ll feel like you owe Dostoyevsky a whole new perception of life once you drop down the book on your shelf.

Notes from Underground is a great analysis of human psyche and an interesting psychology exam. It has been called a founding base of the existentialist movement and one of the best books of the author, if not of the world. And it shows.

In this epoch of the Two Thousands, I do recommend you a lot, O Reader, to give this book a little chance. Trust me, the exposed mentality’s not quite different of the actual mentality of most average men, whom have such a sick aversion towards humanity nowdays. I recommend reading it, mostly because most people might understand the psyche of those people and even start a psychological exam of one’s own.

Dostoyevsky should be read by everybody. It does make one wonder how much mediocre one is, deep inside…
Thanks for reading!

P.S.: If you’re interested in reading the book, which is rather short compared to his other works, you can find an online edition here. Enjoy!

[All images redirect to their respective Wikipedia page. Click on each if you feel more curious about the author and the book]