Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (4.5/5)

First published: 1864
Original title: Записки из подполья, Zapiski iz podpol'ya
Original language: Russian
Translation to English by: I downloaded this from ManyBooks.net and there is no information on the translator. I’ll have to research this further.

Page count: 136

GoodReads says: Notes from Underground is a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Notes is considered by many to be the first existentialist novel. It presents itself as an excerpt from the rambling memoirs of a bitter, isolated, unnamed narrator (generally referred to by critics as the Underground Man) who is a retired civil servant living in St. Petersburg. The first part of the story is told in monologue form, or the underground man's diary, and attacks emerging Western philosophy, especially Nikolay Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? The second part of the book is called "Apropos of the Wet Snow," and describes certain events that, it seems, are destroying and sometimes renewing the underground man, who acts as a first person, unreliable narrator. Like many of Dostoyevsky's novels, Notes from Underground was unpopular with Soviet literary critics due to its explicit rejection of utopian socialism and its portrait of humans as irrational, uncontrollable, and uncooperative.

I say: As the synopsis says, the first part consists of the narrator writing down his philosophical ponderings and complaints in his diary, addressing an unknown reader and all the while claiming that his notes are for his own benefit, but addressing a fictional reader makes writing easier. This is the part that I will have to re-read since it is quite heavy and I took a significant number of notes while going through it.

The second part is a much easier read and tells the story of the narrator’s digressional life at age 24. Here we learn what leads the narrator to the conclusions we encounter in the first part. For some reason I enjoy reading about self-destructing Russians, and the narrator is just that. He has a lowly job that he isn’t proud of, a servant that never listens (which I’m realising is an occurring theme with Dostoevsky that I may need to look further into) and friends that despise him. He deliberately makes a nuisance of himself only so that he can complain about it later, and it is all told with such conviction that I initially feel sorry for him. However, taking the philosophies of the first part into account, I begin to question his trustworthiness. He is fond of doing and saying things for the mere sake of doing or saying them, or for the sake of gauging a reaction. Like bumping into an officer whom he bizarrely gets obsessed with; showing up to a dinner party he wasn’t invited to and can’t afford with people he despises – and who despise him; and behaving the way he does towards the prostitute Liza.

Throughout the second part he is steadfastly trying out and formulating the ideologies we are introduced to in the beginning, and it continuously feels like he is forcing his own hand towards this imminent demise, hence the constant reminiscing of those incidents.

Oh, gentlemen, do you know, perhaps I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything. Granted I am a babbler, a harmless vexatious babbler, like all of us. But what is to be done if the direct and sole vocation of every intelligent man is babble, that is, the intentional pouring of water through a sieve?
- p. 11
Wiki says that Notes from the Underground is considered by many to be the first existentialist novel, which I am not qualified to comment on, other than to say that I wish this had been a part of my existentialist courses as I would have loved to be able to discuss it.

I really look forward to re-reading this because it is funny at times, as well as thought provoking. The only reason it gets a 4.5/5 is because I found the first part to be a tad too philosophical.

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