Review: ‘Notes from Underground’


Notes from Underground

by Fyoder Dostoevsky

  • Date finished: May 1
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 1864
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2013
  • Grade: B-
  • Thoughts upon reading:

When I told someone I work with at the bookstore that I was reading Notes from Underground, he pointed out that when it comes to the Russians, you’re either a Tolstoy person or a Dostoevsky person. Now that I’ve finished Notes from Underground, I’ve read two books by both Russian novelists and I have to say: I’m still a Tolstoy girl.

That being said, I think I learned something from Notes from Underground. Considered one of the first “existentialist” novels, the story follows a deranged man living “underground” and away from society, who both waxes poetic and pathetic (one of my favorite lines from our crazy narrator) about society, philosophy and humanity.

Now, I’m not going to lie: I know I didn’t fully “understand” everything that this slim novel had to offer. I made sure to carefully read the introduction so as to be prepared for it’s “significance,” and to combat the dense and slightly psychotic prose, I only read 25 pages a day, out loud. I can definitely say I appreciate Dostoevsky’s prose, which lends itself to our narrator’s state of mind. But did I understand all the philosophical references? No. Our narrator works hard to convince us that human beings are messy, uncontrollable and emotional beings – a theory that apparently didn’t jive too well with the Soviet government (and its philosophy of utopian socialism). But unless you’re well versed in Russian literature and history, or perhaps taking a class with lots of discussion on these topics, those kinds of things tend to go right over your head.

Still, you can’t always get the A+ every time you read a novel. That’s why we read books for fun, right? Plus, I even found some quote-worthy passages (even if they were a few pages away from the end):

Because, for example, to tell long stories of how I defaulted on my life through moral corruption in a corner, through an insufficiency of milieu, through unaccustom to what is alive, and through vainglorious spite in the underground – is not interesting, by God; a novel needs a hero, and here there are purposely collected all the features for an anti-hero, and in the first place all this will produce a most unpleasant impression, because we’ve all grown accustomed to life, we’re all lame, each of us more or less. We’ve even grown so unaccustomed that at times we feel a sort of loathing for real “living life,” and therefore cannot bear to be reminded of it. For we’ve reached a point where we regard real “living life” almost as labor, almost as 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 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 … but I assure you: we will immediately beg to be taken back under tutelage.

As far as I myself am concerned, I have merely carried to an extreme in my life what you have not dared to carry even halfway, and, what’s more, you’ve taken your cowardice for good sense, and found comfort in thus deceiving yourselves. So that I, perhaps, come out even more “living” than you. Take a closer look! We don’t even know where the living lives now, or what it is, and we’ll immediately get confused, lost – we won’t know what to join, what to hold to, what to love and what to hate, what to respect and what to despise. It’s a burden for us even to be men – men with real, our own bodies and blood.

Note: If I know I’m a Tolstoy girl, then why did I pick up Notes from Underground in the first place? This is actually my Paris book, the book I bought at Shakespeare & Company – the one place in the world I always wanted to visit and did on our honeymoon. I wanted a book that meant something, but it didn’t necessarily have to be French. Then I found a display talking about the recently deceased and longtime owner of Shakespeare & Company, and how he loved the Russians, Dostoevsky most of all. Being only 14 euros, Notes from the Underground was the cheapest book there, so I made it mine. As confusing as this book can be, I’ll always love it because of that special sticker on the back.



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