Review: Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Notes from Underground

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

Doubtless the narrator of these notes would, today, be diagnosed with some three-letter syndrome, and an analyst would require no more than this confessional in order to do come up with that diagnosis. Not bad considering Dostoyevsky pre-dated those syndromes by some considerable time.

We begin with our narrator philosophising about life in the first part of a two-part short novel. This section makes for difficult and painful reading. The writer pulls us in and pushes us away by turns as he presents us with an existential viewpoint which, in fearing its rejection by the reader, then leads him to dismiss the reader in often spiteful terms. This is a man in search of an identity. He doesn’t much care what identity that may be – good or bad, though perhaps not indifferent – so long as it is a solid foundation upon which to build his sense of himself that he may then present to others for validation. He must be writ large in our minds as we, it seems, are writ large in his. We have our identities, he believes, and faced with us he feels crushed, insignificant.

This is clearly an intelligent man. His philosophies when disentangled from his self-obsession pass muster, albeit they are not ground breaking being too tainted with his preoccupation. Nonetheless there’s a sense here of a man who has something to offer the world as much as anyone ever does were it not for the fact that he needs to establish himself too firmly in order to elevate himself to the level he perceives to be occupied by the rest of humanity, an unrealistic level to which he himself has elevated it and which he is thus unable to attain. Perhaps the most telling line in the entire work is that in which he states himself to be alone while we, his readers, are of the elevated class of everyone else.

The second part of the novel makes for easier reading. Our narrator describes a few days in his life in the course of which he seeks the acceptance of some former school acquaintances only, of course, to annoy them and push them away with his aggression for fear of their non-acceptance. For the most part, though wary of him of old, these acquaintances seem amiable enough and willing to try, but he sabotages his own efforts from the beginning. By the evening’s end they have escaped him, and he falls in with a prostitute who, vulnerable to his erudition, (which is precise in its analysis of her predicament but is played out for spite rather than the concern he feigns), sees him as a potential redeemer. However, there is the sense here that anyone who may regard him so highly must themselves be worthless, and so he ends up abusing her both mentally and physically in order to have a better footing for the drama he needs his life to be. With that, we know he can never succeed in his purported goal of gaining acceptance given it would be self-defeating. No one for whom he is good enough can be good enough for him. He ends the encounter seeking for her again after she rejects him. Having rejected him she has elevated herself once more.

This is quite the most extraordinary character study I have read, at least to the best of my memory. I have known a (thankfully) few individuals like this in passing, but surely Dostoyevsky himself must have had more than a mere passing encounter with the type. However, this is about more than mere acute observation. Written in the first person, the narrator must account for himself. For Dostoyevsky that means probing beneath the surface manifestation of our narrator’s malaise to the existential viewpoint that gives birth to them as its symptoms. He does so with unerring accuracy, his involvement with the character total, his empathy immense. This could so easily have been a pastiche, just as easily too conservative in trying to avoid such a pastiche, but Dostoyevsky walks a razor’s edge in his writing in falling neither way. Our narrator lives within and breathes from the page. As a piece of writing it verges upon the startling.

I say again, this is not an easy read. The first part in particular, a stream-of-consciousness ramble, takes us into the character’s mind but it is a difficult mind to inhabit in its fits and starts, its enticements and its thrustings away. It makes for a bruising read, but is worth persevering through inevitable lapses of concentration as a unique and excellent work.

5 thoughts on “Review: Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Notes from Underground

  1. How annoying. I usually read reviews to gain knowledge of a book without the need to read the dratted things. On this occasion, however, I am intrigued. It’s short, you say. Good.

    • Short in the number of words, but part I is still a long read. You need to take your time.

      Magazine, fave band of my late teens and early 20s, did a number called ‘Song from Under the Floorboards’ based upon Howard Devoto’s reading of it, (their singer), and that’s going back a bit. I remember someone requesting at at a night club I was at on my 21st birthday, so that’s over 35 years ago. I’m surprised I’ve not read it myself before now. I don’t read the character in quite the way Devoto read him, mind. I’d be interested in hearing your views and how much they accord with, or differ from, mine. There’s a wealth of potential debate there.

      Very, very highly recommended, probably more so than anything I’ve reviewed so far.

    • Incidentally, don’t look at them until you’ve read the novel, but when you have and you’ve considered it, I’ve just looked through the top reviews for it on Goodreads. Some wonderfully erudite commentary, and a fair bit of commonality in people’s responses with one another and with my own, though a fair bit of divergence as well. These are clearly incisive readers, and it’s fascinating to see their responses.

      • Thanks Pete

        I’ll see if this is a freebie on Kindle and if not borrow it from the Library. I’m curious because although my Acts of the Servant is third-person close, I am trying to get under my characters’ skin and give an unvarnished, unmediated impression of who they are.

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