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January 02, 2012

Rohit Reviews: Notes from Underground

Notes from the Underground

I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. With those opening sentences, Fyodor Dostoevsky's 1864 novella Notes from Underground joins the pantheon of books with awesome opening lines, alongside such masterpieces as Anna Karenina, A Tale of Two Cities (review here), Pride and Prejudice, and Huckleberry Finn. And like its compatriots just mentioned, Notes did not disappoint beyond its opening lines.

Considering that Notes is often regarded as the first existential novel, it has, unsurprisingly, long been on my list of books to read. But for whatever reason, it never was a priority, and given the length and density of other works of Russian literature (including a few by Dostoevsky himself), the almost absurdly short Notes, which clocks in at only 131 pages, always seemed to fall by the wayside. That is, until my second ill-advised book-buying binge of 2011. But length can be deceiving: despite its rather skimpy appearance, the novel still packs a rather impressive intellectual punch—and this time, without the 200 pages or so of exposition usually endemic to Russian novels.

Notes from Underground is told in two parts: the first, written in the present (i.e., the early 1860s) is a rambling diatribe seemingly taken from the diary of a forty-year-old man living on the margins of St Petersburg society that attacks the determinism and socialism of Dostoevsky's contemporaries in mid nineteenth century Russia, and in particular, N.G. Chernyshevsky's 1863 utopian novel, What is to be Done? The second part involves three misadventures from the underground man's younger days in the 1840s involving an officer who won't acknowledge him, his classmates who loathe him, and a prostitute whom he torments.

How can a man of consciousness have the slightest respect for himself? inquires the underground man early on in Part One. And as that Part progresses, we come to learn of the underground man and his theories on life—he is delusional, narcissistic, and filled with anxiety, despair, misanthropy, self-loathing, and paranoia—in short, he is one of the world's first existential antiheroes and an eminently recognizable character of even our modern existence. Given his isolation, the underground man can offer us insight on both the human condition and purported theories of utopia: how can a utopian vision be accurate when humanity is so wretched, so irrational, so stupid? asks our underground man in Part One; and we can't help but agree. People really are the worst.

Part Two then applies those themes and qualities in three anecdotes that are simultaneously horrifying and hilarious. We follow the underground man as he tries to exact revenge on an adversary who does not know he exists; then as he invites himself to a dinner of people who hate him (and who he hates), only to humiliate himself; and finally, to a brothel where he lectures a young prostitute about her impending death and unlamented fate, and then invites her to visit his house. Mocked by his servant, loathed by his acquaintances, and full of unflinching superiority, the underground man (and perhaps, all of humanity) is painted in Part Two as inexplicably egotistical and breathtakingly irrational—painfully, pathetically human, in other words.

As I mentioned above, despite its length, this novel did not disappoint. On the contrary, I very much enjoyed it. Besides raising rather profound questions, it also presents with some tremendous insights on both life and our place in it. And quite certainly, later existentialists used Notes as a springboard. For instance, hints of both Sartre's and Camus's consideration of free will in The Age of Reason (review here) and The Stranger, respectively, are found in the ramblings of the underground man.

But what makes for good intellectual fodder doesn't necessarily make for a great way to open the year. That's probably for the best, however; I wouldn't want any misplaced positivity attendant to the start of this new year to compromise my misanthropy and self-loathing. After all, as the underground man himself notes: Every decent man of our time is and must be a coward and a slave. Five stars of five.


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