‘Notes From The Underground’ is a formidable work of philosophy and of psychology, not to mention its worth as a novel. In the space of around one hundred pages, Dostoyevsky manages to expound theories on reason, alienation, suffering, and human inaction. The book’s importance and influence on generations of writers cannot be over-emphasised; Sartre and Camus are only two examples of people who have been directly influenced by this book.
The book is presented in two parts. Part one ‘Underground’ is written in the form of the nameless narrator’s rambling thoughts on reason and his claim that throughout history, human actions have been anything but influenced by reason. Underground Man’s charge is that man values most the freedom to choose to act in opposition to reason’s dictates. Dostoyevsky’s critique of reason then, although it demands attention and is somewhat difficult to follow, sets the philosophical foundations for the rest of the book.
Part two ‘A Propos of the Wet Snow’ is much easier to read, as the narrator recounts three episodes which happened when he was fifteen years younger and working as a civil servant in St. Petersburg. The first considers an incident in which an army officer insults him and goes on to detail Underground Man’s subsequent internal anguish at his inability to commit an act of retribution. The second episode takes place at a farewell dinner for an acquaintance named Zverkov. The narrator is utterly disgusted with the company in which he finds himself but despite this, he is unable – even though he desires it - to make them realise this. The third episode details Underground Man’s brief, painful and emotional relationship with a prostitute.
Dostoyevsky is refreshing in this book thanks not only to his incredibly powerful prose, but also for the intense but subtle way in which the stories reflect and indeed embody his philosophical theories. This dark and pessimistic portrayal of the nature of man may not sit very comfortably with many readers, however the ideas expressed in ‘Notes From The Underground’ are as relevant and worthy of deliberation now as I am sure they were in 1864.
on 22 April 2008
This novel( or novella, it's only one hundred pages long in this Dover thrift edition) tells the story of an angry and isolated young man, the narrator, who bears a grudge against society in general and is plagued by feelings of inadequacy alternating with delusions of grandeur. He works as a lowly clerk in the civil service and is without prospects of advancement or friends, therefore he pours all of his frustrations onto the page in a torrent of words that does tell a simple story but also includes much musing on the human condition. The narrator is very convincing, and I couldn't help wondering how much of Dostoyevsky's own personality was in him. This book is very relevant to comtemporary society, as social fragmentation throws up ever more socially discontented people. In fact, what surprised me was that such a character as this existed or could be conceived of in mid-Nineteeenth Century Russia, as I had thought it to be a product of more economically advanced societies. Therein lies the author's genius, I suppose. In any case, this book bears the hallmark of deep and painful self-analysis, and refrains from offering easy answers. Once read, it will not be easily forgotten.
on 23 April 2008
I don't usually read novels and was worried that "Notes from Underground" would be one of those "books that get recommended because they are difficult to understand and make you sound intelligent". Not at all. This is the best novel I have ever read in my life: a thorough, lucid analysis of what it means to be existentially and ethically nihilistic. Being philosophically-minded (though not educated), I found it very easy to read and literally couldn't put it down.
The nameless anti-hero ("Underground Man") despises the way that humans want to flaunt their arrogance, put on a performance for others, and judge others based on their performances rather than their intellect alone.
The more intelligent you are, the more you realise the deterministic and relativistic nature of life and ethics and the lack of objective knowledge... and the less capable you are of being resolute and certain, or even blaming anyone for their actions. Intellect does not allow you to rise above evolution or "the anthill" of society; it merely constrains you to a life of inaction and inner torment, and the realisation of the limitations of being human.
Human nature is, in many ways, quite despicably egocentric. But, in a deterministic world, revenge and justice are meaningless concepts. Underground Man struggles with this (and the realisation that he is as egocentrically abhorrent as anyone else), and tries to demonstrate his freedom by acting irrationally: to seek a form of personal justice not for its own sake, but purely in order to gain comfort from the humiliation of others. He craves understanding and recognition of his anguish about the futility of life, yet realises that in getting it he will drag others down to his level of despair, rather than pull himself out.
The book (which I borrowed) was so good that I immediately wanted to buy a copy to re-read, and I have had a (very brief) look at some of the various translations available. I have to admit to being disappointed with many of them, and would very strongly recommend Jessie Coulson's translation. Her words just flow naturally and sound like a fluent non-native speaker, rather than trying to use common English phrases at the cost of punchy clarity. I've seen another review that recommends the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation. I have not come across this, but will certainly hunt this down to see how it compares.
Dostoyevsky was clearly a genius. I have not read any of his other books, and I have my doubts as to whether they can possibly be as good as Notes from Underground, but there's only one way to find out...
on 23 December 2010
Through the eyes of the 'underground man', Dostoevsky explores the problems of living in a modern society, with its artificial and hypocritical values. Although this was written in 1864, it is as relevant now as when he wrote it, probably more so.
The underground man considers himself to be more intelligent than everyone else, but this makes his life more miserable because, while other people blunder along regardless of their failings, he understands what a worthless person he is, the pointlessness and futility of his life. It is this anger and hatred of himself that makes him hate everyone else, even his supposed friends.
When he visits a prostitute, towards the end of the story, his feelings alternate between desire and pity, but he insults her in a sort of revenge for his own failings: 'She fully understood that I was a vile creature ... in no condition to love her.'
This book is often said to be the first existential novel, a precursor to Sartre and Camus, and even an influence on Nietzsche, who commented favourably on Dostoevsky's writing. Personally I don't find it as readable as any of those three author's classic works of existentialism, though it would be unfair to compare this with Nietzsche anyway as Dostoevsky wasn't trying to expound great philosophical ideas.
Sartre and Camus took this theme further as a basis for works of fiction, and in my view wrote more readable novels than this. But then so did Dostoevsky himself, with Crime and Punishment.
This is an unpleasant story, deliberately so. Dostoevsky doesn't sugar the pill by giving his anti-hero any redeeming qualities; he's a nasty piece of work. So it's not a likable novel in any conventional sense, though there is a vein of very dark humour running throughout. Not for everyone, but an important book.
on 7 February 2004
I am a big fan of Dostoyevsky, especially 'Crime and Punishment' and 'The Brothers Karamazov'. This book was one of the first he wrote after his release from prison and it lays out the philosophical position that was to underpin those later books. His whole later career was concerned with the question of morality, of whether it was possible, or desirable, to develop a moral code that differs from that of the surrounding society, particularly when you believe that you are somehow superior to that society.
'Notes...' is split into two parts. The first is a series of short essays written by a profoundly alienated individual in which he discusses his relationship with and views on the people who surround him, and about his difficulty in empathising with or being understood by them. This section really sets out the ideas that were to guide the rest of his career. Unfortunately, I feel that Dostoyevsky is at his best when weaving those ideas into a narrative, and the very explicit way he sets them down here isn't, I think, where his strengths lie. Despite this section being relatively short, I struggled to get into it, and found it fairly turgid to wade through.
The second section is a short story which illustrates his skill as an author much better. It describes a meeting with some people from his past (whom he despises and who despise him), and his inability to 'play the game' with them, to pretend that he cares about the (trivial) concerns they have. It also concerns his relationship with a prostitute who he both feels pity for and is pitied by, but who he cannot help but despise. This is much more in keeping with the style which captivated me in the other books of his I have read, and contains many of the scenarios and motifs that appear in them. It is undoubtedly well written, but still doesn't have the impact of 'Crime and Punishment', and I would suggest that anyone wanting to read Dostoyevsky tries that first.
Perhaps three stars is a little harsh, because I am comparing it to some of my favourite books written by the same author. It is perhaps important to read this to understand how his thoughts grew after his release from prison, but all in all it goes to the bottom of my pile as far as Dostoyevsky is concerned. It is only a very short book, so can be read fairly quickly by anyone wanting to give it a go, but I would recommend reading other of his books first.
on 10 July 2012
Notes from the Underground is quite unlike any other Dostoyevsky novel that I've read, and this put me off a little at first.
It starts with 40 pages of what can only be described as a psychological summary of the first person narrator: 'The Underground'. This section reads like a work of philosophy, and if you're familiar with philosophical works, then this will seem like comfortable ground. Except here there are traces of an unreliable voice. Through the pen of our narrator we are examining his own creation / destruction paradox and his penchant for a kind of cowardice - which he eloquently excuses by virtue of his being a higher being.
From here we are brought to the plot: 'Apropos of Wet Snow'. Suddenly we are cast on a timeline through a sequence of five vignettes - there are characters, dialogue and narrative, but this is most assuredly Dostoyevsky, and if you have read any of his other novels, you will be back on comfortable territory. The five vignettes work like the five acts of a play. Once again, Petersberg is vivid (if only sparingly described). Each vignette (or act) serves to show us the various traits of the principal character described in the first part.
The narrator (perhaps literature's most deluded autobiographer) seeks to atone for his flaws or to cast them on the world as a kind of punishment. He sees himself, he hates what he sees and punishes the world for it, thereby also punishing himself. He can't face what he sees in himself, and so hides behind a superiority complex which is really only the strength of tissue paper. The very worst thing for him is that he believes that he can't change.
At its heart this book is a complex psychological study. As is always the case with good characters, there is altogether too much of him to discuss in a review of any length, but the brilliance of Dostoyevsky makes him vivid and real so that we share in his humiliations and are frustrated by his frequent errors of judgement. We end up viewing him with a kind of anger proportionate with the hatred he feels for his remembered self.
This is a truly brilliant book.
on 13 March 2011
Perhaps 'great' is not the choicest word to use when summing up Notes from the Underground. Oftentimes we imagine greatness to equate with granduer, brilliance and the ideal. 'Notes' is not sculpted from marble, rather is eked out from the general detrius of the worst aspects of human nature. Nonetheless, great this book is as a snapshot - it is a mere 91 pages in this edition - of the struggle against what has been come to be known as 'absurdism'; the impossibility to give life meaning and to reconcile with the contradictions of reason, desire and fulfillment.
Despite the bleakness and the cold face of much of the prose there is still a vein of richly dark humour running throughout. 'Notes' is a book best enjoyed - as Dostoevsky well recognizes, enjoyment can be found in suffering, and especially in the vicarious suffering of others - within a day, preferably rainy.
Now, the only reason I decided to actually write the above was as a preamble to the warning in the title. I SUGGEST AVOIDING THE DOVER THRIFT EDITION, as although it is admirably cheap the savings I made, even as a hard up student, couldn't justify the unappealing nature of the physical copy. The cover is laminated, glossy and feels very cheap and unnatural. The pages themselves also seemed a peculiar size and layout. There was nothing especially determinate in the edition which explains my dislike for it but I can say with reasonable certainty that it is the least attractive book I have ever owned. I love old, cheap and second hand books but this time I wish I had paid a few pounds extra for a copy which I would be happy to dig out from the pile on some other occasion.
on 27 February 2014
This may be from a great writer, but I found this book difficult to read, the translation in my opinion is not very good , it was a difficult read
on 31 July 2011
It's a decent book although relatively complicated - I read it about five times (as it is very short) with a book explaining it and got more out of it each time I read it. I think its a good starting point for anyone getting into Existentialism, although I can imagine to fully relate to the protagonist it is perhaps preferable to be as confused as him from the outset.
on 7 December 2012
Dostoyevsky rarely fails to disappoint in my opinion and Notes from the Underground gives him the stage to discuss his time in a Russian penitentiary in the 19th century. The picture he paints is ostensibly bleak, but the shimmers of hope and faith that shine through round out this story.