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Short and bitter
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.