Book Review: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

No, I have nothing better to do than to read Russian short novels, which run about 150 pages of translated, well, Russian writing. And I don’t just mean the Russian language.

Notes from the Underground starts out with a 20-30 page commentary on the nature of man, at least as perceived by a Russian narrator, or more to the point, a Dostoyevsky narrator. John Galt’s speech, it ain’t. This particular narrator breaks down the fourth wall, so to speak, and addresses the reader of his notes directly and patiently builds a case that madness really is the only possible way to defend free will. For if scientists can eventually describe the means by which each man and woman will act in his or her own preceived self-interest in each situation, the outcome is always predetermined by the individual, the perceptions, and the situation. So madness would be the only random number generator (my words, not Underground Man’s and not Dostoyevsky’s nor his translator’s).

I can see how this appeals to college students. On the other hand, I am no longer a college student, so I have little time to sit around saying, “Whoa.” Nor am I driven any longer to explain the use of the first part of the novel as a means of discrediting the double-effect narrator who then goes on to rationalize his particular Soren-Loves-Regina, Soren-Spurns-Regina (that’s Kierkegaard, you damn kids!) episode. Fortunately, though, I don’t have to write those sorts of papers any more, and I don’t have to feel guilty for wishing there was just one double homicide with a missing witness that the hero, a down-on-his-luck former police officer turned security guard (with Kirk Guard, maybe) must track down. But I would settle for some narration for crying out loud. Maybe a plot, Fyod?

Part 2, the second movement of the novel, takes us into an example of the narrator’s boorishness. As if the first half of the novel didn’t. The second part has other characters, to whom the narrator can act as a boor, and then the narrator ends up in bed with a prostitute he might love, but to whom he must be a boor and then whom he ultimately rejects so he can pursue his scholarly life, which seems to be perfecting the art of boorishness. Personally, I only made it through the thing because I’d read Crime and Punishment previously, so I wasn’t sure whether this guy would snap and kill his former classmates, his man, or the prostitute. Maybe two of them at once, and then the cobbler on the corner would see it and flee to a retreat on the Caspian Sea….. Never mind.

With this book, I think Dostoyevsky’s making fun of academics, but the ultimate irony is that only academics read this mockery of academics.

I spent over a week trudging through this short novel. I’ve gotten the satisfaction of having read something normal suburban types in middle America don’t read, so I flout the stereotype laid upon us by academics. I wouldn’t recommend it as a read for everyone, though, unless you want to severely put off your friendly informal book club by recommending it and then cribbing some of the lines from this piece (think it over, El Rojo).

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