The Tenth Day of Christmas: Notes from Underground

Even then I already carried the underground in my soul.

Notes from Underground

I don’t really know what to say about Notes from Underground. I’ve read it twice now. It was my first taste of the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky and it made me want to read more by him. Although it is in translation, I like Dostoyevsky’s style that comes through. A bitterly funny, self-deprecating introduction to the narrator and his life sets us in the class-driven system of civil life in Russia of the mid-1800s; however the feelings and ideas portrayed don’t seem at all outdated or unique to the time period, but applicable to any time, no matter how supposedly “modern” it is, and any system of government, no matter how supposedly idealogically opposed to the feudal Russia of this time it is.

The narrator quickly lapses into dark musings on life and the psychology of morality, setting up for the incidents that he stumbles through later. The first third of the book is quite a rambling of philosophies, general descriptions of the man’s mode of life, and his isolation in his hatred for not only the greater part of humanity but also for himself. While it is slow, it is thought-provoking and gives a necessary backdrop for the sequence of events following. Basically, reading it is like getting a view of this guy’s view into his own head.

It’s unsettling, and not always because of how bizarre and perverse it is, because there is that too, but because of how eerily familiar it is. There is something about Dostoyevsky’s writing that seems to be able to elucidate things I didn’t know I knew, or felt. Being so lonely that you impose yourself on people you know don’t care enough about you to include you in their lives, but you go anyway and pretend that you aren’t aware of how little you mean to them, just to have someone to talk to. Being at an event with other people and not being able to speak a word, because the longer you let the silence go, the harder it is to insert yourself. Finding someone you relate to unexpectedly, only to realise that you can’t let the intimacy continue because you’ll lose some critical, malignant part of yourself that you have nursed for years. Doing or saying the one thing that you know will hurt them, drive them away, because you know them… because they are you. The underground dweller finds himself in all these situations, seeing his own fraudulence and posturing even while he enacts it, commenting on it sarcastically to himself, and the reader. His self-awareness is even more disheartening because it doesn’t stop him from doing these destructive things, calling into question whether there is the possibility of change or growth at all, or if some things are just inevitable.

It’s a short book (novella actually) but it feels heavy to read, not because of the writing style, but because of the concepts about humanity, society, psychology, and sin. All things common to Dostoyevsky, and what I will be looking forward to more of when I finally read Crime and Punishment.

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