Notes From The Underground

by Fyodor Dostoevsky
You may know of my newly found love for Japanese literature through the Japanese Literature Challenge 2.

But long before I began loving Japanese literature I loved Russian literature.

In fact, I took more Russian literature and history courses in college than I did American. Or, English. Or, Japanese.

I’m probably the only person you know who’s read Anna Karenina several times for pleasure, and once for a paper. I’m the person whose son bought her War and Peace for a Christmas present last year. I may be one of the few who remember that Dostoevsky was Madeleine L’Engle’s favorite author. I once read that she considered the most influential novel in her life to be The Brothers Karamazov.

With that said, it was important for me to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground. I wanted to read it as a part of my Russian literature knowledge base, but also to complete the Russian Literature Challenge held by Ex Libris. Coincidentally, it fulfills a reading for Carl’s RIP III Challenge, too, because this book is dark.

It didn’t start out terribly dark for me. Actually, I didn’t understand half of the beginning pages, but I plugged along anyway hopeful that things would become clear as they eventually do in Russian literature.

The first half is a description of despair. It made little sense to me until I came to the second part of the book.

In the second half we discover what a sad and miserable life the writer of these notes has had: tormented as a child by his peers, he never quit fit in. Nor, did he really want to. He felt himself to be physically inferior, but intellectually superior, to those around him. He now lives in a dirty little apartment, with shabby furnishings and clothes. He makes little money and has few friends. He dislikes his job and deliberately torments those who come to his office. He invites himself to a party being held by his former schoolmates who are now adults, but still have no friendship with them. After making a fool of himself in their presence, by having neither the personality nor the money to keep up with them, he wakes up in the room of a prostitute. For the first time, we see him able to make an emotional connection with someone, and yet that too, slips away due to his cruelty.

I have read many reviews of this critical work, said to be the precursor of such treatises as Crime and Punishment. Some people say that our hero is a non hero; some say he reflects the lack of freedom in Russia; others say he is a crazy person as exemplified by self contradictions which run rampant throughout the novel. I have read that he depicts the human condition, and it is this viewpoint toward which I am most inclined.

I think that the heart is deceitful above all things; we tend to chase after what we want, and when we have it we want it no longer. I think we’re constantly searching for meaning in our lives, and disappointed when we cannot find it where we look: our jobs, our relationships, our possessions. I think the key to this novel is finding out where to look for hope and purpose, and that of course, is ultimately up to each person who searches. But I don’t believe it can be found underground.

36 thoughts on “Notes From The Underground

  1. Russian literature was one of my favorite classes. I fell in love with Gogol, Lermontov, Pushkin, and Dostoyevsky. I liked Tolstoy well enough, but Dostoyevsky just grabbed me and wouldn't let go. It's been years since I've read in this area. I've never read "Notes…" but after reading your review I think I need to find my copy and read it soon!

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  2. Russian literature was one of my favorite classes. I fell in love with Gogol, Lermontov, Pushkin, and Dostoyevsky. I liked Tolstoy well enough, but Dostoyevsky just grabbed me and wouldn't let go. It's been years since I've read in this area. I've never read "Notes…" but after reading your review I think I need to find my copy and read it soon!

    Like

  3. Terri, Tolstoy is my favorite of them all: Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Resurrection, The Forged Coupon…I am fascinated by his writing, his mind and his faith. I also really liked Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago; much better than the film with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie, or the newer one with Kiera-still-in-diapers-Knightley.It's good to know you like it as well. Often I feel alone in this preference.

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  4. Terri, Tolstoy is my favorite of them all: Anna Karenina, War and Peace, Resurrection, The Forged Coupon…I am fascinated by his writing, his mind and his faith. I also really liked Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago; much better than the film with Omar Shariff and Julie Christie, or the newer one with Kiera-still-in-diapers-Knightley.It's good to know you like it as well. Often I feel alone in this preference.

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  5. Wow Bellezza, this review was extraordinary! You almost have me tempted to try some Russian lit. Almost. See, I'm afraid that that feeling of not understanding what's going on would last throughout the whole entire book for me…

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  6. Wow Bellezza, this review was extraordinary! You almost have me tempted to try some Russian lit. Almost. See, I'm afraid that that feeling of not understanding what's going on would last throughout the whole entire book for me…

    Like

  7. Smiling Sal, far from an expert, but an appreciative reader of that genre for sure!Debi, if you can understand Japanese literature you can certainly understand Russian. Both of them have that, "Can I keep the names straight?" quality, but Japanese is much more etheral, somehow to me. Russian literature seems very grounded. I can't explain it without a little more thought, but I KNOW that you'd get it. Carrie K, I'm so glad you liked Anna Karenina, too! Notes From The Underground was very different; in lieu of a plot was more existential angst, but it was so thought provoking to me. There are no simple answers in this work.

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  8. Smiling Sal, far from an expert, but an appreciative reader of that genre for sure!Debi, if you can understand Japanese literature you can certainly understand Russian. Both of them have that, "Can I keep the names straight?" quality, but Japanese is much more etheral, somehow to me. Russian literature seems very grounded. I can't explain it without a little more thought, but I KNOW that you'd get it. Carrie K, I'm so glad you liked Anna Karenina, too! Notes From The Underground was very different; in lieu of a plot was more existential angst, but it was so thought provoking to me. There are no simple answers in this work.

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  9. Oh dear…I am Petrified of Russian literature. I don't have this one on my shelf but I do have a couple others that continue to haunt me (including Brothers K which I could use as a door stop). It does sound interesting and I think maybe the way to approach it (for me) is to read slowly instead of devouring it like I normally do.

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  10. Oh dear…I am Petrified of Russian literature. I don't have this one on my shelf but I do have a couple others that continue to haunt me (including Brothers K which I could use as a door stop). It does sound interesting and I think maybe the way to approach it (for me) is to read slowly instead of devouring it like I normally do.

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  11. Not sure that I'll ever pick up a novel by Dostoyevsky…if I did it would probably be more to say that I read it vs. having some strong desire to read it, but I must say that the cover image to that book is so very, very inviting!!! Certainly makes me want to forget the shower and trip to work this a.m. to return to bed with a good book!

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  12. Not sure that I'll ever pick up a novel by Dostoyevsky…if I did it would probably be more to say that I read it vs. having some strong desire to read it, but I must say that the cover image to that book is so very, very inviting!!! Certainly makes me want to forget the shower and trip to work this a.m. to return to bed with a good book!

    Like

  13. Trish, I have The Brothers Karamazov as well, but I've not read it yet. Russian lit is almost best read in the winter with all the snow around us. Maybe we'll get to it one day, huh?Carl, you have time to check blogs before work?! 😉 The cover image on this edition IS especially inviting, which is why I posted it. Unfortunately, the cover of mine is more like a dungeon. More RIP IIIish. While I like Russian lit, you are appreciative of fantasy…it's good to blog with readers who are into different genres. You expand my horizons in many ways.

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  14. Trish, I have The Brothers Karamazov as well, but I've not read it yet. Russian lit is almost best read in the winter with all the snow around us. Maybe we'll get to it one day, huh?Carl, you have time to check blogs before work?! 😉 The cover image on this edition IS especially inviting, which is why I posted it. Unfortunately, the cover of mine is more like a dungeon. More RIP IIIish. While I like Russian lit, you are appreciative of fantasy…it's good to blog with readers who are into different genres. You expand my horizons in many ways.

    Like

  15. LOL–in that case I don't know if I'll ever get around to Russian Lit. 🙂 Not much snow around these parts! Actually, I've heard that Brothers Karamazov is an excellent book…

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  16. LOL–in that case I don't know if I'll ever get around to Russian Lit. 🙂 Not much snow around these parts! Actually, I've heard that Brothers Karamazov is an excellent book…

    Like

  17. Admittedly, I've always struggled a great deal with Russian literature. I don't know if I get hold of horrible translations, but it's just so choppy and disjointed, I tend to lag and then give up. However, I find your love of it downright inspiring, and I think if I could hang on I would really enjoy many of the titles you've mentioned here. Thanks for the push, Bellezza!

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  18. Admittedly, I've always struggled a great deal with Russian literature. I don't know if I get hold of horrible translations, but it's just so choppy and disjointed, I tend to lag and then give up. However, I find your love of it downright inspiring, and I think if I could hang on I would really enjoy many of the titles you've mentioned here. Thanks for the push, Bellezza!

    Like

  19. Andi, that makes me so happy that you feel a bit inspired to try it! One of the things that might be helpdful is that the translations are now better than ever. Much as I dislike most of Oprah's picks, he choice of Anna Karenina was one I readily concur with, and that particular translation is a gem. Don't be daunted by it's length; that book is really a great story. Somehow, it reminds me of Madame Bovary (though that, of course, if French) in the tragic consequences to the women lovers.Trish, that's neat that you're so close. Unfortunately, I never see this friend any more. I actually am in closer communication with you!

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  20. Andi, that makes me so happy that you feel a bit inspired to try it! One of the things that might be helpdful is that the translations are now better than ever. Much as I dislike most of Oprah's picks, he choice of Anna Karenina was one I readily concur with, and that particular translation is a gem. Don't be daunted by it's length; that book is really a great story. Somehow, it reminds me of Madame Bovary (though that, of course, if French) in the tragic consequences to the women lovers.Trish, that's neat that you're so close. Unfortunately, I never see this friend any more. I actually am in closer communication with you!

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  21. Doctor Z is one of my all time favorites also. I will be looking for "Notes From the Underground" to read. I have been a huge fan of Pasternak, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and also Solzhenitsyn. Anyone read "The Cossacks"? Once a long time ago I lost it before I could finish reading it and never did find another copy to finish it. You have inspired me to look for it again. I think my fastination with Russian books was inspired by a Russian friend of my parents when I was a child who told about her father, who was a doctor, being taken just like in "Doctor Zhivago". She never saw him again.

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  22. Doctor Z is one of my all time favorites also. I will be looking for "Notes From the Underground" to read. I have been a huge fan of Pasternak, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and also Solzhenitsyn. Anyone read "The Cossacks"? Once a long time ago I lost it before I could finish reading it and never did find another copy to finish it. You have inspired me to look for it again. I think my fastination with Russian books was inspired by a Russian friend of my parents when I was a child who told about her father, who was a doctor, being taken just like in "Doctor Zhivago". She never saw him again.

    Like

  23. Luckyzmom, thanks for visiting and leaving such an interesting comment. I'm glad to find a fellow Russian literature lover!I'm so sad about the story of your parents' friend. When I lived in Germany, the grandparents of our landlord lived above us. He came over to "West Germany" on a vacation when the wall went up, and he was never able to return to East Germany again. He died before seeing his family there, and it's always made me just sick at heart.The politics of some countries have such devastating effects; I think that's partly why I'm so fascinated with Russian literature because they've had to live such traumatic lives. I feel empowered to be that brave myself.

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  24. Luckyzmom, thanks for visiting and leaving such an interesting comment. I'm glad to find a fellow Russian literature lover!I'm so sad about the story of your parents' friend. When I lived in Germany, the grandparents of our landlord lived above us. He came over to "West Germany" on a vacation when the wall went up, and he was never able to return to East Germany again. He died before seeing his family there, and it's always made me just sick at heart.The politics of some countries have such devastating effects; I think that's partly why I'm so fascinated with Russian literature because they've had to live such traumatic lives. I feel empowered to be that brave myself.

    Like

  25. I do, in fact, know someone who loves Russian lit as much as you – she's read The Brothers Karamazov 6 times! I wish that person were me. I do love the Russians but sadly, it's now been a couple of years since I found the energy to read any – the last Russian book I read was Anna Karenina in 2006 as I sat in trains moving between several former eastern block countries…very atmospheric!

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  26. I do, in fact, know someone who loves Russian lit as much as you – she's read The Brothers Karamazov 6 times! I wish that person were me. I do love the Russians but sadly, it's now been a couple of years since I found the energy to read any – the last Russian book I read was Anna Karenina in 2006 as I sat in trains moving between several former eastern block countries…very atmospheric!

    Like

  27. I really appreciate your reflections on the book and Russian literature, especially your last para re: the chase and meaning of life. As a relatively new book reader, I've not read any Russian stuff, I'm just working through the Japanese challenge at present. But I have a very strong alliance with Russian culture… my name is Russian, and I have been in love with Russian Music forever. There's something very soulful about the Russian mystique. Maybe when I'm ready to do that soul searching I'll delve into the literature. Thanks for encouraging this in me.

    Like

  28. I really appreciate your reflections on the book and Russian literature, especially your last para re: the chase and meaning of life. As a relatively new book reader, I've not read any Russian stuff, I'm just working through the Japanese challenge at present. But I have a very strong alliance with Russian culture… my name is Russian, and I have been in love with Russian Music forever. There's something very soulful about the Russian mystique. Maybe when I'm ready to do that soul searching I'll delve into the literature. Thanks for encouraging this in me.

    Like

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