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.