Monday, April 15, 2013


Three years ago I made an announced (to my wife) plan to read 10 classics of Russian literature in the next five years - two a year, and including the massive "Anna Karenina" and "Brothers Karamozov". Figured that was totally achievable, and a worthy pursuit that would help round me into my other stated goal of being The Perfect Man. I was an English-major undergrad, and had been assigned several of these books in my "senior seminar", in which we had to read one and sometimes two entire novels in a week. I know that "Brothers" was part of that (I didn't read it); Solzhenitsyn's "One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich" (I read it, but sadly, don't remember a thing); and Dostoyevsky's "Notes From The Underground" (didn't read it). Somehow I nailed an A in that class without having read at least a third of the assigned books (this phenomenon happened in other courses as well), which continues to bolster my assertion that the University of California at Santa Barbara is an terrific place to go to school and have a really, really great time. You can get your real education later, when you help yourself go broke in grad school.

Anyway, this Russian lit thing's been a total disaster. I started with a book a Chekhov plays that I didn't like, and quickly abandoned. Three years later, though, I've completed my first and second of the 10 classics (I'll review the 2nd later this week). Now I've got two more years to make good on my promise and get to not only "Anna", but 7 more - and I won't let myself take any shortcuts by only picking short novels, as I did with "NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND", which I got into and out of quickly, last week. At least this book is fantastic, and of course deserving of its 150 years of accolades as one of the great and greatly confounding works of literature. Written in 1864, and more of a novella than a novel, the book can be broken down further, and be said to be two mini-novellas within a lone novella. Allow me to explain.

Dostoyevsky breaks the first half of the book into a stream-of-consciousness, first-person rant by a 40-year-old narrator, "The Underground Man", who feels himself to already be anciently old and withered and worn-out, an educated man of books & letters who has seen much in Russia to make him loathe and decry the world around him, and the turn that the country is taking into "reason", "logic" and "mathematical precision". He's an unreliable narrator, though, and frequently stops his monologue to correct himself, reconsider what he's just said, or even to assert that he actually might be lying. Yet the gist of his profundities is that man can't act in a wholly reasonable, logical and rational manner, because he is man, and therefore he is frail and irrational. He cites history as showing that man makes war and acts against his own rational self-interest in many areas, and this is what makes him interesting and redeemable - if not a good candidate for utopianism. (Which is why this book was disliked and banned by the Soviets sixty years later). The narrator is an unhappy man, and yet he's comfortable and knowing in his rebelliousness against modern times, while still being bereft of companionship and depressed that his life has turned out as it has.

We find out why in the second half of the book. The narrator switches course, and reads to us a true story he's written about events that occurred to him in his twenties, that's we're to assume helped drive him underground and away from society. It's actually pulse-quickening writing, in that our narrator is a total train wreck of a human being, and he narrates his own demise in excruciating detail. Even in his twenties, he was a nervous, antisocial and self-sabotaging young man, given easily to take offense at those around him and to then feel the need to lecture them on their own shortcomings. He resolves to "bump" a high-ranking officer whom he's obsessed with one-upping in the streets of St. Petersburg, and after weeks of worried and feverish planning, does so - only to have the officer not even notice the offense.

Better and more excruciating still, he invites himself to a dinner for another high-ranking officer that a man he knows is helping to throw, and proceeds to get drunk, pompous and to act horrifically for no reason, outside of general spite and self-hatred. He then follows the men to a "house of iniquity", where he meets the young, naive prostitute Liza. Here, barely illuminated by candlelight, and already falling in love with Liza and dreaming in his head of a life together that will rescue him from his self-imposed bondage, he connects this section of the book with the first half - man's need to act irrationally and in unpredictable ways. While his cultured mannerisms impress Liza that this might be a man that could "save" her, when she actually acts on his entreaty to come visit him later, she finds that he's a cruel and destroyed shell of a human being who is in need of redemption himself. 

At time absurd, at others witty and still others as philosophical and grand-thinking, "Notes From The Underground" is great, inspiring, unpredictable literature in the extreme. As David Denby noted in this review, "Doetoevsky may have put his own ideas into the mouth of a brilliant man, but he undermined him as a self-destructive mess at the same time". It's what makes the book such a skin-crawling delight on so many levels - you're watching both the deconstruction of the human condition and of first-person literature in lockstep and in the same passages.