Review: Notes from Underground

Today marks the 135th anniversary of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s death. By coincidence I finished reading ‘Notes from Underground’ at one o’clock this morning. Thus I thought it apt to write a review. After reading ‘Notes from Underground’ I believe Salinger’s Holden Caulfield gets an unfair reputation from bibliophiles. This was not only my first Dostoyevsky but also my first Russian Classic and in all honestly I can’t help feeling a little disappointed. No other literature is as highly praised in the book community than Russian Classics. I found Dostoyevsky’s writing style quirky and intelligent. It was automatically clear to me why he has been listed as inspirations by many classic authors such as Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf. There is a clear similarity between the three authors in that they all swam against the tide. These three classic authors are all powerfully unique in the world of classic literature with instantly recognisable writing styles and their fictional works could double up as case studies into human psyche. If you have yet to read works by either of these literary greats I suggest you begin with ‘To the Lighthouse’ by Virginia Woolf and ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ by Ernest Hemingway.


In ‘Notes from Underground’ Dostoyevsky was being characteristically bold. Having spent time in prison for his involvement with a group of liberal utopians and having experienced great poverty as a result of gambling without a doubt find biographical aspects in his novella. As a reader I find it sometimes difficult to separate the author’s life from the fictional work as we also do with art. Dostoyevsky writes an admirably honest, unnamed narrator in ‘Notes from Underground’ who does in fact make the book difficult, at times, to read.


The narrator is a retired civil servant who resides in St Petersburg; Dostoyevsky claims that although the notes are fictional the narrator surely exists. I found the first part of ‘Notes from Underground’ difficult to read as Dostoyevsky’s narrator did not seem human to me until Part Two. This may be due to the fact that Part One acts as a diary into the narrator’s mind which in this case it is unstable. His mental health seems to be a result of utopian socialism. Throughout his monologue in Part One the narrator explains to his ‘readers’ his every woe and in the second part chooses key life events he believes has caused him to be the cynical, reclusive man that he is today. As I was reading Part One I couldn’t help thinking that Dostoyevsky was threading together what would have worked as stand-alone quotes under the disguise of a progressive narrative. This may be due to Dostoyevsky’s purpose and hopes for writing the novella. I believe Dostoyevsky did not want ‘Notes from Underground’ to be taken purely as a work of fiction but, as all great literature intends, to be a reflection of society and by extension humanity as a whole.


The unnamed narrator is not unreliable only because he is unnamed but because he is honest. Here Dostoyevsky creates a beautiful contradiction as readers are left to decide whether they believe the narrator unreliable as he says he is or to take his self-doubt as a sign of his integrity. This also helps me explain why I believe the narrator to be more frustrating than Holden Caulfield, in Part One ‘Underground Man’ confesses “I tell you another thing that would be better, and that is, if I myself believed in anything of what I have just written. I swear to you gentleman that there is not one thing, not one word of what I have written that I really believe.” Here we are left to make what judgements on his character we see fit. I believe Dostoyevsky has written a universal character who is of course trying to find purpose for his life while explaining his flaws in character and judgement as we can see at the end of part one as he states “There is a whole psychology in all this, though. Perhaps it is simply I am a coward” before choosing key events in his life that could explain his cowardice. In truth he knows himself completely, flaws and all, as we know our society and yet neither the narrator nor the readers feel compelled to change.


Part Two seems much shorter but in fact is the larger of two parts. It is in one sense easier to read despite the intimate scenes we feel we should not be reading. I have never read a narrator who willingly reveals his flaws, at least not these ordinary, almost recognisable flaws. Although he is nameless and at times insufferable he is also relatable and we, as we gain more insight into his former life, can understand him. Part Two is a collage of humiliation and self-loathing. His humanity is apparent in the times of his life where he has ruined any hopes of happiness in want of a respectable public acceptance and an enviable reputation. He is ultimately left with neither and we as readers are left with a feeling of great unease.


In conclusion I agree with the reputation that Dostoyevsky and ‘Notes from Underground’ possess, both are of great importance in the literary field and both are immensely powerful. I would recommend this read to anyone, with the warning that it is a heavy, philosophical read that is not easy to read in one sitting. It is a book where the plot is not the internal focus; this is the reason I found it difficult to read quickly. I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Notes from Underground’ once I reached the second part. I hold a high respect for this classic novella despite it not making it into my all-time favourites. Overall I would rate this a somewhat controversial 3/5. Yes the writing was fantastic, the purpose was clear and powerful and I found it both important and thought-provoking. The reason for the somewhat average rating was the fact that I would find it dishonest to overlook how difficult the first half was to get through without reading a few chapters at a time, additionally as a personal preference, I also prefer books with more focus on the plot rather than the writing. This was not a typical read for me although I guarantee I will be reading more of Dostoyevsky’s work in the future.


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