John Bills Book Club 17: Notes from the Underground

Posted on May 3, 2012



Notes from the Underground (Fyodor Dostoevsky)


More so than any other book, this one sums up everything that is great and not great about classic Russian literature. This is utter miserable brilliance. It is essentially a memoir written by an intelligent but utterly useless human being, who is overly consumed with disdain for humanity and constantly drowns in his own bitter misery. The constant battery of bile is, as mentioned at the beginning, both the best thing and the worst thing about this book. It is undeniably difficult reading, as these books usually are. There are times where you unfortunately see sparks of yourself in the main character, and you begin to question yourself. If anything, Dostoevsky shows you too much of humanity and his true nature, and it isn’t pretty. Anybody who claims to not have moments of these feelings is either lying to themselves or living in a dream world. We are all annoyed, we are all bitter, we are all angry. The difference between the ordinary human and the main character of this book is that the average person manages to keep a hold on their annoyance, and it only reveals itself now and then. The anti-hero of ‘Notes from the Underground’ however, is stuck in a pit of his own wretchedness, and makes no attempt or shows no desire to get out.


It is perfectly poetic in its miserableness however. From the very off this is a incredibly vivid and lyrical book, and was ahead of its time in terms of its existentialism. The first part of the book, ‘Underground’, is a rambling battery of personal truths, an attempt to understand the self by positively demolishing said self in disgusting, often vile honesty. It is characterised by the idea of suffering, and the perverse enjoyment that people get from said suffering. This was the time where Dostoevsky first dipped his toes into writing about the human in crisis. This is followed by ‘Apropos of the Wet Snow’, the second half which is much closer to an actual story, but also continues the degradation of our unnamed anti-hero. Particularly cringe-inducing is the dinner party that old school acquaintances through for the character Zverkov. Despite hating them in school, the main character practically invites himself to this dinner, and when there unloads on them his hatred of society. The party ends and the friends leave our anti-hero, but he decides to go after them and confront them once and for all. What he gets in return however, is the unexpected arrival of a ‘love’ interest, in the form of Liza. The main character’s subsequent unravelling of Liza is particularly brutal, and provides the reader with a strangely compelling side story. The book itself, on the whole, is completely compelling.


I give this book a gargantuan nine point four out of a potential ten points.