Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Notes from Underground (Записки из подполья) is a novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, one of the earliest (if not the first) existentialist works of fiction, and was first published in 1864. It is very short (my edition was 123 pages), and oh, so very difficult!
It's divided into two parts - 'The Underground' and 'Concerning the Wet Snow'. It's unnamed narrator - possibly the most trying narrator in literature, is even more awful than Salinger's Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye). There is a great deal of bitterness in Notes; anger, and seething resentment. He is the outsider, burning away in spite and fury, unnoticed and uncared for: there is much energy in Notes from Underground and it is quite remarkable.
In 'The Underground', in which the narrator "presents himself" (to quote Dostoyevsky's preface) we start to learn about the man, as far as we can at least as he even admits to lying in what he has written. It has one of the best and most memorable opening lines in literature:
I am a sick man... [Dostoyevksy's ellipsis] I am a spiteful man. I'm an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.
He goes on tell that he will not get his liver checked:
No, it's out of spite that I don't want to be cured. You'll probably not see fit to understand this. But I do understand it. Of course, I won't be able to explain to you precisely whom I will hard in this instance by my spite; I know perfectly well that I cannot in any way 'sully' the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that in doing this I shall harm no one but myself. Anyway, if I'm not receiving medical treatment it's out of spite. If my liver is hurting, then let it hurt all the more!
At this point it's almost funny. The narrator is like a nasty drunk rambling on to a stranger about his liver, as though that is of any importance to a stranger. And as the reader, we are almost like the stranger, but in reading Notes from Underground we can't laugh then walk away when it isn't funny any more. He has a platform now; we read, and quite soon it is no longer funny. The mention of the liver is either an attempt to elicit sympathy, or it's a way of making us feel bad or somehow guilty being in good health and in the presence of someone who is not. Whatever the case we quickly learn that he hates himself and everyone around him.
But, he is not a stupid man, he's very intelligent and clearly well-read, but we know this from his dismantling and rejection of some of the leading philosophical ideas of the time; Romanticism, for example, and Utilitarianism. Everything explained seems to be via negativa, if I may borrow a phrase more associated with Christian theology. He is clearly misanthropic and contrary, though I say the latter cautiously: in his rejection of the mainstream he harming himself, and indeed his liver: it is not simply "spite" at all that stops him from being cured, it is a refusal to conform to the dull existence of the bourgeoisie in Russia.
The first section concludes -
Today it's snowing, almost wet, yellowish, dull snow. Yesterday it snowed as well, and the day before. It seems to me that it was the wet snow that caused me to recall this anecdote which I can't get out of my head. So, let this be a tale concerning the wet snow.
And from here we move to the second part, Concerning the Wet Snow. At this point it becomes more 'novel-like' (or, rather, 'novella-like'). There are three distinct episodes; the first concerning a soldier who bumped our narrator out of his way. He then becomes obsessed with the episode and wishes to seek revenge for being made to feel so very bad about what happened so he takes the opportunity to bump the soldier back. The soldier doesn't even notice. In the second, though clearly painfully introverted, our narrator seems to suffer from "fear of missing out" and inflicts his presence on his former school friends one evening. It is a disaster. And finally, he meets and converses with Liza, a prostitute, and she goes back home with him.
There, then, is a very basic outline of the intensely complex novella. It's an excruciatingly sad piece of writing. In the beginning Dostoyevsky (Dostoyevsky as himself, in a sort of preface) writes,
Both the author of the notes and the Notes themselves are, of course, fictional. Nevertheless, types such as the creator of these notes not only could, but are also bound to exist in our society, taking into account the circumstances that have shaped our society. I wanted to present to the public, in a more striking manner than usual, one of the character types belonging to the very recent past. He is one of the representatives of a generation still surviving.
Could such a man exist? Yes, certainly. Then and now there are people such as he. That is what makes this story so upsetting and frightening. It is an excellent tale.
Finally, I've learned from Cleo of Classical Carousel that Notes from Underground is part of a 'conversation': in 1862 Turgenev published Fathers and Sons; in 1863 Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? was published - a response to Fathers and Sons. Notes from Underground is in turn a response to those two books. I have read Fathers and Sons but it was such a long time ago I'm afraid I don't remember it. But Cleo has read and posted on both of these books so for more information do read these posts: Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev and What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. I hope to read Fathers and Sons very soon, maybe this weekend. As for What is to be Done? - I don't have that book, but I hope I can get a hold of it soon!