Wednesday, 5 January 2011

A book a week in 2010: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Published in 1864, Notes from Underground is acclaimed as a precursor to twentieth-century existentialism. (Source: Wikipedia). Fyodor Dostoevsky is better known for Crime and Punishment, The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov, but I bought a lovely Vintage Classics collection and thought I'd have a first stab at Russian literature.

Unfortunately, it wasn't the easy introduction that I was hoping for.

Notes from Underground is a stream of consciousness confession of a Russian civil servant. He is one of the most odious, self-obsessed, narcissistic characters ever written. An utterly vile protagonist.

I've never had much truck with existential literature. This wasn't an exception. The turgid and convoluted text takes you through a series of incidents from the protagonist's past. He recounts utterly despicable and mad behaviour; where his treatment of others - from 'supposed' school friends, to his servant, and a prostitute - is appalling.

Notes from Underground was hard work and no fun.

BUT (and here's the good bit) Dostoevsky's genius shines through. As I slogged through with my end of year deadline in mind, I started to feel that by creating the most vile of protagonists, he was completely describing one facet of the human condition.

He has littered the text with references to contemporary philosophical, political and cultural thinking, which provides an insight - if at times a little dry - into Russian society of the day.

None-the-less, this is a challenging read. I may wait a bit before I tackle Crime and Punishment.

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