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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Notes from Underground (1864) by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Book Review
Notes from Underground (1864)
 by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    I got through the existentialists in high school. Adolescence is a good time to read Russian authors like Dostoevsky and the French existentialist philosopher-novelists of the 20th century:  Like a typical adolescent, existentialists see the world as both a) meaningless and b) very serious.  My only observations about existentialism as a 40 year old is that if life is meaningless then one might as well have fun.  Dostoevsky was not fun.  He is the opposite of fun.   None of this books, whatever their other merits can be called fun, or even funny. At all. Ever.

  The one advantage that Notes from Underground holds compared to Dostoevsky's other major works:  Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamozov and Demons; is length.  Specifically, Notes from Underground is short, and almost everything else by Dostoevsky is long. Super long. Super long, and super serious.   Having read all of his books in used book store paperback the first time around- and all of them outside a school setting- I've been working my way through them for the 1001 Books project in Audiobook format.  Audiobook is the hot thing in fiction rn, make no mistake about it.  Spotify for Audiobooks- someone will figure that out, and when they do I've got my 10 bucks a month or whatever. 

  The major advance in comprehension that I derive from the Audiobook version when it comes to Dostoevsky is the near constant hysteria of the narrator.   Notes from Underground I mostly listened to while running, alongside the Los Angeles River.   Dostoevsky's unnamed narrator, the Underground Man, so to speak, addresses an imaginary audience for the entire book- literally a man sitting in his below street level garret, talking to an invisible audience as if they were in the room with him.

  Conceptually speaking, it's a mind fuck if you stop and think about it. The reader is, after all, part of a real audience.  That the narrator spends so much of the book decrying alack of an audience is ironical- irony not being a particular strong suit in 19th century literature, this narrative stance begins to flush out what it means to be an "existentialist novel."

  It's also worth noting how unlike a novel Notes from Underground is- it's closer to a 18th century style philosophical diatribe coupled with an early example of the short-story.   To call Notes from Underground an "existentialist novel" is misleading on both counts, while still grasping the essence of the enduring appeal to an international audience of modern readers.

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