Notes from Underground represents my transition from the novellas and stories of the heavy-hitter Russians to their longer and more involved work. The first section of Notes is a rebellion against the ideas of utopia and rationalism that were surging in popularity at the time, at least among the Russian intelligentsia. The Underground Man sees rationalism as a force that denies agency, and the strivings toward a utopia as another fall into determinism. An understanding of this part of the text informs one’s reading of the second, more narrative section. But this understanding is going to require at least a perfunctory knowledge of the dominant ideological currents in that time and place, so a few minutes of research is a good and worthwhile thing.
The character of the Underground Man is often read as some kind of existential hero, but this reading seems problematic to me. Dostoevsky is very much aware of the pitiful nature of his narrator and the purposelessness of his railings. While the Underground Man offers plenty of valid criticisms, he does not offer any kind of meaningful alternative, and there is no nobility in his self-imposed suffering, no matter how much he wishes there to be, or wishes to present things as such. He is sometimes brilliant, but also hopelessly dramatic and megalomaniac to the point of solipsism. Any argument for the Underground Man as an existential hero crumbles as soon as we come to the end of the book and follow his interactions with Liza.
But criticism of the character is not a condemnation of the book -some of my favorite heroes are antiheroes. The Underground Man is the perfect narrative device in that he allows Dostoevsky to critiques certain ideological foolishness with vitriolic ardor without getting his hands dirty, then expose and destroy the same agent of vitriol and everything that agent represents, all without damaging the original case made by the Underground Man. Add to this Dostoevsky’s underlauded black humor and the narrative urgency that he seems to be able to conjure out of nothing and you’ve got a damn good read, if you’re willing to put the time and and do a little Googling.
Recommendation: Read it, and look shit up!