Notes from Underground


In the Nietzsche biography was a mention that “Dostoevsky made a lightning-strike connection” with Nietzsche when he read Notes from Underground. My brain lit up with an “Oh, I haven’t read that yet!” and this is how my reading pile grows…


I read the Vintage Classics edition, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It’s a short book, only about 130 pages long, written in 1864, and, according to Wikipedia, it’s one of the first works of existentialist literature.


In the first part, the man in the underground is forty years old and he rants and attacks the world at large in a kind of monologue. He’s filled with loathing for others and himself. But he also philosophizes quite intelligently. In the second part he tells a story about what happened when he was twenty-four and at which point his life was “already gloomy, disorderly, and solitary to the point of savagery.”


This is a somewhat tortuous and intense portrait of a complete outsider in society, but the thing is, he’s smart enough to be completely aware of his actions (he analyzes them every step of the way) yet seems unwilling to change his behavior even as he knows he’s messing things up for himself but still somehow can’t stop himself from doing it. Maybe it would feel different if he were oblivious to the consequences of his actions—but he’s not, and I kept reading with a nearly painfully weird fascination as, for example, he goes to a dinner party where he knows he is unwelcome. It’s a very tormented self-awareness, and a part of him wants to be part of the crowd he so lashes out at, and at times he has wild fantasies about what it would be like to be loved and admired by all.


Do not skip the foreword by the translator, which also gives some background to the story.


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