“I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.”
Occasionally funny, often disgusting, the novel Notes from Underground is the mournful wail of a man who has given up and is proud of it, a man who thinks you’re foolish for not succumbing to nihilism like he has. This is one of the most bitter, angry novels I’ve ever read. I’d heard the stereotype of Russian literature as depressing, but The Brothers Karamazov, Pushkin, or Tolstoy all seem absolutely joyful in comparison. I thought that almost two centuries later, the barrage of misery the protagonist endures and self-inflicts here might seem tame to a modern reader. Nope. This is still very, very powerful powerful.
The narrator’s pain being almost entirely self-inflicted is a dominant theme. He was a bureaucrat, but an inheritance allowed him to retire. He does nothing but brood on those he perceived as wronging him. The results are both sad and funny, in a way that becomes so obviously self-inflicted that it feels like a farce. It takes the narrator dozens of attempts to bump a man of higher standing’s shoulder on his morning walk to work, for example. He has been plotting this bump as an act of revenge for years. The man’s crime? A long, long time ago he had ignored our protagonist at a pub. Shocking, I know.
The narrator has lived his whole life on a self-destructive path which is narcissistic and cowardly, but, thanks to his eloquent way of writing, understandable. He is a pitiful, self-disgusted man. He has isolated himself from the world, and lives in a cocoon of anger; he derides a society he sees as arrogant and foolish, but acts no better—worse, in fact—than those he considers scum. The only thing he has pride in is his intellect, the importance of which he clings to like a limpet. He only values what is inside his head, and rages at the world around him which he sees as ignoring his genius. The futility of pride in intelligence, which he uses for nothing but selfish brooding, becomes obvious to readers, as it helps no one, not even him.
Notes From Underground is dark, sad and quite moving. If you’re ever in the mood for a book which stomps on your brain and heart, give it a go.