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Notes from the Underground (Dover Thrift Editions)

Notes from the Underground - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Constance Garnett Who knew Dostoyevsky wrote comedy? Oh, what’s that? This tale of an embittered middle-aged bureaucrat baring his soul wasn’t supposed to be funny? It’s unvarnished human nature, told as honestly as you’re likely to ever hear it, and naturally it’s ugly, twisted, pathetic and petty. You can either weep for the tragedy of human folly, or find humor in it. I’ve done both, and I guess I’m more prone to the weeping, but with a character so removed from present day, living as he does in Czarist Russia of the 19th century- it is somehow easier to stand back and find the perspective to laugh. This is the same sort of humor that made Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and most of Woody Allen’s oeuvre so popular. Neurotic, bored, self-absorbed twits meticulously reliving their every human interaction, sifting for subtle hidden meanings and nuances, rarely finding more than regrets? I’m not a fancified city-slicker psychologist, but I’m pretty confident the book’s unnamed narrator is a high-energy introvert (HEI). HEI’s feel drained by interacting with people, so prefer to keep to themselves, but they have a lot of energy so they spend a lot of time alone either thinking about stuff and/or talking to themselves. Ask me how I know this. On a daily basis, I would say that after my wife and the partner I share a practice with, the person I speak with third most often is myself. What’s there to talk about? Well, current business at work, GoodReads reviews (mine and others’), and repetitious dissections of all the little exchanges I have with other people throughout the day. What did my secretary mean by it, asking me what I had eaten, just as I returned from lunch? Did my breath smell? Was she trying to tell me I look like I’m getting fat? Was she just being nice?… I check my shirt for a mustard stain or some other little clue which might have prompted her to pose the question… Being a cynic, the narrator is prone to take most cryptic comments and meaningful glances as slights and insults. Thus he perceives himself to be frequently surrounded by enemies and frienemies. He is somewhat arrogant, probably in part due to his lack of perspective. Because he is so often alone, he doesn’t see the achievements of others nearly as much as his own. Thus, he believes himself to be perpetually underappreciated. In one scene, our narrator insinuates himself into a group of former classmates, annoyed that they haven’t invited him to hang out. He hears they are planning a farewell party for another classmate whom he never particularly liked, but of course he will not stand to be excluded from their little celebration, so he invites himself. At the party, he fumes over what a jackass the guest of honor is, and how much more deserving he is of the affections being lavished. He gets drunk, makes a scene, insults everybody… and then fumes at home about how badly the evening went, and plans his “revenge“!Okay, so maybe that is a more heartbreaking than funny, being so petty and needlessly put-upon. That’s part of the human tragedy isn’t it? That so much of our misery is needless and self-imposed? We are each so alone in our brains, yet our species has found survival in cooperation, so we have evolved elaborate social systems which demand our participation. But getting along can be so stressful. It requires compromise, exhausting debate and a frequent yielding to group will. Isn’t the struggle to socialize (small “s”) one of the core themes of the canon of literature? Elements of Notes From the Underground are seen in Winesburg Ohio and Infinite Jest. The narrator’s competing loneliness and disdain for his fellow man, his simultaneous arrogance and longing to be accepted remind me of Holden Caulfield, Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt, Raskolnikov (from another Dostoyevsky great, Crime and Punishment) and maybe even a little bit of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Further tragicomedy ensues when our narrator lectures the prostitute Liza on her poor choice of career. Is he doing so because he genuinely wants to help her, because he wants to cast himself as a savior, or just because he likes to hear himself talk? Maybe he’d rather focus on her problems, which seem somehow manageable from his perspective, to distract from his own. I can’t help but love this narrator, if only for his authenticity. Regardless of his flaws, I at least feel I’m getting the straight story from him. His humanity- warts and all- is on full display, whereas the other characters hide (as we all do at times) behind obscuring veneers of civility and propriety. Do the old schoolmates really like their guest of honor as much as they let on? Surely they must have noticed in him some of the same character defects which our narrator points out. Why don’t they speak as honestly and directly? I often find myself wondering things like this. It’s an ongoing project, but I at least have some pieces of the puzzle: For one thing, not everybody sees the world the same as I do. Extroverts are energized by the company of others, and seek out frequent social interaction... practice makes perfect, so they tend to have less issues getting along with people. I’m also pretty sure extroverts don’t spend as much time talking to themselves, hashing over the past… if for no other reason than they have less “alone time” in their lives. Less cynical people than our narrator are probably less likely to take minor comments as intended insults; they’re likely to give people the benefit of the doubt. In just over one-hundred pages, Dostoyevsky paints such a rich, fleshed-out character, I have to wonder whether this is just a masterful creation, or whether he is drawing from elements in his own personality. I did a very cursory search of the man, and it didn’t shed much light on what he would have been like to hang out with. I know he was once almost executed by firing squad. A last-minute pardon saved him, but the experience was transformative. I kind of hope Dostoyevsky doesn’t resemble the narrator too much, because when Liza returns to our narrator for help escaping her life of prostitution, he isn’t very helpful, and is in fact a bit of a dick about the whole thing. Meh, maybe this wasn’t so comic after all.