“I am a sick man, I am an angry man…”
As it’s World Book Day, I thought I’d review one of my favourite short stories. If you want a short introduction to existentialism, then forget those terrible ‘Short Introduction’ booklets that are meant for children. Don’t be a pretentious prat and vouch for Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Existentialism and Humanism’, either (unless you want to improve your bookshelf, and if that’s the case I would recommend ‘Being and Nothingness’ instead, about 100 times the size of ‘Existentialism…). Instead, buy/borrow Dostoyevsky’s ‘Notes from Underground’. This also serves nicely as a ‘Short Introduction’ for Fyodor’s later works, as themes explored in this novel are embellished in his later greats such as ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ (which should be compulsory reading for everyone) and ‘Crime and Punishment.’ It prepares readers for his peculiarly 19th century Russian way of writing.
You can’t go wrong with ‘Notes from Underground. Whenever I pick it up, I immediately want to consume the rest of the novel. The first few lines are among the greatest opening lines in any novel: “I am a sick man…I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver…” The liver pain comes up frequently in the novel, especially in reference to his refusal to do anything about it. He does it out of spite, although this spite is not directed at anyone in particular. Already, within the space of a page, the man’s outlook is fleshed out. It’s obvious he’s reached a peak of ennui in life (he says he’s been living like this for twenty years), and is struggling to continue without any purpose. Later on in the novel, when he forms a relationship with a prostitute, it’s striking how unfulfilling he finds other people’s company. Even egoism fails to produce the goods for this apathetic man.
“We are born dead, and moreover we have ceased to be the sons of living fathers…”
‘Notes…’ is a dissection and critique of selfishness. This man acts entirely on his own, without any outside interests interfering with his decision-making. But, however, there seems no actual self-motivation behind many of his actions. Does he know what his actual self-interest is? Surely leaving a liver pain that could be fatal, or destroying a chance at a normal relationship, is not in his self-interest? He wants to know who first proposed the theory that man does evil because he doesn’t know his real interests. “Oh, what a baby!” he exclaims, “when, in all these thousands of years have men acted solely in their own interests?” People appear as abstractions to him, and it’s clear he doesn’t understand (or even want to understand) the ways of society. In the midst of talking with Liza (the prostitute), he says “Damn it, I was flattering her. This was horrible. Or perhaps it was a good thing…” This uneasiness around other people permeates the novel. It shown in petty incidents, such as the officer who accidentally bumps into the writer. It blossoms into a massive bone of contention (and the other person involved doesn’t even remember what happened.) For example, he notes that “…I’m very touchy. I’m sensitive and quick to take offence, like a hunchback or a dwarf, but there have been times when if somebody had given me a slap in the face I might even have been glad of it.”
The contradictions inherent in this man’s mind are reflected out onto society. Having no purpose himself, he believes that everything therefore has no purpose or meaning. The sympathy evoked throughout the novel is a peculiar one, an exasperated one. It’s there, but it hovers at the back of your mind, unwilling to fully reveal itself. In the face of a future so bleak and desolate, you find yourself momentarily agreeing with him on the futility of life. However, the loathing for him still takes precedence. And there is no redemption for him at the end, as he squanders the opportunity for it. There is no sense of satisfaction for the reader at the end of the novel, as it merely renders plain everything the reader has thought about the ‘Underground Man.’ In this sense, it is refreshing. Too many novels are ruined with a theme of redemption. So please, give this book a chance!
VERDICT: 10/10. Perfect introduction to Dostoevsky and Existentialism. One of the best short stories I have ever read. Read it, now!