Notes from Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky (Book Review)

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I have for a while been intending to pick up a copy of this book, though could never find the version I liked anywhere (the one pictured!). Pevear and Volokhonsky are fantastic translators, and so picking up theirs was a must:

One of the most remarkable characters in literature, the unnamed narrator is a former official who has defiantly withdrawn into an underground existence. In full retreat from society, he scrawls a passionate, obsessive, self-contradictory narrative that serves as a devastating attack on social utopianism and an assertion of man’s essentially irrational nature.

The book is narrated by a man who has long since began living outside of the societal norm, and in an essentially nihilistic existence. He disdains everyone and bears life unwell day to day.

There’s a lot in this book which is reminiscent to Gogol’s Nevsky Prospekt and seems to me to face a similar though opposite saddening experience – namely the desire for salvation from a life of prostitution. The difference is, that the “hero” of this book has no desire to save Liza, but to humiliate her – “unable to love” as he has become. Even in a scene where the two seemingly from passion alone have relations, he follows it up by offering her money – intending to insult her.

The narrator, referred to by many as the “Underground Man”, is an unlikable and vengeful man who delights in offering insults and ruining the hope those around him. He represents though, and propounds in his notes, an interesting idea which is perhaps true: that the idea of society being able to progress it’s way out of suffering is an unachievable goal, due to man’s perplexing addiction to suffering: give a man wealth, food, shelter, and women, and he will soon “suffer” from boredom – we are unable to be satisfied fully and so suffering follows us, no matter what negative aspects we avoid.

An interesting philosphical fiction from Dostoevsky as he began what are considered his major works in his later years. Short and worth a read – though be prepared for a challenge in terms of how we perceive humanities ability (or even desire!) to achieve happiness.

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The Last Day of a Condemned Man – Victor Hugo (Book Review)

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This has my to read list for a little while:

One of Hugo’s shorter works, The Last Day of a Condemned Man follows the journaling of a man sentence to death for an unspecified crime.

Given six weeks until the day he faces the guillotine, the man reflects on his life and his inescapable end.

The story is an intentional writing on Hugo’s behalf – a strong opponent to capital punishment in his day. Reading his other works, especially The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables, you get this impression throughout.

Faced with his inevitable and dated death, the condemned man describes the mental torment he goes through, knowing the hour of his end.

Longing for his family and freedom, or at least a quick death rather than a wait, the man describes how he feels no capacity for repentance now all his thoughts are occupied with his approaching doom, which people will watch for fun.

Dostoevsky, in his book The Idiot, reflects similar ideas – describing being hit by a horse-drawn cart as preferable to awaiting a hanging. Dostoevsky himself having been in a similar situation himself in his youth (only being pardoned minutes before his hanging) he is quite a significant sympathizer to the thoughts of the condemned man.

Capital punishment is clearly different nowadays: for one it is now very uncommon for a country to still practice it frequently. Another perhaps is that its no longer publically viewable – the Romans loved it and crucifixion drew crowds, but more recently hangings in the 19th century drew similar crowds too.

Reading this led to interesting discussions on a topic which goes deeper than I initially thought.

If you are a fan of Victor Hugo, it’s certainly worth exploring his ideas on a topic he was clearly passionate about.

 

 

Netochka Nezvanova – Fyodor Dostoevsky (Book Review)

 

Netochka Nezanova was the first attempt of Dostoevsky’s to write a novel. It is also, unfortunately, unfinished.

Netochka is a young girl who grows up in extreme poverty, living with a cold and severe mother, and a step-father who is a failed musician, trying to gain a position he feels he deserves, though falling into alcoholism and debt by failure to do so.

She is adopted later by a wealthy family, though struggles to find her place in the new environment.Becoming friends with their daughter, they are eventually separated.

I really enjoyed the book, and was saddened when finishing it, incomplete as it is. Though it initially took some persistence, once the main characters were introduced, they were developed uniquely and in-depth very quickly. Dostoevsky seems to have an ability to create amazing characters, and force you to feel a certain way about them.

 

The fact that this is his first novel, to find such talent as available in the incomplete book is something to be mentioned, and envied.

Unfinished books are somewhat sad thing, which leaves the mind wondering what could have been should the author have completed it if they weren’t interrupted by circumstance or death…