Sunday, 29 December 2013

"Needless to say, I stayed".....Dostoevsky: Notes From Underground

Nothing says Christmas like finishing a existential Russian novella critiquing 19th Century Utopian Socialism.  Well in my house anyway.  Dostoevsky's relatively short monologue from a name-less individual marks a significant change from his other work I have read so far.  Although some of the themes touched on in House of Dead and even his grumpy travelogue make an appearance.  The work, in my view takes a while to catch with the reader but by the end you are entranced with the inner revelations of the "Underground" man and not in a good way.  Some passages are as cringe-worthy and car-crash viewing as David Brent or the Peep Show boys at their peak.  Again Dostoevesky's modernist appeal can be seen here.  I really don't think there was anyone writing like this in 1864.

The novella is split into two relatively distinct parts and the first part is quite hard going.  Having said that: what an opening - "I'm a sick man, I'm a spiteful man. I'm an unattractive man.  I think there's something wrong with my liver".  I hadn't realised that  Howard Devoto had lifted the sentiments of this for his single Song From Under the Floorboards (later covered by Moz!).   The difficulty, for me in the opening third of the work is similar to Camus' The Fall - relying solely on one voice which do not really depict events but simply let rip on their general philosophical views is a difficult way into a book.  In a sense you are walking in at the middle as you have no idea as to how the narrator became the way he is.   This narrative device is resolved a little by the end when a number of significant incidents from his recent past explain his withdrawal from everyday society and most importantly human communication.

The other problem about this early part I think is it is very much specifically dealing with the debates amongst the Russian Intelligentsia at the time which you need to have at least a passing knowledge of to fully understand.   For example the whole work was in part a response to the early Narodnik Chernyshevsky's  novel "What is to be done?" on the necessity of revolution a struggle in Tsarist Russia written the year before.  This was a big favourite of Lenin's - he named one of his significant works after it.

So some of the bile in the first part is personal - FD's own rejection that material struggle and the improveability of man was possible or even worthwhile in achieving.  Feudal Tsarism- though it does exist in the work is very much in the background.  The narrator is a 40 year old retired civil servant - middle ranking in the strict hierarchy.  He has a servant. His "enemies" later in the work are fairly high ranking soldiers.  But for Dostoevsky this regime was not the focus of struggle rather it provided a context for the narrator's human feelings to unravel.

Essentially Dostoevsky argues that it is impossible to impose a logical framework or social system on humans because they will reject it almost as a matter of course.  Human "volition" means that people will always react against being told what to do "sticking their tongue out at it".  This will even be the case if it is not in their best interests to act in this way.

Scientific analysis of human behaviour and striving for a different society then is pointless.  FD labels this as "2+2 = 4".   But for man (and as ripped of by Radiohead) 2 and 2 always makes 5. In symbolism of the time he labelled the new society as the Crystal Palace - a new London Building mentioned in his Winter Notes and seen then as a pinnacle of human creation.  The real thinker he says "does nothing" - action is the sign of someone who doesn't realise how pointless his actions are.  "If only it were simply out of laziness I did nothing" In doing this he has a few side swipes at Napoleon (Bonaparte and the 3rd) so indirectly the actions of the French Revolution.

In part the writings are polemical so exaggerated - still readable but difficult to engage with.  For example such rejection of struggling for new types of society ignores how the current society - in FD's case a  slightly less brutal version of Tsarist autocracy - came to pass in the face of human thought and wish not to be dominated.

If the work was only this then it would simply be an editorial in one of the many literary magazines which Dostoevsky involved himself in at the time but it was obviously much more than this.  Partly this is because of the second part of the work but also because I think FD is being deliberately and exaggeratedly provocative.  Also in another modernist twist the narrator is very self aware of the strangeness of writing this all down  as if "it will turn out grander on paper".  So the text itself is continually being assessed.  In fact at the end the narrator says "I don't want to write anymore"..but then an unknown voice intervenes and tells the reader that in fact he did go on but we'll just end it there.

Hinted at is the fact that the narrator was once an idealist believing in the "sublime and beautiful" - the perfectability of man but his experience made him turn away from this to a world of isolation, debauchery and the "Underground".

These urban St Petersburg events are outlined in Part 2 of the work "Apropos of the Wet Snow". I think setting is important here - the city landscape was unreal and surreal for most Russians at that time but hundreds of thousands had to adapt to the lifestyle.  Similar to FD's earlier work - The Double - this threw up unlikely situation.  It symbolises the combined and uneven development of Russia at that time as mentioned by Lenin and Trotsky in their work.  The narrator's disengagement from ltraditional life I don't think could have occurred anywhere else in Russia.

The events focus on the narrator's inability to interact with other humans.  In one pitiful dragged out scene he outlines how he imposes himself on some old school acquaintances' going away party, gets drunk and borrows more cash even though noone wants him there. He knows he should go but "Needless to say I stayed".
One passage was particularly brutally honest : "Disorder, leftovers, a broken glass on the floor, spilt wine, cigarette ends, intoxication and wild gibberish in my head, tormenting anguish in my heart...."  Yes, I'm sure we've all been there...

To compound the humiliation he ends up in a brothel where he lambasts a young Latvian prostitute Liza over her behaviour (ignoring the fact he had just used her - a bit of Dostoevsky's own hypocrisy coming out then).  He then gives her his address to "save her" - immediately regrets it when he sobers up and in an amusing but desolating end to the work we see why the narrator can no longer interact with human beings. There is also an interesting side line here in discussing the narrator's servant who acts towards him with open disdain - again a fairly modernist touch.

I am not sure if the rant/monologue at the beginning fits in completely with the second part.  That is I am not sure that the incidents explain the strength of the language used at the start - or whether they are simply a device to have a go at some of his contemporaries and their interaction with a very early form of Marxism.  But the work as a whole is very good  and very funny (an unappreciated element of Dostoevsky).  Its view of humanity is open to debate but his outline of the contradictory and difficult elements of human conciousness and how it deals with reality is not dealt with much better by other writers.

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