Though I love to read, a technologically ever-changing environment of distractions occupying one’s time with leisurely activities and entertainment for fixes to overcome boredom often leads one to start numerous different books on-the-go despite finishing very few of them. Of course I am talking about myself. When I’m too busy, I cherish moments to read, and when I find myself with the free time I longed for, it’s difficult to maintain the consistency to see a whole book through. It’s a feat in itself for the books that I do manage to read through until the end. One such book that I did manage is Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
What is striking about this piece is its expressionist nature, actively addressing the reader with a mixture of character bitterness, elements of spite, pride and arrogance, but equally a hard-hitting honesty and self-awareness throughout as he progresses. What is recognised as one of the first existentialist novels almost draws its readers to acknowledge their own hypocrisies, their own inherent weaknesses and harboured hostilities that are so easily overlooked in one’s own self but magnified when assessing others, pre-empting the likes of Albert Camus who later explored such notions in another densely written philosophical marvel: Myth of Sisyphus.
As Notes from Underground develops, there are parts where you cringe for the character, hoping they can go on with some dignity, wondering why, holding a sort of frustration and yet sympathy for the personality. The account of the anonymous civil servant is documented in St Petersburg which, during the novel’s publication in 1864, had been the Russian Imperial capital before the restoration of Moscow by the Bolshevik Revolution. What was profoundly intriguing was that, throughout the narrative, while I may have held contempt for the character, I found myself questioning, introspectively, my own hidden thoughts and actions and finding that maybe there were unspoken similarities with excerpts of his trail of thought. Maybe it’s just me, but somewhere in this melancholic, proud narrative exist hints of ugly truths and acknowledgements of the character working well to engage and resonate with the reader. For a Romantic Era novel which precedes the Soviet works of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn by approximately a century, it is almost prophetic in its insistent use of realist discourse for its time – these same contentions were later apparent between the realist tendencies and expressive constructivist (or interpretive) movements which underlined much of the communist period.
The philosophical, intellectual form by which the story progresses develops a strong sense of originality in writing – perhaps the reason for which I was able to read it all as it continuously provoked thought throughout the narrative. Yet, upon completion and post-read contemplation was also the awareness that, though I may have finished reading the book, I had barely scratched the surface of the layers in the depth of thought portrayed by Dostoyevsky. In truth, beyond the exterior hatred that grows, we may have more in common with the characters we so much despise than we’d be willing to admit.
By Mustafa Ameer and Osama Filali Naji