Sunday, 21 June 2009

45 - 'Notes from Underground' & 'The Double' by Fyodor Dostoevsky

If you're looking for happy smiley people, my daughter has several teddy bear books which may be just up your street. If, however, you enjoy reading about people more depressed than you (or you're depressed yourself and want to know you're not alone), you can't go past a bit of classical Russian literature, and who better to put a dampener on your day than good old Fyodor Mikhaylovich Dostoyevsky, Fyod (possibly) to his friends. A few hundred pages of his tales of anguish and existential angst, and you too will feel as if you've been trudging through the St. Petersburg mud and sludge in the middle of a blizzard (without your fur coat. Or shoes.). Not that I'm saying that's a bad thing...

My most recent book brought together two of Dostoyevsky's shorter works, 'The Double' and 'Notes from Underground'. Apart from the fact that they add up to a nice amount of pages (Penguin probably decided they couldn't get people to fork out their hard-earned cash for each story separately), the two stories are linked by the theme of a man's decline in terms of social status and sanity. That, and the fact that there's a lot of snow.

'The Double' follows a few days in the life of Mr. Golyadkin, a civil servant who is passing pleasantly through life until the arrival of an interloper with the same name and, more importantly, the same face as him. The new Golyadkin usurps the original's place and causes him to lose face, status and, eventually, his job without the poor public official being able to do anything about it. He roams aimlessly through the streets of St. Petersburg, unable to make a decision and stick to it, denied at all points by the mysterious newcomer and suddenly shunned by his aquaintances and colleagues. As the tale progresses, we realise that all may not be as it seems; Golyadkin's spiral into the gutter is the description of a mental illness which the patient himself seems to be unaware of. The reader is also unsure as to the exact role of the new Golyadkin: is he real, is he a figment of the imagination, or is he the mischievous alter-ego of a schizophrenic?

While 'The Double' is one of Dostoevsky's earlier books, and consequently not that well known, 'Notes from Underground' is one of his most famous works. The unnamed 'underground man' rants about his life in the first section, explaining how, as an intelligent person, he is plagued with self-doubt and unable to function, as he is without the certainty and belief in his decisions that stupid people seem to possess. When faced with unmoveable obstacles, he cannot rest, knowing that there must be a way around, while the less intelligent accept the fait-accompli and are happy that they have done all they can. These existential musings are followed by a series of events which occurred earlier in the underground man's life: an imagined street confrontation with an unsuspecting soldier; an embarrassing scene at a dinner party for a former friend, which the underground man invited himself to; and a confrontation with a prostitute whom he offers to save and then rejects, before regretting his behaviour and (too late) chasing after her into the street.

On reading the first section, it is easy to believe that the underground man is talking to the reader and expressing their thoughts. After all, who hasn't felt that they were special and intelligent and that their path was blocked by less intelligent people whose only advantage was their ability to substitute volume and aggression for reason in an argument (and that these people still somehow seemed to come out on top)? I've even seen comments on discussion boards where people identify with the underground man, believing him to be describing the plight of intellectuals everywhere. As the story progresses, however, it becomes more difficult to identify with the writer's voice. His actions seem exaggerated and unnecessary, and his voice becomes less and less trustworthy. Despite his professed superiority over his less intelligent classmates, he is unable to display it and, in reality, comes across as petulant and childish. By the time he wilfully rejects Liza and thrusts her back into the street with money in her hand (which she rejects), he has (hopefully) lost all credibility in the eyes of the reader.

Although the underground man professes to tell the truth, we are unable to take him at his word. His rejection of friends, privilege and company are less the consequences of a proud nature than those of a cowardly one which is afraid to bare its soul to the realities of life. Having mastered books, he is unable to return to the real world, and, after inheriting a small amount of money, he finally withdraws from the real world and decides to write his 'notes'.

With this tale, Dostoyevsky begins his works on the uselessness of Western (European) philosophy and culture and a need for a return to the good old Russian basics (which includes serfdom/slavery, but it's a nice idea all the same). The French philosophy of man only needing to find out their true desire in order to be able to find their way in life is rejected; the underground man claims that man's need to be able to go against his true nature is stronger than the nature itself. Even if we know that something is for the best, as humans, we desire to have the freedom to screw up our lives if we so choose, and this freedom to mess up is what stops everything from being perfect (slightly paraphrased, but you get the idea). Which explains why diets never work...

Having read the work starting Dostoyevsky's golden era, it would be interesting now to go back and read 'Crime and Punishment' to see how the earlier novella influenced or led to the classic novel. The background and setting are the same, as is the fevered stream-of-conciousness dialogue (monologue) of the main characters, slightly more coherent than Woolfe's fragmentary utterances or Kerouac's verbal diarrhoea, but still fairly confusing and breath-takingly swift. These shorter works are a great starting point for anyone wanting to read Dostoyevsky but still unsure about launching into one of the great novels. For anyone who has been put off by my description, please give them a go anyway. If not, well, the offer of the teddy bear books still stands. Just don't tell my daughter...