Honesty is a lightening that shines bright across the sky, as deadly, as sudden and as brutal. In a sudden flash, through raging squalls, suddenly the dead, dark Earth breathes into life for a moment as the white light spreads across its face with a sudden urgency. It is this feature which makes life worth living in spite of all its inherent bitterness, and which redeems any literature. The truth which slowly crawls across wonderfully and delicately crafted words, makes it alive, and the truth of life shines in the lightening of the honest penmanship, like a passive earth in the sudden lightening in a night rain.
Fyodor Dostoyevesky's "Notes from The Underground" is one such book. I started reading this book, a sad and lonely epoch of my life, thrown away from the family for a longish travel on work. It is untrue that when you are down and depressed, you want to read something bright and sunny to lift you up. At least for me it is untrue. When I am down and out, I like reading something pensive and sad, something which churns the innards of my thoughts even further. It is only through immenseness of grief does peace for me emerges again. With a clear plan of such masochistic endeavour I picked this book. But I did dread that the book figures in the list of all great classic must-read, and worried that I should not grow bored of heavy writing, before my gloom could rise so high to the skies so as to cover the sun with the darkest clouds. Usually, such books are said to grow on you slowly if you could give them time. But, I get bored easily and thus picked this with some trepidation of never being able to finish it.
The book rose in a sudden gush and held me in an tight embrace. There are few books which enamour you with such suddenness, and it is not cunning craft, rather honest insolence which endears you enough to make the book what is called, unputdownable. The book held me by the collar, so hard that it bruised the neck, and I am sure so it could anyone near the middle age from either end, when the narrator says, "To live longer than forty years is bad manners, is vulgar, immoral."
The novel narrates the thoughts of a government officer, on the wrong side of forty, full of spite directed largely at his own self. He pitied his own life, having lived it with mediocre achievements and a subdued intellect, in a consolation which he describes with brutal honesty as he writes,"Now I am living out my life in my corner, taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot become anything seriously and it is only the fool who becomes anything."
The narrator, the protagonist retires from government service. He begins the notes with an admission of having been a "spiteful official" and substantiates it admitting that he "was rude and took pleasure in being so."
He however, introspects deeper and comes out with a eureka finding- that he was incapable of being spiteful. We all know how it is- we believe ourselves to be decent men, but still get swayed by the stray power we might be holding over other people's lives, howsoever insignificantly, howsoever momentarily. We enjoy those moments which takes us out of our inconsequential existence and we love playing near-god in such moment and at the end of it, become complete devil. We kill our conscience little by little throughout our growing up till one day we are carrying nothing but a ghost of a conscience on our weary shoulders. Which is still fine, till you do not notice the stench of morbidity which follows our existence. More often than not, one day like the government official whose note one is reading in these pages. But then he realises how others around them carry the same dead baggage on their respective bent backs, and therefore he claims he does not want forgiveness from them or does not intend to amuse them, since they are leading an existence as shallow and as meaningless as his own.
The narrator endears himself immensely to the readers when he plainly admits having quit his job not on an account of a new found sense of justice, but simply because a relation left him with six thousand roubles in will. Money is a close substitute to a living conscience. It washes away all sense of guilt and allows one to be honest about his own character. And then there is no apology, this is not a confession of a sinner, he subject himself to the most brutal treatment when he refuses to take shelter in the immortal human shield- the rationale. He says that one would explain to oneself, that "one is not to blame in being a scoundrel; as though that were any consolation to the scoundrel once he has come to realise that he actually is a scoundrel." He contests that there is no refuse for a man who has seen his own soul naked and exposed. He can only torture himself and find some solace in the self-inflicted punishment.. as "in despair there are the most intense enjoyments, especially when one is very acutely conscious of the hopelessness of one's position."
In the second part- A Propos the Wet Snow, the narrator than takes you back to the time when he was twenty four. He was a young man of living intellect and for that very reason disliked the clerks he worked with. Ah.. the pain of surviving a living intellect, to feel much and know little. We all do that and punish ourselves incessantly on that account. "A cultivated and decent man cannot be vain without setting a fearfully high standards for himself, and without despising and almost hating himself at certain moments." He kept on feeling "I am alone and they are everyone" - Who doesn't feel that way, maybe those who carry stupid grins on their faces all through the day don't, but every one else. He makes an every working man's confession (at least for every working young man) that he " despised my official work and did not openly abuse it simply because I was in it myself and got a salary for it." He struggles against faceless and nameless mediocrity and even dreams of getting into a bar-brawl in a tavern. Instead he is pushed aside, without any deliberate intention by an officer, as he stood in the way. He is bitter, reduced into ignominy of unacknowledged presence, as he writes "I could have forgiven blows, but I could not forgive his having moved me without noticing me." He dreams of getting into a quarrel with the officer, but fails to do so.
The intellect forced him into a solitude, from which he felt need to come out of time and again, much to his own disappointment, he went to his superior on such occasions, when ..dreams had reached such a point of bliss that it became essential at once to embrace my fellows and all mankind...at least, one human being, actually existing. He goes to meet his school friends, much successful in life than the narrator, planning for a farewell party to one of them, Zverkov, an officer in army for was getting transferred away. He gets himself invited to the party and when treated with spite, to use one of Fyodor's most loved word in this book, goes off the handle. The sad solitude, bitter insignificance with which he lived in silence, suddenly explodes and he fights with his friends. He flees from there and encounters the prostitute Liza. He enters into sermonizing her in an attempt to redeem his insignificance and mediocrity. He promises her freedom from a life of prostitution inviting her to his house for "Its rightful mistress there to be." Out of the impact of alcohol and free of any grand ideas about his own being, he is embarrassed of his projected grandness and his reality which was poor, weak and base. He turns her away.
He closes his notes with sad acknowledgement how we all have established molds of right behavior and that "we are oppressed at being men--men with a real individual body and blood, we are ashamed of it, we think it a disgrace and try to contrive to be some sort of impossible generalized man."
This novella holds you by your ears and makes you look at the limp persona which we have become, and pulls us up to try to stand on our own uniqueness. No wonder, Dostoyevesky found appreciation in none less than Nietzsche who said about "Notes from Underground" that it "cried truth from blood."
This book on account of its intellectual greatness and longevity (it was published in 1864), needs no recommendation. It is a wonderful book which should be read by all those who, as per Fyodor Dostoyevesky, are vulgar enough to live beyond forty.
Recommendation- Absolutely must read.
Amazon Link - Notes from Underground