Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book Review: Notes from Underground, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I read this book a couple of years ago, and I'm reviewing it now because I'm giving it away on, now that I have it on my Kindle. Even thinking about this book and browsing through portions of it that I enjoyed makes me want to read it again. It was an addicting book.

The first half of it is mainly the ramblings of a former civil servant who lives in an underground basement-type dwelling in St. Petersburg. We quickly find that this unnamed narrator is cynical and detached. He thinks that he is superior to everyone else, but he is also very insecure. He is one of those people who never fit in with everyone else, and who feels angry and isolated because of it. He both hates that fact that he feels different from everyone else, and loves it, at the same time.

Certain parts of the first half of this book were boring and confusing to me. But the overall tone was fascinating, and the language just gribbed me. There are such beautiful and true passages in here! I'm glad I stuck with it because the entire second half of the book is told in a more traditional "story-telling" format. We see the narrator's beef with a former supervisor, we see him at a dinner party with his "friends", and, in my favorite parts of the book, we see him with a prostitute named Liza. At the same time he confides in Liza and uses her selfishly, he also lectures her about why she shouldn't be a prostitute, and how lovely her life could be if she were to leave that lifestyle. The ironic thing is that the narrator's life is empty and unhappy, and he wouldn't even have Liza if she were to take his advice. It's so strange to read because his advice seems so helpful and on point, yet, he clearly doesn't take it himself.

Here I'll post some quotes I liked from the book because the best part of it is its language. It is excellently translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. (I always wonder how translators can capture the original tone and language from Russian, which is so different from English!) There are long passages on marriage and family which I'm thinking of using for a reading at my upcoming wedding in October. I loved this book and want to re-read it and read more by Dostoevsky.

Quotes from Notes from Underground:

“At home, I merely used to read. Reading stirred, delighted, and tormented me.”

“It is impossible for an intelligent man seriously to become anything, and only fools become something.”

“To be overly conscious is a sickness, a real, thorough sickness.“

“But anyhow: what can a decent man speak about with the most pleasure?
Answer: Himself.
So then I, too, will speak about myself.”

“I’ve always considered myself more intelligent than everyone around me, and, would you believe, have even felt slightly ashamed of it. At least I’ve somehow averted my eyes all my life, and never could look people straight in the face.”

“Curses on that school, on those terrible years of penal servitude! In short, I parted ways with my fellows as soon as I was set free.”

“With love one can live even without happiness. Life is good even in sorrow, it’s good to live in the world, no matter how.”

“Man only likes counting his grief, he doesn’t count his happiness. But if he were to count properly, he’d see that there’s enough of both lots for him."

“What if everything goes right in the family, God blesses it, your husband turns out to be a good man, who loves you, pampers you, never leaves your side! It’s good in this family! Oftentimes even half mixed with grief it’s still good, and where there is no grief? Perhaps, once you get married, you’ll find out for yourself. But take just the beginning, after you’ve married someone you love: There’s such happiness at times, so much happiness! I mean, day in and day out. In the beginning, even quarrels with a h sband end well. Some women, the more they love, the more they pick quarrels with their husbands...."

“And how good to make peace after a quarrel, to own up to him, or to forgive! And how good, how good they both suddenly feel-as if they were meeting anew, getting married anew, beginning to love anew. And no one, no one ought to know what goes on between a husband and wife if they love each other. And whatever quarrel they may have—they shouldn’t call even their mother to be their judge or hear them tell about each other. They are their own judges. Love—is God’s mystery, and should be hidden from all other eyes, whatever happens. It’s holier that way, and better. They respect each other more, and so much is founded on respect. And if there was love once, if they were married out of love, shy should love pass? Can’t it be sustained? It rarely happens that it can’t be. Well, and if the husband proves to be a kind and honest man, how can love pass? The first married love will pass, true, but then an even better love will come. Then their souls will grow close; they’ll decide all their doings together; they’ll have no secrets from each other. And when children arrive, then all of it, even the hardest times, will come like happiness; one need only love and have courage. Now even work brings joy, now even if you must occasionally deny yourself bread for the children’s sake, still there is joy. For they will love you for it later; so you’re laying aside for yourself.
Isn’t this the whole of happiness, when they’re all three together, husband, wife and child? A lot can be forgiven for those moments.”

“I might not just dangle after you, but simply fall in love with you, and be glad if you merely glanced at me, let alone spoke. I’d watch for you by the gate, I’d stay forever on my knees before you; I’d look upon you as my fiancée, and regard it as an honor. I wouldn’t dare even think anything impure about you. Love! – but this is everything, it’s a diamond, a maiden’s treasure, this love! To deserve this love a man would be ready to lay down his soul, to face death.”

“For a woman it is in love that all resurrection, all salvation from ruin of whatever sort, and all regeneration consists, nor can it reveal itself in anything else but this.”

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