Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Mini-Review - “Notes from Underground” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I remember as if it were yesterday the moment I discovered the genius of Dostoevsky. I was sitting in English class in old Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College in Illinois – back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, or so it seems! In her regal voice, Dr. Beatrice Batson intoned words from “The Brothers Karamazov” that have remained etched in my memory. She quoted the middle brother, the tortured, alienated intellectual nihilist, Ivan, as he tells his younger brother, Alyosha, that he cannot accept this dark world—a world in which innocent children suffer and die—and that he wants to opt out of life. And yet, even in the midst of his nihilistic funk, he admits that he still loves life. “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring.”

I think of those “sticky little leaves” each spring and rejoice at the wonder of what God has created.

Recently, a friend, knowing my love and appreciation for the writings of Dostoevsky, made me the gift of a copy of “Notes from Underground,” a short novel written in the form of a memoir. In the few pages of this novel, Dostoevsky manages to sum up his philosophy of life and view of humanity – the belief that contained within each human breast rages a perpetual war for dominance between good and evil – between hope and despair. The publisher of this edition of the book boils it down very concisely: ’I am a sick man. . .I am a wicked man.’ With this sentence Fyodor Dostoevsky began one of the most revolutionary novels ever written, a work that marks the frontier, not only between nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction, but between two centuries’ visions of the self. For the unnamed narrator of Notes from Underground is a multiplicity of selves, each at war with the others – all at war with everything else.” (Back leaf of Vintage edition)

Dostoevsky was one of the keenest observers of the human condition. Every page of his writings offers new insights into the complexities of our behavior and thought patterns. He explains with simplicity why his unnamed narrator, undistinguished as he may be, has chosen to tell his story: “But anyhow: what can a decent man speak about with the most pleasure?

Answer: about himself.

So then I, too, will speak about myself.” (Page 6)

I found particularly poignant and thought-provoking the narrator’s description of his treatment of a young prostitute and what those actions and attitudes reveal about his heart.

This is not light, summer reading, but more of an aerobic workout for the mind and soul that is well worth the effort.



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