Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Notes from Underground

Fyodor Dostoyevsky Notes from Underground (1864)
I didn't really get on with Crime and Punishment, and I bought this on the grounds of having heard of it and that Dostoyevsky must have written something to deserve all that reputation. It turns out that Notes from Underground is actually pretty slim, so it's fairly common to find it collected with other material as is the case here, and which presented the additonal appeal of containing shorter and hopefully snappier examples of whatever the fuck he was trying to say.

I got a little more out of it than Crime and Punishment, but otherwise I think I've learned my lesson. Here we have four tales from different periods of Dostoyevsky's life serving to illustrate an almost autobiographical narrative. Specifically, Dostoyevsky was subjected to a mock execution by tsarist authorities who regarded him as a subversive in 1849, then sent off to the stripey hole for the next eight years, all of which somewhat soured his view of humanity and his own initial idealism. We are afforded insight into the views of the young Dostoyevsky in White Nights, then his time in prison in selections from the autobiographical The House of the Dead, then Notes itself, concluding with The Dream of a Ridiculous Man which charts his descent into something resembling misanthropy.

The excerpts from The House of the Dead seem the most illuminating, and I found the most interesting, mostly consisting of straightforward reportage of the lives and crimes of those with whom Dostoyevsky shared a prison lavatory. The accounts are conversational, sober, and the crimes detailed are allowed to speak for themselves without any wringing of hands or pulling of faces, which is what spoils the rest of this material for me. It's nothing like so cloying or sentimental as Dickens, and the narrative often seems to actively resist the possibility with its focus on ugliness, contradiction, and self-loathing, its continuous refutation of idealism; but in the absence of light relief, it all becomes a little exhausting after a while. I suppose our man may have been attempting to communicate some purity of vision, albeit through grey-tinted spectacles, in encouraging us to dislike him as much as he seemingly disliked himself, but I found the effect unconvincing. White Nights was written prior to the author's time in prison, before the disillusionment had properly settled in, and strives to build drama from simpering acquaintances who wouldst be lovers but for something dull to do with somebody's grandmama, or maybe a fancy cake or some purloined napkins, that kind of thing. Anyway, the point is that White Nights is excruciatingly precious and juvenile, and after reading it I couldn't keep myself from seeing Dostoyevsky as an overly earnest upper class art student who follows you around quoting William Blake or snatches of Jim Morrison lyrics whilst trying his hardest to smoulder in a generally meaningful way; which is a shame because The House of the Dead at least seems to be worth a look, judging by what we have here. As a collection, this is not without merit, but it's a little chewy in places, and Jean-Paul Sartre's Nausea takes us to more or less the same destination in a much better book.

Funnily enough, perhaps in obediance to some obscure cosmic principle, last time I read Dostoyevsky I found myself toggling between Crime and Punishment and the first volume of Danny Baker's memoirs for the sake of light relief; and having picked up this one, the universe has somehow conspired to furnish me with a copy of Going Off Alarming (2014) just as I really needed to read something which wasn't a nineteenth century Russian bloke punching himself in the face for two-hundred pages. I only noticed the coincidence once I'd finished Notes. Maybe there is such a thing as the anti-Dostoyevsky and it's Danny Baker, a man who doesn't do dark and whom it may be useful to regard as the human analogy of Bugs Bunny, for the sake of argument. As with Going to Sea in a Sieve, Baker's narrative style is very much rooted in the spoken form, seeming occasionally uncomfortable on the printed page with infrequent swerves into footballer's autobiography territory when I opened the door and who should be stood there but my famous friend, Ray Reardon, the snooker champion…


Complaining about this would define me as an idiot, so I won't. The great strengths of Going Off Alarming - aside from it not being written by Dostoyevsky - are that it's erudite, funny as fuck, and stuffed with all manner of unexpected and peculiarly tender insights, notably those pertaining to Paul Gascoine - which probably say more about the human condition than anything in Notes. It also makes me quite nostalgic for Deptford and the company of dockyard types.

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