Old favourites: Notes From Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)

Week 3: A year of Rob Doyle’s best-loved books

Fyodor Dostoevsky: his cringing narrator insists humankind would rather tear itself apart than submit to boredom or obligatory happiness. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images

Fyodor Dostoevsky: his cringing narrator insists humankind would rather tear itself apart than submit to boredom or obligatory happiness. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images

 

Is it preposterous to suggest that Fyodor Dostoevsky prophesied the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and the seething hate-pits of social media? Notes From Underground is a vicious slap in the face to the delusion that man is a rational being who acts in his own self-interests. Dostoevsky’s abject, cringing narrator, cowering in a basement hovel in St Petersburg, insists that humankind would rather tear itself apart than submit to boredom or obligatory happiness. The novel is a scream of human perversity, and the most unflinching study of self-loathing in the literary canon. As such, it is a vessel for painful self-knowledge. Rereading it now, I see myself as I was at 20: odious, tortured, consumed by rage, obsessing over perceived slights, compelled to act in incomprehensible ways while veering between feelings of worthlessness and a monstrous arrogance.

Sick and dangerous

Notes From Underground pulled back the rock to uncover a festering sublayer of society whose existence literature had hitherto failed to acknowledge. To Dostoevsky, such tormented wretches as his underground man, who finger their wounds until their thoughts grow sick and dangerous, are the inevitable consequence of a liberalised society that rejects tradition and religion, promising unlimited glory to the individual only to subject him to humiliating material conditions. Today’s underground man is the high-school shooter, the incel, Mohammad Atta, Anders Breivik, the online shamer, the self-hating troll. The underground man loathes everybody around him, because they are his mirrors. Like Notes From Underground, his days are an unrelenting ordeal of envy, spite, impotence, rancour, dissipation, vengefulness and shame.

As the novel opens, the narrator is 40 - “deep old age”. He is painfully sensitive, “as if I’d had the skin peeled off me, so that contact with the very air hurts”, and is still obsessing over humiliations he suffered when he was 24. The only thing he has going for him is his lucidity, which is no comfort at all. He knows he is sick and hopes it gets worse, because after all, “man adores suffering”.

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