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KYM Book Club: Notes from Underground

Last posted Mar 13, 2018 at 09:18AM EDT. Added Mar 05, 2018 at 11:21AM EST
12 posts from 7 users

Hello readers, welcome to the Know Your Meme Book club. For the next few weeks we will be reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 novella Notes From Underground. The book is narrated by the unnamed "Underground Man". Robert Louis Jackson writes in an introduction that:

"The Underground Man is a product of [a] collapsing world. He is the symbolic-character image of nineteenth-century man divorced from his national roots and faith, yet seeking, in the depths of his confession, for moral and spiritual foundations, for an ideal."

The book is split into two parts, The Underground and Apropos of the Wet Snow the former being a philosophical dissertation written by the narrator and the latter a chronicle of events that led the narrator "underground" where the real story takes place.

Here is the schedule for the readings.

To not make things too hectic, we are only covering about fifteen to twenty-five pages a week to give everyone lots of time to read the book at a rate that lends itself to consideration.

Every Monday I'll post some discussion questions regarding the chapters we covered to spur conversation (except for this week, when my questions will be posted on Tuesday, sorry!) but obviously, anyone can contribute questions they would like to discuss as well. Let's try to keep things on topic, I understand people get enthusiastic online but we'll try to stay focused.

I have a copy of the Penguin Classics version of the book translated by Ronald Wilks but of you do not have a copy you can find it free here

Last edited Mar 05, 2018 at 11:27AM EST

Knightshade wrote:

I can't believe that I'm in a book club with a goddamn meme site.

It's nothing to be ashamed about! Reading can be a lot of fun and any community can stir up thought-provoking conversation even a community whose main media focus revolves around brevity.

Hello, here are some general discussion questions from the reading to spur conversation:

- Have your read any other books from this author before?

- What was the last book you read? What is similar to this book?

- What do you think of the "Underground Man" the narrator of the story, what kind of person do you think he is?

- The narrator often addresses the audience of the book (usually as "gentlemen") what kind of audience do you think the narrator is writing his notes for?

@Particle Mare

Last edited Mar 06, 2018 at 11:07AM EST

Alright, this will be my second time reading Notes from the Underground, I hope I'll get a better understanding of what's going on.

As I read the 5 chapters again this time round, I felt as though I could appreciate the emotions presented by the Underground Man more clearly, as in the past I was able to understand it from an intellectual level, but I never felt what the narrator was describing, it didn't really resonate or feel intuitive to think in the manner he thought.

- Have your read any other books from this author before?

No, but I have read this before.

- What was the last book you read? What is similar to this book?

The last book I read in terms of novels is currently Emma by Jane Austen, though I'm still reading it.

There really is nothing quite similar between the two except for the superficial similiarity of having an intellectual main character who's isolated in some way (Emma herself living somewhat of a distance away from everyone at her father's estate and the Underground Man being completely isolated at his little house on the edge of St. Petersburg).

- What do you think of the “Underground Man” the narrator of the story, what kind of person do you think he is?

Bit of a long write up I've got on this Underground Man, but he's an interesting character.

I think the Underground Man is an intellectual who has fallen to a pitfall of intellectualism, overthinking, and has thus become an outsider with no place in society. The constant analysis of and objection to reason plus the continual consideration of others primarily before himself has lead to the narrator becoming very self-absorbed and has now lost all form of conviction in his beliefs.
He feels guilty, I believe, because he feels he has no place in society due to his intellectualism; yet still he feels like an average member of society when it comes down to his emotions (he also gets angry, despairs and feels jealousy, which he believes is irrational and against intellectualism itself).
So as a result of not feeling like he belongs in society, he's unable to stay true to any conviction he might feel as he believes he is, by character, not "correct" according to any societal values, norms or custom anywhere, and he despises this about himself.

In short, I feel as though his isolation is both caused by society and himself; society due to its indifference and other times disdain to intellectualism displacing people such as the narrator, and the Underground Man due to continually questioning and disregarding the values and norms which make up society at large's own and feeling regret for society not matching his ideals.

- The narrator often addresses the audience of the book (usually as “gentlemen”) what kind of audience do you think the narrator is writing his notes for?

I'm not entirely sure, but I would assume the audience the narrator is going for is the general, outgoing public, who he would assume all have conviction in some form for their beliefs, whatever it may be.

Last edited Mar 10, 2018 at 10:29AM EST

Lets go to the drill.

Have your read any other books from this author before?

Nope, but I heard a lot of stuff about Dostoevsky. Back then, when I was in college, a professor really liked his works and he recommended to us to read Crime and Punishment.
You can guess I haven't read that book or any of his works…

What was the last book you read? What is similar to this book?

Spice and Wolf Vol. 6 (where's my goddamn season 3! ;_;)
The last book I read was As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner, I haven't finished but I plan to do it in due time, and before of that one it was The Grapes of Wrath. (and boy Steinbeck wasn't fucking around when he wrote that book). And judging form the first chapters, I'd say these books and Notes don't share a lot in common (at least in themes and storytelling).

What do you think of the “Underground Man” the narrator of the story, what kind of person do you think he is?

For being in his 40s (unless that also is a lie too), he really sound like a sour, salty old man. Smart but cynical, some who had enough about everything: from his misery, the idiotic lives lived by everyone else, the pain, his lack of action, etc. But that is what make him honest, after all: What can, an honest man, talk with more pleasure? Answer: about oneself.

The narrator often addresses the audience of the book (usually as “gentlemen”) what kind of audience do you think the narrator is writing his notes for?

Probably to the general public, specially to all the people who could read, regardless of social status, at the time this book was published (because I don't see a Dostoevsky writing for the novelty and Russian aristocracy), although I don't have statistics about literacy rates on the Russian Empire during the time Notes From the Underground was published.

One thing I noticed is that the narrator talks about the revenge in chapter 5. It says that revenge is not always a good thing:

They said the man avenges because he considers that is fair…thus he found the fundamental principle: justice. He's completely calm and avenges with complete serenity and success, convinced that he realizes a fair and honest act. But I don't see in the vengeance nothing fair or honest.

Disclaimer: the quote comes from a Spanish translation of the book. I took responsibilities if there some translating errors.

Considering that this book was published just two years before Crime and Punishment, I wouldn't be surprised if the theme of revenge here worked as an draft to be later used expanded in Crime and Punishment.

Have your read any other books from this author before?

No. This is, in fact, my first time reading Russian literature.

I did, however, have a friend who was a Dostoevsky enthusiast, going so far as to learn Russian so he could read the original works. So this is not strictly my first time engaging with Dostoevsky's ideas.

What was the last book you read? What is similar to this book?

The last fiction book I read was Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. The two works share the distinction of being seminal in their respective literary genres, but any similarities more or less end there.

What do you think of the “Underground Man” the narrator of the story, what kind of person do you think he is?

Dostoevsky is clearly a gifted literary psychologist, giving his character a realistic (and suitably impenetrable) thinking process from which clear patterns emerge. The Underground Man is, above all else, a wretched and pitiable creature. He maneuvers to second-guess the reader and baits a reaction, followed by an assertion that he does not care for what the reader thinks, and that indeed he does not care what he himself thinks. He is a wretched creature, and at several points even bluntly states as much; but this too, I believe, is part of his second-guessing, part of a subtle desperation to show the reader that he is more clever, that he is in control; that he is the existentialist man, and that all manner of philosophy is to be arranged at his pleasure.

He rather appears to the reader as an existentialist nightmare, a bloated brain in a wilted body that has thought itself into a ditch. (No doubt he would also have embraced such a description of himself.)

Something else that strikes me about his way of thinking is how he defines himself and his worldview entirely in terms of society, despite his evident tendencies toward solipsistic thinking. He mocks society, criticizes it, and quite obviously considers himself above it (a sentiment he tries to obscure), but he is fundamentally a negation of society, without which his mental paradigms could not exist; his title "the Underground Man" exemplifies this by identifying him not by his own characteristics but primarily by his being where society is absent.

The narrator often addresses the audience of the book (usually as “gentlemen”) what kind of audience do you think the narrator is writing his notes for?

The obvious answer is the Russian public. I think it should be pointed out, however, that existentialism was something of a 19th century forerunner of modern objectivist libertarianism: educated, affluent, overwhelmingly male, and weirdly uncomfortable with women. (See: Nietzsche on women.) Obviously Dostoevsky did not intend for this, but "gentlemen" is an apt description of the kinds of people who would peruse existentialist literature, whether in Dostoevsky's day or at the behest of a memesite moderator.

Hey folks, great answers so far, I never intended for the questions to be directly for answering but just questions I thought might be worth considering for more free-form discussion, but if you would like to engage with the questions directly that's entirely up to you. But please don't feel it necessary. I will try to make the questions more general and open-ended.

Why I picked this book was mainly do to two reasons, one, a couple of my friends on discord said they were reading it and two there was a tweet I read that referenced this book that I thought would make this of some (admittedly trivial) relevance. Also Minty had sent me a book called Welcome to the NHK which deals with a young man living a "Hikikomori" lifestyle that was likened to this book. So it may have some relevance to groups that still exist today.

I've read a few Doestoevsky books, this, The Gambler, The Double, The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot. I was a Russian Lit guy for several years and I'm looking forward to reading this book again. The last book I read was A Confederacy of Dunces and what they share is the theme of "intellectual" men who are effectively outcast. Although Dunces is a comedy and this book is much more serious, for me ne of the key differences is Ignatius Reilly (of Dunces) sees himself as a sort of Holy Warrior and The Underground Man understands himself as an excremental remainder of society.

What I like (and I do hate to say like) is about the Underground Man, is that he is desperately trying to paint an honest portrait of himself. Taking a rational view of his actions his considerations and his circumstances he talks about how dreadful he is. Sure, he's smart, maybe smarter than most, but he still can't help coming across as a kind of joke. He admits as much to his audience and refutes that he "is the jolly type" that "we" think he is. What I think is so funny about him, and what, despite all that the Underground Man is I do like about him is that in his Notes he is writing to his "friends" or at least sympathizers. What the Underground is looking for is illustrated when he says "Us men when think and consequently do nothing" so if this was written for the Russian public at large, it was to sift through the, excuse the term, "normies", and reveal itself as a sign of solidarity to the collective of the isolated.

This is where I think this book has it's most relevance today, although the book is deeply tied to the social landscape of 19th century Russia, I like to read it anachronistically as Underground Man, the proto-poster. The Underground Man lives comfortably, in squalor mind you, but due to an inheritance from a relative that let him quit his job. He is a NEET. He's in poor health, and he makes these bombastic statements about others in society that while confused do point towards uncomfortable aspects of the human condition.

This week's questions for your consideration while reading Chapters 6 – 11.

  • Now that we're at the end of the first part how do you feel about the book so far?
  • Did any parts stand out to you?
  • What do you think of the author's choice to start the book with these Notes? Did it make the book more or less engaging for you?

I'd like to pose a question for discussion:

- Do you think people such as the Underground Man are a natural byproduct of societal living, or is there another cause for such characters?

Funny you should bring up NHK Blubber because Minty also sent me that book and I also noticed this odd similarity in the narration style and the way the narrator has this self-lambasting and occasionally contradictory way of expressing himself. It's interesting to see the NEET phenomenon explored in another time and culture.

@Minty I think it comes down to disillusionment with the times. In the past 10 years in my country we had quite high unemployment among young people because of things like a failing housing market and job market. But across history and fiction reflecting that history you have always had characters referred to as "layabouts" and "wastrels" and these are kind of earlier versions of the same thing. The idle intellectual or the "brilliant but lazy" type. The guy who would be a massive success at something if only he'd get up off his arse to do so.

I think based on early impressions the Underground Man reflects a good portion of KYM's reaction to world events or things like terrorist attacks: there is a general sense of sarcastic scepticism towards activist groups or people who "care too much" about things and yet they themselves clearly have issues and thoughts about the world they care very deeply for. In terms of this kind of self-contradiction, the Underground Man is a KYM commenter to me, so far.


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