Notes from the Underground

Yesterday I attended my library’s Great Books discussion. We talked about Fyodor Doestoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is a troubling book to read but a terrific book to discuss. The narrator is neurotic or possibly psychotic. He introduces himself saying:

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unpleasant man. I think my liver is diseased. However, I don’t know beans about my disease, and I am not sure what is bothering me. I don’t treat it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, let’s say sufficiently so to respect medicine. (I am educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, its is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then– let it get even worse!” 

Part One of the story continues with this tone as the narrator, whose name we never learn, rants and raves about society. He’s a 40-something civil servant who delights in being rude to the public he’s supposed to serve. (Haven’t we seen those types in government offices and private sector customer service desks?) He has no filter and like a Russian Trump will call a spade a spade, the stupid, stupid.

In Part Two, Doestoevsky switches from a monologue to a narrative and goes back in time to when the narrator was 20. He’s (no big surprise) alienated from his peers, unhappy with the world, which fails to see how brilliant he is, and manages to misread every social situation and make problems spread and grow.

Now why would anyone want to read about such a misanthrope?

The answer’s because Doestoevsky makes us think and delights us with fine prose. He poses interesting questions:

“And why are you so firmly, so triumphantly, convinced that only the normal and the positive–in other words, only what is conducive to welfare–is for the advantage of man? Is not reason in error as regards advantage? Does not man, perhaps, love something besides well-being? Perhaps he is just as fond of suffering? Perhaps suffering is just as great a benefit to him as well-being? Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering, and that is a fact.”

His book still is relevant as it shows the shortcomings of “enlightened self-interest” or rational egoism, philosophies that aren’t quite dead, that fail to show the need for sacrifice and empathy and the limits of rationality on its own.

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Anna Karenina

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The 2012 Anna Karenina is visually masterful and dramatically potent. Director Joe Wright‘s film adheres to Tolstoy‘s novel, but moves at a clip. Viewers get all the essential with out all many of the details of the masterpiece. It’s a good introduction to a must-read book. If you only watch the film, you won’t get all the details of life in the country-side and the social issues of the late 19th century. You will get the passion and momentum of a woman caught up in a scandalous affair, though the film moves so fast that you don’t get the full sense of the isolation she feels when she moves with Vronsky to the country.

The film’s strength for me was it the gorgeous visuals. Wright presents a different world, a story set on a stage much of the time, a stage that transports us and contains Anna’s world. I kept thinking of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage . . . ” line. I’m sure I was meant to.

I read the book years ago and loved it. Anna Karenina is the story of a young, passionate woman married to a stern, coldly traditional man, who isn’t bad, but just has no idea how to love.  Anna meets a dashing officer, Vronsky. Their paths cross in Moscow and though part of her wants to avoid an affair that will not only destroy her marriage, but will break the heart of Kitty, a young relative of hers by marriage, she can’t help it. (From Anna’s point of view she can’t. That’s debatable, of course.)

Vronsky and Anna aren’t good at hiding their love and in this society that will cost a woman everything. Bravo to Jude Law who plays Anna’s husband in a way that makes him complex. He’s technically in the right, but he does so in such a wrong way, he just does not understand his wife and probably never did. Karenina can’t help himself and  while you sympathize, you know he’s making the problem worse. Keira Knightly stars as Anna and does the role justice, but I would have liked to have seen a Russian actress in the role.

Matthew MacFayden plays Anna’s philandering brother Oblonsky with much gusto and comedy, which was a bit over the top for me.  Just a little. Oblonsky is a brash character, but I was always aware that it was MacFayden playing a Russian, whereas Law dissolved into his character.

Downton Abbey fans will spy two cast members Michelle Dockery (Mary) and Thomas Howes (William, who died in WWI) appear.

When I read the novel years ago, I saw the 1967 Russian film. It’s very good and highly recommend it.