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From 1001 books:
Notes from the Underground:
"As the title suggests, the narrator of Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground is a voice from beneath the daylight world -- a troubled consciousness leaking out from a crack in the floorboards of Russian society. The novel is both the apology and the confession of a bitter, misanthropic civic official living alone in St. Petersburg. Divided into two sections, it reflects two key stages in Russian intellectual life during the nineteenth century: the rationalist utilitarianism of the 1860s and the sentimental, literary romanticism of the 1840s. Across the two parts, the narrator launches a series of dazzling, provocative attacks on the many changing orders of his lifetime -- aesthetic, religious, philosophical, and political. He is a highly educated but deeply disillusioned soul, savaging both the 'beautiful and lofty' romanticism of his youth and the new socialist principles that correspond with his middle age. No target is immune from scorn.
On the one hand, this dark, strange work is a kind of 'case study' -- an analysis of alienation and self-loathing, a novel that situates itself on the faultline between society and the individual. On the other, it is a tragicomic theater of ideas. It offers a powerful rebuttal to both enlightenment idealism and the promises of social utopianism. Notes from the Underground is a shadowy, difficult, and compelling novel, which deserves to be recognized as far more than a critical prelude to Dostoevsky's later, more celebrated works."
The Death of Ivan Ilyich:
"The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a short novel but not a modest one. As the spiritual crisis of Levin, Tolstoy's self-portrait, had been left unresolved in Anna Karenina, here he describes the agony of ambivalence that led to that resolution, albeit through the story of a less complicated man, a man less liable to crises of self-understanding than Levin.
Ivan Ilyich is an ambitious bureaucrat jostling his way up the ladder of advantages in a corrupt Russia still harnessed by the czar's bureaucratic apparatus. He slides gracefully into the roles offered to him, adjusting the attitudes and ethics of his youth to fit the exigencies of his career, and accepting gladly the circus of perks and consolations offered by fashionable society and its luxuries. He particularly enjoys playing cards, a pastime evidently despised by Tolstoy as much as by the German philosopher Schopenhauer, who thought it the most degraded, senseless and 'automatic' behavior imaginable. Following what seems like an unremarkable injury, Ivan becomes gradually more incapacitated until he is unable to rise from the couch in his drawing room. Tolstoy describes with ferocious zeal the intensity of Ivan's physical suffering, which so exhausts him that eventually he gives up speaking and simply screams without remission, horrifying his attendant family. In the end, the death proves not to be the destination of Ivan's tormented and ignorant spiritual journey. It is simply the wasted province of all that he leaves behind by relinquishing his life, all the possessions and affectations, and even the human intimacies that he permitted in order to pass his life as a reality worth settling for. This Tolstoy's most concentrated statement of renunciation of a pre-revolutionary corrupted social existence."