Friday, March 20, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Notes from Underground: a new Overcoat

(What is Borrowed Fire?)

Here's Notes from Underground from Project Gutenberg.

Oh, how can you not love this book? (I'm not saying you don't love it, gentlemen; I think you do. But perhaps you are not ready to admit it.)

How can you not love this guy:

One night as I was passing a tavern I saw through a lighted window some gentlemen fighting with billiard cues, and saw one of them thrown out of the window. At other times I should have felt very much disgusted, but I was in such a mood at the time, that I actually envied the gentleman thrown out of the window--and I envied him so much that I even went into the tavern and into the billiard-room. "Perhaps," I thought, "I'll have a fight, too, and they'll throw me out of the window."

The scheme occurs to the Underground Man, by the way, as he's returning from one of his nights of "filthy vice" (i.e. visiting prostitutes). He wishes to punish himself, or rather, have someone else punish him--so he can then play the victim, and then mock himself for playing the victim, and so on into infinity. He also wants the attention that being thrown through a window will bring him. But what happens instead?

An officer put me in my place from the first moment.

I was standing by the billiard-table and in my ignorance blocking up the way, and he wanted to pass; he took me by the shoulders and without a word--without a warning or explanation--moved me from where I was standing to another spot and passed by as though he had not noticed me. I could have forgiven blows, but I could not forgive his having moved me without noticing me.

It's the UM's manner of plotting and--sort of--exacting revenge that I'm interested in today. His first attempt is to write a satirical story about the officer, but it is rejected by a prominent journal, to his great consternation (perhaps some of us can relate to this particular failed plot). So he decides he is going to bump the officer in some public place. That is, he's going to get in the man's way and not step aside; the idea of doing this makes him absolutely giddy. (This whole section is worth several reads; I think it's hysterically funny, and I'm sure as hell not doing it justice here.) But first he has to prepare to bump him, and this involves obtaining proper attire. Specifically, he needs a new overcoat.

I had got ready long beforehand a good shirt, with white bone studs; my overcoat was the only thing that held me back. The coat in itself was a very good one, it kept me warm; but it was wadded and it had a raccoon collar which was the height of vulgarity. I had to change the collar at any sacrifice, and to have a beaver one like an officer's. For this purpose I began visiting the Gostiny Dvor and after several attempts I pitched upon a piece of cheap German beaver. Though these German beavers soon grow shabby and look wretched, yet at first they look exceedingly well, and I only needed it for the occasion. I asked the price; even so, it was too expensive. After thinking it over thoroughly I decided to sell my raccoon collar. The rest of the money--a considerable sum for me, I decided to borrow from Anton Antonitch Syetotchkin, my immediate superior, an unassuming person, though grave and judicious. He never lent money to anyone, but I had, on entering the service, been specially recommended to him by an important personage who had got me my berth. I was horribly worried. To borrow from Anton Antonitch seemed to me monstrous and shameful. I did not sleep for two or three nights. Indeed, I did not sleep well at that time, I was in a fever; I had a vague sinking at my heart or else a sudden throbbing, throbbing, throbbing! Anton Antonitch was surprised at first, then he frowned, then he reflected, and did after all lend me the money, receiving from me a written authorisation to take from my salary a fortnight later the sum that he had lent me.

All of this, as you may already know, is a parody of Gogol's "The Overcoat," which of course is a satire itself. (Ooh! I see they have "The Overcoat" on Gutenburg also, only in their collection it's called "The Cloak.") And of course the parody is completely knowing, a very self-conscious bit of meta-fiction. In fact, the UM says of the officer, "Devil knows what I would have given for a real regular quarrel--a more decent, a more LITERARY one, so to speak."

OK: metafiction can be cheesy, smarmy, snotty, snooty, and tiresome. Let's not do it like that. But we can try weaving a story we really love into one of our stories. We often do this sort of thing unconsciously--let's try it consciously. We can try a complex, ultimately admiring parody that doesn't just exist as a parody, but serves to advance the story. The game here is that the UM wants to be more literary, so he rewrites himself as a fictional character that he thinks his readers will recognize (he's aware that he's already fictional, but people don't recognize him--that's the problem). Maybe the story we choose to parody could even be NfU, or some episode therein, like the bump-plotting episode.

BTW, does the UM ever bump the officer? Yes he does.

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