After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.
Mark your calendars. As promised (many months ago) Kate Atkinson, author of the inaugural Litblog Co-op selection, Case Histories, will be stopping by the LBC blog to discuss the book with readers. If you got a chance to read the book – or if you just want to see what all the fuss is about – be sure to visit the blog on Monday, August 29th.
“The poet makes himself a seer by a long, immense, and reasoned derangement of all the senses. All forms of love, suffering, and madness–he explores himself, he tries out all the poisons on himself and keeps only their quintessences.” So wrote a Paris-based Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to his friend Paul Demeny in 1871. Nearly one hundred years later, on the other side of the Atlantic, the artist David Wojnarowicz followed a parallel path on the streets of New York.
Both men had itinerant fathers–Rimbaud’s was a military man and Wojnarowicz’s, a sailor–they suffered at the hands of their parents and escaped their households at a young age. In Paris, Rimbaud slept under bridges and in army barracks, and was likely sexually assaulted by soldiers. Wojnarowicz, too, lived on the streets and worked as a child prostitute. By the age of fifteen he’d suffered an unimaginable list of abuses, including being “drugged, tossed out a second story window, strangled, smacked in the head with a slab of marble, almost stabbed four times, punched in [the] face at least seventeen times, beat about [his] body too many times to recount, almost completely suffocated.”
The two men shared a romance with violence and danger. Rimbaud was shot in the wrist by his lover, Paul Verlaine, as he tried to break off their affair. Wojnarowicz was shot at by a drag queen who mistook his knock at her door for the arrival of an unfaithful lover. Rimbaud, the poète maudit, and Verlaine were detained and questioned by the police after fabricating a story at a train station–they were murderers who had just escaped from prison, and spoke loudly enough for fellow travelers to overhear.
Wojnarowicz begins his memoir, Close to the Knives, with tales of roaming hot city streets with a friend, while carrying meat cleavers stolen from Macy’s and looking for someone to mug. And in his book Memories That Smell Like Gasoline, he describes his hunger for violent men: “I’m attracted to living like that, moment to moment, with very little piling up of information, breaking windows of cause and response.” Rimbaud and Wojnarowicz were aligned as miscreants, meddlers, thieves, deranged to the point of seeing, i.e., visionary.
Je est un autre. Another phrase Rimbaud famously wrote, “I is another.”
Similarly, Wojnarowicz wrote, regarding waking up in an altered state, or site, of consciousness: “The ‘I’ of my self had crawled through the thickness of memory and consciousness to some other place in the structure of the brain and emerged within a new gray coil.”
Wojnarowicz was deeply aware of the trajectory he shared with the youthful and precocious Rimbaud, with whose debauched and dangerous life he identified, and tried to align himself. One thing Wojnarowicz couldn’t have known in his late teens and early twenties was that he, like Rimbaud, would meet an untimely death, from AIDS.
In the late ‘70s, the young Wojnarowicz photographed a series of portraits of a man–a friend, perhaps–wearing a paper cut-out mask of Rimbaud’s face. This Rimbaud skulks through the settings of Wojnarowicz’s New York, alone. He sits in a graffiti-covered subway car, loiters outside movie houses, wanders under piers and through abandoned buildings, with a needle in his arm, with a gun to his head, in a passionate embrace, pissing in a toilet. Wojnarowicz’s photo series Rimbaud in New York 1978-9 distills the rawness, pain, and deprivation of living on the street to a beauty of mythic proportions. The youthful delicacy of this body is surrounded by weary decay and distanced by the mask, in what could otherwise appear a living hell.
To quote Wojnarowicz, “ Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head.”
The mask obscuring identity–literally making this figure an “I” who is another, the savage poet who suffers to the point of seeing–recalls the lover in the Foolish Virgin/Hellish Bridegroom section of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell:
I saw the whole decor he surrounded himself with in his own mind: clothes, sheets, furniture. I lent him weapons, another face. I looked at everything in relation to him, as he’d have liked to create it for himself. Whenever he’d look absent-minded, I’d follow him into weird and complicated strategies, far out, good or bad–I was sure I’d never get into his world. Next to his gorgeous sleeping body, how many hours I used to spend awake at night, wondering why he wanted to escape from reality so badly. No man ever had such a wish. I realized–without any fear for him–that he could be a threat to society.–Maybe he’s got secrets to change life?
“That he could be a threat to society,” resonates even more clearly following the removal of Wojnarowicz’s video Fire in My Belly from the Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. In December, the government-run Smithsonian, under pressure from the Catholic League, removed his video because it depicts ants crawling over a crucifix. Much has already been written about this. The attention drawn and cacophony of protests have obscured the work by Wojnarowicz that remains present–a series of four devastating images from the Rimbaud in New York series. Images were like words to Wojnarowicz, he placed them against and within each other, in still life or video, “to construct a free-floating sentence that speaks about the world I witness…. A camera in some hands can preserve an alternate history.”
Visit this link (and scroll down) for an excerpt of the new Philip Roth novel, The Plot Against America. In other news, Pulitzer Prize winner Edward P. Jones is one of 23 people to be given a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. That’s “annual checks for $100,000 for the next five years, to be used however they want,” for those of you keeping score at home. This year’s other literary geniuses are short story writer Aleksandar Hemon (The Question of Bruno, Nowhere Man) and poet C.D. Wright (Deepstep Come Shining, Steal Away). Here are profiles of Chicago’s two geniuses.
Last week, on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, George Saunders, Zadie Smith, and Vendela Vida used The Book of Other People as a jumping-off point for a refreshingly heterodox discussion of the craft of fiction.Audio is also available at www.wnyc.org.