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.
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.
They recently announced the finalists for the 2003 National Book Critics Circle Awards. The winners will be announced on March 4th. I tend to be more interested in “critics circle” awards when it comes to books and movies. Critics have to read or watch many more books or movies than the average person, and it is their job to pass judgment on this sort of thing. It is also important that they are not “insiders” in their respective industries, thus their choices are relatively unsullied by politics and personality conflicts. Nor is anyone really campaigning for these awards as one might campaign for an Oscar, a Pulitzer, or a Booker. Here are the nominees:FictionMonica Ali, Brick Lane (Scribner)Edward P. Jones, The Known World (Amistad/HarperCollins)Caryl Phillips, A Distant Shore (Knopf)Richard Powers, The Time of Our Singing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)Tobias Wolff, Old School (Knopf)General NonfictionCaroline Alexander, The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (Viking)Anne Applebaum, Gulag: A History (Doubleday)Paul Hendrickson, Sons of Mississippi: A Story of Race and Its Legacy (Knopf)Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx (Scribner)William T. Vollmann, Rising Up and Rising Down (McSweeney’s)Biography/AutobiographyBlake Bailey, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador)Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards (Yale University Press)Carol Loeb Shloss, Lucia Joyce: To Dance in the Wake (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)William Taubman, Khrushchev: The Man and His Era (Norton)PoetryCarolyn Forche, Blue Hour (HarperCollins)Tony Hoagland, What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf)Venus Khoury-Ghata, She Says (Graywolf)Susan Stewart, Columbarium (University of Chicago Press)Mary Szybist, Granted (Alice James Books)CriticismDagoberto Gilb, Gritos (Grove)Nick Hornby, Songbook (McSweeney’s)Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (Walker)Rebecca Solnit, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West (Viking)Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)My thoughts: Brick Lane, The Known World, and Gulag continue to make appearances as finalists for major awards. None of the National Book Award winners are even listed as finalists for these awards. McSweeney’s is shown some love for its two most serious and most ambitious releases of the year. Now, if only they would take this as a cue to leave the forced silliness of their other releases behind.
As any student of the history of the English language – or of Walter Scott – knows, our having, as English speakers, different words for food on the hoof and food on the table is no idle fact. Consider the opening scene of Ivanhoe, in which the swineherd Gurth and Wamba the jester debate this very point:Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.”Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.””And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?””Pork,” answered the swine-herd.”I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?””It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”After the Norman Invasion in 1066, Norman French became the language of power in Britain, spoken by the king and court and any who wanted favor from them. The conquered residents of Britain, speakers of the Germanic Old English, were those who raised, tended, and hunted animals: Thus, cow (kuh), calf (kalb), swine (schweine), deer (deor), sheep (schaf), and hen (huhn) for living animals, while the wealthy Norman conquerors tended to be those who enjoyed the animals at table: Thus, beef (boeuf), pork (porc), mutton (mouton), and poultry (poulet).The English words have always seemed to me more sturdy – as well as more coarse. Like chewing a mouthful of rocks or biting into the branch of a sapling – too fibrous to chew, sour with sap. The French words seem like tiny exhalations of essence – bouef, mouton – the soul of the thing rather than sinews and bones.I think brains can take the character of their mother tongues. I am quite sure my brain is Anglo-Saxon – all sap and fibers and rocks and bones.
Counterpoint is rereleasing a collection of Donald Barthelme tidbits (it’s subtitled “Satires, Parodies, Fables, Illustrated Stories, and Plays”), The Teachings of Don B.. The collection is perhaps most notable in that it contains an introduction by Thomas Pynchon. I’m fairly certain it’s the same essay by Pynchon that’s found here. It begins:Though to all appearances a gathering of odds and ends, what this volume in fact offers us is the full spectrum of vintage Barthelmismo — fictions thoughtfully concocted and comfortably beyond the reach of time, reactions less exempt from deadlines and rent payments to news of past moments that nonetheless remain our own, not to mention literary send-ups, intriguing recipes, magisterially extended metaphors, television programming that never was, strangely illuminated dreams, elegant ranting, debonair raving, and more, much more.Now that’s a blurb.
This weekend, hurtling toward the conclusion of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, I took a pit-stop to thumb through Edgar Johnson’s biography of the author. I was curious to see what had triggered Dickens’ transformation from the showman of the early novels to the architect of the series of dizzying edifices that began with Dombey and Son. I didn’t find the answer I was looking for. I did, however, discover the wonderful fact that Dickens was the victim of plagiarists, who during his lifetime published knockoffs like David Copperful, Nikelas Nickelbery, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwickians, and – my favorite – Oliver Twiss.You may recall that a couple of years ago, there were newspaper reports about Chinese J.K. Rowling manqués, who authored such blockbusters as Harry Potter and Beaker and Burn and Harry Potter and the Filler of Big. Apparently, this was no late-capitalist aberration, but part of a venerable literary tradition. I’m now wondering what might happen if some Millions favorites were plagiarized. The Corruptions? Jilliad? Shabbat’s Theatre? The Amazing Adventurousness of Caviller and Quai? The Short Wonderful Life of Oskar Wow? Your suggestions are welcome below.