Thanks to our friend Edan, who is well-connected in the world of audio books, Mrs. Millions and I had a 6 cd, seven and half hour, unabridged work of literature to keep us company on our recent trip from Chicago to New York, where we’re picking up the dog, and various of our far flung possessions. The Outlaw Sea was a riveting work of non-fiction by an accomplished reporter. Langewiesche is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly and has written several books that combine hard reportage with the more ephemeral qualities of a travel writer. In this case, Langewiesche’s goal is to illustrate with bold examples the ungovernability of the sea. For him, this is a law of nature, but it is also a consequence of the inability of the laws of men to deal with sea’s expanses. His case studies, if you will, are many, but he spends the most time on a few memorable stories: the modern day pirate attack on the Alondra Rainbow in 1999; the post-apocalyptic landscape of the world’s most heavily trafficked ship graveyard, the beaches of Alang, India; and the wreck of the ferry Estonia on which at least 852 people died when it went down in a storm in the Baltic Sea in 1994. The subtext in all of these stories is that the tragedies contained within are, at least partly, a result of the inability of modern societies to govern the seas. The greater implication, as Langewiesche makes clear, is that such lawlessness and statelessness make the sea fertile for the operations of lawless, stateless terrorists. The sea is everywhere, but it is nowhere in the eyes of the law. These timely concerns, and Langewiesche’s sturdy prose elevate a book of riveting tales of disasters at sea to a book of more weighty importance.
Stephanie Deutsch, a writer and critic living in Washington, D.C., was a first year graduate student in Soviet Union Area Studies at Harvard in 1970 when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. She had spent the previous year living in Moscow. This essay is an update of an appreciation written ten years ago for the Washington Times’s “Lost Word” column dedicated to second looks at classic works. Solzhenitsyn died on August 3rd at 89.My copy of Cancer Ward is a well-worn relic from the 1970s, when a paperback book cost $1.50 and Solzhenitsyn was the must-read author of the moment. He had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and when I bought the novel it had been through fifteen printings in three years. A quote on the back cover calls it “a literary event of the first magnitude… by Russia’s greatest living prose writer.”The book reprints the author’s 1967 letters to the Congress of Soviet Writers and the Union of Writers of the USSR complaining of the “no longer tolerable oppression, in the form of censorship, that our literature has endured for decades,” and insisting that his work “be published without delay.” Who could foresee then that when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died he would no longer be much read, either here or in his native land. The one-time Vermont recluse returned to Russia but there, as here, his fervor and his writing are out of fashion.Just as a voguish book can disappoint, though, Cancer Ward remains compelling. While the title hints at symbolism and death, the straightforward story is vibrantly and affirmatively about life. Mr. Solzhenitsyn does see cancer as a fitting metaphor for his society’s ghastly flaws, but he is also telling a literal story about physical illness. He himself was a survivor not just of front-line combat with the Red Army, Stalinist prison camps, forced labor and exile in his own country, but also of real illness. A recurrence of his rare stomach cancer was treated with radiation in the spring of 1954 at a hospital in Tashkent.This is where the novel brings together a lively cast of characters. The protagonist is Oleg Kostoglotov, a big, dark-haired man in his 30s, a former political prisoner and internal exile. He’s a land surveyor with unslakable curiosity about everything: “…although he’d never missed a chance to scoff at education in general, he’s always used his eyes and ears to pick up the smallest thing that might broaden his own.” He likes people, too, especially as he feels life returning after his near death and successful radiation therapy.Kostoglotov’s nemesis in the ward is Rusanov, a self-satisfied bureaucrat, a Party member whose life work has been in “personnel records administration… Only ignoramuses and uninformed outsiders were unaware what subtle, meticulous work it was… The actual direction life took was decided without loud publicity, calmly in quiet offices, by two or three people who understood one another, or by dulcet telephone calls. The stream of real life ran on in the secret papers that lay deep in the briefcases of Rusanov and his colleagues.” This work gives Rusanov an inflated sense of his own importance and caution and pettiness that are the opposite of Kostoglotov’s exuberant good nature.Ludmila Afanasyevena Dontsova is the head of the hospital’s radiology department, a brilliant clinician who hesitates to use her diagnostic skills on the pain she feels in her own stomach. We see her not just in the hospital but on her way home from work, grabbing a seat on a streetcar: “…the was the first thought apart from the hospital that began to transform her from an oracle of human destinies into a simple passenger on a trolley jostled like anyone else… At every stop and with every shop that flashed by the window, Ludmila Afanasyevna’s thought turned more and more to her housework and her home. Home was her responsibility and hers alone because what can you expect from men? Her husband and son, whenever she went to Moscow for a conference, would leave the dishes unwashed for a whole week. It wasn’t that they wanted to keep them for her to do, they just saw no sense in this repetitive, endlessly self-renewing work.”Kostoglotov’s life in prison and exile has kept him isolated from women for years so his joy at returning health is mingled with wonder at the chance to be with members of the opposite sex. He flirts wildly with the high-spirited night nurse, Zoya; he feels deep sympathy with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors. “For a man like Oleg, who had to be permanently suspicious and watchful, it was the greatest pleasure in the world to be able to trust, to give himself to trust. And he trusted this woman, this gentle, ethereal creature. He knew she’d move softly, thinking out her every action and that she wouldn’t make the slightest mistake.”And we meet the ward’s other patients – Dyomka, a teenager facing the amputation of his leg and trying to keep up with his literary studies; Asya, the yellow-haired girl desolate about impending surgery for breast cancer; Vadim, an engineer so absorbed in his work he had no time for illness; Chaly, suffering from acute stomach cancer but cheerfully sharing with Rusanov his feast of illicit pickles and vodka.Solzhenitsyn gives a full and sympathetic picture of these characters, revealing each one’s inner reality – loneliness, marital happiness, eagerness for life, fear of death. Like others of the best Russian novels, Cancer Ward bursts with conversations. Some are timely still – about alternative cancer cures from roots and herbs and the influence of one’s mental state on the healing process; about the difficulties of achieving free national health service and yet providing patients with sufficient personal attention; and about what of honor or self-respect or bodily function one is willing to sacrifice to stay alive.The heavy atmosphere of the totalitarian Soviet Union is brilliantly rendered and, in my tattered edition, numerous footnotes clarify allusions that might be lost on a reader without a detailed knowledge of the time. When Kostoglotov talks to Zoya he has to explain to her that he is a Russian and was exiled on a trumped-up charge of treason. “Note: A number of small nationalities – Volga Germans, Chechens, Kalmucks and others – were deported en masse to Central Asia during and after the second world war, suspected of collaborating with the Nazis. These were called ‘exiled settlers.’ ‘Administrative exiles,’ like Kostoglotov, were usually political prisoners who had served their term in a labor camp but still had to live in a remote region of the country.”This novel is constructed around these and other historical truths too ghastly to be believed and, in our country, in some danger of being forgotten. When Kostoglotov begins to suspect that political changes may be coming in his country he thinks, “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?” As it turned out, this one could not; the system that produced the camps is gone. Solzhenitsyn’s story, brilliantly mixing fact and fiction, tells us just how sick the patient actually was.With his prophet-like appearance and cantankerous public persona, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn will surely be remembered for his determined truth-telling. By keeping the details of Soviet history alive, his extraordinary literary oeuvre may help guard against the recurrence that with cancer can never be fully ruled out. But Solzhenitsyn deserves to be remembered, as well, as a novelist to put on the shelf next to Gogol and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, a writer to be re-read and savored for the way he translates messy, often ghastly human experience into brilliant, clarifying prose.
Amy Grace Loyd, the executive editor of Byliner and a former fiction and literary editor at Playboy, has edited some of the best writers of our time. She’s developed her own confident and refined style of storytelling and shows it in her sensuous debut novel, The Affairs of Others. In expansive and precise language, Loyd explores the rhythms and sensations of human arrangements and exposes layers of time, grief, and love in contemporary urban life. Lloyd’s writing often takes its time. She wants the reader to pause and savor her notes that city rain has a “mineral” smell or sorrow has a “peculiar altitude.”
Loyd’s real success is evident in two areas: sex and the city. She reconstructs the moods of post-9/11 New York, most especially in her narrator, Celia Cassill. Reflecting the recent history of her city, Celia is a bruised and barricaded young widow who has created spaces that she can carefully control. She keeps herself physically and emotionally apart from others, and remains anchored in an ongoing mourning for the past and her husband.
Loyd is expert in describing Celia’s trampled and tentative Brooklyn neighborhood. She conjures the streets, sidewalks, and the subway of the city as places that both connect and separate people simultaneously. She communicates precisely how wide streets, like Atlantic Avenue, form divisions between neighborhoods as well as demarcating the past from the present in people’s minds.
Loyd creates a microcosm of the city landscape in Celia’s apartment building. Celia is the landlady — at once connected to her tenants and deliberately set apart from them, at once living in the past and yet occasionally tugged into the present.
While Celia’s husband has been dead for five years, she has not gotten over the loss, and actually doesn’t see anything wrong with remaining immersed in her past. Her husband left her enough money for her to buy a building and become a landlady to a small, carefully selected group of tenants. She has rules and routines, carefully guarded and prescribed interactions with her neighbors, and a respect for the privacy of others she offers in exchange for them respecting her boundaries. Celia keeps to herself and her memories, and Loyd is careful to reflect this behavior in other city dwellers who experience life along the same lines — connected and apart, present and distant.
But there’s always an inciting incident in city life — and novels — to shake up a comfort zone and ignite change. Loyd introduces the charismatic Hope into Celia’s static world, and the walls come tumbling down. Subletting from a trusted tenant, Hope moves into Celia’s building, and triggers a progression of events that break down barriers among the fragile occupants. The elderly tenant on the top floor goes missing. The married couple on the floor below him begin fighting and separate. Hope is on the run from a failed marriage and begins a sexually violent affair with a hulking troubled lover. And Celia herself is disturbed by the stirrings of desire and violence in the rooms above that force her to confront the limitations of her serene isolation, and how she has been navigating her life.
Celia is pulled out of her orderly stasis and yanked into the connected lives of her tenants. Loyd has her narrator break bad in some surprising ways. Soon Celia is exchanging violent slaps with the adult daughter of her missing tenant; eavesdropping on the unmistakable sounds of Hope being bent over a table by her dominating lover; knocking out a man with a golf club; violating privacy in every way imaginable by invading her tenants’ apartments and snooping through their pockets, diaries, and beds. Celia’s journey is a wonderfully disturbing and satisfying passage through mourning and toward rejoining the world.
Loyd describes urban characters and urban places as codependent entities, extensions of each other. Sometimes bodies become places — which brings us to how Loyd writes about the erotic vibrations in her characters.
This writer gives good sex. Loyd avoids the pitfalls of bad sex writing almost assuredly because she avoids describing body parts — this seems to be the key. (She does falter once and it jars — but then the reader plunges back in.) The Affairs of Others isn’t an instance of what a dirty-book-weary friend mockingly calls “sexual fiction,” it’s a triumph of describing what is sensed and experienced during sex rather than what is performed or penetrated in the sex act. Celia experiences sex — when she engages in or overhears it — much like she experiences her city, as both threat and connection, distance and intimacy. It’s a way for her to violate her own privacy — whether she’s eavesdropping on Hope and her lover or starting an affair herself that may bring her back into the present world.
The Affairs of Others captures the moods of a tired city and of a mourning widow, both reluctant to find renewal. Loyd often deploys the noirish tones of a mystery novel in the search for the missing tenant, various violent confrontations, and several visits from a police detective — and this is the right mood for her narrator’s journey. In true cherchez la femme-mode, Loyd places a woman at the source of all that has been disturbed in her narrator’s life, but it’s not only Hope the interloper who has forced Celia to break down her carefully built boundaries — it’s Celia’s own human desire to be alive to the possibilities of being part of the lives of others.
I’ve written in the past about World War II fiction. I especially appreciate how the genre can illuminate elements of the conflict that history books cannot, for want of specificity and seriousness. I had a child’s school-taught understanding of the war until I read a novel, actually. The second part of Ian McEwan’s novel Atonement tells of the British evacuation from France at Dunkirk after the Germans overran the country. It was an important event in the war, but one that I had never really learned much about, and McEwan’s rich storytelling made me want to learn more.I’ve since read quite a bit of World War II non-fiction, but I’ve returned to novels set during the period as well, as they now help flesh out and humanize the history. In Liberation, novelist Joanna Scott takes us to the island of Elba, off the Tuscan coast, whose inhabitants are caught between the wars great powers. Ostensibly once loyal to Mussolini but then occupied by Germany, Elba is by 1944, as the novel’s title suggests, in the midst of a whirlwind liberation by French forces that included an amalgam of colonial outfits, among them a battalion of Senegalese soldiers. Among the Elbans themselves, the chaotic liberation inspires mixed feelings of relief and fear, with the latter being directed toward the African liberators in particular.The story is primarily told in flashback through the eyes of a precocious ten-year-old girl Adriana, who spends the first night of the liberation tucked away in a cabinet, out of sight of any marauding soldiers. Adriana’s mother Giulia sums up the turmoil and confusion of occupation and liberation:Elba had been liberated. Grosseto had been liberated. Rome had been liberated. What did any of this mean? Not what she’d said to her daughter — mai piu, a promise much worse than an outright lie. The Germans were retreating? The occupation was over? What, exactly, had they occupied, besides beds and rooms and lavatories?Into Giulia’s home, bucolic even in wartime, wanders a Senegalese soldier, Amdu Diop, 17, who decidedly lacks the temperament for war and fancies himself blessed, “chosen” by God and able to perform minor miracles if he puts his mind to it. Impressionable young Adriana becomes infatuated with Amdu, by his otherness mostly, and he with her for similar reasons. And though some of his countrymen are rampaging through the countryside, Amdu’s intentions remain pure and he resolves to come back and marry Adriana one day. He is a gentle young gentlemen.Of course, not everyone else in Adriana’s web of relations and family friends is nearly as enamored of Amdu, and the climate, with bullets and bombs still flying overhead, is one mostly of mistrust. Before long Amdu is cast out.But Liberation isn’t a star-crossed love story – and perhaps this is its main shortcoming. Instead it is recalled in a dreamy reverie by a much older Adriana, now living in New York, as she rides the train into the city. These scenes go into fussy detail about Adriana’s fellow commuters yank the reader from the Elban recollection in a not entirely pleasant way. Similarly, Mario, Adriana’s uncle and the main “villain” of the novel, occasionally assumes the role of narrator and pulls us away from the book’s most engaging characters, Adriana and Amdu. Child and childlike, Adriana and Amdu manage to elevate the book, and Scott crafts a delightful ambiguity for the reader to wade through in the pair’s few scenes together. In broader strokes, she paints an atmospheric picture of one of the war’s minor episodes.