Generations of Winter was originally conceived as a mini-series for PBS, but when the project was shelved, Vassily Aksynov’s publisher convinced him to make a novel out of the project. The novel was published in the US in 1994, and 10 years later, in late 2004, a mini-series based on the novel made it to Russian television where it was a resounding success. Considering the subject matter, the success of Generations of Winter in Russia must represent a difficult acknowledgement of the horrors of Soviet history which remain unmarked by monuments and for which the government has never officially apologized. Aksyonov is writing from firsthand knowledge when his characters are hauled off in the middle of the night by NKVD agents. Aksyonov’s mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was sent to the camps when he was five, and he joined her in exile in Siberia when he was 16. He followed in his mother’s footsteps as a writer as well. Ginzburg is well-known for her memoirs of the gulag and exile, Journey into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind. Many reviewers have described Generations of Winter as a War and Peace for the 20th century. Aksyonov’s book is a sprawling, multi-generational tale set between the years 1925 and 1945. It centers on the Gradov family, lively members of the Moscow elite whose lives are shattered by purges, torture and war. Generations of Winter is a historical novel at heart. It’s pages are populated by real historical figures, most notably Stalin, who mingle with the fictional Gradovs. Though the book’s subject matter is difficult, the Gradov’s shine, and the narrative is breathtaking in its scope.
In the preface of his faux-memoir novel Moonglow, Michael Chabon warns the reader: “I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The world he creates in his novel — with a narrator so like the author in age, origin, and mannerism — is so convincingly real that for most of the book I was distracted by my desire to know which parts of the story were true and which were made up. Did Chabon’s grandfather really want to blow up Washington D.C.? And how much is true of the grandmother’s horrifying brush with Nazis?
But this, of course, is not the point of a novel, a book that is specifically marketed as fiction. Authors throughout history have taken this approach, creating fiction memoirs, perhaps to give themselves more freedom to embellish or play down scenes from life — I’m thinking of titles like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chabon clarified his intent in blending fact and fiction: “I actually feel like fiction, which is open about its deception, is a much more powerful and more revealing tool for getting at truths about what happens in families.” What kind of fiction is better at telling the truth than memoir? And what kind of truth is revealed from such writing?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. Like Chabon’s Moonglow, the narrator of The Idiot, Selin Karadağ, bears a strong resemblance to the author. Selin, like Batuman herself, is a New Jersey-born woman of Turkish descent, who goes to Harvard where she flirts with linguistics and the Russian language, falls in love with a senior who has another girlfriend, and follows him to Hungary that summer. Batuman writes about several of these events in her collection of nonfiction essays The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), a thrilling book that I devoured in a matter of a few days.
I’ve long admired Batuman for her nonfiction writing (if you, too, want to fall in love, read Batuman’s essay on the peculiar history of Harvard’s Russian bells). Batuman’s incisive intelligence and blunt humor (for which she won the Terry Southern Humor Prize from The Paris Review in 2011) pervade both her essays — in The Possessed and in The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2010 — and her novel. Because of the similarities between The Idiot and Batuman’s personal essays, I found myself almost fact-checking the novel, measuring it up both against Batuman’s writing about her Harvard years and my own time as an undergrad there. I, too, took a psycholinguistics class with an attractive (though 15 years older) Italian man who, like Selin’s professor, wore shiny grey suits and taught in a cramped classroom on the 10th floor of the psychology building. And the series of strange events that lead to the character Selin spending a month teaching English in a Hungarian village are strikingly similar to the parade of missteps Batuman the nonfiction writer chronicles in The Possessed. I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why?
Batuman speaks directly to my strange urge to read this novel as nonfiction in an interview with The Rumpus in 2012. In response to a question about why publishers are more interested in getting writers to pen memoirs rather than novels, Batuman said: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth.” She ends by mentioning Tolstoy’s War and Peace and points out, “Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.
So, now to Batuman’s novel and the truthiness living in its pages. At first blush, The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the late ’90s; Selin comes of age in a world where e-mail is just emerging and students at Harvard are social slaves to their dorm room phones, hoping that crushes will call on weekend nights. Indeed, Batuman introduces her narrative with a quote from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, perhaps the heftiest tome of the bildungsroman genre. Batuman quotes from Proust, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
Adolescence is the beginning, middle, and end of The Idiot. Selin the character strikes me as an 18-year-old female version of Professor Timofey Pnin in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin; she is as confused by language and apt to make highly specific observations as the professor, though with a more modern, deadpan humor. Like this: an aerial view of one Hungarian town Selin describes as “spread out like some fantastic salad,” and a patch of overgrown grass in Boston “resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality.”
Batuman’s enthusiasm for words comes through in Selin, whose quest to discover the truth about language makes her quite crazed. As Selin immerses herself in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy of language, she seems to hang her theories of language up, one by one, next to the linguists’ theories, a dizzying parade of Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, Donald Davidson, and Noam Chomsky. Soon, Selin begins to be unraveled by language; she cannot communicate and loses the meaning of narratives and conversations, unable to step back from a close observation of form and structure to identify her own place in the story. She begins to feel anxious about her untethered position, and begs her own novelist to show her the way. “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” Selin says in one of several metanarrative moments. “I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”
Redemption in all this muddled language comes from literature, a nod to the author’s own preference for losing herself in the complex world of Russian fiction. Selin finds her own anxieties about language in a passage in Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling:” “You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.” Even in her Russian classes, Selin sees more truth in the Russian literature the students are meant to read than in the facts of her own life. The short fiction stories in “Nina in Siberia,” which are only intended to teach the students Russian grammar and vocabulary, eerily mirror events in Selin’s life so that it becomes a challenge for Selin to separate what is happening to Nina from what is happening to her. (To me, this makes perfect sense. While a fanciful college sophomore with too many literature and language classes, I became so confused by my real life and so engrossed in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, while writing a paper about the literary significance of mouth pain and tooth aches in the book, I became convinced that I too had a mouth infection. And indeed, a week later I found myself strapped to a dentist chair, sedated and listening to the shrieking drills dig deep into my gums. Once again the truth of the book struck me; I understand that anxious absorption of an early college career. I’ve been there before.) As Nina the character searches for her love, Ivan, Selin begins to search for her own Ivan, the Hungarian senior she falls in love with. As Selin is made to act out Nina’s lines in her beginning Russian class with Ivan (the Hungarian) playing Ivan (Nina’s lover), I heard Elif Batuman’s laughter as she pulled the strings from above, coaxing Selin through a version of Batuman’s own hilarious search for the meaning of language by way of another layer of fiction — poor Nina’s fictional saga.
It was in this part of the book — when Elif seems to become Selin who seems to become Nina — that I came to understand one unique achievement of Batuman’s transformation of memoir into novel. The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.
By the end of her novel, Batuman swerves away from the bildungsroman she seemed to have been writing all along. Selin returns to school convinced that her linguistics and philosophy of language classes had led her astray. In an allusion to Proust, whose pronouncement — that adolescence “is the only period in which we learn anything” — begins the book, Batuman concludes, “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
And that, in fact, might be the real truth of the whole conceit. That if we’re really searching for meaning, trying to dissect the whole novel and nose around for the facts hidden in it, then we risk not learning anything at all.
The world in Hugh Sheehy’s short story collection, The Invisibles, is a distinct one. It constitutes the American nightmare of the last 30 or so years, including lax gun control, increased dependence on drugs, and more extreme episodes of neurosis about the ability to love ourselves and others. It shows a time when Reagan, Bush, and Clinton became less proper nouns and more belts of alternating plasticity and cheap heavy metal used to persecute the poor, entertain and quell the middle class, and fatten the accounts of the rich. The stories portray a scurvy, jumbled, and faintly resolute country reminiscent of Robert Frank’s photographs in The Americans. People drink, swear, tease, addle, enrage, but mostly drink, getting jacked enough to not be able to watch the only good thing about their life walk away as they stay in a stupor: wordless, detached, and only full of nostalgia for the fists their old friends raised at the people who dared to hurt them.
As the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Award winner for short fiction, Sheehy’s stories perfectly fit in the vein of that Southern writer whose characters hold similar hardened, messy lives bordering on Messianic in her attuned symbolism. Often taking place in the burnt-out, brutal Midwest of small towns with a bar on every corner, these stories throw a documentary-type lens on the reckless youth who grow up to sputter through life — shirking responsibility and unable to imagine a world in which their existence might make a difference. Besides the travails of addiction, there are good reasons for this apathy. A Lake Erie killer haunts the story “The Invisibles,” in which a motherless teenager loses her two best friends to a mysterious menace that goes unsolved. In “Meat and Mouth,” the two eponymous marauders take a teaching assistant and a student staying after school hostage on a snowy Friday when everyone else has left. And fate again intervenes in “Whiteout,” in which the protagonist, a cocaine addict and general ne’er-do-well, is on his way home for Christmas for the first time in 13 years. Getting there during a snowstorm, he sees an overturned minivan on the highway. His decision to help will dictate whether he will make it to his family, an encounter too painful to have for so long.
It might be said, possibly correctly, that trouble seeks the troublemakers or lost souls who have knowingly abused their lives, without knowing how they’ve hurt someone else’s. A fitting karma is a lesson to be learned. A hallmark of these stories is a certain type of slacker behavior grounded in drinks and friends. In “A Difficult Age,” the main characters, Francis (the narrator) and Lionel, sit with Brooke on a riverbank getting away from it all:
We sit together, painless, sharing a pipe, and drum our legs on the bank. Brooke calls us idiots, but more importantly, the autumn is its naked self, bold and inelegant, and hard like a new tooth driven through a baby’s gums. We laugh hard and cry and get scared and laugh hard, and Brooke stares at the pond and shakes her head, drinking wine and being pregnant.
People want to have fun together, and screwing around, as handed down by their parents, getting drunk, and getting stupid are how these characters unwind. But Sheehy couples the desperation with a powerful metaphor, placing the scattershot behavior of the characters against the world they still have to inhabit, as everything, including their choices and any “new tooth…through a baby’s gums” turns and changes. If they don’t grow up, their careless philosophy will infect others.
The characters in The Invisibles might not exactly be asking for their gloomy fate, but often it is the best thing that can happen. In the exemplary “Smiling Down at Ellie Pardo,” Sheehy builds a twisting narrative stretching from a young man’s (Nolan’s) deleterious adulthood to his more hopeful teenage years as he returns home to be again paired with Henry, an old friend from the neighborhood, after a single woman they knew from their high school days has been killed. In one swooping sentence the reader gets the mysterious Ellie described in a flashback:
A feisty Italian who always had a tray of lasagna in the oven or red sauce bubbling on the stove, she jogged back and forth on our street each day, exposing her beautiful legs even to the wicked cold of our winters on the lake.
The alliteration of “wicked” and “winters”, as well as “of,” “our,” and “on” at the end of the sentence makes this evocation full of sound and substance by showing how she lived her life and where it played out. Each of the two men had a different relationship with her back then, and when Henry reveals that he once dated Ellie, it sends the story into another quadrant of psychological ramifications that Nolan tries to reconcile as their grief eventually leads them into a dark woods and an unforeseen but apt confrontation. Though many of the stories have an element of mystery, Sheehy isn’t interested in finding out who did what — he knows the dramatic cornucopia lies elsewhere, with the living and the mistakes they have to examine in light of the dead.
There is a unique sadness to this book. Sometimes there’s a touch of Raymond Carver, whose spirit is reminiscent in the broken down characters who are often missing a parent and pouring another glass. Sometimes early Paul Auster is evident as in a unique variation on the Memento-type story where a classics professor unwinds himself with the help of Ovid in “Translation.” Things are happening faster than ever, but Sheehy slows down and looks to see where and how our innocence was lost. The most important thing to be said of this book is that it’s true, presenting a reality of deteriorating values many face and foster in our country, equally unwelcoming for young men or old.