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.
Among its many other splendors, the Web has created a market for a strain of ancillary fiction that takes the characters and themes of an existing story – George Lucas’s Star Wars, say, or Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight – and creates a new story designed to shed light on the existing one. Fan fiction, it’s called. So far, fan fiction has focused mostly on genre stories, especially sci-fi and fantasy, but there’s no reason literary fiction can’t have its own fan fiction – and perhaps the quickest way to kick off the trend would be for literary authors to write a little fanfic of their own.
To a certain degree, this appears to be what has happened with the publication of Adelle Waldman’s “New Year’s,” a Kindle Single timed for the paperback release of her 2013 breakout novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. “New Year’s” is a fully rendered work of literary fiction, just short of novella length, but the story, helpfully subtitled, “Nathaniel P. as Seen Through the Eyes of his Friend Aurit,” almost certainly wouldn’t exist, at least not in this form, were it not for the paperback release of Nathaniel P. Genre writers have been releasing these add-on stories for some time now, but this is among the first I have seen from a literary author, and it’s illuminating, both in terms of the risks a talented writer takes in rushing out a story to meet an artificial deadline, and more broadly, as an object lesson in the risks writers face when the traditional obstacles to publishing a work of fiction fall away.
I am, for the record, an admirer of Waldman’s writing and of Nathaniel P., though I recognize it isn’t for everybody. Waldman’s characters live in certain self-consciously liberal neighborhoods in Brooklyn and are nearly all upper-middle-class, attractive, well-educated, and to some degree freakishly successful in the arts. There are people out there, one is given to understand, who are not quite so lucky in their intellectual capacities or their socio-economic circumstances – a phenomenon Waldman’s characters respond to by writing sympathetic essays, which they hope will land in prestigious magazines and further their careers.
Waldman’s fictive universe is, in short, a bit hard to take. But she possesses a rare gift for dramatizing psychological insight, and in Nathaniel P., her first novel, she focuses on Nate Piven, a thirty-year-old novelist, who like so many young Brooklyn artists, lives in mortal terror of having to one day grow up. In Nate’s case, this terror takes the form of an abiding fear of commitment in romantic relationships – which, after all, lead inevitably to marriage and children – and in the pages of the book, we watch Nate skillfully manipulate a girlfriend into breaking up with him.
It’s riveting in its way, especially since Waldman is so good at exploring the ways intelligent people can be so blind to their own monstrousness. In “New Year’s,” Waldman’s emotional radar remains quiveringly intact, but the story itself is as slack and shapeless as a Sunday morning at a Brooklyn coffee house. The plot, such as it is, turns on whether Nate and Aurit, an Israeli-born writer who was a minor character in the original novel, will become a couple. But Waldman seems only intermittently interested in this central narrative, and instead fills page after page with backstory about Aurit’s school years, which too often reads like one of those background histories actors write for themselves to help them get into character.
We learn, in excruciating detail, how after her family’s immigration from Israel, Aurit was desperate to fit in with the crowd at her suburban Boston middle school, but clueless about fashion and American pop culture, found herself passed over by her classmates who saw her as hopelessly “bespectacled, bookish, [and] brown-skinned.” Later, thanks to some savvy clothing and hair choices, Aurit pulls off a “punk-inspired asexual, alternative look,” and following a pre-college weight loss, she acquires an actual boyfriend. None of this is unconvincing as social detail, nor does it make Aurit seem less worthy a subject for fictional treatment, but it does make one hanker for the, um, story to begin.
When it finally does, it’s over before the reader has a chance to savor it. While hanging out together after a New Year’s party, Nate tells Aurit, “You give me feedback I don’t get anywhere else.” This is as close as a man like Nate comes to a statement of undying love, and it gives Aurit reason to think they might become more than friends. Then, all too quickly he returns to form, an overgrown man-child incapable of a mature relationship with a woman – and we’re done.
What’s most maddening about this is that, setting aside that long dry spell about Aurit’s teen angst, there is a kernel of a great story here about the difference between romantic love and the platonic kind. Everyone has had a close relationship that works better as a friendship than as a romance, and at some half-drunken moment of intimacy, everyone has wondered why. “New Year’s” seems a story poised to answer this very human question, and then, for some reason, it simply doesn’t.
Writing great fiction is a little like hitting Major League pitching – even the best in the game fail to get a hit seven times out of ten. But here one can’t help wondering if the ease of its publication may not have also played a role in the story’s failure to fully engage. In an analog world, Waldman might well have wanted to tell a story from the perspective of a minor character that provided insight into the protagonist of her recently published novel – to write a bit of self-initiated fan fiction, as it were – but she would have faced some thorny logistical problems.
For one thing, virtually no one publishes stand-alone novellas in print. Perhaps Waldman could have trimmed it to a more standard story length – pruned some of that backstory about Aurit’s formative years, say. But even then she would have had to find a literary journal willing to take the story on its own terms, not merely as an online add-on to a paperback release, or she would have had to wait until she had enough other publishable stories to make a full collection.
It is unwise, of course, to make too much of one misbegotten story. We are still in the experimentation phase with Web-only publication, and the point of experiments is that they don’t always work. One can only imagine what a restless mind like William Faulkner’s would make of a world in which an author wishing to fill in extra detail about an existing literary world need only write up the story, slap a title on it, and post it to the web.
At the same time, though, when it comes to literary fiction, perhaps we should be mindful of the special demands of print. The cost of printing and distributing physical books has never stopped bad books from being published, but it does raise the barrier to entry. It creates an intermediary rank of editors, agents, and publishers whose job it is to be rigorous with authors, forcing them to make their work as strong as it can possibly be. If the Web is the future of fiction – and how can it not be? – we don’t want to stifle innovation. Still, it’s a mistake to make it too easy for writers to reach readers, because part of what makes a story good is how many hurdles it has had to jump before it finds its way to a reader’s hands.
Growing up, parenthood wasn’t central to my fantasies of adult life — but it wasn’t in opposition to them, either. By the time I was in my 20s and working as a bookseller and writing, and then going to graduate school and then getting married, and still writing, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to have kids. But when I turned 29, the urge to be a mother arrived, and it was so powerful it embarrassed me. Baby Fever! I had it! It wasn’t so much that I made a decision as the decision was made for me, by my body. Thankfully, my husband thought it was a good idea. A year later, there we were: someone’s mother and father.
There are some parents who feel that parenting is their vocation, the central reason for their existence. I don’t feel that way. Raising my son is an important and beautiful facet of my life, but it’s not the only one. Maybe that’s because the desire to have a child came upon me suddenly, almost by surprise, or maybe it’s because I already have a vocation, writing, which took hold of me long ago. Despite my biological imperative, I’m certain I would have still lived a fulfilling life had I not had my child. For me, that makes parenting all the more pleasurable and meaningful. It wasn’t the only path of fulfillment and happiness I saw before me, and it’s never felt like some destined part of my identity, and yet, I chose it. I choose it every day.
The truth is, sometimes my childless self shadows me as I kiss my son’s soft, impossibly milk-pale neck, or when I’m answering one of his big questions (“Why do we have to die, Mama?”), or when we’re kneeling on the sidewalk inspecting a potato bug with the focus of portrait painters. That self is there for the shitty stuff too: when I fail to control my voice as I tell my son, for the sixth time, to get dressed for school already, or when all I want in this world is for him to go to bed so that my husband and I can have the evening to ourselves. My childless self is alternately bereft and relieved at the path not taken. My son has taught me so much about the world, myself, and the human animal in general, but to have decided not to do something — well, that would have taught me something too, wouldn’t it?
Both of my selves, the real one with a kid and imagined one without, read Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum, which offers a diverse array of personal experiences despite the commonality of subject. Daum writes in her introduction, “I wanted to lift the discussion out of the familiar rhetoric, which so often pits parents against non-parents and assumes the former are self-sacrificing and mature and the latter are overgrown teenagers living large on piles of disposable income.” That’s refreshing for this reader, who’s a parent but who also has no trouble identifying with non-parents; though we might come to different decisions (to become parents or not), we still worry and ponder and project in similar ways. Or maybe not: for example, compare Geoff Dyer’s witty opening, “I’ve had only two ambitions in life: to put on weight (it’s not going to happen) and never to have children (which, so far, I’ve achieved”), with Kate Christensen’s more sobering, “I don’t have kids, and I’m very glad I don’t, although there was a time when I wanted them more than anything.” The anthology’s variation in tone proves that, like those with children, the childless aren’t some monolithic group with identical motives.
As a mother, I found comfort in Laura Kipnis’s essay, “Maternal Instincts,” which puts parenting in its historical context. Kipnis reminds us that the maternal bond is a fairly recent social invention, writing: “No one ever talked about such bonding before the rise of industrialization, when wage labor first became an option for women.” Sigrid Nunez echoes this sentiment in “The Most Important Thing,” describing her upbringing: “When I think of the people among who I grew up, it’s as if I were looking back not fifty but more than a hundred years, to an era before modern belief in the sacredness of childhood and children’s rights had emerged, before childhood had come to be seen as a time of innocence deserving protection, the part of every person’s life that should be carefree and full of fun.” It’s not that I don’t believe in the preciousness of childhood or the maternal bond — I’m a woman of my era, after all — but it’s liberating to recognize that many of my essential behaviors are learned, just as it was liberating to read Gender Trouble by Judith Butler in college and question the naturalness of my female identity. Such recognition and questioning gives me the freedom to be whatever and whomever I want; it also, in the context of parenting, lets me share with my husband the tasks and responsibilities of child rearing without feeling like I’m any less of a mother. (If I had a penny for every time a person asks me, somewhat alarmed, “Where’s your son?” when I’m out doing a reading, I’d have at least a dollar by now…) It also keeps me from expecting myself to feel a certain way about parenthood: that I should love this part of it, or complain about that part of it, an endless list of shoulds that doesn’t make me a better, more present mother.
Within days of my son’s birth, people kept asking me if I was in love with my baby, if I felt a love greater than anything I had ever known, etc., etc. They expected my answer to be a resounding yes, and it didn’t feel like there was room for another kind of answer. “Sheesh,” I would say instead, “I only just met the guy.” In fact, many of my mother-friends have reported their love for their babies with a mixture of manic delight and intense relief. (Relief, that is, that one isn’t a monster, as feared, but a true, rightful mother.) Laura Kipnis reminds us of the pernicious political and social consequences of perpetrating the “natural” myth: “What’s the most advantageous story to adopt about female biology and nature? If we keep telling the one about nature speaking to women in a direct hookup from womb to brain, then guess what? This will parlay into who should do the social job of child rearing and under what conditions.” The cultural pressure we place on all women to want and have babies has a negative impact on those women who do end up having kids, and we are foolish to forget it.
The essays I enjoyed most in the anthology used the theme of childlessness to talk about something else. The first in the collection, “Babes in the Woods” by Courtney Hodell, depicts the author’s meaningful relationship with her brother, only 11 months older. She writes of their “private mythology of brother and sister as two faces of a coin” and describes how her own sense of self shifted when he became a dad. While she fears she’s “a kind of human geode: sparkly and hollow,” she is surprised to discover that her brother is a natural father. “How was he allowed to be different from me?” she asks. We’ve all been close to someone, and we’ve all asked ourselves this.
In “Just An Aunt” Elliott Holt is honest about her struggles with depression, and writes, “The fact that I don’t have kids is less the result of a decision than a collapse.” She’s referring to a deep depression she fell into at age 36, just when she would have had to make parenthood a priority; Holt uses that dark period to think back to other moments of depression and personal anguish and how that’s influenced her decision to remain childless. Holt is clear-eyed about herself and her struggles, and there is courage in admitting, “if I have another debilitating depression, I won’t endanger any kids.” Her spare style and her voice, at once confident and vulnerable, moved me.
In “The New Rhoda” Paul Lisicky writes, “In a not-so-distant past, men like me often died in their twenties and thirties.” His essay brilliantly glances at the anthology topic on its way to documenting what sex, life, and death meant for a gay man in the 1980s, and what it means to him now:
Imagine it. Look at a drop of your blood, your semen, your saliva, and think of it containing a thousand little grenades. Not just for you, but for the lover you came into intimate contact with. How could your life change? Could you ever disappear into yourself, your skin again? When you finally got the nerve to be tested, and found out that you did not carry those grenades, could you still think of that fluid as a substance you’d choose to make a baby with? Imagine it.
One does not feel exactly undead after being dead for so long.
This essay knocked me flat. As with Holt’s, I loved its honesty: “I thought I could imagine what it could be like to be in my straight male friends’ skin, to be swept and stopped by some beautiful woman as she walks down the street. But the sexual allure of reproduction? Really?” A sentence later, he isn’t afraid to assert difference: “I’ve never been more alien from the men I thought I’d known.”
In the end, though, what most fascinated me about this anthology was how certain some contributors were that parenthood would have kept them from writing. For her essay, “Be Here Now Means Be Gone Later,” Lionel Shriver interviews another childless mother who says, “Had I had children, I would have written no books, nor would I have become a particularly successful journalist.” Sigrid Nunez, in her essay “The Most Important Thing,” quotes Jeanette Winterson in an interview she gave in 1997: “I can’t find a model, a female literary model who did the work she wanted to do and led an ordinary heterosexual life and had children.” Sigrid also quotes an interview with Alice Munro, in which Munro regrets batting her young daughter away from the typewriter. A couple of pages later, Nunez asks herself:
Can I be the kind of mother I would have wanted to have? Just give them lots and lots of love — oh, this I believed I could do. But I also believed that writing had saved my life and that if I could not write, I would die. And so long as this was true, and so long as writing continued to be the enormously difficult thing it has always been for me, I didn’t think I could be a real mother. Not the kind I would have wanted for my child. The kind to whom he or she was the most important thing, object of that unconditional love for which I had desperately yearned as a child myself and the want of which I have never gotten over.
I had a different childhood than Nunez, which makes a big difference, for I never went into motherhood with the expectation of total devotion, and I never placed before myself an either/or choice: writing or parenthood. I do think it’s possible to love your child unconditionally, and to also care deeply about one’s artistic pursuits. They aren’t mutually exclusive. (And I doubt that Alice Munro’s daughter holds a grudge against her mother!) For me, at least, there are quite a few female literary models to look to for support and guidance.
In “The Hardest Art” Rosemary Mahoney chronicles the anxiety she experienced upon becoming pregnant from artificial insemination and the feelings of inadequacies that took over. She quotes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife Sophia’s rules for good child rearing: “Infinite patience, infinite tenderness, infinite magnanimity — no less will do, and we must practise them as far as finite power will allow.” Finite power is right, people! Sheesh, is anyone, anyone at all, capable under this exacting rubric? (Also, do we need to be taking such ye olden parenting advice? I feel like Laura Kipnis would have something to say about this!) In her essay, Mahoney is wonderfully self-aware about her own faults, but I bristled when she pronounced, “The one who brings a child into the world has a responsibility to give the child everything, to put the child before all else.” This, to me, sounds like a kid talking, and in some ways it is, for the smart and thoughtful writers in this anthology speak not only as artists, but also from the experience of being children. Many of them still retain the specific longings and resentments of that role. Perhaps Danielle Henderson is most up-front about this in her essay “Save Yourself” when she writes, “I decided to take the love I’d have for a child and give it to myself.”
This occasional motif of parenthood-as-complete-devotion isn’t a flaw of the anthology because it got me thinking a lot about why I made the choice to have a kid, and how my role as a mother has shaped my writing life, how it’s both energized and limited it. As Jeanne Safer writes in her essay, “there is nobody alive who is not lacking anything — no mother, no nonmother, no man. The perfect life does not and never will exist, and to assert otherwise perpetuates a pernicious fantasy: that it’s possible to live without regrets. Every important choice has benefits and its deficits.” It’s this kind of open-minded honesty that will move the topic away from its limiting us versus them binaries.
Emailing about this very subject, a friend recently asked me, “Doesn’t anyone bumble around, scared and uncertain about the future? Doesn’t time just sometimes pass? Isn’t everyone just doing their best? Isn’t everyone scared? Isn’t everyone worried about meaninglessness?” After finishing Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed, and after living my own life, I can say with conviction: Yes. We all do. I’m happy to have the company.
(And, now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go pick my son up from school.)
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.