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.
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.
At the first literary conference I attended, I was surprised to find that the advice I was given pertained less to craft and more to the management of public persona. Attendees discussed the nuances of the author photo and how to make their Twitter accounts appeal to a wide audience, and I was advised to have an answer prepared for when I am asked how much of my fiction comes from Real Life. After coming out of the modeling industry, where everything is quite explicitly about appearance, it was disheartening to discover that the literary world was no haven from these dynamics. Elena Ferrante’s desire to maintain the freedom of private life has always seemed quite sensible. In newspaper headlines she was called “The Writer Without a Face,” but why did she need one?
Enter Ferrante’s new book, Frantumaglia, which includes selections of over 20 years of her essays, correspondences, and interviews. The book, whose title translates to “a jumble of fragments,” has been available in Italian since 2003. While there is no comparable word to frantumaglia in English, Ferrante illuminates what the term meant to her specifically, comparable to Lila’s “disappearing margins” in the Neapolitan novels:
My mother left me a word in her dialect that she used to describe how she felt when she was racked by contradictory sensations that were tearing her apart. She said that inside her she had frantumaglia, a jumble of fragments. The frantumaglia (she pronounced it frantummaglia) depressed her. Sometimes it made her dizzy, sometimes it made her mouth taste like iron. It was the word for a disquiet not otherwise definable, it referred to a miscellaneous crowd of things in her head, debris in a muddy water of the brain. The frantumaglia was mysterious, it provoked mysterious actions, it was the source of all suffering not traceable to a single obvious cause…Often it made her weep, and since childhood the word has always stayed in my mind to describe, in particular, a sudden fir of weeping for no evident reason: frantumaglia tears.
This concentration on the suffering of women is appropriately potent throughout the book, as is Ferrante’s own professed fragility. She states her deep interest in feminism, but does not consider herself to be well versed in it. She is deeply concerned for her goodness as a human, she is deeply apologetic to her publisher when she does not complete an interview or make an appearance, explaining that it is both a choice and a personal necessity that she is not subjected to a more public literary life. She corresponds with Mario Martone, the director of the film adaptation of her novel Troubling Love, expressing that she has no idea how to contribute to the project. Often, she defends her choice to write under a pseudonym. Whenever Ferrante is forced to communicate about her work, her communication is laced with an intense self-surveillance. The book is restrained and self-protective, and I find myself protective of her as well.
Regrettably, the writing of this review is complicated somewhat by Claudio Gatti’s reveal of what is likely Ferrante’s true identity, a translator named Anita Raja. Gatti’s months-long probe was conducted with the tenacity of a criminal investigation, and served the purpose of radically violating the terms under which her work was created. He asserted that, given the publishing of a volume like Frantumaglia, the public had the right to Ferrante’s true identity. This reveal is significant to a book review only because Gatti pointed out several discrepancies between what Ferrante says of herself in the volume and what is known to be true about the life of the woman he says she is. For instance, Ferrante writes of having three sisters in Frantumaglia, while Raja has none. Ferrante writes luminously of her mother’s work as a dressmaker, while Raja’s mother was a teacher. Ferrante says that “Naples is a space containing all my primary, childhood, adolescent, and early adult experiences,” while Raja was born in Naples but moved to Rome at age three, and so on.
But the real Elena Ferrante is, quite explicitly, a fiction. In her new volume, Ferrante herself acknowledges that she sometimes resorts to lies “when necessary to shield my person, feelings, pressures.” In this way, the volume takes on a narrative of its own, though the plot, if there is one at all, is subtle. What is exceptionally clear is that the way Ferrante presents herself, however minimally, is too calculated, too realized to exist anywhere outside the realm of fiction. And why should it? As writer Nicola Lagioia wrote to Ferrante’s publisher, “If she wants to adjust, polish, clarify the argument, that’s fine of course. For me literary needs always take precedence over journalistic ones.”
I have always relished reading the journals, letters, and reflections of the writers I admire. When I got my hands on Susan Sontag’s journals as a teenager, it felt as though I was being allowed access to the formation of the sort of mind I hoped to cultivate myself. Frantumaglia, as might be expected, offers access to a very different sort of process, in which Ferrante both practices the exercise of her literary needs (in crafting the story of herself) and defending her right to do so. She spends a significant portion of the book repeatedly explaining to journalists, her publisher, filmmakers, and others why she feels the need to remain anonymous. It doesn’t seem difficult to grasp: she believes that books should be able to exist in the world without being tied to a personality. For this reason, it has been suggested that the assembling of this book is antithetical to her professed desire for anonymity, that it seems to fly in the face of her convictions. I do not believe this to be the case, given that Ferrante has stated, in a correspondence with her publisher, the function that she wishes for the book to serve as an afterword and companion to the novels:
In other words, I’m uncertain. I think a book like that might perhaps possess cohesiveness, but not autonomy. I think, that is, by its nature, it can’t be a book in itself. You’re very right to call it a book for readers of Troubling Love and The Days of Abandonment… Which is to say that, if you do decide to publish it, you have to do so feeling that it is editorially, as an appendix to those two books, a slightly dense afterword…
It seems very successful as such. Frantumaglia contains a similar construction of female identity that we see in her novels, and, as with her novels, the line between fact and fiction is unclear.
“The biggest mystery outside Italy about Italy is Elena Ferrante,” Gatti said in defense of his investigation and subsequent reveal of Raja. But he is perhaps incorrect — or at least, those who are readers and not fans of Ferrante’s are haunted by a much more compelling mystery, which is that of the female condition — how to exist in a world as a female body subjected to the trials and tribulations that seem to come with it. At a dinner party in Rome this summer, I spoke with Italian director Anna Negri about what could be fueling the American engrossment with Ferrante’s works. Negri believes that Ferrante is captivating in that she tells the woman’s side of the Italian machismo that Americans have grown fascinated with via movies and television like The Godfather and The Sopranos. Essentially, Ferrante warns us (in case the domestic abuse in these films and shows wasn’t convincing enough) — it’s not that great. Ferrante ends up addressing this phenomenon herself in one of Frantumaglia’s featured interviews:
The greatest risk now is female regret for the “real men” of bygone days. Every form of male violence should be fought against, but the female desire to regress should not be neglected. The crowd of women who adore the sensibility and sexual energy of the worst male characters in My Brilliant Friend illustrate this temptation.
The same kind of immediacy Ferrante exhibits in her fiction is most present and potent in Frantumaglia when she speaks of her concern for other women: “Even if we’re constantly tempted to lower our guard — out of love, or weariness, or sympathy, or kindness — we women shouldn’t do it. We can lose from one moment to the next everything that we have achieved,” she says when asked by an interviewed what she hopes readers will take away from her work.
In a literary culture that has elevated personality to currency, in a world where my beginning fiction students frequently assess the value of writing based off how “relatable” they find the author to be, there is much to be learned from Ferrante. Even if she is who Gatti says she is, she has created a body of work that lucidly and luminously shown us a very different kind of life. What is fiction for, if not for this? What does a female artist owe the world? Certainly not consistency; hopefully not “authenticity” or “relatability.” Ferrante’s true readers (as opposed to fans — she draws a sharp distinction between the two) will be grateful for Frantumaglia and the story it tells, which is exquisite, regardless of those who would fact-check her.
I find myself wading through stacks of books, it seems, every month. I seek a way to read everything I’ve purchased, but for the most part I can’t. Nobody can, I suspect.Sometimes I need structure. Sometimes I need to be willfully led to my next book. Sometimes I need something easy, like (for instance) a box set with a bunch of short books by a bunch of great authors. Something that I can systematically read one by one in order, from #1 to #70.Penguin, upon celebrating their 70th anniversary, produced such a box – a literary “best-of” compilation, if you will. I became incredibly desirous of it. I searched all over the internet for a place to purchase it. I was a man possessed; no one could stand in my way – no one would dare hold me back from owning what looked like the greatest sampler in the history of publishing.The Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection includes all 70 of the publisher’s “Penguin Pockets,” a series that collected the best authors from Penguin’s existence and brought them to the masses at the relatively cheap price of £1.50 each. Each book features either an excerpt of a previously released novel or a collection of shorter unreleased stories. At roughly 55 pages each, the books are by no means meant to be an all encompassing look at their respective authors. Still, I used each one to further my horizons – to experience new writing that I might otherwise pass by, or even worse, be completely closed off to.My favorite, so far, is Jonathan Safran Foer’s The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning. Maybe I’m out of line here, but I found a lot of comparisons between Foer’s writing style and the immortal (at least, in the opinion of many reviewers) Dave Eggers. In fact, my first response to Foer’s writing was the same as it when I discovered to Eggers’ writing two years ago: “this guy is really, really good.”The comparisons are obvious – both authors write in a fresh, unconventional way, and both are fueled by emotion – Eggers uses his own past and thoughts while Foer borrows from the imaginary, yet brilliant mind of a nine-year old, the mute thoughts of that child’s grandfather, and the lost voice of the boy’s German grandmother. It’s exciting in a way that only a true book lover can comprehend – it’s not just good, it’s different.Yes, if you want to get technical, The Unabridged Pocketbook of Lightning is the Book of the Month. But really, I’m looking at this collection as a whole. It’s amazing in its completeness. Just to get your mouth watering, I’ll present a list of authors: Nick Hornby, P.D. James, Marian Keyes, Jorge Luis Borges, Roald Dahl, Jonathan Safran Foer, Homer, Paul Theroux, Anais Nin, Gustave Flaubert, Simon Schama, William Trevor, George Orwell, Michael Moore, Gervaise Phinn, Ali Smith, Sigmund Freud, Simon Armitage, Hunter S. Thompson, Tony Harrison, John Updike, Will Self, H.G. Wells, Noam Chomsky, Jamie Oliver, Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Truman Capote, Anton Chekhov, P.G. Wodehouse, Franz Kafka, Dave Eggers, John Steinbeck, Alain de Botton – and that’s just the stuff that I readily recognize.Really, there are only two reasons that any book collector shouldn’t own this collection. Number one – it’s expensive. It took me months to will myself into parting with the $150 it took to bring it over from the U.K. Number two – the books contained inside are only 55-pages long, and many of them are excerpts and previously released books. To this I say “Bah!” The covers alone are enough to make the box worth the price.What this ended up leading me to was a complete waterfall of book-buying ideas. I can no longer say, with a straight face at least, that I don’t know what to read next. After all, it seemed as if every other book I read caused me to stop, jot down the authors name, and then search Powells.com for other selections. I bought the set to become a more well-read person, and I fear that it’s going to slowly sap the money from my billfold as each respective book’s influences gets added, one by one, to my “must buy” list. I tell you, it will be the end of me.I’m very pleased with the selections offered in this collection. After such a long time, you get the feeling that a company was built to last, and Allen Lane (along with his Penguin empire) has proven that Penguin Publishing will be around until books no longer matter. The seventy books in The Penguin Pockets 70th Anniversary Collection span the company’s life, from Freud’s early work to Hunter Thompson’s last words. All in all, it’s a great set, for collectors, for people looking for a primer on Britain’s literary tastes, and for people who just like to read and aren’t afraid to stumble into something out of the ordinary.Though, after seventy years, you’d expect the best, right?Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood Pulp