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.
Building Stories, by the comics artist Chris Ware, comes in a large, flat box, roughly the size and shape of the boxes that contained those boardgames you used to play as a child, and which children everywhere have presumably now abandoned for digital diversions. I ordered it online, and because I wasn’t home when it arrived (and because the thing was never going to fit into my postbox) I had to put aside some time later that week to pick it up from a delivery depot about a mile and a half from where I live. When I got there, I rang a little bell at an unmanned hatch. A guy eventually appeared and asked for my name and address, then went away and came back with this large package, which I then signed for, took out to my car, lay across the back seat, and drove home. I say all of this by way of establishing that this is a sizable and intractably physical object, and that I had to endure some (admittedly minor) inconveniences to get to where I could sit down and spend time with it.
My point, I suppose, is that having to go a little out of your way might actually be the most appropriate way of arriving at Building Stories, a work of art whose quietly monolithic presence lies well beyond the central marketplace of contemporary literary culture. I call it a work of art, by the way, not in order to rhetorically elevate it, but rather to avoid having to call it a “book,” which is more or less exactly what it isn’t. Firstly, it’s a great big box, and then, once you’ve opened that, it’s a whole paper treasury of beautiful odds and ends – a series of small booklets and pamphlets, a couple of variously sized hardbound volumes, a massive and aggressively cumbersome broadsheet, a series of folded panels that opens out into a tetraptych – all of which is bound together by a clear plastic band. These things have to be removed and laid out, as though they were the contents of an aesthetic care-package, and they have to be appreciated before they can be read. So the first thing about Building Stories, the initial way in which it asserts itself, is that it feels like opening an unexpected gift.
But once you stop merely looking at it and begin reading it, the delight and sheer fun of its form – of the gift’s presentation – is revealed as a beautiful irony. Because although the content of the box is bright and surprising, full of remarkable nested pleasures, the content of the art itself (the content, as it were, of the box’s content) is something very different: full-color infographics of stoically-borne despair, sadness, and boredom. Building Stories is, essentially, a sprawling assemblage of cartoons about the inhabitants of a single building in Chicago. On the ground floor is the elderly landlady, and above her lives a youngish woman and her sullen, undermining husband, who once played guitar in a rock band, but who now works night shifts as a security guard. For the most part, though, Ware focuses on the life of an unnamed woman with one leg amputated at the knee who lives on the third floor. There seems to be no particular order in which the stories should be read – no one way in which the parts unite to form a whole – and so you glimpse this life at various points and at the various degrees of its loneliness. You pick up one booklet and she is in her twenties, living alone in her apartment with her cat, working as a florist; you pick up another and she is married to an architect (who looks very much like Chris Ware) and living in the suburbs with a young daughter; in another, she is just out of art school, working as an au pair with a wealthy couple and their son.
And yet despite this haphazardness, whereby the reader pieces this fractured graphic narrative together in whatever way comes to hand, there is always a forceful sense of the steady passage of time. We see the woman’s face change, her sadness seeming to settle into its structure; and, in Ware’s many unclothed depictions of her, we see the inevitable slump and spread of her body, her shoulders hunched under a private history of tolerable defeats. The only part of her that doesn’t grow old, that isn’t sliding along an illustrated continuum of decay, is the part that is already dead – her prosthetic left leg. In one of the most emotionally affecting panels, she stands in pear-shaped nakedness by the door of her bedroom, her clothes bunched on the floor around her. Her husband lies stretched out on their bed, also naked, his long legs crossed at the ankle, his slackly oblivious cock reclining away from her across his right thigh, his chest and face illuminated by the unreal glow of the iPad he is holding in his hands. The expression on her face is one of helpless misery, like a child prematurely exposed to adult disillusionments. It’s heartbreaking to look at everything that Ware somehow manages to imply in the simple lines of her face: her doubts about her husband’s desire for her and her own desire for him, her sudden dismay about the shape of her life, and of the body with which she is moving through it. It’s precisely the ordinariness of all this that is surprising; she is, in other words, not a nude, but – far more beautifully and movingly – a naked woman.
The passing of time, with its slow devastation of bodies and lives, is a major dimension of Building Stories. One of the comics focuses on the building’s elderly landlady; its entire front page is given over to a wordless scene in which she snoozes in her armchair by the television, sitting out what little time she has left, as a maid hoovers around her. Ware zooms in repeatedly on her left hand, a seized arthritic claw with its bulbous knuckles, resting on the arm of the chair. At one point a fly lands on the back of her hand without her noticing; it’s only when it moves to her face that she brushes it away, like a thought about the approach of death. Inside the comic, she thinks about the uneventful life she led, working as a shop assistant, trapped at home caring for a bedridden mother. A central double-page spread opens out into a diagram of the building’s stairwells, and as we move downward, reading from left to right, the process of aging is illustrated. First she is a little girl playing on the stairs, then a woman mopping it, then finally a frail and crotchety old lady rebuking her maid as she cleans the floor.
Ware has a way of making the most banal visual details unaccountably touching; in particular, I found the sight of the old lady’s hands removing the plastic wrap from a pre-prepared lunch plate (triangular sandwich, half a banana, two apple slices) desperately sad. Again, it’s the ordinariness of the image that is affecting. Like Philip Larkin, or the Joyce of Dubliners – a book with which Building Stories has a great deal in common – Ware has an extraordinary instinct for the empathic illumination of banality. He makes plain – beautifully and unsentimentally plain – the fact that nothing is more ordinary than to be lonely and despairing and dying. Perhaps this sounds depressing. It isn’t. Only bad art is depressing; good art, no matter what its subject, is exhilarating. Building Stories takes everyday sadness and makes something very beautiful of it, something powerfully human and true. That is a rare gift, and I’m very thankful to have received it.
My father in law has a huge collection of radio programs that he has taped and cataloged over the last two or three decades, and several years ago he gave me a couple of interesting tapes from the late 1980s. They contain a recorded performance of a baseball-themed show put on by the late baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti and one of my favorite essayists, New Yorker staffer and renowned baseball writer Roger Angell.The show, which is about two hours long, consists of readings of baseball essays, stories, and poetry. The work of John Updike is represented as is that of Garrison Keillor, but when I listened to the tapes, I was most interested in an excerpt from a book called The Glory of Their Times: The Story of Baseball Told By the Men Who Played It, a book that was put together by Lawrence Ritter, a former economics professor at NYU who died in 2004. Ritter was also a big baseball fan, and shortly after Ty Cobb’s death in 1961, inspired by the outpouring of myth and legend that occasioned Cobb’s passing, Ritter decided to record for posterity an oral history of the early years of professional baseball. Over the next several years, Ritter traveled 75,000 miles, crisscrossing the country, tape recorder in hand, seeking out the game’s oldest living veterans, men who played in the decades leading up to and after World War I. The result, first published in 1966 and updated and expanded in 1984, is among the most cherished baseball books around.With the baseball season hitting its sweet spot, I cracked the spine of my tattered copy of Ritter’s compilation, and what I found within was a look into a lost period of time – before radio, before TV, and before even the prevalence of still cameras – brimming with color about the game’s rough beginnings as America’s national pastime.To give just a sample of the gems contained within the Glory of Their Times, this is what I learned reading Fred “Snow” Snodgrass’ chapter, a representative sample of the sorts of details in the book that are sure to amaze any fan of today’s game:Christy Mathewson “never pitched on Sunday, or even dressed in uniform,” but “he made a good part of his expenses every year playing poker.”Snodgrass wore a baggy uniform to try to increase the chances of getting hit by pitches, and, failing that, he would dive for the ground on an inside pitch and pinch his arm to raise a welt so he could show the ump where he got “beaned.”There was more than one deaf and dumb ballplayer during this era, and, judging by this book, they were all nicknamed “Dummy.” Dummy Taylor, who played on the Giants with Snodgrass, “took it as an affront if you didn’t learn to converse with him,” and consequently everyone on the team learned sign language.A mysterious man named Charles Victory Faust emerged from the stands before a game in 1911 and told the Giants that a fortune teller had told him that if he pitched for the team, they would win the pennant. Superstitious manager (and baseball legend) John McGraw took Faust on the road with the team, and “every day from that day on, Charles Victory Faust was in uniform and he warmed up sincerely to pitch that game.” Of course, he never actually pitched, but the Giants did win the pennant in 1911. Faust joined them again in 1912, and again the Giants won the pennant. By 1913, Faust had become a fan favorite and McGraw let Faust come in and pitch an inning, much to the fans’ delight. Needless to say, the Giants won the pennant again in 1913.In 1908 Fred Merkle lost the pennant for the Giants because of a famous, “bonehead” play. He was on first and Moose McCormick on third in the bottom half of the ninth inning in a 1-1 ballgame against the Cubs in the last week of the season. Al Bridwell hit a single to center and McCormick scored from third. The fans rushed the field and Merkle sprinted to the clubhouse to avoid the madness – without stepping on second. Cubs shortstop Johnny Evers (of the famous Tinkers, Evers, Chance infield) noticed this, found the ball in the crowd, got in a tussle with the Giants third base coach, tagged second base for the force out, and then convinced the umps to come back out onto the field to reconsider the play. The umps overturned the win, ruling in the Cubs favor.There was a rumor that as a nervous habit, Phillies pitcher Harry Coveleski, “always carried some bologna in his back pocket and chewed on that bologna throughout the game.”In 1914, the Boston Braves went from last place on July 4th to contending for the pennant by season’s end. Interest in the team was so great that “they put ropes up in the outfield and thousands of people were sitting and standing and standing behind the ropes, right on the playing field.”Snodgrass, playing the outfield, got into a shouting match with the Boston fans, and the incensed mayor of Boston got out of his box seat and marched onto the field and demanded that the umps remove Snodgrass from the game.There is a sense that the modern game has lost much of its charm, that it is all spectacle. The game 100 years ago was certainly charming, but, as The Glory of Their Times makes clear, it was perhaps more the spectacle back then, a game of colorful characters and nicknames, brawls and backroom dealings, and fights over money with capricious owners. Some things just don’t change. It’s also true that for a game that we seemingly know so much about, the book shows just how little we know about professional baseball’s formative days.Ritter’s amazing chronicle of the early years of baseball is essential for anyone with a deep interest in the game.