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.
There are probably scads and scads of books like 13. I’ve seen them in libraries and used book stores. They are books that take on one topic and mine it for endless anecdotes and historical curios, but they don’t claim that by looking through the prism of the topic at hand, a reader can discern the entire arc of human history. The books are about what they are about, and all you need to do as a reader is sit back and be entertained and informed. John McPhee, who is very good at this sort of thing, once wrote a book entirely about Oranges, for example. Nathaniel Lachenmeyer does this sort of thing well, too. His book is an impeccably researched look at an old superstition. With every turn of the page the reader is presented with another odd relic that Lachenmeyer has dug up for our perusal: the existence of popular superstition-defying “13 clubs” at the beginning of the 20th century, for example. And onward the book moves through Friday the 13th, the missing 13th floor, and all the rest. Taken as a whole, the book is a nifty piece of well-researched reportage bringing to light the many murky progenitors of this now commonplace superstition.
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.
A minor lapse in comprehension caused me to believe, for about the first half of this collection, that I was reading a book called Imitations. I liked that title (though the actual one, Intimations, is more than adequate), because it struck me as slyly self-aware, particularly when applied to an author’s first story collection. (Kleeman’s debut novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, was published last year to great acclaim.) Writers learn to write stories by imitating their influences, and Kleeman’s collection is more mindful than most when it comes to sampling the various traditions of American short fiction.
The book is divided into three sections (which promotional material describes as “birth, living, and death,” though that is an oversimplification). The first offers a set of surreal stories that feature characters floundering under the expectations of others. In “Fairy Tale,” the narrator might be describing a dream: she is at a dinner with her parents and a man who claims to be her fiancé, though she does not recognize him and feels no attraction to him. As the story proceeds, more and more men show up at the table, each claiming to be a boyfriend or lover or paramour, and the pressure for the narrator to choose one leads to increasingly extreme scenarios. In “The Dancing-Master,” the eponymous instructor is goaded by the village philosopher into teaching a feral boy to dance like a proper gentleman: “Portesquieu would claim that this is impossible, that a body cultivated in the wild assumes the essence of wildness, turns swampy and will not admit of the growth of more refined habits. But with my labor, I prove him wrong: my wild child dances the minuet on command, as well as several other current dances.” The dancing-master achieves his pedagogical aims through use of a rod. When left to his own devices, the poor wild boy much prefers to chew on whatever objects are available. In their cold, fantastic minimalism, these first stories recall the work of Aimee Bender or Robert Coover (whose lengthy blurb, given its own page at the beginning of the book, functions like an oddly self-referential epigraph).
Section two begins with a suite of stories following the trials of a woman named Karen. “I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am the One For You” finds her attempting to write a profile of a humane dairy farmer shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend. She meets a German man in a cafe and the two begin an awkward flirtation. “Choking Victim” flashes forward half a decade, when Karen is now married to an architect and the mother of an infant daughter. She attempts to acclimate to life in a new city, but finds she is forever at odds with her surroundings. “Jellyfish” skips back to the day the architect, Dan, proposed to her, while on vacation at a resort in a developing country where the seas are plagued by blooms of jellyfish that unnerve the swimmers. These stories are naturalistic, if quirky: more Rivka Galchen than Bender. Kleeman proves herself an skilled conjurer of familiar life. In “Choking Victim,” Karen observes the hacking cough of an unseen neighbor: “The coughing continued, louder and more urgent. It grew and solidified simultaneously, like a skyscraper seen from an approaching car.”
The section ends unexpectedly with “Intimation,” a nightmarish parable where an unnamed narrator finds herself trapped in a dynamic house with a man who seems to think that they are in a relationship. Though the story reverts to the surrealism of the first section, after the three Karen stories it is difficult not to read this narrator, too, as Karen (or a version of Karen), and to interpret the story not simply as an allegory for marriage in general but for Karen’s marriage to Dan (or her awkwardness with the German). What’s more, the piece invites the reader to think back to the stories in section one, particularly “Fairy Tale,” and insert Karen into those narrative as well. Like an avocado pit surrounded by malleable flesh, the Karen stories orient the pieces around them, providing the reader a notion of center.
The third section is more similar to the first than to the second, though categorized less by anxiety than by full-blown desperation. In “Fake Blood” a woman arrives in costume to a non-costume party, where her bloody outfit is construed by the other guests as evidence of a murder mystery game. Their belief in such a game causes people to misinterpret the real murders that begin to occur, even as the narrator attempts to convince them otherwise. The disjointed vignettes of “Rabbit Starvation” use the conceit of fluffy whiteness to explore the existential horror of aberration and loneliness, from a cotton ball sorting facility to accounts of Robert Falcon Scott’s fatal South Pole expedition to the thoughts of a person trapped in a room full of rabbits: “Stack the rabbits. Number the rabbits. Place a fingertip on the nose and stroke from forehead over spine to the tip of its adorable puff. Regret and regroup. Enumerate the possibilities. Write messages in the sky.”
The final story, “You, Disappearing,” is a dystopian tale of a world laid waste by the incremental disappearance of objects: apples, trousers, magazines, parts of Ferris wheels. “Nobody thought the apocalypse would be so polite and quirky. Things just popped out of existence, like they had forgotten all about themselves. Now when you misplaced your keys, you didn’t go looking for them.” But pets disappear as well, as do people, memories, even entire concepts. The narrator is unnamed, though she is in love with an architect. They are unmarried, without children, torn apart by the disparate ways they react to a world in which the disappearance of all things is inevitable. “There had been times,” the narrator writes of her boyfriend, “when I thought I might be with you indefinitely, something approaching an entire life. But then when there was only a finite amount of time, a thing we could see the limit of, I wasn’t so sure. I didn’t know how to use a unit of time like this, too long for a game of chess or a movie but so much shorter than we had imagined.” The story is perhaps the collection’s strongest, benefiting not only from the intimacies of this unnamed couple, but from the accrued emotions of all that has come before it: the lives (or potential lives) the reader has lived with Karen, lives which will not occur in the world of this final tale.
It is interesting that Intimations should appear so shortly on the heels of the American publication of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. Though the books are largely dissimilar, they both take well-established strategies for giving a novel an innovative kick and apply them to the medium of the short fiction collection. (Some reviewers have referred to Pond, which is composed of self-contained short stories, as a novel. They are mistaken. Mislabeling a linked short story collection as a novel does a disservice to both forms.) In the case of Pond, Bennett adapts the accumulating, knot-of-language aesthetic used successfully in the works of David Markson and, more recently, Eimear McBride. Kleeman, on the other hand, is working in the surrealism-neighboring-naturalism tradition of preceding wunderkinds like Téa Obreht and Jonathan Safran Foer, where sections of dreamlike allegory supplement sections telling the primary “real life” story. These tropes, when employed by novelists, have grown to feel quite domesticated over time, anchored as they are to book-length narratives that mostly guarantee a sense of progress by the end. In applying them to story collections, Bennett and Kleeman have essentially thrown out the instruction manual, allowing the reader to assemble whatever larger narrative they are able, knowing it will be incomplete and that there may even some parts leftover.
Save for a few standouts, the stories are not as strong, individually, as their original publications (The New Yorker, The Paris Review) might suggest. Several pieces obstruct more than they aid in explication. At 40 pages, “A Brief History of Weather” is a collection within a collection, divided into titled sections that follow a family’s attempt to create a house immune from and absent of any weather. It feels like Kleeman’s attempt to create her own Cooverian fragmentary epic (à la “The Gingerbread House” or “Seven Exemplary Fictions”), but the motifs are a bit too spasmodic and numerous (games, Russian dolls, unattributed quotes, an invented twin) to add up to anything coherent. The ethereal “Hylomorphosis” reads (purposefully) like a piece of 16th-century angelology that, while initially promisingly, refuses to solidify into anything digestible for mortal readers. Even the Karen stories are rather unexceptional when removed from their context in the book. Cumulatively, though, the collection offers an experience that is more surprising and, in some ways, more provoking than that of a standard collection composed of better stories. Kleeman is masterful at the sentence level. At the book level, she is ambitious and inventive. Once she works out the interstitials, she’ll be spawning imitators of her own.
I first heard about Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd about twenty years ago, when I was in seventh or eighth grade. My classmates and I were all reading Stephen King and Dean R. Koontz, and our English teacher attempted to guide our reading choices to higher-brow material.”I think it’s great that you’re all reading so much,” she said. “But when you’re choosing books to read, try to read classics.” She mentioned, for example, that she had recently read Far From the Madding Crowd while recovering from surgery.I had no intention of abandoning King or Koontz, but I did check out a copy of Hardy’s novel from the public library. I tried to read it but didn’t get far. The first two paragraphs had enough unfamiliar vocabulary and tonal foreignness to repel me as a thirteen-year-old:When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.His Christian name was Gabriel, and on working days he was a young man of sound judgment, easy motions, proper dress, and general good character. On Sundays he was a man of misty views, rather given to postponing, and hampered by his best clothes and umbrella: upon the whole, one who felt himself to occupy morally that vast middle space of Laodicean neutrality which lay between the Communion people and the drunken section.It took me ten years to try another Hardy novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which I read and loved after my first year as an English teacher myself. The pleasures afforded by Hardy’s fiction, I realized, require patience, a more mature appreciation of language, wider knowledge of the adult world, and a sense of the past. (Google is helpful, too, in deciphering Hardy’s obscure mythological and Biblical references.)This summer, as I picked up Far From the Madding Crowd for another go, I was better equipped to appreciate Hardy’s wryly delicate humor in passages like the following: “It may have been observed that there is no regular path for getting out of love as there is for getting in. Some people look upon marriage as a short cut that way, but it has been known to fail.”Funny – and, indeed, as in Tess and The Return of the Native, in this novel Hardy concerns himself with love’s entanglements. Bathsheba Everdene, a young and imperious beauty, named for the woman who occasioned King David’s sinful plotting, finds herself involved not in a romantic triangle, but a romantic quadrilateral, as three men vie for her affections. Their names, like hers, are evocative of their identities: Oak, the solid shepherd; Boldwood, the increasingly audacious farmer; and the Troy, the scoundrel as fallen as the citadel that is his namesake.There’s a reason that the romantic triangle is such a commonly-used fictional device: it has a geometric elegance, a pointedness that keeps a story moving. The romantic quadrilateral is harder to make work. Hardy does it well enough that 135 years later people are still reading the book. Compared to later works like Tess and Native, though, this one – the earliest of Hardy’s best – known novels – is a bit of a disappointment.For one thing, it lacks a narrative center. This romantic quadrilateral is nothing so neat as a square or a rectangle. It’s more ungainly – an irregular trapezoid, perhaps. It’s difficult work to set up three suitors in a reasonably rounded way, and while Hardy’s developing one, the other two tend to fade to the background. In the end, the male characters come perilously close to being as wooden as their names or, in Troy’s case, a bit too starkly villainous.At times the plot’s contrivances seem arbitrary, meant to force the narrative (originally published serially in a magazine) in its intended direction without especial regard for plausibility: Oak lies down in an apparently abandoned wagon, whose owners return and just so happen to be heading to Bathsheba’s farm; Troy nearly drowns and, believed dead, runs off to America to join the circus for a convenient span of time, returning just when his presence will cause the most upheaval.Bathsheba herself, vain, proud, described by one of the men who marries her as “this haughty goddess, dashing piece of womanhood, Juno-wife of mine,” seems to be a rough draft for Eustacia Vye, the more famous heroine of Hardy’s Return of the Native. Eustacia (a favorite of Holden Caulfield’s, you may recall) is, in Hardy’s description, “the raw material of a divinity. On Olympus she would have done well,” he writes, for “she had the passions and instincts which make a model goddess, that is, those which make not quite a model woman.” In comparison to Eustacia, Bathsheba is too kind, too mortal, and less vivid.In other ways, too, Madding seems a rough draft of Native, which arranges its characters not in a triangle or quadrilateral, but in overlapping Venn diagrams of desire. In both novels, some characters come to tragic ends, some are seared by their experiences but survive, chastened but wiser. Return of the Native was published in 1878, four years after Far From the Madding Crowd, and in most ways it’s a better book. It has a sharper sense of place; a more forceful narrative arc; more emotionally weighty and realistic plot turns; and, despite a rather tedious beginning in which backstory is provided by the gossip of eccentric country folk, less of such stock characters, whose humorousness has not aged well.I guess you could say that my eighth grade teacher gave me a bad recommendation. After all these years, finally reading this novel was a bit anticlimactic. But in the larger sense, she was right: King and Koontz may have been fine for my adolescence, but ultimately they were bridges to more ambitious reading projects. My teacher’s offhanded remark about Hardy stuck with me, giving me a sense of the rewarding places to which those bridges might lead. Though I might have skipped this particular novel without much of a loss, Hardy’s best work is definitely worth the journey.