I bought Brotherly Love, a discounted, yet signed, copy from the remaindered section of the bookstore where I used to work. At the time I was enamored by Pete Dexter, whose books Train and Paris Trout I had recently read. Both of those books are spare and menacing, at times brutally violent, but done in a masterful way. Brotherly Love is like those books, but to call the book spare is an understatement. Dexter takes his time – most of the book, really – fleshing out the main characters, cousins Peter and Michael Flood from a Philadelphia gangster family. As the plot slowly develops – or comes to a boil, one might say – it becomes clear that Peter wants out. But of course, Michael and his band of hoods keep dragging him back in. In Brotherly Love, Dexter doesn’t quite plumb the emotional depths of his characters as he does so effectively in Paris Trout and Train, and the reader is left with a book that feels empty and characters that feel doomed from page one.
“Dostoevsky was a sick man. He was spiteful, intolerant, and irritable. Turgenev once described him as the nastiest Christian he had ever met.” – Andrew R. MacAndrew, Translator of Notes from Underground.I’d like to think that, 200 years from now, I’ll be immortalized with a Penguin Classics edition of my life’s work – a 700-page tome spanning my early blogging career to my brilliance in advertising copy to my eventual Great American Whatever. I see it bound in something collectible – my skin, perhaps, or threads of wallpaper from the basement where all of the magic happened.It will have an introduction, of course. The introduction will be written by someone incredibly talented and well-thought-of. I imagine a design by Chris Ware (okay, he’ll be dead, so a design by Chris Ware’s great grandchildren or something. Humor me here.)Some things that might be included in my introduction:Corey Vilhauer started his career in the trenches of the Sioux Falls School District, working as an embattled troll in the substitute teaching pool.Vilhauer worked his way up, gaining employment as a writer through sheer will and ruthless determination (not to mention rugged good looks and undeniable charm.)Until mid-January, 2007, Vilhauer usually skipped the introductions to classic and modern novels, preferring to get right to the story.It’s true. I did. Until this month, I never took time to read introductions and appendixes. I just flipped to the point where the page numbers stopped looking so Roman and started looking more Arabic. I wanted to read the novel, not the author’s life story. Who has time for introductions?And then – Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, Notes from Underground (and other stories) – this months Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month.I’m going to assume that most of you have dabbled in Dostoevsky’s mire. You’ve drudged your way through some of the most depressing and thought-provoking personal reflection ever written. Most of you probably even read the introduction. However, some of you probably didn’t. I’m here for you. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.Notes from Underground, for those who have yet to read it, was written a few years after Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. To death! Why? Because he spoke out. Because he was a dissident in Mother Russia and needed to be stopped.He wasn’t killed. No – of course he wasn’t. He had three more monstrous, billion-page novels to write before he was ready to expire. But he was tortured, mentally, by the powers-that-be. From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword:On December 21, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a city square for public execution. The death sentence was read to them, they were given the cross to kiss, a sword was symbolically broken over their heads, and they were ordered to don special white shirts. They were to be shot three by three. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Dostoevsky was the sixth in line – that is, he was to be executed in the second batch.Suddenly the tsar’s messenger appeared on a foaming horse and announced that the tsar was graciously making them a present of their lives. There was a beating of drums. The retreat was sounded. The men already tied to the posts were untied and sent back to rejoin the others. Some prisoners fainted. Two went permanently insane. The effect on Dostoevsky, too, was shattering. The epileptic fits to which he had been subject since his childhood became incomparably worse.He was nearly killed. Then, the tsar came riding up, saying, “never mind, dude – imprisonment for eight years (four, with the tsar’s blessing, of course) will be fine.” The people around him went crazy. He was a changed man from then on.And, by reading the Introduction, and in finishing with the Afterword, I discovered the aforementioned history. I learned something about Dostoevsky that is far more interesting than anything I could have imagined.Notes from Underground follows the insecure wanderings of a man so depressed – so annoyed with life and dragged down by its horrible tentacles – that he can’t do anything but complain. He tags along with some “friends” to feel included, but ends up berating them for hours. He searches for them later (to duel, of course) and instead ends up berating a whore in much the same way.He hates himself and seeks relief, but whenever that relief shows up, he shuns it. He’s miserable – both in feeling and in action. He’s nothing. He talks symbolically of the mouse hole that he’s lived in for 20 years, and in reading, you figure it’s not just symbolic. It is necessary.Notes from Underground is written by someone who had been driven mad – maybe not certifiably, but at least minimally enough to devise a hateful character as the narrator. Dostoevsky ended up a grizzled, horrible person – hard to be around, yet amazingly talented. Some say he ended up too sentimental. Others say he was too hard. I found him to be brilliant, if not a little misunderstood. I also found him to be just as miserable as his protagonist.In writing a story like Notes from Underground, talent can only take you so far. Dostoevsky didn’t just create a character from scratch, taking pen and placing it on paper and writing from the creative depths of his mind. He was writing from his heart – shaping a character that was actively driving himself mad, just as those who he had been sentenced to death with were driven mad – little by little, through deception and mind control.Notes from Underground is quite a task – it’s short, but it drives one to annoyed rage. “Just be nice, for once!” you might yell. But in yelling that, you’re directing it as Dostoevsky himself. This is all internalized. No wonder he’s so hateful. After all, look at what he went through.And to think I used to skip those “life story” sections.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan.
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.