It would be a shame if the death of the Russian novelist Vasily Aksyonov yesterday got lost in the welter of cultural losses that surrounds it. Aksyonov is one of the towering literary figures of the postwar era – one who might have been more widely recognized as such were it not for the strictures of Soviet publishing culture. In his novels The Burn, The New Sweet Style, and especially Generations of Winter (which we have championed at this site), Aksyonov synthesized the Tolstoyan legacy of the 19th Century with the innovating impulses of the revolutionary generation. In making Russian literary tradition his own, and re-opening its dialogue with the rest of world literature, he pointed the way for the novelists who would succeed him. I can think of no more fitting way to honor him than to read him.
The New York Times is reporting that Maurice Sendak has died at 83. In part because I shared a name with its main character, Where the Wild Things Are was a beloved book of mine. Sendak’s last book Bumble-Ardy, full of chaotic drawings of mischievous pigs, is a favorite of 19-month-old son’s. May Sendak’s bountiful imagination and heart live on for many generations in his books.
I have been one of the few to extract a plausible living from a bookshop. When I was hired to work at Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia Whitman had recently taken over running the place from her father, George. She wanted a permanent staff to confront the multitudes who flooded in on a daily basis, and she knew a good salary would keep people around. I was glad Sylvia was my boss. She was sweet and even tempered, while George was known to be irascible and unpredictable. Furthermore, everyone told me that George “didn’t like men.” (At one of his heralded Sunday breakfasts, he spied a single boy among the crowd of young female admirers and remarked, with narrowed eyes, “There’s a weed in my flower garden.”)
My shift lasted from 6 p.m. to midnight. Sylvia warned me that George often came down in the evening, after she’d gone home, to engage in sabotage. Father and daughter were embroiled in a simmering conflict over “improvements.” Telephone, or cash register, or books organized by genre — George was revolted by the idea. A few weeks earlier, under orders from the French authorities, the famously-treacherous staircase, described by Anaïs Nin as “unbelievable,” was taken down and replaced by a wider, sturdier, more conventional thing. Enraged, George attacked it with a hammer. The night of my first shift, I sat at the register, nervous that he would renew his assault. What should I do if he appeared with that hammer again? But when he turned up midway through the evening, it was not the stairs he had in mind. A friend was coming from Atlantic City. We needed another bed! Ignoring the line of waiting customers, George ordered me to climb out onto the dilapidated roof (of the 16th-century building) to retrieve a piece of rotting plywood, skewered with nails. I obliged, of course. Later, he brought me gluey pancakes, which I clandestinely flushed down the toilet.
When readings were held outside the shop, George would sometimes throw chewed pieces of chicken out the fourth-story window. This was a snack for Colette, the shop dog. We all prayed the scraps would not fall on the author. George was thrillingly indifferent to appearances. When Bill Clinton visited, he descended in his pajamas to inform the former president that he had “betrayed his principals,” by executing a mentally-disabled man during his tenure as governor of Arkansas.
George was epically and, at times, autocratically uninterested in anything convenient, orderly, or efficient. Cell phones? Computers? Kindles? No thanks. If we organized the books, he disorganized them. If we brought in the cleaners, he was livid. Cockroaches roamed and flourished. The wishing well was raided constantly by gypsies. George didn’t care; as long as people had books.
Over the course of 60 years, he gave shelter to almost 40,000 people, many of that desperate genre: the aspiring writer. When I worked at the shop, we would often find scraps of paper under the stairwell that revealed themselves to be thank you notes to George from people like Langston Hughes or Graham Greene or Jacqueline Onassis. And so I, and the many thousands of others who passed through, add our not-quite-as-illustrious thank you notes to theirs.
Photo courtesy of Harriet Lye.
The recent death of Tillie Olsen (1912-2007) reminds us that the value of a piece of literature is not quantifiable – not by word count, not by books sold – but, rather, resides in a black box between writer and reader, in a transaction that defies easy explanation. Olsen’s writing was not prodigal – she only published one complete book of fiction – but was, in its artistry and its impact, prodigious.Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection of four stories, drew on activist sensibilities forged in the 1920s and 30s and on Olsen’s innate poetic gifts. It consciously reclaimed the lives of minorities, of immigrants, of working-class people, and, especially, of women, as worthy of fictional examination. In so doing, it anticipated much of the finest literature published since.It seems that Olsen was as inspiring in person as she was on the page. Her great-nephew Matt Osypowski, himself a fiction writer, recently told The Millions:I started a novel (unfinished) in her apartment when I was eight or nine years old. Something about her presence made me want to do what she did, to master the language in the way that she had. She would send me the most beautiful birthday cards – short notes of pure music. Her partner, Jack, was deeply involved in labor politics in San Francisco, as was my grandfather. Their work was steeped in conflict, ideology, and mass movements… There was a beautiful contrast between their work and Tillie’s, the big picture on their end and on hers all the small pictures that make the big picture matter. Her work can make me so sad, but it’s never an impotent sadness – beneath it lie all her hopes for a better world, hopes that she wrote for, fought for, and helped all of us in the family share and understand.Another fond remembrance, by John Leonard, is posted at The Nation (via The Mumpsimus).