A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

This year I read two of the greatest novels ever written, but I’m going to start with something I’m even more excited to share. Back in January, I learned about Dorothy Richardson, who wrote a sequence of autobiographical novels, called Pilgrimage, published between 1915 and 1938; I had never heard of her, but she sounded interesting, and I wound up reading a dozen of her novels to my wife over the course of the year.

The first of them, Pointed Roofs, presents the mental world of a teenage English girl, Miriam (the author’s stand-in), teaching at a finishing school in Hanover, Germany, sometime in the early 1890s; the rest of the sequence takes place mostly in London, following Miriam as she finds a job in a dentist’s office and makes friends with various oddballs, like herself at odds with conventional Victorian life.

The series is not for everyone, since there is essentially no plot, only the careful notation of the view from inside Miriam’s head—her thoughts about her life, the past and future, her immediate surroundings (her awareness of and love for nature remind me of Pasternak), language, and the few people of importance to her (those people drop out of sight for hundreds of pages, and sometimes we learn from a casual remark that one of them died at some undetermined time in some undetermined way). The closest thing to a plot is the continuing question of her relations with her Russian friend Michael, who introduces her to Russian literature and wants to marry her, but whom she does not want to marry. The books carry her through perhaps a couple of decades, but there is almost never any indication of what year it is, which can be frustrating if one cares about such things. But the prose is superb (it gives me great pleasure to read it aloud) and the evocation of turn-of-the-century London fascinating, and I think anyone who enjoys (say) Woolf’s To the Lighthouse would like these novels as much as I do (and Woolf herself was a fan).

The two great novels I mentioned above were Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov, which I read in close succession, the latter for the first time in decades and the former for the first time ever (I would definitely have won a round of David Lodge’s parlor game Humiliation). Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are at the top of their respective games here, and it was fascinating to have the chance to compare them; I’ll mention a couple of similarities I might not have noticed otherwise. Both novels include plot lines that, strictly speaking, are irrelevant to the main plot: in Anna Karenina it’s Levin’s coming to terms with the dissatisfactions of everyday life and the quandaries of landowning, and in Karamazov it’s Alyosha’s interactions with Father Zosima in the monastery.

But as I told my brother, who asked if I found Levin as insufferable as he did, he’s insufferable because he’s a self-portrait and Tolstoy was insufferable in the same ways, and the novel wouldn’t have existed without him (Tolstoy was already in the process of giving up on literature and had little desire to finish the novel until he realized he could use it to promote his theories about peasants and landowners and their relation to the land). The same is true of Zosima, since Dostoevsky had been desperate to present his image of a Christ-like man for many years (Prince Myshkin in The Idiot was one of his attempts), and for him this was the moral center of the novel. And both novels employ what Gary Saul Morson (the best critic of Russian literature I know) calls vortex time, in which time appears to swirl down and in to create a sense of inevitability: This is what Anna feels as she is swallowed up by her suicidal impulse, and it is what the prosecutor forces Dmitry into in the great trial scenes of Karamazov. For what it’s worth, I finished Karenina with a feeling of pleasure and satisfaction, and Karamazov with a desire to reread it before too long.

Two other novels I want to mention are Joseph Conrad’s Under Western Eyes (by no means a great novel but a very readable and intense one, and a fascinating look at radical life in Geneva in the early years of the 20th century) and Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians, an absolutely delightful novel about language-obsessed twin sisters I gobbled up in two days.
I also read a number of excellent scholarly histories, which I will simply list with a brief description of each and my highest recommendation for them all.

Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is superb, making Egypt a place with a real history like those of other countries rather than a timeless land obsessed with the afterlife; it’s worth the price just for the set-pieces on the Battle of Kadesh and the invasion of the Sea Peoples. Alan Taylor is one of my favorite historians, and American Revolutions is a worthy sequel to his riveting American Colonies (if you haven’t read that one, remedy the omission forthwith). Wayne Dowler’s Russia in 1913 convincingly argues against the usual portrait of tsarist Russia as a backward land stifled by autocracy and ripe for revolution; he shows it modernizing in every area and headed for a prosperity that would have been inevitable if not for World War One. Alison K. Smith’s For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia brings a dazzling array of evidence to bear on a vital but often neglected aspect of pre-revolutionary Russian life.

Finally, Marcus C. Levitt’s Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880 sounds so narrowly focused as to be useful only to specialists, but in fact it’s wonderfully written and full of enlightening episodes (like the mobs that descended on bookstores in 1887 on the 50th anniversary of Pushkin’s death, when the copyright on his works expired and cheap editions were suddenly available); anyone interested in Russian literary history will enjoy it.

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

I’ve read a lot of Russian literature and a lot about it, several general histories (starting with D.S. Mirsky’s classic) and a bunch of more specialized ones. Frankly, I didn’t think any book could add much to my understanding. But the massive new A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler is a revelation. It gave me a fresh outlook on almost every page, adding not just new names but new connections between them, and new ways of looking at the subject. In their introduction, the authors say they want “to bring out the recurrent stories and national frameworks through which literature responds to social, historical, and political reality, and through these interactions to demonstrate the transformations of literature,” and they do so consistently—this is not a list of authors and works but a dense description of a web of interconnections, relying on the latest scholarship (and I was very pleased to see some of my favorites, like Valerie Kivelson, Leo Livak, and Vladislav Zubok, not just cited but used thoughtfully and well). Of course, the fact that it’s an academic history means you occasionally have to wade through dense academic prose, but thankfully such patches are rare; a more representative sentence is “Kataev himself was an interesting example of modernist experimentation: he considered Bunin his mentor, Olesha a personal friend, and Nabokov his competitor.” This is not only clean, readable writing, it exemplifies their emphasis on interrelationships. Another result of the book’s academic nature, inevitably, is that it focuses on material about which academically interesting things can be said; I was initially taken aback when pages about Gorky were followed by a mere paragraph on Bunin, Bunin being a much better writer, but then it occurred to me there’s nothing really to say about Bunin, especially for an academic. He didn’t join literary groups, he didn’t radically change style, he didn’t emigrate and then return and have a complicated relationship with the Bolsheviks like Gorky, he just wrote great short stories, decade after decade (which presumably also explains the omission of fine short-story writers like Yuri Nagibin).

But that’s a minor issue; in general their coverage is comprehensive, and it starts at the very beginning, with the 10th-century acceptance of Christianity by Kievan Rus. Indeed, the first section (“The Medieval Period,” over 100 pages) and the second (“The Seventeenth Century,” almost as long) are so through and well written that I can’t imagine their being superseded in the foreseeable future—most histories merely glance briefly at everything before the 18th century. The scope and length of the book mean that the authors can take the time to discuss individual poems at length, quoting them in both Russian and English. Another useful feature is the “case studies,” which focus on particularly important authors and topics; for example, the discussion of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign puts it in context and sets out its contents more intelligibly than in any other short account I know, and following it with a long case study of the discovery and loss of the manuscript and the controversy about its authenticity is brilliant and justifies the idea all by itself. Other excellent case studies are about duels, Gogol, Formalism, Bakhtin, and Nabokov. There are fine descriptions of authors usually ignored, like Alexander Veltman and Aleksei Remizov, and I was particularly pleased to see the prominent attention given to one of my personal heroes, Nikolai Polevoi. The authors even take the time to mention some of the superb Soviet translators of foreign literature. The index is hit-and-miss, but fortunately one can use Google Books to compensate. In short, the book is indispensable for anyone seriously interested in Russian literature, and I’ll be consulting it for years to come.

Three years ago I wrote here about Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; last year Kotkin published the sequel, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, and I spent the first couple of months of this year engrossed in it. This volume is focused much more tightly on Stalin himself; as Kotkin says, it “takes place largely in his office, and indeed, in his mind.” It focuses on three major topics—the brutal collectivization of agriculture in 1929, the mass terror of the late 1930s, and the 1939 pact with Nazi Germany—and anyone interested in them will be fascinated by Kotkin’s detailed explanations, backed up by 160 pages of notes (many of which make useful reading in their own right). Here’s a portion of his explanation for the Terror:
Everything Stalin did during the years 1936–38 he had been talking about for years. … Stalin had stated that he was building socialism against all manner of implacable class enemies; that the class struggle sharpened as the country got closer to the full victory of socialism…, that the Zinovievites, Trotskyites, and the right deviation were interlinked and tied to the military…  that enemies had become desperate and resorted to all-out terror… and that Trotsky and his supposed followers were the most diabolical threat to socialism and the Soviet state.
It all made sense to Stalin, and when you’ve finished the book it will make sense to you, appalling as it all was. I can’t wait for the final volume.

As a follow-up I read Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers, which while not as scholarly as Kotkin is compulsively readable and gives an unmatched portrait of Soviet life for (mostly) ordinary people, and Vladislav Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, which is a brilliant summary of that period. On the non-Russian front, I was bowled over by David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past; it starts with the history of genome studies (which have exploded in the last few years) and the surprising new things that have been learned about ancient humans and their migrations and minglings, and even I, who am functionally illiterate when it comes to the details of genetics, could follow along and understand what he was talking about.  And among the novels I read, I can particularly recommend Zadie Smith’s On Beauty; also, this year I read Crime and Punishment for the first time, and it’s just as good as they say!

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

I wasn’t planning to make Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution my lead review as I was reading it; it seemed overlong and somewhat scattered.  But by the time I was done, I realized I had been badly mistaken: Slezkine knew exactly what he was doing, and the book was as long as it needed to be. An early chapter on the history of religion that doesn’t even mention communism until the end seemed superfluous until I realized it was providing the concepts and vocabulary he would use to analyze the entire history of the Soviet Union. It is, of course, a commonplace to compare communism to a religion; he begins the chapter by asking whether it is one, and says “it does not matter.” What matters is that it operated like a cult from the beginning, and he needs to show you what that means so you won’t dismiss it.  Most reviews I’ve seen compare his book to an epic Russian novel, and I can see why: it’s long, tells gripping stories, and has a cast of hundreds.  But that’s misleading, because novels have invented plots constructed so as to provide a satisfying outcome for the reader, whereas this tells the real stories of real people (most of them with photographs showing them at various stages of life, so they seem even realer), and the outcome is simply what happened. He gives extensive quotes from diaries, letters, and memoirs, arranged to provide an esthetic punch; I’m still haunted by the ending of Book II, a quote from the diary of the Aida-obsessed Lyova Fedotov. Slezkine has been working on this for a long time, and it shows; all the allusions, all the quotes, all the juxtapositions work, and the final chapter, on Yuri Trifonov (who grew up in the Government House and made it famous with his novel The House on the Embankment), ties everything together.  The penultimate page quotes this passage from Trifonov’s Another Life: “Every contact with the past meant pain. Yet life is made up of such contacts, for the threads to the past are a thousandfold and each one must be torn out of living flesh, out of a wound. … Every object, every familiar person, every thought, every word—every single thing in the world was linked by some thread to him.” Slezkine’s (very Russian) ironic allusiveness is the perfect way to tell this multi-threaded story of a revolution gone wrong; it’s not so much a history as a book about how to understand history, and anyone interested in the fate of the Soviet Union should read it. (Since it concentrates on the people in the Government House, it necessarily represents a partial view of society; to supplement it, you can’t do better than Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s, edited by Veronique Garros, Natalia Korenevskaya, and Thomas Lahusen, which excerpts the diaries of 10 very different people, from a grumpy farmer to a woman who can’t stop mourning her daughter.)

Peter C. Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia is also long and multi-threaded, but rather than an interpretation of a well-known history, it’s an excavation of a forgotten one. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the region Perdue calls Central Eurasia was contested between Russia, China, and Zungharia; since the last-named (which, annoyingly, is also spelled Dzungaria, Jungharia, and Dzhungaria in English-language works) has fallen into oblivion, it’s exciting to see it brought back to life and the mutual interactions of the players in this early version of the Great Game explained. Perdue integrates sources from all the relevant languages and archives, takes account of all sorts of scholarly and nationalist interpretations, and puts together a convincing synthesis full of insights. Furthermore, he’s a better writer than most academics, with a knack for pithy summations (“Thus the great Qing historiographic juggernaut never entirely eliminated alternative voices. Far away on the Volga, visions of an independent people still survived”); the book has gorgeous color illustrations and maps, and it goes into all sorts of apparently recondite issues (like the maintenance of horse herds) that turn out to be both crucial and interesting. I never thought I needed a book on this topic, but I’m very glad I read it.

When I finished Dominic Lieven’s The End of Tsarist Russia, near the start of the year, it was going to be my lead review; I’ve read a lot about Russia’s role in WWI, and this is the best discussion I’ve seen.  Mind you, the bulk of the book is not about the war but the period leading up to it, but it covers that period so brilliantly that you’ll never think about it the same way again. It requires some investment on the part of the reader, since in giving the Russian background Lieven introduces a great many people and their relationships, but it’s worth the effort. Like Perdue, he’s good at concise explanations; after saying that the unification of Italy and Germany “forged a new model for conservative statecraft by mobilizing liberal and nationalist support for the royal state,” he concludes: “No longer would nationalism primarily be an ideology on the left in European politics.” I liked it so much I’ll be happy to read anything Lieven chooses to write.

The other books I loved this year were specialized enough that I’ll just list them; if the titles intrigue you at all you should investigate further: Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires 1908–1918 by Michael A. Reynolds (especially if you have any interest in the Caucasus); Cartographies of Tsardom: The Land and Its Meanings in Seventeenth-Century Russia by Valerie Kivelson (a nice complement to the Perdue book); Border Crossings: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature 1917-1934 by Carol Avins (a splendid work of criticism that covers writers as diverse as Mandelstam, Bulgakov, Shklovsky, and Platonov—it’s one of those books where even the footnotes are thought-provoking); Rescuing History from the Nation: Questioning Narratives of Modern China by Prasenjit Duara (a convincing and thoroughly researched attack on simplistic nationalistic accounts of history), and Paths in the Rainforests by Jan M. Vansina (about the Congo region in the precolonial period, with a focus on the complexity of the various subregions and the peoples who have lived there: “There is a political, social, and economic history to be recovered here, along with a history of ideas, values, and ideology”).

Oh, and every year there seems to be at least one book that I catch up with long after everybody else; this year it’s Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I gave it to my wife and she loved it so much she made me read it, and it’s every bit as good as they say.

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

I thought I was pretty familiar with Alexander Herzen. I’d read Isaiah Berlin’s articles on him and parts of his autobiography, and I could have told a good story about how as a teenager he swore an oath to fight tsarist tyranny, how he fled Russia for Western Europe and established the first free Russian press, and how he was vilified by both conservatives and radicals for his unfashionably nuanced views.  All of that is true, but in reading Aileen M. Kelly’s new biography, The Discovery of Chance, I found that I really knew hardly anything about him. In the first place, he studied the natural sciences in college rather than history or philosophy like almost every other socially aware student of his generation, and this gave him the lens through which he viewed everything else: man was part of nature, and history was the product of natural laws. He had this crucial insight before Charles Darwin, and publicized it long before Darwin dared to. Furthermore, history, like life in general, was driven by chance rather than any kind of higher plan; it wasn’t heading inevitably toward a socialist paradise or any other destination. This idea was unacceptable to almost everyone then and is resisted even now, and Herzen himself took many years to assimilate it. Herzen’s twin emphases on truth and freedom carried him through to conclusions that still have the power to surprise and provoke: “There is no universally valid idea from which man has not woven a rope to bind his own feet, and if possible, the feet of others as well…Love, friendship, tribal loyalty, and finally even love of freedom have served as inexhaustible sources of moral oppression and servitude.” He opposed what he called “the mysticism of science,” and asked his fellow radicals “why belief in God is ridiculous and belief in humanity is not.”

Kelly maintains a fine balance between the events of his life and the intellectual currents that shaped him; she has useful summaries of the work and ideas of thinkers like Georges Cuvier, Buffon, Montesquieu, and Emmanuel Kant, and a paragraph on Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling explains that mistily transcendental philosopher in a way that for the first time gives me an idea of what he meant and why he was so popular. She gives vivid descriptions of radicals like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who had a huge influence on both Herzen and all of Europe.  She seems to have absorbed everything relevant to her subject, and she challenges received opinion with brio. As I was reading it, I was thinking that anyone interested in the intellectual life of the 19th century would profit from this book, but having finished it, I think anyone interested in intellectual life, period, should get it. It’s the best work of history or biography I’ve read in a long time.

Robert Bartlett’s The Making of Europe: Conquest, Colonization and Cultural Change, 950-1350 is an absorbing and detailed analysis of medieval history; his discussions of the interplay between the military and social meanings of words for “knight,” the history and spread of the general label “Frank” (“The classic enterprise which stimulated the use of this term was the crusade, the ‘Deeds of the Franks’ as its earliest chronicler called it”), race relations in the frontier zone of Latin Europe (“If we define, say, ‘German’ and ‘Slav’ by customs, language and law rather than by descent, the grandchildren of Slavs could be Germans, the grandchildren of Germans Slavs”), and localized repertoires of names (“It is easy, given a few personal names, to tell which region or ethnic group is being talked about”) kept me reading with interest and taught me a great deal.

David Stahel’s Kiev 1941 shows that Adolf Hitler’s war in the east was lost by the end of August 1941; the rest was a long, drawn-out, incredibly destructive demonstration of that fact, with the Soviet advantage in manpower and resupply grinding down the German war machine. Hitler and Joseph Stalin both made major errors, but Stalin learned from his and started letting his generals make decisions; Hitler learned nothing and insisted more and more on his unique genius. This is a superb book of military history, with a fresh and convincing analysis.

Like so many other people, I devoured Elena Ferrante’s glorious Neapolitan quartet; when I was done, I had a Naples itch, and to scratch it I finally read my ancient copies of John Horne Burns’s The Gallery and Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44, and was bowled over by both. The first, a set of stories whose characters often find themselves in the Galleria Umberto in downtown Naples, won renown when it was published in 1947 (John Dos Passos called it “the first book of real magnitude to come out of the last war”) but seems to have been forgotten along with its author, who faded quickly; NYRB Classics revived it a few years ago, and I hope it regains its deserved high reputation. Lewis was a British intelligence officer before he became one of the finest travel writers of the last century, and his account of his experience mediating between the triumphant Allies and the starving but resourceful Neapolitans is alternately funny, horrifying, and just plain humane. Together they provide a stereoscopic view of a time and place that will help Ferrante readers understand the world her characters were shaped by, and will help any reader understand the behavior of armies among civilian populations.

Also during 2016 I went on a Herman Melville binge (Moby-Dick is as great as I remembered, Israel Potter was surprisingly enjoyable, and The Confidence-Man turns out to be an amazing novel the vision of which is too dark to allow it the popularity it merits), and my wife and I continue to make our way through Anthony Trollope (we’re not enjoying the parliamentary novels as much as the Barchester series so far, but that’s a high bar, and we’re only up to Phineas Finn).

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

My year has been even more filled with good reading than usual; fortunately, some of the books are so well known there is little need for me to give them a plug, and I will list them at the end so you can point and laugh (“Seriously, you went over half a century without reading Jane Eyre?”). That frees me to talk about the ones that may not be as familiar, the first of which was Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 AD. I know what you’re thinking: you know little and care less about the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries; why not go back to Julius Caesar or forward to Charlemagne? I would have said the same, but the book was a Christmas gift and I knew Brown was a good writer, so I plunged in. He begins with a passage about the “Harvester of Mactar” (in North Africa), who had his biography recorded on a stele; he rose from a lowly foreman to the owner of a comfortable farm and finally became rich enough to have a seat on the town council of Mactar. From this account of one forgotten and unimportant man, Brown develops a description of the social and religious structure of Roman Africa and how it was changing in the late fourth century; at that point Christians, though tolerated, were expected to be ostentatiously poor, and the central theme of the book is how that situation changed to one in which Christians were increasingly running the Empire and coming to decide that wealth could be godly after all. He does this to a large extent through a lengthy and riveting account of the life, connections, and personality of St. Augustine (with whom Brown moves from Africa to Italy, expanding the scope of the book to the whole Empire) as well as less well-known figures like Paulinus of Nola, Decimius Magnus Ausonius, and Pelagius and the rich and powerful women who supported and opposed them; by the time I put down the book I felt I’d been immersed in a nonfiction equivalent of a Leo Tolstoy novel. (It may also cause you to think about wealth and power in our own time.)

For my birthday I was given Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; I was looking forward to it because I’d liked other things of his I’d read, but also somewhat dreading it because it was very long and only went up to 1928 and I had already read quite a bit about both Joseph Stalin and that period of Russian history. It turned out there was no need to worry — I enjoyed it so much I’m already impatient for the next volume. I have to immediately offer a caveat, though: it’s not exactly a biography, so if that’s what you want (Stalin was born a poor Georgian lad, he had good times and bad, and then he came to power and started executing people) you may be better off with a shorter and more focused, if less comprehensive, work. Kotkin goes for many, many pages, entire chapters, mentioning Stalin only as an afterthought or not at all; his idea is that you can’t understand the man without understanding the society and country he grew up in, so he starts with a detailed history of late-19th-century Russia and the people who affected its development (he made me so interested in the great industrialist Sergei Witte I took a break to read a whole biography). He is constantly turning away from Stalin to explain the forces at work in the Civil War or the evolution of Bolshevik ideas and practices. (I was reminded of Robert Caro’s magisterial multivolume history of LBJ.) If you can deal with that, though, I can’t recommend the book highly enough — Kotkin seems to have read and absorbed all the available material, and his judgments are consistently interesting and persuasive. If you want to read more about the Civil War, by the way, I highly recommend Evan Mawdsley’s The Russian Civil War. And if you want a short history of the period to orient yourself, you can’t do better than Sheila Fitzpatrick’s The Russian Revolution, a brilliant condensation of a complex subject; she doesn’t spend time on biographies or personalities, just tells you what happened and why between 1917 and 1937 in under 200 pages.

The most recent of these grand reading experiences was Leonid Livak’s How It Was Done in Paris: Russian Emigre Literature & French Modernism. It’s a specialized topic, but if you’re interested at all in Russian émigré writers and interwar French literature you have to read this book. Livak is one of those rare academics who can apply theory without becoming impenetrable, and he made me rethink everything I thought I knew about the subject. (He also won my heart by quoting Venedikt Erofeev’s gloriously bibulous and heartbreakingly romantic novel Moskva-Petushki in the acknowledgments; if that description intrigues you at all, run out and find one of the translations, Moscow to the End of the Line or Moscow Circles.) You probably haven’t heard of Boris Poplavsky, Gaito Gazdanov, or Yuri Felzen, but Livak will make you care about them and their struggles to find a way to write in the competing shadows of Marcel Proust and Soviet literature, and he ends with a tour de force comparison of Vladimir Nabokov’s Dar [The Gift] to André Gide’s Les Faux-monnayeurs [The Counterfeiters] that sent me back repeatedly to my well-read copy of the former (for my money, the best of his novels) and made me want to give the latter a try.

Oh, and those other books? Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation, Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, and the aforementioned Jane Eyre. That Rochester is a real louse, let me tell you!

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

I earn my living copyediting books, usually for Oxford University Press; while this is a reasonably pleasant occupation, and I often learn things from the material I edit, it doesn’t usually intersect with the range of books I read for pleasure and report on for The Millions. This year, however, I was lucky enough to work on Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, by Daniel P. Todes, a book I would have been glad to read under any circumstances and the most impressive biography I’ve read in years, in places having the feel of a classic Russian novel. Todes has a gift for explaining the details of biological research in a way that I, no science maven, could follow without difficulty, but I will leave to others the evaluation of the scientific part of the book; the aspect that enthralled me is indicated by the subtitle.  This is very much a Russian life, and because Todes knows Russia well (he has spent a great deal of time there and speaks the language), he gets the details right and puts them in an illuminating perspective, something all too rare in foreign accounts of things Russian. Chapter 1 begins, “Every Russian name contains a bit of family history,” and Todes traces the name Pavlov back to a peasant named Pavel who “became a reader and chanter in a small rural church in central Russia” during the reign of Peter the Great. He correctly identifies service to the church as “a rare means of upward mobility” in tsarist Russia, which sets up the drama of Ivan’s refusal to follow in the footsteps of his father the priest (who was furious) and rejection of the church in favor of science. Young Ivan got his only formal education in psychology, surprisingly, at the seminary, and Todes describes in vivid detail how he was taught. But reading materialist scientists like Ivan Sechenov and radical political thinkers like Dmitry Pisarev turned him permanently away from religion, and he never wavered in his unbelief, even mocking his wife’s faith until (in a touching scene) he realized how much it hurt her. Both he and his wife, Serafima, were strongly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky (she considered her meetings with him “the most important moment in my religious life”), and there is a distressing account of how the great writer was cool to her until he realized she was a gentile (she was usually called by the nickname Sara, which he assumed was Jewish). The account of the young couple’s rocky road from extreme poverty to the security he achieved in 1891 as head of a well-funded physiology lab is riveting, and still more so is the even rockier road through the horrors of World War I and the October Revolution and ensuing civil war (in which he lost friends, coworkers, and his favorite son) to his final status as the hero of Soviet science, protected by his 1904 Nobel Prize and international fame. It’s amazing enough that a Russian born in 1849 lived to 1936; what’s nearly unbelievable is that Pavlov did so, dying in his bed of natural causes, while maintaining a firm and unyielding public opposition to the brutality of Joseph Stalin’s regime. Pavlov’s life intersected with those of many others, from Dostoevsky to Nikolai Bukharin, and I was particularly delighted to encounter one of his assistants, whom I had known from her literary work: “One newcomer to the IEM lab in 1924 was the writer Rita Rait-Kovaleva (then still known by her original name, Raisa Chernomordik), who would later translate Vonnegut and Faulkner into Russian.” It goes without saying that anyone interested in Pavlov will want to read this first serious biography, but anyone who cares about the modern history of Russia should do so as well. It’s one of those rare works that actually deserve the adjective “magisterial.”

Two very different works of criticism have changed my thinking about Russian literature in the last year. Peter Hodgson’s From Gogol to Dostoevsky is a groundbreaking look at perhaps the most crucial decade in Russian literary history, the 1840s, when the effervescent mix of styles and approaches that had existed until then was channeled into the socially conscious “realism” that we are familiar with from the classic Russian novelists. Hodgson takes as his focus the unjustly forgotten Yakov Butkov, an ambitious, self-educated writer from the provinces who died young and poor after publishing the remarkable collection Petersburg Attics (and a few other stories), and uses Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque to analyze Butkov and the other writers of his day: “There is in Gogol and Dostoevsky an obvious reluctance to westernize Russian fiction, a reluctance which is gradually being recognized as essential to the history of the forties…I intend to explore the connection between the grotesque in Gogol and Dostoevsky, and their reluctance to fall in line with Belinsky’s utilitarian naturalism.” I can’t even begin to describe the many insights into how these writers worked and how they were misunderstood by critics like Belinsky (and almost everyone since); I’ll just urge anyone interested in the period to go find a copy. The other work is Gary Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which focuses on Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov, as well as Sophocles, George Eliot, and many others, to illustrate ways writers have found to avoid the determinism inherent in the idea of foreshadowing; Morson comes up with the term “sideshadowing” to describe an alternative: “sideshadowing admits, in addition to actualities and impossibilities, a middle realm of real possibilities that could have happened even if they did not.” Bakhtin is put to good use here as well; again, there’s no point trying to summarize, and all I can do is say I was sorry when it was over.

Like many Americans, I tend to pay attention to soccer only every four years, when the World Cup rolls around; this year I decided to remedy my abysmal ignorance of the game, and I read three superb books.  David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, almost certainly the best history of any sport I’ve read, brilliantly combines sporting and social history; to take just one of the many nuggets I got from it: “In a strained compromise [in 1908], indicative of the fundamental weakness of Italian ultra-nationalism, the ban on foreigners was rescinded in return for the official adoption of calcio as the name of the game rather than football.” I always wondered about that. Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics explained its topic so well, using diagrams and biographies as well as descriptions of matches (many of which are available on YouTube, at least in highlights), that I wound up feeling I was starting to understand how the game works. And Robert Edelman’s Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State taught me a great deal about the history of working-class Moscow as well as that of the soccer team whose long rivalry with Dinamo is comparable to those of Real Madrid with Barcelona and Celtic with Rangers; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Russian game.

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

I don’t tend to read a lot of new English-language fiction. This isn’t from any sort of prejudice; it’s a side effect of the fact that I’m trying to go through the entirety of Russian literature, which takes up most of my available reading time. Fortunately, my writer friend Jim Salant occasionally forces me to get out of my Russian rut and experience a book he’s enthusiastic about, and most recently this was Tessa Hadley’s novel The London Train (P.S.). I wasn’t familiar with Hadley (and as of this writing she doesn’t have a Wikipedia article to her name), but by the time I got to the end of the first paragraph (“On the wall behind her desk was pinned a colorful year planner, almost every square scribbled over with busyness and responsibility: he imagined a space on the planner where his mother’s occupation of her room abutted abruptly onto blankness”) I was entirely willing to put myself into her hands and go where she wanted to take me. Her characters are drawn with clear-eyed affection, her prose is endlessly pleasurable without needlessly calling attention to itself, and she has a daring way of constructing a book (the “P.S.” in the title serves as a warning) that makes for an unexpected and enjoyable ride. When I finished it, I liked it so much I wanted to experience it again, so I read it to my wife. Hadley also writes short stories (I’ve since read a memorable one in the New Yorker), and I look forward to reading more of her work.

My great find in the field of Russian history this year was Karl Schlögel’s Moscow, 1937, which immerses you in just about every imaginable aspect of that place and time, from construction projects to literature to music (jazz, pop, and Shostakovich) to the brand-new Gorky Park to the unstoppable, unmanageable flood of people from the starving countryside to the capital, where at least there was the hope of a job in one of the many new factories and therefore of survival. It’s the kind of blend of literary, cultural, and political history, with constant references to geography (and a nice annotated map of Moscow on the endpapers), that I love. If you want to understand the era of the great purges, this is one of the first books I would recommend.

My understanding of Russian literature and its history was shaken up by Muireann Maguire’s Stalin’s Ghosts: Gothic Themes in Early Soviet Literature; I had never given a thought to that side of Soviet literature, and I doubt many people have, but she convinced me that (as she puts it) “The centrality of the Gothic-fantastic to Russian fiction is almost impossible to exaggerate.” If you’re interested in, say, Bulgakov or Platonov, you’ll want to understand this aspect of where they came from. And there’s a companion volume, the anthology Red Spectres, which provides eleven stories in the genre; the pick of the bunch are the two stories by Bulgakov and one by the relatively unknown Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, but they’re all good reading.

As for Russian literature itself, in the course of working my way through the early nineteenth century I’ve come across any number of writers I think should be better known, and at the head of the pack is Alexander Veltman. Veltman was extremely popular in his heyday, he was one of the pioneers of Russian science fiction, both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky praised him (his Serdtse i dumka [Heart and head, 1838] was one of Dostoevsky’s favorite novels), and he’s tremendous fun to read. As far as I know, the only translation into English is Selected Stories, edited and translated by the late James J. Gebhard (Northwestern University Press, 1998), which I am hereby recommending, but I would urge any adventurous publishers out there to commission translations of his novels, starting with Strannik [The wanderer], which burst onto the somnolent Russian literary scene at the beginning of the 1830s and made its author instantly famous. It begins “This sedentary, monotonous life has grown wearisome; let us go, sir! — said I one day to myself — let us go a-traveling!” and whisks the reader off to Bessarabia and Bulgaria; it’s a war memoir, a travelogue, a fantasy, a dream of fair women, with poetry and ethnography tossed in. It explains its own wild discursiveness thus: “In everything, harmony arises from disharmony… Thoughts, opinions, speeches, deeds, all of life, everything is subject to this law.” Veltman clung stubbornly to that law, even after tastes changed in the 1840s and the Russian public started wanting serious novels of social realism with explicit points of view on serfdom, nihilism, and the like; he kept writing books where you couldn’t make out what was going on for a long time (in Koshchei bessmertny [Koshchei the immortal, 1833], there is no mention of Koshchei until the twelfth chapter), and you just had to hold on tight and trust to the author’s fertile mind and ever-lively prose. It’s postmodern fiction, is what it is, and I think the world has finally caught up with it. Any publisher who takes the plunge will not only be delighting readers and making money, they’ll be helping to rewrite the received history of Russian literature.

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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

Growing up during the Cold War, I envisioned Eastern Europe as a vague collection of entities between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two important countries of the region. Poland, to me, was a land over which German and Russian armies fought, and Ukraine and Belorussia (as it was then) were just bits of the Soviet Union that the Kremlin pretended were independent enough to be member states of the UN. This year all that changed when I read Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Snyder is well known now for his 2010 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (which I have not yet read), but the earlier book completely reoriented my ideas about the history of the region. Snyder does not view the countries he writes about as sideshows, and he does not treat any one of them as central (with the others viewed from that perspective) – he takes all sides equally seriously and presents all points of view simultaneously, which doesn’t make for easy reading but is invigorating and winds up leaving the reader far better informed.  Furthermore, he keeps pointing out the potential futures that people saw as real possibilities but that we have forgotten about (example: Stalin almost gave Vilnius/Vilna/Wilno/Vil’nya to Belorussia instead of Lithuania; he seems to have changed his mind at the last moment and had all the Belorussian activists sent to the Gulag instead of put in high official posts), and he reminds us of the effects of self-deluding propaganda (to quote Snyder: “When Lithuanian troops marched into Vilnius on 28 October 1939, they were shocked to find ‘instead of the princess of their fairy tales, the streets of alien Wilno, unknown, speaking a foreign language’”). And once you’ve read Snyder, you’ll be equipped for Oksana Zabuzhko’s novel The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a suspenseful, sexy, funny, and occasionally devastating look at the last seventy years or so of the history of western Ukraine (much of which was part of Poland in the earlier years) through the eyes of an ambitious young woman dedicated to advancing her career as a television journalist while digging up difficult truths about the past, her family’s and her country’s.

Leaping across European Russia to the Urals and beyond, we come to another book that changed my view of history this year, Yuri Slezkine’s Arctic Mirrors: Russia and the Small Peoples of the North. Most of us have a pretty good idea of what European colonization of the Americas was like; I suspect most people are far less familiar with how Russia wound up ruling the vast area between its heartland and the Pacific and what its relations with the various natives of the region have been. I know I was, and I’ve been reading about Russian history for a long time now. This book does not give you the view from the other side (for that, you’ll want James Forsyth’s A History of the Peoples of Siberia, which I haven’t read, or anthropological looks at specific peoples, like Bruce Grant’s In the Soviet House of Culture, about the Nivkh of Sakhalin, and Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer’s The Tenacity of Ethnicity: A Siberian Saga in Global Perspective, about the Khanty of northwest Siberia, both of which I have read and can recommend), but it lays out in gripping detail, with plenty of quotes from contemporary sources, what the Russians were up to and the various ways they dealt with the people they ran into as they headed east. A couple of extracts will give you an idea of how he sets local events in a larger context. In the first chapter, he compares the Cossacks who carried out the conquest with Westerners like William of Rubruck, who visited the region and felt themselves in a new world: “The Cossacks, however, never entered a new world because unlike William, they had not been sent to a new world and because they had no ‘public’ that wanted to hear about new worlds. Most important, however, the Cossacks’ own world was not as starkly divided into the Christian and non-Christian spheres as was William’s. Rather, it consisted of an apparently limitless number of peoples, all of whom were assumed to have their own faiths and languages. This was not a temporary aberration to be overcome through conversion or revelation — this was a normal state of affairs whereby foreigners were expected to remain foreigners.” And on the change of attitude in the early nineteenth century: “More important, by the late 1840s both Siberians and Circassians — as well as Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, and numerous aliens and exotic sons of nature — had become largely irrelevant to the world as conceived by the Russian intelligentsia. The increasingly alienated cultural elite of Moscow and St. Petersburg had discovered a noble savage with whom it would concern itself to the exclusion of most others: the Russian peasant.” Most of the book is concerned with the Soviet period, and it does a great job of untangling the competing approaches (all proclaiming themselves unimpeachably Marxist-Leninist) and the ways (almost uniformly unpleasant) in which decisions reached in the Kremlin wound up affecting people trying to make their livings as they always had, from hunting and herding and fishing. The book focuses on Siberia, but uses it as a lens with which to view Russia, the Soviet Union, and humanity.

Ian Frazier has no need of my recommendation, and his Travels in Siberia got enough rave reviews and awards that you’re very likely aware of it, but just in case: it’s one of the best travel books I’ve ever read. Frazier was so fascinated with Russia he learned the language and read all the histories and early accounts he could find, and he makes the people he travels with and encounters as three-dimensional and vivid as the characters in a good novel. Don’t miss this book.


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A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

A mist hung over the earth. So begins one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate; the short drumroll of a sentence is somehow ominous, and we soon discover we are outside a German prison camp, looking through barbed wire at a set of identical wooden barracks. The next chapter takes us inside the camp, where we meet a collection of Russians of various political persuasions, as well as Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, even an American colonel (who finds it strange that an intelligent-looking Russian major can’t understand his English). This movement, from outside in, is typical of the novel, which takes us places we don’t want to go, but does so with a humane insistence we find impossible to resist. After six chapters in which we get to know these people – especially the Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy, who is troubled that “much in his own soul had become alien to him” – we are suddenly dropped into a command post in the besieged city of Stalingrad, where we are confronted with an entirely different collection of people, some of them historical figures (generals and commissars) and others fictional. This too is typical; the novel does not let us rest for long in any situation, but whisks us up and down the Volga (much of it is set in cities like Kazan and Saratov), west to Moscow, and further west to the German camps, showing us a vast panorama of Russia (and Germany) at war.

If this is reminiscent of War and Peace, it should be; Grossman, a war correspondent who visited the front as often as he could and shared as much as he could of the soldiers’ lives, carried a copy with him and read it constantly, and he was deliberately creating a counterpart to Tolstoy’s epic. A foolish undertaking, you might think, but he pulled it off. His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely’s Petersburg and Olesha’s Envy and Nabokov’s The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control. We get to know Lyudmila, annoyed with her husband, her daughter, and her mother (who lives with her in Kazan), terrified for her son Tolya (who’s in the army), and concerned for her sister Evgeniya; Evgeniya’s ex-husband Krymov, who’s sent to Stalingrad as a commissar; and especially Lyudmila’s husband Viktor Shtrum, a physicist who almost as soon as we’re introduced to him we find thinking “about something he’d never thought about before, something fascism had forced him to think about – the fact that he was a Jew, and that his mother was a Jew.” Those facts are guns on the wall, and following Chekhov’s prescription they go off.

It is of course inevitable that the Nazis play a considerable role in a World War II novel, and the horrors of their beliefs and their actions are not stinted; what is astonishing is that they are presented as human beings with understandable motives, unlike in almost any other Russian war novel. And what is even more astonishing is that the doctrinaire communists are presented as no better than the doctrinaire Nazis – the Soviet system of camps and terror is explicitly compared to the German one. It is almost inconceivable that Grossman thought this book could be published in the Soviet Union in 1960, but he did; he was doubtless prepared for it to be rejected by the magazine he sent it to, but not for the secret police to show up and confiscate every scrap of it they could get their hands on – Grossman was told by a top member of the Politburo that it could not be published for two hundred years. However, a copy was eventually smuggled abroad (long after the author’s premature death in 1964) and published in 1980; at that point, in the depths of the Brezhnev stagnation, no one could have guessed that in less than a decade it would be published in the Soviet Union, shortly before that country ceased to exist. It had a powerful effect, but it was only one of a flood of forbidden works that were suddenly appearing; we can only imagine the effect it would have had if it could have appeared in its full, scarifying glory in 1960, with the war fresh in memory and Stalin even fresher. It might well be Grossman rather than Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn who was remembered as the writer who exploded the frozen Stalinist world of literature.

I said there were no language games, but I didn’t mean the writing is not superbly effective. Remember that opening sentence? The payoff comes hundreds of pages later, in part II, chapter 29 (chapter 28 in the NYRB translation). Obersturmbannführer Liss is visiting the site where an extermination camp is being constructed, and as his plane lands Grossman says A mist spread over the earth. Even if a reader doesn’t consciously remember the first line of the novel, this reprise should make a chill run up the spine. Unfortunately, the existing translation does not bring this out (I’ve retranslated all the quotes here); it’s well enough done that I encourage everyone to go out and get it, but it’s got enough omissions and mistranslations that it’s high time another one appeared. Many of the other recent Russian classics (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki) have multiple translations, and it’s the least Grossman deserves. His combination of bravura storytelling and clear moral vision has few peers.

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A Review! A Review! Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric

These days we tend to write as we speak, with a certain allowance for fancy words and allusions. Our sentences march from subject to verb to object like a horse heading for home, and we quickly become impatient with what is usually considered under the ancient heading of rhetoric: elaborate parallelism, repetition, mirror constructions, and so on. It looks like showing off; it feels tricksy. But until recently those tricks were the foundation of public discourse, and a knowledge of chiasmus and Cicero was a prerequisite for anyone who wanted to be thought cultured. There are many reasons for the change, and they are largely good reasons, but there has still been something lost, and Ward Farnsworth is here to remind us of what it is.

Farnsworth is a Boston University law professor whose professional writing runs to texts like “The Use and Limits of Martin-Quinn Scores to Assess Supreme Court Justices.” But he has thought a great deal about what makes for effective writing and in his Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric has amassed an impressive array of illustrative quotations by writers ranging from the famous (Dickens, Lincoln, Churchill) to the now less remembered (Goldsmith, Webster, Kingsley) to the nearly forgotten (Henry Grattan, Richard Lalor Sheil); he has arranged them by their prominent use of various classical devices ranging from epizeuxis to prolepsis and shared them with us. What might have been (and in many texts on rhetoric is) a dry analysis full of rebarbative Greco-Latin terminology (epizeuxis!) becomes an enchanted garden of lively English prose.

Farnsworth begins his preface thus: “Everyone speaks and writes in patterns. Usually the patterns arise from unconscious custom; they are models we internalize from the speech around us without thinking much about it. But it also is possible to study the patterns deliberately….” He asks how one should study “techniques that succeed only when they seem unstudied,” and says “The answer lies in examples,” adding that the selection “reflects one of the chief purposes of the book, which is to help recover a rhetorical tradition in English that is less familiar because it is outside of living memory.” He does not try to cover all the traditional figures, just “the eighteen or so that, in my judgment, are of most practical value.” He omits metaphor and simile “not because they are unimportant but because they are too important; they are large enough topics to require separate treatment of their own.”

But enough theory. What is epizeuxis? It’s a fancy term for repetition; in his introduction to the first chapter he gives well-known examples like Conrad’s “The horror! The horror!” and the Bogart line from Casablanca, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” The chapter proper begins with Shakespeare (“Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation!”) and Thoreau (“Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!”) and continues with the wonderful Grattan, who deserves the prominence Farnsworth gives him: “Like the Draconian laws, this bill had blood! blood! – felony! felony! felony! in every period and in every sentence.” The next chapter is on anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the start of successive clauses; it is used to powerful effect in the Bible (“The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil…”) and Churchill (“we shall seek no terms, we shall tolerate no parley; we may show mercy – we shall ask for none”) and to very different effect by Henry James: “He’s too delightful. If he’ll only not spoil it! But they always will; they always do; they always have.” After several chapters on various types of repetition, he moves on to “structural matters” like isocolon (parallel structure, as in Burke’s “He practiced no managements. He secured no retreat. He sought no apology”), chiasmus (“when words or other elements are repeated with their order reversed,” as in Chesterton’s “Men need not trouble to alter conditions, conditions will so soon alter men” and Melville’s “Pity if there is nothing wonderful in signs, and significant in wonders!”), or anastrophe (“when words appear in unexpected order”: Chesterton again, “Sad he is; glad he is not,” and Melville again, “breathe he must, or die he will”). The final section, on “dramatic devices,” begins with praeteritio (“saying things by not saying them”: Erskine, “I will not speak to you of his great youth, of his illustrious birth, and of his uniformly animated and generous zeal in Parliament for the constitution of his country”), continues with aposiopesis, or “breaking off in midstream” (Beerbohm: “‘If you are acquainted with Miss Dobson, a direct invitation should be sent to her,’ said the Duke. ‘If you are not –’ The aposiopesis was icy”); metanoia, or “correcting oneself” (Conan Doyle: “And now, Doctor, perhaps you would kindly attend to my thumb, or rather to the place where my thumb used to be”); and others, ending with prolepsis (“when the speaker anticipates an objection … and comments on it”: Fielding, “It may be objected, that very wise men have been notoriously avaricious. I answer, Not wise in that instance”). By the time you’ve read through the varied examples in each chapter, you not only understand the technique involved, you feel a warm glow of pleasure (and perhaps a desire to read an author who has been only a name to you, if that).

The book is beautifully designed (in Sabon Next type) and provides its examples in a handsome format, laid out on the page with plenty of white space with the source (author, title, date) in smaller type in the outer margin. I admire it; I appreciate it; I recommend it.