In Daniel Torday’s latest novel, Boomer1, ex-journalist, bluegrass musician, and failed academic Mark Brumfeld sparks an online movement against the economic tyranny of the baby boomers—all from the basement of his parents’ house. Told from the perspectives of Mark; his ex-girlfriend, Cassie, who is quickly rising through the ranks of an online media company after refusing Mark’s marriage proposal; and Mark’s mother, Julia, a former musician who has lost most of her hearing, the novel takes a probing look at what happens when our best-laid plans falter, our political debate falls apart, and we open doors that can’t be closed again.
Torday is the author of the novel The Last Flight of Poxl West and the director of creative writing at Bryn Mawr College. I spoke with him over email about the baby boomers and millennials, Shakespeare, the purpose of fiction, and the political chaos threatening to swallow us all.
The Millions: Why are the baby boomers the focus of Mark’s ire? In his situation—unemployed, living in his parents’ basement—I can imagine him veering far left and railing against capitalism or far right and becoming obsessed with keeping immigrants out. What’s so special about the boomers?
Daniel Torday: Straight to the white-hot center of things! I like it. I guess I have two answers for this one. The first is the no-beating-around-the-bush fact that this is at heart a novel of contemporary politics. I’d had Occupy Wall Street in mind ever since that movement ultimately failed for not having a clear enough goal or leader. I wondered how to dramatize it. I’d also begun to feel itchy about how identity politics were at times coming to shut down conversation and being increasingly adopted by the political right, picking up on rhetoric that had long been roiling the left. And so the idea of letting Mark Brumfeld take on the baby boomers directly, from his standpoint as a millennial, just felt right. If there’s a clear limit to allowing one’s politics to come solely from identity it’s that there’s just no choice in the matter: In some way you’re always walled into certain aspects of the identity you’ve been given. And what’s more intractable than one’s birthday? It also fit for my own vantage point—I’ve had the weird luck of not really being in a generation. I was born in 1978. So I’m not quite a Gen Xer, and they say millennial birthdays start in 1980, ’81, ’82. I feel like that liminal space—one foot in, one foot out—is the best place to be as a novelist.
But probably the truer answer is that, apparent or not, Boomer1 is a loose retelling of Julius Caesar. I was reading a lot of Shakespeare for my last novel, and while reading Caesar, it occurred to me that there’s something resonant, at least in the first two acts, with the way Cassius and Brutus talk about Caesar’s power—and the way millennials and boomers can be portrayed at odds with each other. So many lines just pointed in that direction. So the characters in Boomer1 map onto Shakespeare: Cassie is Cassius, Mark is Brutus, Julia is Julius. I went back and looked at the original Plutarch source material and it was a watershed. Plutarch’s book, while often read piecemeal, was called Parallel Lives—he was comparing biography from Rome to see how lives over the centuries paralleled each other. Which came to feel a lot like what I was after here, seeing how Julia in her 20s wasn’t all that different from Mark and Cassie. And it turned up all kinds of little flourishes I wouldn’t otherwise have hit on myself: Joni Mitchell is quoting Caesar in the line “I am as constant as the northern star” (well it turns out she’s actually Leonard Cohen quoting it to her, but). Caesar was losing his hearing and that opened a door to Julia’s character for me. The FBI agents who come in late in the book get to have the names of Brutus’s conspirators. That kind of stuff.
TM: Going off what you mentioned about the parallels between Cassie, Mark, and Julia, I’d like to ask you about the point of view of the novel. We get a third-person-limited POV that shifts between the three main characters, and they frequently describe their experiences of key moments in very different ways. Why show those incidents from multiple viewpoints?
DT: Until this book, the third person has always shot me through with abject terror. It just seems so impossibly limitless in what you can do with it. My first two books were told all in first-person voices, which just feels much more natural to me. The boundaries are set. One question I always puzzle out with students is: How much do you want your fiction to sound like speech, and how much should it sound like writing? I think my favorite writers mostly play with aesthetics that sound much of the time like speech—Nabokov, Marilynne Robinson, George Saunders, Alice Munro, Amy Hempel, Barthelme, even Kafka and Beckett in their own ways.
But then Anna Karenina is probably my favorite novel and it’s just this kind of tennis-without-a-net free indirect narration. In the opening chapters we move between multiple characters and even briefly enter the head of Vronsky’s dog. So it felt like a challenge I was ready to take up. Then again, as you observe—all three narrators here are very close thirds, so the rules are mostly in place of what we have access to and what we don’t. I’ve actually been kind of pained in early reviews of the book to find some reviewers referring to it as “satirical”—which to me is way off. It’s a category error. I want this to be a funny book, and to reflect the world we live in, but none of the points of view are satirical. They’re just very close to the way three different humans actually think—if that sounds like exaggeration, maybe we’re not listening well. It’s my hope that Cassie sections still sound like Cassie thought, Mark sections like Mark thought. And I really try to avoid flashback, so it felt like by being very close to Julia in particular, we could get back to 1968, say, just by staying very close to her point of view. And it revealed all kinds of things to me—how you can use the third person to tell a story that still sounds like speech, keeping the language alive and vibrant, and accesses a character’s thoughts in a whole new way.
TM: Let’s talk about Mark’s thoughts—does he have a realistic view of the world, or are the boomers just a scapegoat for his own personal failures? Or is the troublesome thing that it’s a mix of both?
DT: So … Mark spends a lot of time ranting about baby boomers on YouTube, and in the book it leads to a more or less open revolution of millennials attacking boomer icons. To some extent I just wanted to see what ranting on the page would look like. My dear friend, fiction writer Karen Russell, said to me over lunch once, “You’re such a good funny convincing ranter, you should rant in a book more.” So I had in the back of my mind that would be its own weirdly literary endeavor, getting that live language on the page.
I think Mark is both completely right—and totally misguided—all at once. I’ve been thinking a ton lately about how maybe the biggest trouble our culture is in isn’t “fake news” but a version of its opposite. I don’t mean to minimize how awful actual fake news is, but we shouldn’t let it distract. More insidious and widespread is a kind of sophistry that overemphasizes the truth of any particular fact. We have access to so much information. From the pre-Socratics forward, Western culture’s great strength has been that we’ve always known relying too heavily on any single fact can lead us astray—that’s what sophistry is, and that’s why Plato and Aristotle created whole intricate lasting systems of thought to combat it. Our job is to view multiple facts, multiple viewpoints, and synthesize them. As Fitzgerald had it, “to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Right now we view so many things so quickly and with such vitriol that we’ve forgotten what nuance even sounds like.
Did I just get ranty there? Sorry. Allow me to disagree with myself, then. To return to your question: The idea was to let Mark make his case as forcefully and rationally as possible, and then to let Cassie do the same, and Julia do the same, and then back away slowly and carefully. Chekhov has this amazing thing in his letters where he says something like, “It is not for writers of fiction to decide big questions. The writer’s job is simply to describe as accurately as possible people who have been speaking about big questions.” I teach a novel-writing class every spring, where we read like 13 novels in three months, and one realization I always have after all that reading is the extent to which great writers just let each scene, each sentence, do what it’s doing as loudly and convincingly as possible in the moment. When you do that, you can’t escape disagreeing with yourself. Presenting multiple viewpoints. Maybe even ranting!
TM: Mark’s ranting on the internet takes him to some places online he’s never known about before. And while he may give a dynamic performance in YouTube videos, his other online interactions, particularly with the group known as Silence, are a bit underwhelming for a would-be revolutionary. Where did that dynamic come from?
DT: You know, I’m well into work on my fourth book, and I still feel like a novice each time I pick up a pen. I guess if I’ve worked out a bit of a process, it’s to let a character act and ramble for a while—and then to figure out what it looks like when their hopes and desires hit up against the reality of their world. So for Mark that meant setting him free to fuck up his life in Brooklyn, to rant, and then to see what that might mean. So I spent a bunch of time poking around the “dark web” and reading what I could about that world. There’s a Canadian researcher named Gabriella Coleman who’s written a ton about Anonymous, and her books gave me a lot of background. I also did a bunch of research about what analogous examples could look like: the Boston Marathon bombers, Anwar al-Awlaki, the guy who founded Silk Road and then was arrested. Then I jumped back to the ’70’s and read a bunch about Patty Hearst, SDS, the Weather Underground. Then I jumped back and read a bunch about Emma Goldman. Then I jumped back to the 1850’s and read everything I could get my hands on about John Brown. You could say that’s my other instinct: jumping back, and back, and back.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that once Mark had given what felt to me like convincing rants, when I let my imagination test them against the weird tricksters and hucksters—so, Americans—he would’ve encountered in the dark recesses of the web seven or eight years ago, I suspect it wouldn’t have gone particularly well. He has some real, valid gripes, but I suspect most of the folks he would’ve excited would have been more of the burn-the-motherfucker-down crowd. And not to nerd out too hard, but again, that dynamic felt so in keeping with Marcus Brutus to me. He allows Cassius to convince him to lead Caesar’s assassination, and it’s basically a tragedy of errors from there, from Mark Antony’s famous “I come to bury Caesar, not praise him” speech forward. And shit, living through the last two years of politics feels a lot like that, too, doesn’t it? Well-intentioned people, and some very not-well-intentioned people, and their actions leading to all kinds of awful consequences, intended and otherwise. Tragedies of errors, piling up.
TM: Right—no matter his intentions, Brutus has opened the door to political violence, and it’s a door that can’t be easily closed once it’s opened. That’s exactly where Mark’s headed, whether he’s realizing it or not. And with our political situation today, I’m thinking a lot about the doors that can’t be closed once they’re opened. It seemed like the Republicans in the Senate refusing to consider Merrick Garland was crossing a line in a pretty heinous way. Now I’m reading articles advocating for the Democrats to pack the Supreme Court to 15 members to reclaim a liberal majority and split California into six different states to tip the scales in their favor in the Senate. But then does the Supreme Court just keep growing and growing any time a single party controls the executive and legislative branches? It’s scary to play that out. Did writing about Mark, Cassie, and Julia give you any insight into the balance between no-holds-barred fighting it out and trusting in institutions in hope of better days?
DT: Nicely put. Like most folks I know, I was pretty despondent after the election. I turned to one of my old mentors over email and he said, “Well, there will still be music, right?” I should say we’ve been discussing Boomer1 here as a “political novel,” and I’m OK with that, but I’m also tempted to argue that any novel that grants you access to character is political by nature. That’s what I take Chekhov to be saying in his letter, and maybe it’s the opposite of how a first read might take it—not that literary fiction doesn’t take up philosophical and topical material. But that the sheer act of saying, “Here’s the limited, complicated, flawed, emotional, deep, rich way people think, presented in words on the page. Now read it.” And in doing so, you’ll be engaged in a political act. Facile as it might sound, I still trust down deep that if any of the venal, corrupt, autocratically inclined folks in the current presidential administration were really to sit down with a work of art—Tolstoy, Chekhov, Alice Munro, Marquez, Grace Paley—they’d come away less able to enact the evil they’re busy at now. Though, you know, good luck on both fronts.
Which, I guess, is to say … I have not one iota more sense of what’s ahead after writing this book. I feel like I hardly understand what’s behind. I did have the strange experience of finishing this book, selling it, and then having to look at it again after November 2016 and rethinking and retooling a whole lot of it. Things I thought were going to be implausible and inflammatory seemed weirdly tame. Things I thought were innocuous needed a new cast. I struggled a lot over whether it was problematic that the guys in Silence weren’t guided by the bigotry that’s taken over much of the trollish web, but I think I settled on a feeling that back in 2010 or so, the Breitbart-ization of those musty corners hadn’t yet taken over or become inevitable. I’m a huge fan of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World, which I reread while writing, and I thought of the early 4chan guys as being way more like Coyote than anything. But then … Coyote would make a monumentally bad president. Somehow we live in a country where people would’ve voted for him. Poor Melville, not alive to see it.
Or to take it one other direction: I felt excited in this book to have much of the revolutionary lens of boomers and millennials be focused on music. Literally, the music of the past 100 years in American life, from bluegrass to psychedelic rock to punk and forward. And that institution sure isn’t gonna fall. Punk rock isn’t going to soften to an autocrat’s lies—it’s going to gain new edge. New relevance. I suspect art’s place will grow stronger, be more necessary, the uglier civic and political life gets. Not “content.” Not “vertically integrated media.” FUCKING ART. I think all the time about that great thing from Philip Roth after he returned from Communist Eastern Europe in the late ’70s: “In America everything goes and nothing matters, while in Europe nothing goes and everything matters.” It sure feels like a whole lot matters these days.
TM: You share a lot of the same background as Mark: You were a magazine editor and a bluegrass musician—though you ended up with a job as a college professor. What was it like drawing from your own work experiences to put Mark on a path that ultimately led him back to the basement of his parents’ house?
DT: Well, I haven’t committed any acts of terrorism, domestic or otherwise. So I’ve got that going for me. Which is nice. But you know I was in the middle of a long, complicated job search when I started writing Boomer1, details about which are too boring to get into here. So many of the emotions behind Mark’s character felt close for me. And I think as a novelist there’s always just that need for proper nouns and telling, specific details, and in putting Mark in a Brooklyn and a Baltimore I knew, I felt I could pull it off.
Which is to say, with regrets to Flaubert: Sure, Mark Brumfeld, c’est moi. But then Cassie Black, c’est moi, and Julia Brumfeld, c’est moi, aussi. I think to really pull off characters with as close a third person as I’ve given them, for so many pages, for me at least, there has to be a real affinity there. Weirdly and unexpectedly, I think I came to feel the closest to Julia. There’s this joke I used to think would make a good first line for a memoir: I spent my 20s trying not to become my father and woke up at 30 to discover I’d become my mom. Funny because it’s true. So sitting with Julia’s character, granting her an etiology that was kind of my teenage dream—opening for the Dead in San Francisco in the late ’60s, playing in that music scene I idealized when I was a kid—I got to live out a series of fantasies. I mean, in my imagination, imagining a middle-aged woman while sitting in my home office every day for a number of years. Weird wish to have fulfilled, I guess. But it definitely went from having Julia there as a foil, making a necessary counterargument about how millennials might feel about boomers, to her being on equal footing as a main character in the book.
TM: Here’s a lighter question to end things on: Was it fun to create the fictional media companies and literary journals (RazorWire, The Unified Theory, The Czolgosz Review) that exist in the novel?
DT: Yes! Let’s remember that this is a funny book above all. And also let’s remember that I’m a book nerd. So in starting to imagine fictional version of magazines and websites, I had to leave it all out on the field. The Unified Theory was called Les Mots Justes in early drafts, but that didn’t work, so I just left it in there as a joke. And trying to get some little trails of revolutionary breadcrumbs in there felt important, too, with one like Czolgosz, which as we learn in the book was the name of an anarchist who assassinated a president.
The RazorWire one was a little more complicated. I found myself sending Cassie on this upward trajectory, and that meant putting her in a kind of “new media” company. Just uttering that phrase, “new media,” hurts my teeth. She ends up fact checking “content” there, and now my whole body hurts. Content! What happened to art? Journalism? The essay! I worked as an editor at a big national magazine for years. For a long time we resisted having much online presence. It was one of the last magazines to publish original work online. There was this fear that doing so would kill print. But then the web really took over, and by the time I was gone, they had a web presence. Everyone did. They created “content” instead of articles, essays, stories. The New Republic bragged about becoming a “vertically integrated digital media company.” (Ahhhhccchchch!!!!) And for a while, a long while, all these moves and the encroachment of social media didn’t kill print. And now. Now here we are: Google Analytics directs us to what’s being read, and so what to read. Most folks I trust feel print will be more or less gone within a decade. Where has that all gotten us? Even the direst jeremiads in 2000 wouldn’t have said, “An autocratically inclined P.T. Barnum of a president.” And yet … As a famous lyricist once said, “Nothing left to do but smile smile smile.”
“Everyone says Anna Karenina is about individual desire going against society, but I actually think the opposite is stronger: the way societal forces limit the expression of the individual.” Here is Mary Gaitskill on Anna Karenina for The Atlantic’s By Heart series, in which writers reflect on some of their favorite passages in all of literature. We’ve brought you a bit on By Heart here, here, and here.
Readers and writers and professors tend to read and talk about the same books over and over again. Moby-Dick? Check. Anna Karenina? Of course. But what about the books that deserve the same attention and love but don’t seem to get it? There are too many to name, of course, but The American Scholar has put together a list of 10 such “neglected classics.”
“How earnest, ironic, condescending, moralistic and simply funny a Tolstoy should the translator inhabit? Perhaps the only way to render Tolstoy’s variable voice is to continue producing ever-varying translations.” Masha Gessen looks at the latest English translations of Anna Karenina and breaks down their nuances of word choice and accumulated meaning for The New York Times Book Review, and along the way she questions the novel’s most famous line: just how alike are happy families? How can we know?
Catching Fire, the follow-up to Hunger Games, opens this Friday, and the future of teen fantasy film may depend on its success. When The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones tanked at the box office in August, critics rejoiced over the apparent death of the genre. A few months earlier in March, The Host had also flopped, winning the distinction of being the last film Roger Ebert ever panned. BuzzFeed writer Jordan Zakarin concluded that the “tween vampire jugular is tapped.” In the Atlantic, Gina Dalfonzo suggested that teenage girls nursed on Twilight had finally seen through the hackneyed “Chosen One” story trope, a plot-line that has held its own since the Book of Esther. Writing more pragmatically in Forbes, Scott Mendelson blamed City of Bones’s floundering on bad marketing.
Despite this failure, the actual book by Cassandra Clare was a roaring success, selling more than 16 million copies worldwide. Though the teen fantasy craze may be on the downslope, it is not quite dead; rather, the supernatural romances of Twilight and its ilk have yielded to the dystopian universe of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games Trilogy. The first film adaptation grossed $691 million last year, and with a fresh crop of middle-schoolers looking for signposts to their own significance, the second installment’s curtain raise is likely to be well-attended.
Though publishers distinguish between supernatural, paranormal romance, and dystopia, these genres all involve an element of fantasy. HarperCollins editor Kari Sutherland told me that since 2010 the company has tripled its number of such titles, which include the wildly successful Divergent and Delirium series. Scholastic, publisher of The Hunger Games, said these books have played an “intrinsic” role in the increase of titles it’s sold in the past five years. Fantasies can be valuable testaments to the power of literature, allowing readers to work out real-world problems in a metaphorical context and encouraging creativity, courage, and self-sacrifice. But it would be a mistake to assume that the same girl who sped through Twilight and Hunger Games will easily find her way to The Martian Chronicles or even contemporary fantasy’s immediate forbearers — works by authors like Tamora Pierce or Robin McKinley. Teens today aren’t genre nerds who only love fantasy. According to Ms. Sutherland, they read these books because it’s what their friends are reading. But how did they become so popular? And what do they have to say — specifically to their young, female readers — about the world?
Before the American Civil War, the idea of writing books for teenagers didn’t cross the minds of American publishers. It was only in the 1860s that popular novels for girls like the Elsie Dinsmore series appeared, featuring saintly, passive heroines whose lives revolved around the home. But a demand also grew for blood-and-thunder romances that expressed an underlying feminine ennui as much as they negatively implicated the women reading them. The heroines of these tales were usually embroiled in a lurid affair between suitors or some other form of love-gone-awry that threatened their virginity.
These women — the evolutionary ancestors of today’s high-grossing teen heroines — were seen to confirm upper class assumptions about the promiscuity of the lower class. Louisa May Alcott’s first story, a psycho-thriller novella called Pauline’s Passion and Punishment, followed a jilted woman’s quest for revenge against a lover who leaves her for a wealthy woman. In 1862, after it was published under the pen name of A. M. Barnard, Alcott wrote to her friend Alf Whitman: “I get ten dollars a page for my foolish little story…money is the end & aim of my mercenary existence I scribble away.” Even after she became a famous writer, Alcott continued churning out pulp fiction for the tabloids. “Perilous Play” of 1869 ends memorably with its heroine exclaiming, “Heaven bless hashish, if its dreams end like this!”
But squeaky-clean domestic romances remained the more socially acceptable reading choice until the turn of the century, when publishers like The Henry Altemus Company concluded that “girls as well as boys love adventure.” The Stratemeyer Syndicate published 85 new girls’ series between 1910 and 1920 starring young women who played basketball, drove cars, helped the poor, solved mysteries, and even made movies. Most of all, they went to college. The historian Jane S. Smith has noted that less than four percent of college-aged American girls attended university in 1910, “but it was a rare heroine of fiction who did not take a room on the campus green, where she studied biology and Latin, drank cocoa with her kimono-clad chums and upheld the school traditions with moist-eyed fervor.”
These books captured the spirit of the Suffragettes, who in 1913 marched on the Washington Mall to demand women’s equality. The popular Ruth Fielding Series (1913-1934) was about an orphan living with a mean uncle who disapproves of her desire for a future outside the home. Smart and ambitious, Ruth works hard in school, goes to college, wins a film-writing contest and even starts her own production company. In book #15, Ruth Fielding Homeward Bound (1919), the narrator explains, “Marriage was something very far ahead in the future, if Ruth … thought of it at all.” When Ruth’s boyfriend Tom proposes in book #19, Ruth Fielding on the St. Lawrence (1922), she feels that “to do as Tom wished would utterly spoil the career on which she had now entered so successfully. Tom, like most young men in love, considered that a girl’s only career should be a husband and a home…she wanted to live her own life.”
It’s ironic, as Smith has noted, that bettering one’s self through college or career fell out of focus in teen fiction not long after women got the vote. By the 1980s, suburban dramas in the vein of Sweet Valley High and The Baby-Sitter’s Club predominantly reigned.
One night in 2003, Stephenie Meyer had a dream about vampires and woke up the next morning to begin writing the first Twilight book, a nearly 500-page tome. Within five years the first Twilight film appeared, launching a franchise, and by extension, a phenomenon. Though girls devoured the series in cinematic and print form (I once saw a first edition at Half-Price Books valued at $600), critics spared no kindness on its 17-year-old heroine, “Bella” Swan:
“Neither [Edward or Bella] has much personality to speak of.”
“[Bella] is not only hard to identify with but positively horrifying…”
— Entertainment Weekly
“It’s hard to say which is more difficult to swallow: Bella’s perpetually low self-worth, or the fact that all the other characters are obsessed with her…young readers are left with the image of a girl who discovers her own worth and gets all she ever wanted, by giving up her identity and throwing away nearly everything in life that matters.”
— National Review
“…the overall effect is a weird infantilization that has repellent overtones to an adult reader and hardly seems like an admirable model to foist upon our daughters (or sons).”
— Washington Post
And a final, damning rebuke:
“You can’t get away from a strange paradox. Women are using their regained power over the picture house to trash their hard-won independence. What mysterious creatures they are.”
— The Guardian
Branding youth culture as obscene or degrading is old hat — and teens don’t care. After the first Twilight film, Bella (Kristin Stewart) became a de facto role model for young women — the instantaneous object of their envy, praise, and imitation. The internet was rife with articles and YouTube videos instructing girls how to dress like Bella, apply their makeup like Bella, and, most frighteningly, act like Bella. In one video, a girl earnestly advised viewers to be “clumsy and accident-prone.” Clothing brand BB Dakota even replicated for mass production the jacket Bella wore in the film. Bella singlehandedly set the stage for an army of similar teen heroines that came after her — ones who share more in common with Alcott’s Pauline or even Elsie Dinsmore than Ruth Fielding. In fact, the sting of Twilight intensifies when one compares the book to Girl of the Limberlost (1908), a young adult novel authored by Gene Stratton-Porter and published a full hundred years before Twilight premiered in theaters.
Both Elnora Comstock, author Gene Stratton-Porter’s 16-year-old heroine, and Bella Swan are Cinderella archetypes. Twilight opens when Bella moves to the leafy town of Forks, Washington to live with her dad, since her mom is preoccupied doting on a boyfriend. Elnora’s father is dead, and she lives in rural Indiana with her mother, a grief-stricken tyrant. Each, in their own ways, are loners. Though friends flock around Bella at school, she tells the reader, “I didn’t relate well to people my age… Maybe the truth was that I didn’t relate well to people, period.” While Bella may feel like an outsider, Elnora is one. Snubbed for her old-fashioned clothes, she becomes a pariah on her first day of high school and eats her lunch alone. Both girls also spend their time wandering the woods near their homes. Bella’s activities in the lush Northwest forest involve chasing around her love interest, a vampire named Edward Cullen (or more often, joyriding on his back). Elnora works quietly in the swampy Limberlost, where her own father drowned, collecting rare moths to sell so she can buy schoolbooks and save money for college.
But at the heart of Twilight lies something else almost more sinister than its treatment of romance. The more Bella submits to Edward’s charms, the closer she gets to the end of her human life and the beginning of her undead one. Coupled with her disinterest in the outside world, her desire for Edward becomes a death wish — fulfilled when she is finally bitten by him and becomes herself a vampire. If this sounds twisted, remember that it’s the ending that most Twilight readers hoped for. This hunger for death is countered in Limberlost not only by Elnora’s resilience against life’s blows but also by the forest’s own struggle to survive industrialization. Like Edward’s deadly effect on Bella, Elnora’s foraging in the Limberlost threatens it. A family friend warns her, “Each year you will find less in the swamp, and things everywhere will be scarcer.” By the time she graduates high school, the forest is not what it used to be. Still, Mrs. Comstock, who owns a large swath of the land, refuses to sell it to developers. Life pushes back against destruction for the conservation of a fragile but crucial habitat.
To a modern reader, Limberlost is sentimental, almost saccharine, and though it encourages independence it ultimately bows to the conventions of its era when, towards the end, Elnora reveals her perception of being a wife: “I understood that to mean that he desired me to keep him a clean house, serve him digestible food, mother his children, and give him loving, sympathy, and tenderness,” she says. But in a time when few women went to college, Elnora’s ambition was a brave push into new territory, inspiring readers with aspirations for their own futures. What hope did Bella inspire?
The author Lauren Oliver credited her inspiration for the dystopian teen romance Delirium to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who wrote that all great books were about love and death. Throughout literary history, these twin subjects have been the core of many great novels (Anna Karenina) as well as many bad ones. As Twilight demonstrated, teen fantasy authors have taken up these themes with a special fervor, but no one has handled them as ruthlessly as Suzanne Collins in the Hunger Games Trilogy.
Writing in Salon, critic Laura Miller has praised Katniss Everdeen, Collins’s strong-willed 16-year-old heroine, as an improvement on Bella:
Bella Swan is clumsy and largely helpless, a rescue object for Edward and Jacob… Katniss is a tough and competent woodswoman and sharpshooter. Bella is willing to give up everything — her family, friends, previous life, even her humanity — to dote on her beloved Edward for eternity; Katniss sacrifices herself for her mother and sister.
Indeed, Katniss has far more in common with Elnora. She also spends her days in a forest, hunting not moths but meat to sell on the black market. The resemblance between the two is uncanny. Like Elnora’s father, Katniss’s father is dead and her mother also emotionally invalid; just as Elnora inherits her father’s grace with the violin, Katniss has her father’s rich talent for song. Both characters struggle to survive in a dangerous environment. Thieves have overrun Elnora’s forest and warn her to keep out; her father’s bones, we are told, rest in the swampy pool bottom where he drowned. Yet somehow the Limberlost’s dangers don’t overwhelm her. Katniss’s post-apocalyptic home of Panem terrorizes her. Food is scarce; mutant birds and insects threaten; and hunting is a crime penalized by death As punishment for a past rebellion, each of the nation’s 12 districts sacrifices two “tributes” to compete in an annual reality show where the winner is the last one alive.
Here, dystopia reaches into every corner of life — even love. Along with a boy named Peeta, Katniss represents her district in the 74th annual games. Though Katniss never had romantic feelings for him before the Games, she pretends to return Peeta’s affection in order to “give the audience something more to care about,” and it’s this complex brand of romance that becomes her main tool for survival. Critics have applauded Collins for subverting standard romantic hooks, but this faux love story actually draws many Hunger Games fans, who debate aggressively online over the respective hotness of Peeta and Gale, Katniss’s childhood friend. Though Katniss eventually becomes a hero, up until page 156 of the first book, her internal struggles revolve around her conflicted emotions toward Peeta and Gale, not on the ethical dilemma of having to kill people. In chapter 10, Peeta — who faces the same pressures as Katniss — tells her that his goal is to stay true to himself, even until death: “I’m more than just a piece in their Games… Don’t you see?” Katniss replies, “A little… but who cares, Peeta?”
Dystopian novels are provocative avenues through which readers can explore and even question their civic relationship to government, but Collins’s series fosters an especially grotesque worldview. The words “dead,” “dying,” and “death” appear more than 300 times in the series. In Catching Fire, Katniss and Peeta are again chosen to compete in a special edition of the bloodbath. When Katniss is wounded, the authorities nurse her to life because a quiet, private passing would be a loss for them. Later, Katniss resolves to kill Peeta “before the Capitol gets to choose the agonizing means of his death.” As Mockingjay opens, she stumbles through the bombed-out landscape of District 12, tripping on human skulls and breathing in the ashes of the dead. When the couple finally defeat the Capitol, their victory feels pyrrhic at best. With most of their families dead (and Katniss’s initial sacrificing of herself for her sister rendered pointless), they marry, and nightmares haunt them always. Readers are left to untangle the book’s intimations about the real world for themselves. They may wonder: if the world really is that hopeless, what’s the point of striving for anything at all?
In comparison to Collins’s dark tale, Daniel Woodrell’s noiresque Winter’s Bone — whose 2010 film version also starred Jennifer Lawrence — seems strangely light. The fact that the novel, published in 2006, was not marketed to teenage girls is almost — but not quite — surprising. Its heroine, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, shares many similarities to Bella, Katniss, and Elnora. Living in the Ozark woods and hunting squirrels to feed her family, she also searches for her father, a meth cook who has gone missing. If he doesn’t turn up for his court date, her mother and siblings will be forced out of their home. There is no romance here; Ree mostly dreams of leaving the Ozarks and joining the Army. But in the end, she preserves her family home by confronting her father’s death in its most horrifying physical form. When the film version came out in 2010, David Edelstein noted in New York Magazine, “For all the horror, it’s the drive toward life, not the decay, that lingers in the mind. As a modern heroine, Ree Dolly has no peer…” New Yorker critic David Denby called Winter’s Bone “one of the greatest feminist works in film.”
Literature may not be about easy answers, but some of the best books bring some level of clarity to the reader within their nuanced explorations of the world — even if that clarity means that they find the answers are grayer than they thought. The problem with Twilight and Hunger Games is that while operating in a seemingly black-and-white world they actually infect their readers with chaos: Twilight by exploiting its audience’s desire to completely escape reality, and Hunger Games by cementing its readers’ fears that there is nothing beyond the darkness.
The value of books like Girl of the Limberlost and Winter’s Bone is that while acknowledging the world’s ugliness, they carve a path of resilience the reader can follow. Though many teen readers lead average, suburban lives, they live in an information age rife with anxiety. Their social worlds, artificially reorganized online through social media, are open to endless bullying. Threats of nuclear war, environmental destruction, and domestic terrorism loop continuously on the nightly news. AMC — who owned the venue in which the Aurora shooting occurred and in whose franchises many fans will line up to see Catching Fire’s premiere — now runs a cautionary commercial about how to act in the case of such a catastrophe. In the midst of these uncertainties, let alone the hormonal depression from which many already suffer, the fashion and beauty industries fuel the pressure to look and act perfect.
In her article, Dalfonzo wrote, “It might be that, far from wanting to watch other kids save the world time and again, kids would like to watch them just being kids.” But kids don’t just want to watch kids being kids. They want to step into the shoes of ordinary kids doing extraordinary things. I asked David Levithan, Scholastic’s vice president and editorial director, whether such books might be a way for girls to escape the real world. He explained that most successful fantasy literature is actually deeply relatable to the reader: “The themes (survival in Hunger Games, unrequited love in Twilight, etc.) are completely real even if the situations are not.” Within this milieu, authors as influential as Meyer and Collins have the opportunity to inspire their readers toward greatness, but they squander it miserably. Neither Bella nor Katniss have dreams that transcend their current situations.
Yet, in the famous words of Tolkien, not all who wander are lost. Louisa May Alcott may have written sensational vampire stories, but she also wrote Little Women, a classic I first read in middle school that taught me I could do or be anything, and that my uneventful life was filled with meaning. I’m not betting on Meyer or Collins to create her, but I’d like to think another Jo March might still be out there.
Novels that venture into the minds of multiple characters, or sprawl into a number of different eras, satisfy the greedy reader in me; I want as much access to the writer’s fictional world as I can get my hands on. I still recall the scene of Levin with his scythe, nestled like a secret beneath many pages of Anna Karenina — ahh, I thought, what a kaleidoscopic universe Tolstoy is offering me. This access is partly why I loved The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, and why I’m looking forward to tucking into Benjamin Percy’s Red Moon. (See also: my love for The Wire, or for gossip.) Tell me everything, that’s my motto.
Or that’s my motto…sometimes. I also like a svelte novel with a narrow aperture, its focus sharp and expert. These books venture immeasurably inward. Sometimes a single character’s story, told under the constricts of a clearly delineated span of time, reveals something deep and startling. It’s why The Great Gatsby persists.
It’s no wonder, though, that small-scale books inspire unauthorized sequels or spin-offs. A good novel asks questions as well as answers them, and at its end readers are left to consider the events therein, and also all that didn’t make it onto the page. If that reader is a writer, he might take matters into his own hands. Jean Rhys offered Jane Eyre’s Bertha a chance to tell her story in Wide Sargasso Sea, and in Finn, John Clinch explored the life of Huck’s father. And let’s not forget how much fan-fiction has been written about Bella and Edward. A besotted reader doesn’t want the story to end.
It’s in that spirit that I’ve collected a short list of the spin-offs I’d like to see. Please feel free to add your own wish-list in the comments. Perhaps we’ll inspire someone to get writing…
1. Eloise’s mother from Eloise
When I was younger, I didn’t wonder much about the parents of Eloise, the six-year-old heroine who lives with her British nanny in the Plaza Hotel, putting sunglasses on her dog Weenie and combing her hair with a fork. Now when I read the book to my son, I think about them a lot. It’s wealth that allows Eloise’s mother to neglect her daughter, and it’s the mother’s absence that haunts the book. What do we know of the woman? Eloise tells us that she is 30 and has “a charge account at Bergdorf’s.” Her mother knows Coco Chanel, and has AT&T stock and “knows an ad man whatever that is.” Sometimes she goes to Virginia with her lawyer. Eloise’s father is never mentioned. (Is the lawyer Eloise’s dad, and Eloise just doesn’t know it?) I’d love to read a novel narrated by Eloise’s mother. She’s a rich fuck-up, to be sure, maybe a functioning alcoholic with a penchant for Bloody Marys at breakfast and champagne every afternoon. She loves her daughter, but can’t stand to be around her for more than a few minutes. She jets off to Milan, to Paris, forgetting to remember her offspring back in Manhattan. There would definitely be a strange and/or degrading sex scene involving the owner of The Plaza.
2. Easter from State of Wonder
There are so many magnetic, compelling characters in Ann Patchett’s most recent novel, a knock-out of a beach read if you’re looking for something to take to Hawaii this summer (poor you). The character I want to read more about, however, is Easter, the native deaf boy who accompanies Dr. Swensen on her trips into and out of the jungle, and who ignites protagonist Marina’s maternal instinct. (He also almost gets squeezed to death by an anaconda, so there’s that…) This gentle and goofy kid was adopted into the Lakashi tribe, but is actually a descendent of a nearby cannibalistic tribe, a fact that comes to bear at the end of the novel, when Marina must make a gut-wrenching choice that calls into question Easter’s destiny. I’d love to see him a few years from this point, and I think someone — Patchett herself, perhaps? — could write a challenging and compelling first-person narrative for Easter that echoes Faulkner’s Benjy, or Barbara Kingsolver’s Adah, the silent daughter from The Poisonwood Bible.
3.The Monkey from Portnoy’s Complaint
When my book club discussed Alexander Portnoy’s nearly 300-page potty-mouthed and hilarious rant a few years ago, one of our members said she’d like to read a novel called The Monkey Speaks, which would tell the story of Portnoy’s ex-girlfriend, the shiksa underwear model who used to earn more money in an hour than her “illiterate father would earn in a week in the coal mines of West Virginia.” I agree. I am dying to read a report from this “pathetic screwy hillbilly cunt,” perhaps one that includes a Rashomon-style retelling of her threesome with Portnoy and Lina, the Italian whore with, according to The Monkey, tremendous tits. Men aren’t the only ones who need analysts.
4. Sirena from The Woman Upstairs
Claire Messud’s newest novel is like a Zoe Heller and Vladamir Nabokov mash-up, with its narrator — single, elementary school teacher Nora Eldridge — telling a circuitous and unreliable tale of her love for and obsession with the Shahids, a worldly and exotic family whose presence in Nora’s life magnifies how lonely, predictable and stale her days have become. At the center of the story is Sirena, the wife and mother in the family, whose success as an artist inspires, entices, and provokes Nora. If Sirena got her own novel, I’d of course long to hear her version of the events that Nora recounts with such fastidiousness. It would be more fitting and poignant, however, if Nora were barely present, meriting no more than a paragraph. And I’m sufficiently enamored of and repelled by Sirena to want a whole book with just her, her, her.
5. Richard from Treasure Island!!!
Sara Levine’s wickedly fun novel is narrated by an f-ed up young woman who leaves her job as a clerk at the Pet Library in order to pursue a life like Jim Hawkins’s in Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel. She steals the Library’s parrot (Richard) and proceeds to be ghastly toward her family, her boyfriend, and to the poor bird. Just because Richard repeats inane phrases like, “It’s big, it’s hot, it’s back!” doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a rich inner life worthy of a novel. By the book’s end it’s intimated that the bird has witnessed a lot, and, my lord, do I want to know what his little black beady eyes saw before he — oh, but I shouldn’t spoil the book for you if you haven’t read it.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Babbittry’s an old word but hardly a dead concept. It first emerged — by that name, anyway — 90 years ago with the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, a slim, strange novel that drifts through its chapters with little thought to plot. At the heart of the novel is George F. Babbitt, a real estate salesman in his mid-40s whose life revolves around his family, dinner parties, boosters’ club, his business ambitions, and all the middlebrow fashion concerns of his age in the fictional neighborhood of Floral Heights in the equally make-believe town of Zenith.
Lewis showcases Babbitt’s morning routine: “Last, he stuck in his lapel the Boosters’ Club button. With the conciseness of great art the button displayed two words: ‘Boosters — Pep!’ It made Babbitt feel loyal and important. It associated him with Good Fellows, with men who were nice and human, and important in business circles. It was his V.C., his Legion of Honor ribbon, his Phi Betta Kappa key.”
See how society weighs on this poor soul? Babbittry refers to the disease of conventionality and banality. The novel traces its way through the title character’s colloquial phrases, his fretting over social etiquette, and his laundry list of goals and frustrations. It’s the American dream at its most mundane, the inertia of the lifestyle a constant palpable anvil. Ultimately the sin of Babbittry relies on the social mores and manners of others — Babbitt doesn’t have a strong enough sense of his own self to defy that broader socially constructed set of values and meaning. The diagnosis of Babbittry entered our lexicon and stayed for a half century or so before fading away.
But what of the disease itself? The world George Babbitt inhabited changed radically in the nine decades since Lewis released his book. The United States engaged in wars, built highways and the Internet, embraced mass media and organic tomatoes, found drugs and the sexual revolution. Through our 21st-century lens, Babbitt looks all the more like a stuffy philistine dad. Lewis’s insights into human nature weren’t, however, limited by time, and we’re all guilty of Babbitt’s crime perhaps more now than ever before.
In 2012, social media thrives more than any 1920s booster club did. Millions engage in a bustling, active world in which not only can’t a person be alone, but dozens see and watch and, crucially, expect every day. One overriding criticism of the social soup of the Internet is the tendency toward groupthink. Once a few loud voices establish a joke or a premise, the herd follows. Binders of women! Bayonets! Chuck Norris as Superhuman! KONY 2012! A viral sentiment must be true, yes? This candidate completely botched the foreign policy debate questions. This politician is shady because of this allegation. Here’s the premise through which we should view X news story, and yes, expressing Y opinion makes you Z. Politicians understand this well. They send surrogates to the media right after to spin the common consensus. As The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank wrote in October, social media causes “conventional wisdom to be set, simplified and amplified, faster and more pervasively,” pointing to debate coverage as a prime example. There’s a “Twitter-forged consensus” gelling within 30 minutes, Milbank laments. Beware, Internet surfer. A disease is out there, and it’s infecting our iPhones, our Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and more. Disease, thy name is Babbittry.
The display of symptoms is all that’s changed. Modern technology fuels a far more insidious type, one not defined by 1920s fashion so much as the deeper sin Babbitt was guilty of throughout. Babbittry eats at Babbitt’s life not because he’s boring, but because there’s no control or independent intellectual force at work. His materialistic life is guided by what others dictate. Whether the information comes via a Twitter newsfeed or from 20th-century church fellows, ads, and business pals, the effect is the same. Leave it to the crowds! Let the masses decide! This is still straight Babbittry.
Babbitt makes the commodification of opinion clear in many different passages and specifically tries to kill the idea of Babbitt’s agency: “Just as he was an Elk, a Booster, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce, just as the priest of the Presbyterian Church determined his every religious belief and the senators who controlled the Republican party decided in little smoky rooms in Washington, what he should think about disarmament, tariff, and Germany, so did the large national advertisers fix the surface of his life, fix what to believed to be his individuality.” Thus, toothpaste and socks are his “symbols and proofs of excellence,” Lewis declares.
Material details evolved, but has the critique ever disappeared? The charge has become its own cliché in the years since, shades flickering into Don DeLillo novels and American Beauty. Adbusters infamously ripped hipsterism as a lifestyle completely subject to marketing four years ago (an opinion then shared 48,000 times on Facebook). And the Babbitt archetype of course popped into our culture before Babbitt (the stuffy Karenin of Anna Karenina comes to mind) but never quite as crisply. Twitter and Facebook are just the latest avenues for Babbittry to thrive. Targeted advertising and niche media channels make the conformism and herding all the easier today. Social media editors practice just the right, predictable voice and casual humor that pulls in readers. The Internet elevates the right linguistic affectations and rewards them, just as Babbitt was rewarded for his own professional and fashionable ones. Modern groupthink often unfolds in trivial, unstructured ways — the social judging and banter of Facebook, say, comparing photos, adding your digital “like” to the mix. This anxiety surrounding social media is apparent, as any Google search will show. Real headlines: “Kony 2012 Movie and the Perils of Social Media ‘Group Think,’” “Social Media and the Groupthink Problem,” “Does Social Media Produce Groupthink?” Lewis artfully portrayed the phenomenon exactly 50 years before the first formal psychological study, Victims of Groupthink, was published (since republished as Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes).
Celebrate the 90th anniversary of Babbitt, then, by tracing its connections with our lives now. Lewis, saint that he is, never quite demonized George F. Babbitt despite the satire. The character struggled his way into rebellion, questioning and quibbling away from the mainstream in small ways. Lewis recognized the fundamental humanity of even the iconic Babbitt — we’re social animals for a reason. But don’t cut Babbittry from our vocabulary quite yet. It creeps back, as Babbitt well knew. A rebellious streak would “endanger his security and popularity by straying from the Clan of Good Fellows.” We’re all guilty on bad days, one retweet at a time.
When I first read a plot summary of Joshua Henkin’s newest novel, The World Without You, my second thought — after, this sounds like a great story — was: this sounds like women’s fiction! As a woman who writes fiction and bristles against such categories, brandishing the latest VIDA stats to anyone who will listen, I was a bit horrified by my own reaction. If I think like that, how can I expect others not to? I was curious to know what male authors — or one male author, at least — make of such labels. And since I’m lucky enough to know Henkin — an acclaimed short story writer, director of the MFA program in Fiction Writing at Brooklyn College, and author of the novels Matrimony, a New York Times Notable Book, and Swimming Across The Hudson, a Los Angeles Times Notable Book — I decided to ask.
Anna Solomon: The catalyst for The World Without You is a public one — journalist Leo Frankel is killed in Iraq — yet the story itself is remarkably private. It takes place in and around the Frankel family’s old summer house, on the one year anniversary of Leo’s death, and for all the outer conflict that drives the plot — Leo’s parents are separating, his three sisters are struggling with their own relationships and marriages, his widow comes bearing her own secret — I think the book’s greatest strength lies in the quiet, patient unspooling of these characters’ inner lives. These categories — public v. private, outer v. inner — how conscious of them were you as you conceived of and wrote this book?
Joshua Henkin: When I write, I’m not conscious of much, as least for the first draft. You need to cede control and see where the book takes you. Flannery O’Connor once said that a fiction writer needs a certain measure of stupidity, and I agree. In terms of public versus private, the characters in The World Without You are deeply engaged with the outside world and with politics, so the public sphere certainly plays a role in the book, but it’s an indirect role, through character, which is how it should be. I’m suspicious of fiction writers who are driven by big ideas. I see it in my graduate students’ stories, and I see it, too, in published work — fiction too obviously driven by grand ideas, where the characters feel like mouthpieces for the writer and the book ends up being a lie. Here, too, I agree with O’Connor, who said that if you want to truck in grand ideas then fiction writing is too humble for you. Go be a sociologist, or a politician, or a rabbi, or a priest. It’s not that there aren’t ideas in good novels, but ideas aren’t principally what a good novel is about. For me, it’s fairly straightforward, though of course very difficult to achieve. I aim to tell a story. I try to plumb the depths of my characters’ inner lives because that’s what good fiction can do in a way that nothing else can. I strive to make characters so real the reader will feel that she knows them as well as or better than she knows the people in her own life. That’s what fiction writing is to me — no more and no less.
AS: I love these Flannery O’Connor quotes. I also experience writing fiction as a very humbling act; it puts what one notices, feels, imagines, above what one knows. So where do you think the “grand idea” impulse comes from? Are the writers you’re talking about truly meant to be sociologists and politicians? Or are they responding to some pressure — an idea they have about what constitutes Literature, or what kind of Literature sells?
JH: I think the issue may be more fundamental than that. A friend of mine wrote her undergraduate psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, whereas the kids group the monkey with the banana. This is another way of saying that children are more natural storytellers than adults are. In fact, I’d go further and say that the process of becoming an adult, of functioning in the adult world, involves having our innate storytelling ability leached out of us. Adults think in terms of category, in terms of concept. In order to buy dessert for my family in the most efficient way possible I need to understand that apples and bananas are generally housed together. But what makes for a good dessert purchaser doesn’t make for a good fiction writer. Adults think in abstractions, and abstractions are the death of a fiction writer. Kids, on the other hand, don’t think in abstractions. Consider a toddler learning to talk. She speaks almost exclusively in concrete nouns and verbs. Although she doesn’t realize it, she’s following Isaac Babel’s dictum to eschew adjectives and adverbs and rely on nouns and verbs. I’m always telling my graduate students to think monkey-banana, not apple-banana — so much so that the last night of class one semester they showed up to workshop wearing t-shirts they had made with a monkey and a banana emblazoned across the front.
Are there people trying to be novelists who are really meant to be sociologists or politicians or theologians? Absolutely. The world is filled with extremely intelligent people who want to be novelists but whose intelligence doesn’t help them in that regard. In fact, it often hurts them. Lionel Trilling, arguably the greatest literary critic of the 20th century, famously wanted to be a novelist, but he just wasn’t good at it. This is not to say that there aren’t good critics who are also good novelists, nor is it to say that critical skills don’t help a writer (I think they’re very important for revision), but the two skill sets are quite different and there are many absolutely brilliant people who wouldn’t begin to know how to write a novel.
I do think we’ve been living in a time when certain kinds of “big-idea” writing are in vogue. When I was starting to write fiction, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, traditional realist fiction reigned. Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Ann Beattie, Tobias Wolff — those were the writers who were hugely influential for my graduate school classmates and me. Ten years later the pendulum swung, and now it may be swinging back. That’s just how it is. Fashions come and fashions go, but what doesn’t change is good writing.
I think there’s also something psychologically complicated at work here, which has to do with the anxiety of influence. Someone once said that there are only two kinds of stories, Stranger Comes to Town and Person Goes on a Trip — which is really just one kind of story, since Stranger Comes to Town is simply Person Goes on a Trip from a different point of view. I don’t find this particularly perturbing. Yes, every story has been told, but it’s the way of telling — the how — that makes every writer unique, and if you have a distinct voice, if there’s emotional truth to your characters, if you use language in service of this voice and these characters, then your book will be distinct. I mean, look at the world around us. We don’t say, Why fall in love, why have a job, that’s been done already by billions of people. We don’t not get married just because everyone’s been doing that forever. But I think this feeling that every story has been told does concern a lot of writers, often to their detriment. They’re insufficiently confident that the story they’re telling is worth telling, and so they dress it up with a lot of grandiosity and big ideas; they deck it out in pyrotechnics. You read a lot of novels that smack of, I’m John, hear me roar, I’m Jane, hear me roar. Reading these writers, I find myself thinking, Would you please just chill? There’s an underconfidence at work that comes in the guise of overconfidence. Whatever it is, it does bad things to the fiction — it makes it a lie.
One of the paradoxes is that novels that try to be big often end up being small, whereas novels that, on the surface, seem more curtailed in their ambitions, end up being bigger. Take Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which to my mind is one of the great novels of the last 30 years. Now, you could say that the book is about the Vietnam War, and I suppose on some level it is, but you can be sure that O’Brien didn’t sit down to write a book about the Vietnam War. He sat down to write a book about his characters, and the war filtered in because that’s who his characters are — they’re soldiers, grunts. And because his characters are so real, so complex, so true, because the language, while never showing off, is so lovely, O’Brien touches our souls and we have a much richer and deeper sense of the war than we would if he were making big pronouncements. Good fiction is fundamentally about the particular, not about the general. Put another way, it is through the particular that the novelist gets at the general. In other words, if you do the particular sufficiently well, the book will feel general in the best sense — that is, universal.
AS: Big/small, abstract/concrete, public/private — these terms are often correlated with the masculine/feminine dichotomy, too. I’m curious what role gender played as you wrote The World Without You. Not on a “grand idea” level but in the particular choices you made about character and point-of-view. Of the six main characters in the book (I’m defining “main” as those whose points-of-view you regularly visit) five are female, while only one — the father — is male. Do you remember how you decided on this cast of characters? Were you at all wary, as a male writer, of writing a novel that not only could be described as “domestic,” but that’s dominated by women, too?
JH: I’m afraid this answer may not be very satisfying, but I really don’t think about such things. My characters simply come to me as they are. Their gender, their dispositions, their hair color, their allergies, do they sleep on their backs or their stomachs or their sides — it’s all extremely important, but none of it is a conscious decision. I follow my characters to where they take me. I’m not saying gender isn’t important. I come from a family of three boys, and now I’m a father of two girls, so I think about gender a lot. But it’s not like I sat down to write about a family of women any more than I sat down to write about a family of redheads, which is something else the Frankels are.
Wary? Wary of what? Of being a man writing from a female point of view? Flaubert did it pretty well if you ask me. And women write successfully from a male point of view all the time. If you don’t want to descend into solipsism, you’re always going to write about people different from yourself. Shy people write about gregarious people, young people write about old people. Why should gender be any different? Wary of writing domestic drama? What’s Madame Bovary if not domestic drama? What’s Anna Karenina, ultimately? I’ll probably get some disagreement here, but I think “The Dead” is Joyce’s greatest work. Whether or not it is, it’s important to remember that the same person who wrote Ulysses also wrote Dubliners. Much of the world’s greatest literature (most of it, I would argue) is domestic drama. It makes sense. We are born into families, and the majority of us eventually start families of our own. We live public lives, certainly, but for most of us our private lives are what make us who we are, and it’s the plumbing of these private lives, the exploration of what’s internal, that fiction is uniquely suited to do. It’s what makes it sui generis.
AS: I ask if you’re wary because I think a lot of women writers today are wary of writing books that can easily be summed up — perhaps dismissed — as domestic drama. If not wary, then aware. Maybe not as they write but certainly as they work toward publication and watch how their book is presented to the world and received. In a recent New York Times essay, Meg Wolitzer asks if Jeffrey Eugenides’ latest, The Marriage Plot, if written by a woman, “would…have been relegated to ‘Women’s Fiction,’ that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated?” So maybe I should be asking you this: after all the writing and revising, did you consider how your book might be categorized, packaged, marketed? Did the term “Women’s Fiction” ever cross your mind?
JH: That’s a reasonable question, and in my case it’s not an academic one. My last novel was called Matrimony, and title aside, it had some significant similarities to Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. It’s about a love triangle, much of it takes place on college campuses, and it’s a domestic drama. One key difference was that I was relatively unknown at the time of its publication (I’d published just one novel at the time, 10 years before), so I didn’t have Eugenides’s reputation to protect me. But the book was treated seriously by the literary world. Would that have been the case if I’d been a woman? I hope so, but you never know. Might it have been consigned to “women’s fiction”? I suppose it’s possible. On the other hand, I was published by Pantheon, a very literary house, and that would have given me some protection, just as FSG’s name protects Eugenides.
Would The Marriage Plot have been consigned to “women’s fiction” if it had been written by a woman? It depends on the woman. If Lorrie Moore had written it, she would have been taken as seriously as Eugenides is. The same goes for Alice Munro, who writes nothing but domestic fiction and is considered by some of the people I respect most to be the best living writer in English. Look at the titles of Munro’s books. Lives of Girls and Women. The Progress of Love. The Love of a Good Woman. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. This is not exactly Infinite Jest. And if you look at the paperback covers for Munro’s The View from Castle Rock and Runaway, it appears as if they’re being marketed as “women’s fiction” (whatever else, “women’s fiction” sells more than literary fiction), and none of this has hurt Munro in the slightest. On the other hand, she’s Munro, and she’s developed a reputation over many years.
What I’d say is this. There are a number of things that can protect a writer. If you’re already established in the literary world, that helps a lot. If you write short stories, that helps, too, because short stories tend to be the territory of literary fiction. If you teach in or are otherwise associated with a good MFA program, that’s also helpful. And if you have an edgier sensibility (here Lorrie Moore is a good example), that, too, is protective.
Are there female writers of domestic fiction who would never get consigned to the “women’s fiction” shelf? Absolutely. Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer for a book of domestic fiction, as did Jhumpa Lahiri, Carol Shields, Jane Smiley,and Anne Tyler. Julia Glass and Alice McDermott won the National Book Award. And just to be clear, there’s plenty of domestic fiction written by women that just isn’t any good. There are women writing novels that have scant literary merit just as there are men writing novels that have scant literary merit. Neither gender has a monopoly on good or bad writing.
But is the bar set higher for women? I believe it is. In fact, it would be strange if it weren’t. There are biases, conscious and unconscious, against women doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs; why wouldn’t it also be true for writers? We’ve come a long way since George Eliot had to call herself George Eliot, but you’d have to be blind to think we live in an equal world.
AS: One complaint from women writers (and I’m talking about writers of literary fiction, not schlock) is that while women readers are interested in reading about men’s lives, men aren’t as interested in reading about women’s lives. Do you think men will be as drawn to your book as women are? Should they be? What about for you, as a reader? Do you ever find yourself (consciously or not) choosing which books you want to read based on whether their protagonists are male or female?
JH: Every writer wants as many readers as possible, so of course I hope that men will read my novel as much as women do. But the fact is — and this has nothing to do with my book — women are much bigger readers of literary fiction than men are. Any publisher will tell you that. There’s even a reference to this in The World Without You. David, more of a fiction reader than most men (he recently retired as a high school English teacher), nonetheless is reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, and when Noelle comes into the room and catches him he says, self-derisively, “…women read fiction and men read biographies of Civil War heroes.” As for which books I choose to read, I don’t think I have the tendency you’re referring to, though it’s hard for me, of course, to know what I do subconsciously. But I just looked over the novels and stories I’ve read recently, and I don’t see a bias toward fiction with male protagonists. I’d also say that, as someone who reads 500 MFA applications a year, I find the women are generally better than the men. That’s a huge generalization, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but when someone on the committee once said said, “Jesus, we’re going to have to institute some affirmative action for these men,” I understood what they were saying.
AS: You mention covers — let’s talk about covers. It doesn’t take long to see that a lot of fiction by women is adorned with a nameless girl or woman. She’s headless, or we see her from the back, staring off at a house or the ocean or (gasp) the endless prairie. The picture overwhelms the title, certainly the author’s name. You mentioned to me a while back that your publisher tried about 30 covers for The World Without You before settling on the final one — black, with big serif font letters. Can you tell me a bit about some of those other covers, and what factors you think went into picking the final one?
JH: Everyone tells you not to judge a book by its cover, but the fact is the cover is the first thing a potential reader sees, so it’s tremendously important, and now, because books are so often bought online, the cover has to work online too. I can’t say enough good things about the art department at Pantheon. They came up with many, many possibilities, most of which I didn’t even see (my editor only passed on the ones that seemed possible), and although some of them were clearly wrong for the book, they were all incredibly well done and looked very professional. Toward the end of the process we were focused on a very type-driven cover, with both my name and the name of the book in bold. There was a cover whose type both my editor and I loved, and there was something beautiful about the image too — it was a watercolor painting on a matte background, but the image was of a bare tree, which felt too forlorn even for a book about someone who has died, and the book takes place over the summer and the image screamed fall or winter. My agent and I liked the idea of fireworks — both because the book takes place over July 4th and because fireworks evoke, among other things, violence and explosions, which is how Leo was killed. So the artist went back and did a fireworks image with the type that we loved, and while this image, too, was beautiful, it didn’t seem sufficiently clear that it was fireworks. I mean, it could have been fireworks, but it just as easily could have been flowers or a Jack-in-the-box popping out or a really interesting acid trip. So the art department went back and tried to get the artist to make the image be more clearly fireworks, but it didn’t work out in the end, and so they scrapped the oil painting idea and went with a photograph of fireworks against a black background. It took a long time to get there, but it was the right cover for the book — I’m thrilled with it.
AS: The World Without You is your third novel. As you kick off your tour, how are the highs and lows of your previous launches figuring into your approach now? What has all this book-wrangling taught you, or is it like starting from scratch each time?
JH: This is my third tour, and I’m keenly aware that with rare exceptions book tours are a thing of the past, so I’m grateful for the faith my publisher has placed in me. Anyone who thinks that a book tour is the literary equivalent of a rock tour doesn’t have a clue. That’s so 1989, and it wasn’t even true in 1989. It’s never been — and certainly isn’t now — roll out the expense account and invite your friends out for sushi and cocaine. It’s a job and I’m keenly aware of it as one. My goal is to spend my time and my publisher’s money wisely. In most ways it’s gotten harder—there are fewer local media outlets for fiction, less local radio, fewer book review pages. On the other hand, since Matrimony did pretty well I’m positioned better than I was last time. But you never know what will happen. You write your book, then you go out into the world and try to help it however you can, and then you go back home and start your next one.
Image Credit: Flickr/Tilemahos Efthimiadis
This past winter I wrote a pair of essays about The Brothers Karamazov that included the admission that I preferred “Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life to Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.” That line elicited more of a reaction from readers than anything else I wrote, which prompted me to dive deeper into the question: Just which of these two titans of Russian literature is considered the greater novelist?
As it turned out, I was not the first to consider the provocation. The literary critic George Steiner has provided the most authoritative resolution to the problem with his book Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, which positions Tolstoy as “the foremost heir to the tradition of the epic” and Dostoevsky as “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare.” Isaiah Berlin considered the seemingly opposing qualities of the two authors in his enduring essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Nabokov argued in Lectures on Russian Literature that it was Tolstoy in a landslide, while America’s First Ladies have tended to give the nod to Dostoevsky: both Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush cite The Brothers Karamazov as their favorite novel.
Still, I wasn’t satisfied with the answers I found online so I decided to get a second opinion — or rather, eight more opinions. I reached out to the foremost scholars of Russian literature as well as avid lay readers I know and asked if they’d be willing to contribute 500 words weighing the respective merits of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Almost everyone said yes, though a few echoed the sentiments of a distinguished emeritus professor who replied to me from a beach in Mexico, writing, “There really is no competition on Parnassus. From my point of view at least, they are both great writers and now live in a realm beyond competition.” And of course that’s true — just as it’s true that it is fun (and often illuminating) to debate Williams vs. DiMaggio and Bird vs. Magic even though at the end of the day we acknowledge that they’re all irreducibly great.
So with that, enjoy eight very knowledgeable, passionate takes on two of the great storytellers of all time. And when you’re done reading, please go ahead and share your own views in the comments section.
Carol Apollonio, Professor of the Practice of Russian, Duke University
The question shot straight into my brain and disabled the parietal cortex. There was a sizzle and a puff of smoke, and the smell of sulfur filled the air. I groped in the dark for a 50-kopeck piece and tossed it upwards. It clinked hollowly on the linoleum. The flickering light of the candle from above illuminated the tiny but unmistakable image of the double-headed eagle. Heads up: Dostoevsky, then.
His protagonist is the head: bait for smart people. The intellect sends forth an unending flow of words. YES! You’ve thought this exact same thing so many times! How can there be justice on earth if it comes at the cost of a child’s tear? How can God be all good and all powerful, yet allow suffering in the world? If God exists, then how can he allow ME to walk the earth, sick, sniveling, spiteful creature that I am, scrawny spawn of the most abstract and premeditated city on the earth? If God does not exist, though, how can I be a captain? Should I return my ticket? Read on! They give us the bread that we ourselves have made, and we accept it back from them in exchange for our freedom: cheap sorcery in place of miracle. I love mankind, but how can you expect me to love the stinking, jabbering drunk across the table, the loser who sold his own daughter into prostitution so he could sit here and drink? Prove that you exist, then! Move this mountain, and I will believe!
His protagonist is the head, but his hero is the heart. Logic and words will get you nowhere: the more talk, the less truth. Twice two is four, but twice two is five is a charming little thing too. A hug, now, a kiss, a fall to the earth, a leg over the iron railing of a cold St. Petersburg bridge, a pouring forth of tears, a pouring forth of blood, a turning pale, a fainting dead away, an issuing forth of the spirit of decay, a slamming of your own finger in the door, the plaintive sounds of a pipe-organ on the street, ragged orphans begging, the dying gasps of the overworked, bludgeoned horse, the barely detectable breathing of the doomed old woman on the other side of the closed door — you, YOU are the murderer — the clink of coins in the cup, the dizzying whirl of the roulette wheel, brain fever, a silhouette in the doorway, the noble young lady bowing down to the earth before you, YOU, you lustful worm! Shrieks, a rope, a gun, a slap on the cheek, and suddenly…
Suddenly an image appears in the darkness: a thin, timid girl in a green shawl, her face pale and drawn from illness. She smiles joyfully and stretches out her hand to me. I must go, for if I do not, I will keep on talking and will never stop….
Ellen Chances, Professor of Russian Literature, Princeton University
The question, in my mind, is meaningless. One of the worrisome tendencies of contemporary society is its impulse to rank. Who is better? Who is Number One? The question should not be, “Who is the greater novelist?,” but rather, “What do I learn from reading the books of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or of anyone else?
Why does everything have to be a race? Why does everything have to be competitive? This implies that there is a winner and a loser. Why does the reading of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky or of anyone else have to be part of a “success” or “failure” story? Framing the question, “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky: Who’s the better novelist?,” in this way does a disservice, it seems to me, to the act of contemplating the meaning of these writers’ books.
Asking the question is equivalent to asking, “Which is the greater food, milk or orange juice? Which is the greater food, blueberries or strawberries? Which is better, the sky or the grass, night or day?”
To me, both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are equally great writers. Each focused on some of the important “big questions” of life. Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov, in The Brothers Karamazov, asked how a just God could have created a world that includes the suffering of innocent children. Tolstoy, through his character, Levin, in Anna Karenina, asked what the meaning of life is. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy asserted that the essence of life cannot be found by relying on the intellect alone. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy understood that being true to the authentic rhythms of life means respecting the non-linear nature of life.
Each of the two offers profound insights about psychology. Tolstoy emphasizes the ways in which people relate to one another in a societal context. Dostoevsky digs deeply into the individual human psyche. Tolstoy paints a world in which extreme things happen to ordinary people. Dostoevsky shows us the extremes of which people are capable. Each of the two writers describes crises in faith. Each describes the journey to a life of spiritual values.
Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy write in a way that conveys the energy of life. That energy comes about, in Dostoevsky, through the clash of ideas, through the tension he creates through suspense and the use of words like “suddenly.” Ivan Karamazov says that he loves life more than the meaning of life. Tolstoy shows a love of life of this world – the smell of the earth, the beauty of a flower. He speaks about living a life of authenticity.
Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy make me think about what is important in life. Both urge the reader to appreciate those things that money or competition cannot bestow – love, and life itself…
…So who is the greater writer, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy? Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are great…And then there is Chekhov, and Pushkin, and Mandelstam and Akhmatova and Bitov… And that’s just the Russians…
Raquel Chanto, Graduate Student, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs
It is likely that these words express more about me than about Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. I have long ago given up on the idea of objective appraisal of literature: reading is a much more mediated process than we would like to admit. All sorts of ghosts crawl into the pages, a prehistory of tastes and experiences and prejudices and fears. So if I say Dostoevsky is a greater writer than Tolstoy, I only mean he has been greater to me.
My first encounter with Russian literature was as random as can be expected for a twelve-year-old girl growing up in suburban Costa Rica. Both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky emerged like potatoes out of a giant plastic bag containing several books of ranging worth. I was lucky enough to be, at the time, very young, very curious and seriously uninformed. Unlike most people, I read War and Peace without having the faintest idea of the book’s reputation. Crime and Punishment followed shortly after, with the same scandalous lack of veneration. I loved them both: Tolstoy, for the story he told, and Dostoevsky, for the thoughts he provoked.
Many years and many books later, the two authors continue to inhabit different places in my mind and in my memory. Tolstoy conjures up images of endless steppes and elegant Petersburg homes, where great and complex characters go about the business of living. His books are showcases of literary craftsmanship, epic tales told with impeccable skill. Dostoevsky’s work is less precise, more ambiguous. I experience his books as a ceaseless battle of demons that never rest — not even as you turn the page, as you end a chapter, as you finish the novel and read it again. A Dostoevsky novel sitting on a shelf is a bowl of anxiety and confusion, a bundle of frustrations marked by a desperate need for redemption. His protagonists are shown in extreme situations, where not only their personality but their very nature is put to the test.
What I find mesmerizing in Dostoevsky is not just the details of the story, the particular twists and turns of the lives of Rodion Raskolnikov or Dmitri Karamazov; it is the mere possibility of their existence. It is, in the end, the mind-bending notion that we could be just like them — that any of us, any ordinary, simple human being, carries around the highest plane and the lowest point of moral capabilities. Tolstoy’s characters tell me a lot about themselves. Dostoevsky’s characters tell me a lot about myself. If that is not writing of the ultimate importance, I do not know what is.
Reading Tolstoy transports me to another world; reading Dostoevsky makes me feel alive in this one. As I’m reading Tolstoy, I’m drawn into a dream of serfs and country estates, endless royal titles and army ranks. So many beautiful horses! A loyal dog! Women like Kitty and Anna Karenina! But then I put the book down and I find myself using a coat hanger to get the hair out of the shower drain, and it doesn’t feel like the Battle of Austerlitz. It feels like my life again.
On the other hand, many times someone will frustrate me at work, and I hear these words from The Brothers Karamazov thundering in my head:
‘Why is such a man alive!’ Dmitri Fyodorovich growled in a muffled voice, now nearly beside himself with fury, somehow raising his shoulders peculiarly so that he looked almost hunchbacked. ‘No, tell me, can he be allowed to go on dishonoring the earth with himself?’
I say this kind of shit to myself all the time. It’s part of the fun of being alive.
As I lead my every day life (so unlike ice-skating in Moscow or cutting grain on my estates), just imagining that I resemble beautiful Levin is to invite self-ridicule. I like him more than he would like me. I’m not nearly as nice, nor as sincere. I find that I can openly admire Prince Myshkin, however, because in The Brothers Karamazov, I’m right there doing it. I’m Dmitri or Ivan, holding Alyosha’s hand. The message of the brothers is that we are all each other; we share each other’s passions. We suffer identically. We demonstrate things differently. I can be innocent and guilty both.
That, to me, is life.
Borges, I believe, said there was something adolescent about a love of Dostoevsky – that maturity demanded other writers. All I know is, when I first read Crime and Punishment, that book represented a lot of work for me. I didn’t get it! What did I have to feel so guilty about, at eighteen? I hadn’t DONE anything. I was frantic with potential energy. I would have been better off with War and Peace – because I had the temperament of Prince Andrei, ready to go to war. I was angry with myself and frustrated, but I had no major regrets. I certainly could never have understood Ivan Fyodorovich’s madness. I had just spent a summer drifting with a beautiful 17 year-old girl on Harrison Lake; if you’d asked me why Prince Myshkin pursued the troubled Nastassya or allowed the beautiful Aglaya to get away, I would have had no idea.
In adolescence, I was loyal with my friends, but also so fiercely uncompromising that I would never have endured a friend like Myshkin’s Rogozhin. That kind of bond would only come later for me, when I understood what it was like to tie myself to someone for life- when I understood what mutual forgiveness was. When I was in my early twenties, one of my friends drunkenly stabbed another. It wasn’t serious. One of my best friends asked me not to see a girl he’d broken up with. Instead, I married her. Later on, I lost her. I chased her in the snow, like Dmitri. I understand Dostoevsky now. What adolescent understands these things?
In any case, I realize that the “competition” between Dostoevsky and Tolstoy is just an exercise in love. No one really has to choose one or the other. I simply prefer Dostoevsky. For my last argument, I will simply cite an expert far older and wiser than me:
Just recently I was feeling unwell and read House of the Dead. I had forgotten a good bit, read it over again, and I do not know a better book in all our new literature, including Pushkin. It’s not the tone but the wonderful point of view – genuine, natural, and Christian. A splendid, instructive book. I enjoyed myself the whole day as I have not done for a long time. If you see Dostoevsky, tell him that I love him.
All mediocre novelists are alike; every great novelist is great in his own way. Which is why the choice between nineteenth-century Russia’s two supreme prose writers ultimately boils down to the question of which kind of greatness resonates with a particular reader. My own sympathies are with Tolstoy, and even my criteria for judging a work of fiction, I admit, are relentlessly Tolstoyan.
“The goal of the artist,” Tolstoy wrote, “is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.” By this standard Tolstoy’s novels succeed where Dostoevsky’s fall short.
True, Dostoevsky saw and felt modern experience in all of its isolating, tragic depth. He showed the obsessive power of ideas and the psychological crises, cracks, and explosions of the soul that have become familiar in our modern world. What he doesn’t do, however, is make you love life in all its manifestations. In fact, when he tries to do so, he reveals his deficiencies.
At the end of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov flings himself at the feet of Sonya, who has followed him to Siberia where he is serving his sentence for double homicide. Sonya jumps up, looks at him and trembles. “Infinite happiness lit up in her eyes; she understood, and for her there was no longer any doubt that he loved her, loved her infinitely, and that at last the moment had come…” If this smacks of modern soap opera or those maudlin French novels Dostoevsky was raised on, that’s because it is melodrama. Sonya’s “infinite love” is an ideal, “the moment” that has supposedly come, an abstraction.
What modern readers need, Tolstoy believed, is not more lurching after “infinite happiness” or “the Great Idea,” as Stepan Trofimovich, near the end of The Demons, claims to have discovered, but the ability to embrace an imperfect reality. The author of Anna Karenina teaches us how to seek meaning not through grandiose romantic strivings, like Anna and Vronsky, but within the limits of imperfect social and family structures, like Kitty and Levin.
Tolstoy’s novels depict the norms and continuities of human behavior by means of grand narratives that expand slowly over time and against the backdrop of vast natural tableaus. “As is usually the case” and “such as often occurs” are phrases you encounter frequently in Tolstoy. Dostoevsky’s world, by contrast, is one in which you can come home one evening and “suddenly” find an axe buried in your skull. Life is always on the verge of imploding on itself. Tragedy is just around the corner, or in your living room.
Tolstoy’s living room is a place where people, well, live. It’s where dark-eyed, voluble twelve-year old Natasha Rostova comes running with doll in hand, or where, a decade later, she enjoys with Pierre one of those endearingly mundane conversations between wife and husband about nothing and everything.
“I am a realist in a higher sense,” Dostoevsky rightfully claimed. But Tolstoy was a realist in the total sense. “The hero of my tale… is Truth,” he wrote. And that truth is one every generation recognizes as its own, not just those in a state of social crisis or existential despair. If Dostoevsky urges us to reach for the heavens, then Tolstoy teaches us by artistic example how we may touch the transcendent here and now in our messy, fleeting world.
Gary Saul Morson, Frances Hooper Professor of the Arts and Humanities, Northwestern University
A Soviet anecdote has it that Stalin once asked the Central Committee: which deviation is worse, the right or the left? Some fearfully ventured “the left,” others hesitantly offered, “the right.” The Great Helmsman then gave the right answer: “Both are worse.” I answer the question, “Who is the greater novelist, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?”: Both are better.
Dostoevsky spoke to the twentieth century. He was unique in foreseeing that it would not be an era of sweetness and light, but the bloodiest on record. With uncanny accuracy, The Demons predicted, in detail, what totalitarianism would be.
Bakhtin understood the core principle of Dostoevsky’s ethics: a person is never just the product of external forces. Neither heredity nor environment, singly or together, fully accounts for a human being. Each person retains a “surplus,” which constitutes the self’s essential element. True, some people, and all social sciences aspiring to resemble physics, deny the surplus. But they apply their theories only to others. No matter what he professes, nobody experiences himself as a mere play of external forces. Everyone feels regret or guilt, and there is no escaping the agony of choice. We behave as if we believed that each moment allows for more than one possible outcome and that our freedom that makes us in principle unpredictable. Without that unpredictability we would lack humanness. We would be zombies, and no one has ethical responsibility to zombies. Hence ethics demands: always treat another person as capable of surprise, as someone who cannot be explained entirely at second hand.
Dostoevsky despised both capitalism and socialism because each treats people as the mere product of economic (or other) laws. If socialism is worse, it is because it also presumes that experts know how to organize life for the best and socialism not only denies but actively removes choice for a supposedly higher good. At best, this view leads to the Grand Inquisitor, at worst to the nightmarish plans of Pyotr Stepanovich.
Tolstoy speaks more to the 21st century. His novels’ key concept was contingency. At every moment, however small and ordinary, something happens that cannot entirely be accounted for by previous moments. Like Dostoevsky, Tolstoy also denied the possibility of a social science, which must always wind up resembling the “science of warfare” preached by the generals in War and Peace. Like macroeconomists today, these “scientists” are immune to counter-evidence. To use Tolstoy’s word, social science is mere “superstition.”
If social scientists understood people as well as Tolstoy, they would have been able to depict a human being as believable as Tolstoy’s characters, but of course none has come close.
If we once acknowledge that we will never have a social science, then we will, like General Kutuzov, learn to make decisions differently. We intellectuals would be more cautious, more modest, and ready to correct our errors by constant tinkering.
If we have left the age of ideologies behind, we may need Dostoevsky’s warnings less than Tolstoy’s wisdom.
Donna Tussing Orwin, Professor of Russian and Chair, Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Toronto, and author of Consequences of Consciousness: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy
I inclined first to Tolstoy. His combination of moral sensibility and love of life appealed to me, and I didn’t like Dostoevsky’s over-the-top world of the self in crisis. The two authors have much in common, and yet diverge in ways that make comparison irresistible.
Both associate the self with moral agency; for both therefore, the individual is the ultimate source of good and evil. For both, goodness, which consists in overcoming selfishness, is natural but weak. For both feelings trump reason in the soul, though Tolstoy is closer to the Greeks and the Enlightenment in his association of virtue with reason. For Dostoevsky, reason is always tainted by egotism, and therefore he relies on love to spur moral impulses. Dostoevsky concentrates more on evil; for this reason his writings anticipate the horrors of the twentieth and the nascent twenty-first centuries. Tolstoy depicts crimes, such as the lynching of Vereshchagin (War and Peace) or uxoricide in Kreutzer Sonata, but not the pure malice embodied in such Dostoevskian characters as Stavrogin (Demons) or Smerdyakov (Brothers Karamazov). Tolstoy’s most evil characters, like Dolokhov in War and Peace, seem to invade his texts from another (Dostoevskian?) world. Dostoevsky also portrays pure goodness. Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin (The Idiot), even though he is named after Tolstoy, is more virtuous than any Tolstoyan character could be, and so is Alyosha Karamazov. Both authors are wicked satirists. Tolstoy’s rationalizing solutions to social ills can seem naive, while Dostoevsky’s high-minded ones seem sentimental.
Tolstoy’s fiction encompasses a broader range of experience than Dostoevsky’s. No one has described childhood, family life, farming, hunting, and war any better. This reflects his affinity for the physical and the body. Not coincidentally, Tolstoy is also celebrated for his portraits of nature and animals. Dostoevsky usually associates the physical with the base. (Compare fleshy old Fyodor Karamazov with his ethereal son Alyosha.) In his writings illness often brings insight, while Tolstoy mostly (though not always) prefers healthy states to unhealthy ones.
Dostoevsky’s fiction aims at the revelation of character to the fullest extent possible. He believes that each individual is unique, however, and therefore ultimately inaccessible to others. His protagonists vacillate between good and evil; this makes the future of any one of them, even the most virtuous, unpredictable. Tolstoy’s characters are complex but not unique. The variety among them (greater than in Dostoevsky) is a result of a practically but not theoretically infinite number of combinations among all the possibilities inherent in human nature, and the interaction of these with the outside world. Tolstoy depicts the intersection of chance, historical forces, and character. In his view, the more disengaged we are from outside circumstances, the freer we are. Tolstoy gravitated in old age toward Christian anarchy, while Dostoevsky in his last novel (Brothers Karamazov) seems to advocate for a Christian theocracy headed by someone like Zosima.
I still prefer Tolstoy’s earthiness and expansiveness to Dostoevsky’s brilliant, edgy anatomy of the psyche, but I can’t imagine life without them both.
I have the usual reasons for thinking of Tolstoy as the “better” — really, as the best — novelist. There’s the incredible variety of scenes and subjects he explores; there’s his precise, uncluttered style; there’s his epic tone, with its special combination of detachment and humanity. And I’m always overpowered by the way his novels describe everyone from the inside, even the dogs and horses. I have the same reaction to Tolstoy’s writing as his sister-in-law, Tanya Bers, who was the model for Natasha in War and Peace: “I can see how you are able to describe landowners, fathers, generals, soldiers,” she told him, “but how can you insinuate yourself into the heart of a girl in love, how can you describe the sensation of a mother — for the life of me I cannot understand.” I think Tolstoy is better at “insinuating himself” than any other novelist.
It’s Tolstoy’s scenes, though, which impress me most. Tolstoy, I’m convinced, is the single greatest writer of scenes in literature. Dostoevsky is often given credit for being more “dramatic” (George Steiner, in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?, calls Dostoevsky “one of the major dramatic tempers after Shakespeare”). But Tolstoy’s novels are unique in the way they’re constructed entirely out of short, perfect, easy-to-read scenes, and in the way those scenes build on one another until they address the most complex issues in a nonchalant, natural way.
Take the run of scenes around Kitty and Vronsky’s ball in Anna Karenina. In the first scene, Kitty and Anna are sitting on a sofa. Kitty invites Anna to the ball, and suggests that she wear a lilac-colored dress. Then a gaggle of children run to Anna, Anna takes them in her arms, and the scene ends. Reading the scene, we understand that that’s how Kitty sees Anna: as a mysterious, beautiful, poetic young mother. Then, two scenes later, Kitty arrives at the ball, wearing a peach-colored dress, and sees Anna — in black velvet. That’s the scene when Anna steals Vronsky from Kitty. Right there, in the juxtaposition of those two scenes, which are only two or three pages apart, you have the difference between childhood and adulthood, and between sexual innocence and experience. No other novelist can show you so much, so quickly.
It’s not just that his short scenes move quickly, though; it’s that they let Tolstoy focus on very ordinary things, like the color of a dress. One of the best scenes at the end of Anna Karenina is organized around a thunderstorm; in War and Peace, he does two scenes around an oak tree, bare and then in bloom. In each scene, the details feel unremarkable — but, over many scenes, they assemble themselves into a structure that’s more than the sum of its parts. Tolstoy called that structure a “network.” Dostoevsky built up networks, too, of course, and in some ways they’re more powerful. But I prefer Tolstoy’s ordinary materials to Dostoevsky’s extraordinary ones, because they can teach you to uncover the “scenes” and “networks” in your own life.
It’s slightly embarrassing to have to admit that the best book you read all year was Anna Karenina. It’s a bit like saying that you’ve been listening to an album called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club by these Beatles kids out of Liverpool and that, yes, you can confidently reveal that they were definitely onto something. At the risk of redundancy, Anna Karenina (which I finally got around to reading this year) is pretty much the Platonic ideal of the great novel. The most astounding thing about it for me is Tolstoy’s seemingly infinite compassion for his characters. It’s almost inhuman how fully present he makes these people. Reading it, I kept thinking of that much-quoted bit of Stephen Dedalus bluster about how “the artist, like the God of creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.” There is something god-like about the simultaneous breadth and intensity of Tolstoy’s vision here, but there’s nothing remote or indifferent about it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book where so many characters are portrayed with such clarity and empathy. He didn’t seem to create characters for instrumental reasons; no one is there just to bring the plot forward or to create a situation for someone more central than themselves. If he introduces a character, he also makes you see the world from their point of view (even Levin’s dog Laska has her moment in the free indirect narrative spotlight). His compassion and clarity are such that I often found myself thinking that if God existed and had sat down to write a novel, this is what it would look like. So yes, this Lev Tolstoy kid out of Yasnaya Polyana is definitely one to watch. You heard it here first.
As for less canonically enshrined books, I read two very powerful works of fiction in 2011 dealing with the theme of suicide. The first was David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide, a collection of linked stories and a novella. Here, Vann approaches the central biographical fact of his own father’s suicide from a range of fictional starting points. The novella, “Sukkwan Island,” is one of the most harrowing and moving pieces of fiction I’ve read in a very long time. In it, Vann inverts the reality of his father’s death, staging a hostile takeover of fact on behalf of fiction. It’s a really extraordinary piece of writing, and it takes the reader to a harsh and terrifying place. If you want to remind yourself of how literature can be a matter of life and death, this is a book you need to read.
Edouard Levé’s novel Suicide, which I wrote about for The Millions back in July, also really shook me up. As I mentioned in that piece, it’s nearly impossible to separate a reading of this book from the knowledge that Levé took his own life within a few days of having completed it. But on its own terms, its a bleak and beautiful exploration of self-alienation, marked by a sustained mood of quiet despair. The fact that it is written entirely in the second person — the subject of the narrative, with whose suicide the novel opens, is only ever referred to as “you” — forces the reader into a strangely schizoid position. Levé’s “you” addresses itself at once to the first, second, and third persons, and so the distinctions between author, protagonist, and reader become unsettlingly nebulous. Take a number of deep breaths, read it in one sitting, and go for a long walk afterwards. (As great as both Vann’s and Levé’s books are, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend reading them back-to-back in any kind of double bill.)
Along with everyone else in the world, it seems, I fell pretty hard for Geoff Dyer this year. I had a great time with Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, and I’ve since gone on an extended binge. Right now, I’m reading But Beautiful, his book about jazz, and Working the Room, his recent collection of essays and reviews. (Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage are lined up and ready to go.) I’m pretty sure no author since Proust has spun so much great material out of pastries — what Dyer doesn’t see fit to tell us about cappuccinos, doughnuts, and croissants isn’t worth knowing. I’m not sure whether we actually need a Laureate of Elevenses, but if we do, this is our guy. Dyer is one of those people who could bang out a book on just about any subject and it would be more or less guaranteed to be interesting.
The same could be said for Nicholson Baker, whose House of Holes had a higher guffaw-to-page ratio than any other book I read this year. It’s ridiculously, euphorically filthy and yet strangely innocent, in a way that seems to me to be unique to Baker. But House of Holes is not really about sex, any more than The Mezzanine was about office work or Room Temperature was about child rearing. Sex provides a useful and fertile pretext for exercising what seems to me to be the animating principal of all his fiction: the absurd and fantastic possibilities of language itself. But don’t, for God’s sake, read it on public transport, or in the presence of anyone to whom you wouldn’t be willing to explain the cause of your snickering.
The novel that I really fell in love with this year, though, was Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. She writes prose as beautifully as any living writer in English, but what makes her work so special is that its beauty seems to emanate as much from a moral as an aesthetic sensibility. I read Gilead not long after I saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and I was struck by the similarities between these two works of art. Both Robinson’s exquisite sentences and Malick’s stunning visual compositions are animated by a sense of wonder at the beauty, strangeness and sadness of the world. They are both religious artists, and they each confront metaphysical themes, but what comes across most strongly in both works is their creators’ amazing ability to capture and heighten the beauty of everyday things. Robison does with her sentences, in other words, what Malick does with his camera. Reading this book reminded me of something Updike once said about Nabokov — that he “writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically.” In this passage, the dying narrator, the Rev. John Ames, recalls a simple vision of the beauty of water:
There was a young couple strolling along half a block ahead of me. The sun had come up brilliantly after a heavy rain, and the trees were glistening and very wet. On some impulse, plain exuberance, I suppose, the fellow jumped up and caught hold of a branch, and a storm of luminous water came pouring down on the two of them, and they laughed and took off running, the girl sweeping water off her hair and her dress as if she were a little bit disgusted, but she wasn’t. It was a beautiful thing to see, like something from a myth. I don’t know why I thought of that now, except perhaps because it is easy to believe in such moments that water was made primarily for blessing, and only secondarily for growing vegetables or doing the wash. I wish I had paid more attention to it. My list of regrets may seem unusual, but who can know that they are, really. This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
If you haven’t turned into James Wood by the time you reach the end of that passage, there’s no hope for you. (Go on, let it out: “How fine that is!”) It’s extremely difficult to pull off something that simple, and I can’t think of many other novelists with the skill to do it. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is like water, like the world: it’s a blessing, and it deserves all the attention you can give it.
I read some great non-fiction this year, too. John D’Agata’s book About a Mountain is a lot of things at once. It’s a journalistic account of the almost literally unthinkable effects of nuclear waste. It’s an obliquely impressionistic depiction of the city of Las Vegas. And it’s an attempt to imaginatively reconstruct the suicide of a teenager. I didn’t always like the book, and its not by any means an unqualified triumph, but I certainly admired it. It’s a reminder of the Montaignian origins of the word “essay” (which we get from the French word for “trial” or “attempt”). The essay, at its best, is an open-ended, explorative form, and D’Agata is an exciting example of what a gifted writer can do with it. I also read Between Parentheses, the collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, reviews and speeches published this year by New Directions. I wrote about it for the second issue of Stonecutter (a wonderfully old school paper and ink literary journal whose first issue was itself one of the highlights of my reading year) and relished every sentence. Among its numberless pleasures is this quintessentially Bolañoesque definition of great writing: “So what is top-notch writing? The same thing it’s always been: the ability to sprint along the edge of the precipice: to one side the bottomless abyss and to the other the faces you love, the smiling faces you love, and books and friends and food, and the ability to accept what you find, even though it may be heavier than the stones over the graves of all the dead writers.” Almost every book that I loved over the last year satisfied this definition in some way. As, I’m sure, will every book I love in the next.
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1. Suite Française
In 1941, the celebrated French novelist Irène Némirovsky began work on her final novel. She was thirty-nine years old. Suite Française was to be a wildly ambitious work, a novel of a thousand pages. “To do it well,” she wrote in her notebook, “need to make 5 parts:”
The first part of the novel, “Storm in June,” is an ensemble piece concerned largely with the civilian exodus from Paris as the Nazis approached the city. Paris is emptying out, the train stations in pandemonium and the roads clogged with refugees. In a series of short chapters alternating between various perspectives, the chaotic flight is made human.
There are the Michauds, a lower-middle-class couple whose love for one another sustains them through the anguish of not knowing what has become of their only child — Jean-Marie, a French soldier, vanished with so many others as the French army collapsed in disarray — who are promised a ride out of Paris by the director of the bank where both are employed, but are forced to walk when the director gives their seats in the car to his mistress and her luggage. The Péricands, a wealthy family run by a matriarch whose idea of wartime sacrifice is going without lunch “to personally supervise the packing of the linen.” Charles Langelot, a wealthy man who loves nothing but his porcelain collection. Gabriel Corte, a horrifically self-absorbed and utterly insufferable writer. Arlette Corail, the aging dancer who took the Michauds’ place in the bank director’s car.
Their lives intersect here and there in the flight out of Paris, and the perspective begins to shift between the various refugees and Jean-Marie Michaud, recovering from his wounds in a farmhouse with no means of contacting his parents. The village near the farm where he recovers is the setting of “Dolce,” Suite Française’s second section; the family who tends to him are on the periphery of the second book. It’s an effective and thoughtful structure.
In “Dolce,” a year has passed since the fall of France, and a regiment of German soldiers is to occupy the village of Bussy for three months. In an echo of the opening of “Storm in June,” the villagers are locking away their valuables. “Dolce” chronicles the period of the German occupation in all its tension and its sadness, its terrible risks and its unexpected moments of joy, a period wherein the villagers and the occupying soldiers slowly come to know one another as individuals. Her Germans are never less than human — “The Germans marched in rows of eight; they wore their field dress and metal helmets. Their faces maintained the impenetrable and impersonal expression of professional soldiers, but their eyes glanced furtively, inquisitively, at the grey facades of the town that was to be their home.”
Némirovsky writes with tremendous compassion, particularly for the utterly blameless Michauds, but she is unsparing in her assessment of her crueler and more thoughtless characters. Following the exodus in “Storm in June,” the second-oldest Péricand child — Hubert, a teenager — sits in a church and contemplates his family’s behavior during their flight from the city:
He judged his family with bitterness and a painful harshness. His grievances whirled around in his mind in the form of brief, violent images, without him being able to express them clearly: …their cars full to bursting with fine linen and silver caught up among the refugees, and his mother, pointing to women and children forced to walk with just a few bits of clothing wrapped in a piece of cloth, saying, “Do you see how good our Lord Jesus is? Just think, we could be those unfortunate wretches!” Hypocrites, frauds!
It’s a cliché to say that times of disaster and upheaval reveal us for who we are, but I believe there’s some truth to it. Irène Némirovsky’s characters are variously revealed by war and dangerous politics to be weak, courageous, venal, or honorable, and she knew of what she wrote.
She was Jewish, born in Russia, the daughter of a fantastically successful banker. The Némirovskys had fled the Bolsheviks and arrived in a country where they believed they’d be safe. Irène Némirovsky embraced France completely, and for a time, at least, France seemed to embrace her. She found fame as a novelist at twenty-six and was catapulted into French literary society. But by the time she began Suite Française in 1941, the same editors and critics who’d celebrated her before the war had turned away. Her letters went unanswered. Anti-Semitic tirades were published by her former friends. Her books were removed from her first publisher’s catalogue.
Words written in her notebook in 1941: “My God! What is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honor and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters.” The betrayal was absolute.
In 1942 she was living with her husband and two daughters in a village in the French countryside, working feverishly on her fiction and engaged in correspondence with anyone who she thought might possibly help her. Finances had become a problem.
Excerpts from her notebook appear at the back of the first Vintage international edition of Suite Française. She liked to work outdoors in good weather, and in the final entry she’d walked out of the village into a nearby forest—
Maie woods: 11 July 1942. The pine trees all around me. I am sitting on my blue cardigan in the middle of an ocean of leaves, wet and rotting from last night’s storm as if I were on a raft, my legs tucked under me! In my bag, I have put Volume II of Anna Karenina, the diary of K.M. and an orange. My friends the bumblebees, delightful insects, seem pleased with themselves and their buzzing is profound and grave.
She discusses her plans for Suite Française, and the last paragraph reads as follows:
The most important and most interesting thing here is the following: the historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides must be described in detail.
The first two sections of Suite Française are a masterpiece. The planned third, fourth, and fifth sections— “Captivity,” “Battle,” “Peace” — were never written. Two days after she sat listening to bumblebees in the Maie woods, Irène Némirovsky was arrested. Her family never saw her again. She died just over a month later in Auschwitz.
2. The Mirador
When she disappeared in 1942, Irène Némirovsky left two daughters behind. Denise was thirteen and Elisabeth was five. Their father, Michel Epstein, was arrested and deported a few months after their mother disappeared. He died at Auschwitz that November. The girls fled with their governess and survived the war.
In her fifties, Elisabeth — who now went by the name Elisabeth Gille — wrote The Mirador: Dreamed Memories of Irène Némirovsky By Her Daughter. She had worked for years as an editor, but The Mirador was the first book she wrote. She was in poor health, René de Ceccatty writes in the book’s Afterword, “and the cancer that would eventually kill her was beginning to spread.” She had only a few years left to live. Elisabeth had no memory of her mother. She had complicated feelings about the choices her mother had made.
This is the part of the story that confounds: Irène Némirovsky, a highly intelligent woman with two dependent children and a devoted husband, seemingly made no particular effort to save herself. By the summer of 1942 she was resigned to her death. On July 11th, the day when she sat in the woods on the raft of her cardigan and wrote of Suite Française and bumblebees, she also wrote a letter to her editor: “My dear friend… think of me sometimes. I have done a lot of writing. I suppose they will be posthumous works, but it helps pass the time.” She knew by then that her arrest was only a matter of time. She had written her will the month before.
But before that final summer, there were any number of opportunities for escape. She came from enormous wealth, and could easily have emigrated. Friends begged her to join them in America. She could have slipped into Switzerland, or otherwise gone into hiding. Her initial reluctance to abandon France can be explained partly, I believe, by the fact that Némirovsky didn’t think of herself as a Jew. She had converted to Catholicism, along with her husband, and saw her family’s Judaism as a relic of the past. She was fully assimilated into French society. She published her work in far-right publications.
“When I was an adolescent,” Elisabeth Gille told an interviewer for the Italian publication Il Messaggero in 1992, “I was angry with her for her lack of political sense. It would have been easy for her to have saved herself, but she didn’t even try, and by staying she put my sister and me in danger. …She was criminally blind.”
But even after Némirovsky’s arrest, there was one more chance to live and she failed to take it. “Apparently,” Gille said in the same interview, “the officer who escorted her to police headquarters in 1942 even gave her a chance to escape. She said she wasn’t going into exile again. She was French, and that was that.”
This was a woman who had prepared her last will and testament, had written to her publisher in terms of posthumous works, and had prepared a detailed letter for her children’s governess outlining instructions for their care in the event of her death. It seems unlikely that she had any illusions as to the fate that awaited her.
Elisabeth Gille wrote The Mirador in part, perhaps, in an effort to understand. It’s an accomplished and beautifully written work. At times uneven, but nonetheless a remarkable portrait of a woman known to her youngest daughter only by the evidence she left behind — the publications, the journal notes — and by her older sister’s memories, and by photographs.
A challenge in writing The Mirador, Elisabeth Gille told the Il Messaggero interviewer, was that there was no documentation of her mother’s life from her birth in 1903 until 1930. Perhaps because of the freedom a lack of documentation allowed her, the sections describing Némirovsky’s childhood strike me as the most vivid and alive in the book. Her descriptions of a privileged Russian childhood, and of the landscapes the child moved through, are lovely and meticulously imagined. A carriage ride with her father—
We cut down narrow lanes that descended into ravines filled with pine trees and birches, penetrated by cool air and shadows in which I took refuge from the blinding glare of the sun. The horses slowed. We could hear a stream bubbling nearby. Twigs caught in my hair when I poked my head out of the opening in the hood.
Irène lives with her parents — a kind but mostly absent father, a monstrous beauty of a mother — and her adored French governess, Mademoiselle Rose, in an atmosphere of immense wealth. At ten she watches Anna Pavlova perform Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theatre. As a teenager the Revolution breaks out all around her and the family flees for the border. Her first kiss is in Finland. A perilous sea voyage brings her eventually to France, to her beloved Paris.
Where the book falters, it seems to me, is when Gille moves from the personal to the political, when she pulls the camera back from her mother’s life to engage in sometimes-lengthy explications of the political storms that surrounded her. Impossible, of course, to consider a life like Némirovsky’s outside of the context of politics, but I’m reminded of Némirovsky’s directives to herself for Suite Française. (“…The historical, revolutionary facts etc. must be only lightly touched upon, while daily life, the emotional life… must be described in detail.”) But for all that, The Mirador is a striking and fascinating work.
3. The Notebook
Némirovsky’s older daughter, Denise Epstein, had often seen her mother writing in the leatherbound notebook. Irène Némirovsky wrote in pencil, in a tiny script to save paper. When Denise’s parents were arrested and it became necessary to flee the village with her governess and her tiny sister Elisabeth, Denise took the notebook with her as a memento.
In the dangerous years that followed the girls were moved between boarding schools and cellars, seemingly never far ahead of the authorities. Through all of it, Denise carried the suitcase with her mother’s notebook with her, but even after the war neither Denise nor Elisabeth could bring themselves to read it. Finally, in the 1990s, they decided to entrust the notebook to L’Institut mémoires de l’édition contemporaine: an organization, Myriam Anissimov wrote in her preface to the French edition of Suite Française, “dedicated to documenting memories of the war, in order to preserve it.
Before giving it up, Denise decided to type it out. With the help of a large magnifying glass, she began the long, difficult task of deciphering the minuscule handwriting. Soon she discovered that these were not simply notes or a private diary, as she had thought, but a violent masterpiece…”
Denise sent the work to the French publisher Denoël, who published it in 2004. She felt, Anissimov writes, “tremendous sadness that her sister Elisabeth Gille, who died in 1996, had not been able to read it.”
For six days in the fall of 1996, I was an excellent tight end for the Warriors of William H. Hall High School in West Hartford, Connecticut. I ran the post route and the flag route and once in practice nearly caught a very long pass. I was only a second-stringer for the freshman team, but I had the underdog’s irrepressible optimism: here comes JV, Varsity, a scholarship to Ohio State, the NFL draft, the first celebration in the end zone at the Meadowlands while thousands upon thousands cheered.
It never quite panned out. There was an inauspicious 76 on a geometry test: I had been too busy studying quarterback signals to learn the defining characteristics of an isosceles triangle. This is a woeful mishap for the son of a mathematics teacher. The day before a game against either Windsor Locks or Enfield, I was pulled by my father from the team. Later, I participated in the far less demanding sport of volleyball, my infrequent spikes resounding in a gymnasium that had never known much glory.
That’s all just to say that I wanted very badly to fall in love with Friday Night Lights, the football drama that recently concluded a five-season run on NBC. I was primed for its cavalcade of disappointments, because I had known those disappointments myself.
In addition, both my wife and I came of age in that golden age of the artistic television drama. We are both in our thirties, and remember when TV was impossibly crude (Married…with Children), low-brow (Walker, Texas Ranger), and utterly untroubled by reality (Saved by the Bell).
With the advent of NYPD: Blue in 1993, that started to change. TV, all of a sudden, could be serious and real. You didn’t need Don Johnson anymore, and you didn’t need a laugh track. And with The Sopranos and later The Wire, even with Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm, TV could be something even greater than that. “Television had always been a pleasure, a mass entertainment…But in the aughts, the best TV-makers displayed the entitlement of the artist,” wrote Emily Nussbaum in a 2009 New York magazine article entitled “When TV Became Art.”
And we had arrived with it. Freshly minted graduates of liberal arts institutions, we were primed to treat the new TV drama like an object worthy of our Catholic, overripe intellects. We could do a Derridian reading of Breaking Bad. We could watch Mad Men with Foucault.
For many people, Friday Night Lights, which first appeared in 2006, represents the pinnacle of the new TV drama. It is less polished than Mad Men and less dour than The Wire, and somehow more relatable than both, as far as its numberless fans are concerned.
I am not one of those fans, despite having watched all five seasons. In fact, my distaste for Friday Night Lights only increased as the seasons went on, so that I was taken with launching lengthy diatribes at the television. I am fortunate to still be married.
Now, there is still plenty of bad television around, and I am content to render Dancing With the Stars unto those who want to watch it. But Friday Night Lights has somehow became a cause célèbre among the sort of crowd that would much rather spend its Sunday afternoons brunching in Brooklyn than watching a Houston Texans game. They have elevated the show to high art, with appreciations of resident hunk Tim Riggins in the same Paris Review where Norman Mailer once roamed and, on ever-so-sober NPR, “A Late-Blooming Love Letter to NBC’s ‘Friday Night Lights.‘”
“Heartbreakingly good,” says Entertainment Weekly; “an exquisite bit of anthropology,” opines the New York Times. Bullshit, I say to all of them. Friday Night Lights is bad television. And if it is art, then it is art that is purposefully misleading, which is art of the worst kind.
Forget the amateurish acting, which vacillates between maudlin enthusiasm and shrill discord. Forget, too, the recycled plotlines that always have the hometown fans of Dillon pinning their hopes on fourth and long. Something is truly rotten in the state of Texas.
It begins with the whole “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” mantra, which coach Eric Taylor, the show’s protagonist, delivers with all the growling gusto of Churchill before the Battle of Britain. Now, every sports team – and every sports show – is entitled to its inspirational bromides. But on Friday Night Lights, “clear eyes, full hearts” is elevated to a central tenet to which the characters subscribe as if it were religious truth.
There’s nothing wrong with optimism, not even with optimism that crosses over into delusion – that’s the kernel of nearly every Raymond Carver story. That unmoored optimism we reference when we call something “Ahabic” or “Quixotic.” But in a Carver story, the careful use of irony allows the reader to make an independent judgment of the characters. Each one of Carver’s down-and-outers thinks his break is right around the corner, even though the narrator subtly broadcasts to us that it isn’t. This is the situational irony that Aristotle found in Oedipus – the arrogant king is looking for the transgressor who has cursed Thebes, unaware that it is himself.
Mad Men has its Oedipus in Don Draper, an outwardly successful man living a life as transparent as tissue paper. Baltimore is the Oedipus of The Wire, a sick city that nobody is capable of healing. In watching Don sink deeper into alcoholism and drift farther from his family, in witnessing the failure of every institution in “Body More” except for the drug trade, we feel pity and fear – the two emotions that, for Aristotle, give great art its pathos. Three thousand years after he wrote the Poetics, all is as should be.
But Friday Night Lights has no Oedipus of its own, no fallen king – and it has no irony, either. Nobody here is ever in danger of ever really losing. Characters do not so much overcome their troubles as they are saved from them providentially – every pass in FNL is a Hail Mary caught by a diving, flailing wide receiver for a last-second, game-winning touchdown. As such, all that overcoming is superficial and rushed.
Tyra Collette, a rebel with no interest in her studies, suddenly becomes inspired and crams for the SAT. Presto, she’s into the University of Texas’s flagship Austin campus. Matt Saracen, a middling athlete if there ever was one (and I should know), becomes a Manning brother overnight and wins the state championship. His friend Landry Clarke walks onto the Varsity squad of a championship team, though he appears to have minimal knowledge of and enthusiasm for football. More troublingly, he kills his girlfriend’s assailant, but they get over the body-dumping in the span of a couple of episodes. Because what’s the law when love is on your side?
Then there’s queen bee Lyla Garrity, who leaves paralyzed quarterback Jason Street for the aforementioned Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins for Jesus and ends up having a dalliance with a youth leader at her megachurch. Then she comes back to Riggins. Then she leaves Riggins and goes to Vanderbilt.
I don’t dislike Lyla nearly as much as I dislike what Friday Night Lights creator Peter Berg and his writers did to her – or failed to do with her, rather. Is she tortured like Anna Karenina? Is she yearning for freedom like Emma Bovary? She can’t just smile through every scene in her cheerleading outfit. It can’t always be all-good, all the time. If it could be, I would have long ago moved to East Texas.
The Season 2 case of Santiago is especially infuriating. He is a young criminal with apparently boundless athletic potential, and Buddy Garrity takes him into his own home so that he can qualify to play for the Dillon Panthers. He does, but just as he starts to excel on the field, and just as his old criminal friends start to intrude on his new life, he is gone from the show without even the most peremptory explanation. This isn’t Stalinist Russia; you don’t just disappear a character like that.
And the treatment of race is just absurd. Is this not the same Texas where James Byrd was killed in 1998 by three white men who dragged him behind their truck until his head came off? Apparently not, since every social event is a Rainbow Coalition of well-dressed, happy families. There is no color line, no class divide, only the love of football.
This robs Friday Night Lights of any pathos and makes it instead an unwitting champion of the bathetic, which Alexander Pope called a work of art’s fall “from the sublime to the ridiculous.” You can be sure that if Oedipus were on Friday Night Lights, he would soothe the pain of his sin by joining the football team. His mother Jocasta would cheer from the stands, and he would wear a patch on his jersey with his dead father’s image.
I don’t care if art is realistic, but I want it to be true. This is what Aristotle demanded in the Poetics and it is what we should demand today, whether from our novelists or our television producers.
To be realistic, art has only to have fidelity to material reality, which is easy enough and not that important anyway. Beowulf and The Odyssey are not real, but that doesn’t diminish them in the slightest. It doesn’t diminish Harry Potter, either.
Truth is much harder. What Keats said about beauty and truth hasn’t changed in the 127 years since he wrote “Ode on a Grecian Urn” – the two are still one and the same.
This is where Friday Night Lights fails – there is nothing true about it. It ignores hard battles in favor of superficial ones. I know enough about the world, and you surely do as well, to know that Vince Howard’s mother could not turn, in the span of two episodes, from a drug addict to a spry middle-aged mother. It would be pretty to think so, as Hemingway once wrote, but all experiential evidence is against it. This kind of ease with fate may be uplifting in the space of forty-five minutes, but it makes for a hollow show. It’s not that I want Matt Saracen to fail; I just want him to struggle the way real people do, the way that Oedipus struggled against his fate. That will make his victory more meaningful in the end.
There is one great scene in Friday Night Lights. Julie Taylor, the coach’s daughter, does not want to return to college in the middle of Season 5 because she has had a disastrous affair with a teaching assistant. Her father is furious and insists that she go back to school and face the consequences of her romance, but when he tries to drag her out of the house, she resists in a paroxysm of tears. The scene is unexpected but inevitable, as Aristotle said great drama should be. It is real, it is true, and you don’t know where it’s heading. The show needed more of that – much, much more.
What bothered me most, though, was Tim Riggins’s hair. It is always unfairly perfect, a surfer’s locks falling over his face. It is perfect when he is playing football, it is perfect when he is drinking beer in the afternoon, it is perfect when he drops out of college, it is perfect when he goes to jail, and it is perfect when he schemes to buy an enormous plot of land without, seemingly, enough in his bank account to pay for a round of drinks.
My wife told me to stop screaming at the television, but I couldn’t. Nobody has hair that perfect. It isn’t real, it isn’t true, and it certainly isn’t art. You don’t need Aristotle to tell you that.
A few weeks back, Reuters reported on a new website called Daily Lit, which blasts short clips of classic literature to subscribers’ email addresses every day. Readers can take in Anna Karenina via Blackberry, in five-minute chunks disbursed over fourteen months. “Our audience includes people like us, who spend hours each day on e-mail but can’t find the time to read a book,” Albert Wenger, a founder of DailyLit, told the press.Now, far be it from me to denigrate any effort to make literature more accessible. I used to be a regular reader of the Samuel Pepys blog, and probably made more of a dent in the digital Diary than I would have in the hard copy. But Daily Lit seems to represent the unexamined costs of the information age’s promises of convenience. Is yet another daily email really the solution to too much email? What does it mean to click from Paris of Troy to Paris Hilton. (OMG, Achilles is sooo hot.) Does one find time, or does one make it?Already 50,000 people have enrolled in Daily Lit, which currently offers 370 titles from the public domain, free of charge. Soon the site will expand to charge for daily excerpts of newer work. No doubt certain texts – Lydia Davis stories, poems by Basho – might lend themselves to the DailyLit treatment, providing a short liberation from the drudgeries of the day. But big novels aren’t meant to be noshed on like an energy bar, wedged in between breakfast and dinner. At their best, they open up vistas of freedom beyond our daily habits and obligations. Opt for the bite-sized version if you like. But God forbid I come to look forward to Tolstoy with the same dread with which I approach my inbox.And so, book in hand, to bed.