“How could you publish this novel?” That’s what I heard after I chose to write about a girl falsely accusing a man of sexual assault during the #MeToo era. When The Liar was first published in Israel, a male journalist told me I should have delayed the publication. “You are hurting the struggle,” he said. It’s always nice to have a man telling me what a woman should or shouldn’t write about. But in the following weeks, I wondered: Am I a bad feminist?
I consider myself a feminist. Like most women, I have also experienced sexual harassment, which I never reported. One of the things that silenced me was the fear that people would say I’m making it up, as they often do in these cases. And yet, I wrote a story about a girl who’s “making it up.”
When my baby girl was born, I knew for sure that, one day, she’d experience some sort of sexual harassment, like so many women do. It was terrible: There she was, lying in her crib, and though I didn’t know yet what music she’s going to like, or what she will want to do when she grows up, I already knew that she is going to be harassed. One day or another, there will come a man who will say something, or grab something—simply because he can.
I hope she won’t feel ashamed, as I did when it happened to me. I pray she won’t blame herself as women in my generation so often do. I wish she won’t ask herself if it’s because of what she wore or something she said. I hope she’ll be able to talk to me about it. I never talked with my mom about it.
In the rain of thoughts, standing next to my baby girl’s crib, one thing was certain—somewhere along the way, this horror is likely to occur. I cannot protect her from this experience, which is written in the future of almost every woman.
But when #MeToo started, I began to hope that I was wrong. Is there a chance that my little girl won’t have to go through the sexual exploitation that my generation suffered? Is there a chance that my girl will be able go to high school, to summer jobs, to university without any creepy suggestions, or overtures made by bosses, professors, or other men in position of power? If #MeToo will manage to truly change the way women are treated, it will be a real revolution.
A few months after my daughter was born, I began writing a novel about a girl who gets caught in a story about a sexual assault that never happened. I decided to write it after a friend of mine, a public defense attorney, told me about an illegal migrant who was jailed because of what turned out to be a false accusation. My friend was so furious at the false accusation that she called the woman who filed the complaint “a psychopath, a monster.” But as I heard my friend calling the accuser names, I felt sorry for her. As a psychologist, I asked myself what can cause a woman to make up such a lie? It’s too easy to turn this woman into a monster. It’s much harder—and a whole lot more interesting—to try and understand her.
The work of literature—for both reader and author—is to dare and face the human condition, human complexity. Good people do bad things. False accusations of sexual assault are rare, but it doesn’t mean they never happen, or that we can’t talk about them. Sometime we write fiction not about the common case, but about the uncommon one.
And yet, it was very important for me to respect and represent the real statistics of sexual assault: Apart from the protagonist, all the other female characters in the novel have a back story of sexual harassment or assault, and this echoes my observations in reality.
As I wrote the novel, my biggest fear was that it would be read through a chauvinist perspective, one that automatically assumes that all female accusers are liars or attention seekers. After all, that’s one of the things that kept me silent about my own sexually harassment. And we all know that’s one of the favorite defenses of predators: she’s making it up.
Yet, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to censor a story just because of the fear that someone might twist it and use it for his own misogynistic purposes. Clearly, writing about a girl making up an assault doesn’t mean that most girls make up assaults. Male authors such as Nabokov and Dostoevsky can write about pedophiles in Lolita, or murders in Crime and Punishment, yet no one would say that these novels portray most men as murderers and pedophiles.
And so, there I was, taking care of my baby girl, writing a story about a girl who makes up a sexual assault. Because I won’t let those men who falsely accuse women of lying to limit the variety of stories that a woman can write. Telling a woman what a feminist is allowed to write about is in itself a sort of repression. A Jewish author can portray Jews as complex characters, some of them doing bad deeds, without fearing that anti-Semites might use this in their propaganda.
And this, too, is something that I wish for my daughter when she grows up: to be able to say and write whatever she feels like, so that no one, ever, shuts down her voice.
Image credit: Mario Azzi.
In her New York Times column “Match Book,” Nicole Lamy “connects readers with book suggestions based on their questions, their tastes, their literary needs and desires.” Some of those questions, tastes, literary needs and desires are stranger than others.
1.Dear Match Book,
like sympathetic protagonists who become slightly, but not too, unsympathetic
following some kind of loss, then gradually become sympathetic again while
coping with said loss. Close third-person narration preferred, with some epistolary
bits (email only) judiciously sprinkled in. No second person please! A strong
sense of place is a must, though that place need not be named as long as the
protagonist is—or vice versa.
advice would be to write this book yourself, and then check back in after it’s
published so l can recommend it to you.
2.Dear Match Book,
I love trilogies: Olivia Manning’s Fortunes of War, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour, and more recently, Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy. My problem is I can’t stand quartets! The very thought of four books in a series—or their readers—makes me physically ill. And yet I’ve heard great things about Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet. Help!
I am terribly sorry to hear about your tetralogical dysfunction, which is barring you off from experiencing the wonders of Ferrante’s Naples and Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria. Has your therapist already suggested breaking the foursomes into two twosomes? (You do have a therapist, right?)
Alternatively, you could try wetting your feet with books with “four” in the title (e.g., Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason’s bibliophile mystery The Rule of Four)? I don’t know. I’m grasping at straws here.
What about Ali Smith’s in-progress Seasonal Quartet? Why don’t you read Winter, Autumn, and the forthcoming Spring, and then pretend that Smith got tired of the project? Next, hole up in a cabin somewhere. After 10 to 15 years, emerge from seclusion, visit a bookstore, and thumb through a copy of Summer. If you don’t retch, you’re cured!
3.Dear Match Book,
Is this a booty call? If so, this is a first for me at Match Book. I am indeed up, but I’d prefer to keep this professional. I can, however, recommend some saucy books to get you through the night. Philip Roth’s Deception and Nicolson’s Baker’s Vox each are dazzling verbal displays that plumb the depths of desire.
4.Dear Match Book,
I earn $400 a day working from home! Want to learn more? But first, do you have any well-observed family dramas to recommend? I loved the latest Ann Tyler.
Domestic drama has been at the core of literature since Greek tragedy, so there is much to choose from. What about the Eca de Queiros’s 19th-century epic The Maias, which tells of forbidden love in a lively Lisbon? Or for something more contemporary, try Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered, her era-spanning chronicle of two New Jersey families.
could think of more, but I’m intrigued by your offer. $400 a day you say? Would
I still have to write this column?
5.Dear Match Book,
A veritable and unrepentant gourmand, I’ve devoured Valerie Luiselli, inhaled Karl Ove Knaussgard, delected Ben Lerner and glutted on Ottessa Moshfegh in the last month alone. I really don’t need a recommendation. I was just writing to communicate how well read I am.
6.Dear Match Book,
books is simply a matter of data analysis. For example, with the right
algorithm I could tell you which novel to read based on the kind of paper
towels you buy.
You’ll never replace me with a machine, Bezos!
Sorry about Queens. And the dick pics.
7.Dear Match Book,
I’m looking for the perfect bathroom read. It doesn’t necessarily have to be thematically related to defecation—though bonus points if it did—just gripping enough to get me through my morning ritual.
I believe the best time to ingest knowledge is when one is expelling waste. The urbane musings of Joseph Epstein are my favorite companion, but perhaps it’s easiest to tell you what’s in our bathroom here at The Times: Clives James’s Cultural Amnesia, his sharp, sardonic portraits of 20th-century intellectual and artistic figures; Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives, a toilet-friendly collection of mesmerizing biographical vignettes; and The Selected Poems of Kay Ryan, whose whimsical, technically proficient verse helps to move things along, so to speak.
There’s also The Penguin Book of Similes, but that’s in Dwight Garner’s personal stall.
8.Dear Match Book,
I’ve always looked forward to reading the latest from Michael Chabon, whom I believe to be our greatest living author. This is an impossible question, but if you could choose just one masterpiece from his incredible oeuvre, what would it be?
tell you each week, I am particularly attached to The Yiddish Policeman’s
9.Dear Match Book,
been hosting a book club on the Victorian novel for several years now. Reading Daniel
Deronda, Our Mutual Friend, and the Barchester novels has taught us
the indispensability of timeless literature and great friends.
problem is I can’t stand one member of the group—let’s call him Uriah. Can you
recommend a “loose baggy monster” that will get him to quit the club?
Part of what makes Victorian literature so compelling are its villains, from Alec d’Urberville to Becky Sharpe. Why don’t you try Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White? Embrace your inner Count Fosco to lie, scheme, and gaslight the son of a bitch until the mere sight of a triple-decker sends shivers down his spine.
10.Dear Match Book,
recently murdered someone during an unfortunate encounter. I’m coping just
about as well as could be expected and devoting myself to self-care, including
reading literature about the ethics of killing a (former) friend. Any tips?
N.B. The Times in no way condones murder. Having said that, reading is a great way to begin the healing process. I would start with Albert Camus’s haunting existentialist novel The Stranger. Another book to help you come to terms with your homicidal instincts is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. And finally, for a more recent novel to help you cope with brutally ending another life, try Oyinkan Brathwaite’s delightful satire My Sister, the Serial Killer.
you don’t like these, don’t shoot the recommender! Please, don’t shoot me. I
have a family and a lot of readers dependent on my help.
11.Dear Match Book,
was a world-renowned roller-coaster engineer, but he couldn’t control the
precipitous decline of our marriage….
Dear Thrown for a Loop,
Let me stop you right there. I believe this is a “Modern Love” submission that was sent to me in error.
Image credit: Unsplash/Josh Felise.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is getting the musical treatment, and though “it does not seem the most likely candidate to provide musical fun for all the family” for a long list of reasons – “heavy drinking, prostitution, a double axe murder and hours of psychological torment” – we’re already planning our trips to Moscow for the premier. This is also a good opportunity to revisit the debate over who’s greater, Dostoevsky or Tolstoy?
“To start with, look at all the books.”
This is how Jeffrey Eugenides opens his novel The Marriage Plot, and it may as well be the opening of my life. I am surrounded by piles and piles (and, seriously, piles) of books. In my office, my bedroom, the bathroom. My girlfriend’s always annoyed with the stacks that appear as if by magic on our living room coffee table. She counts them, and then says, “Fourteen books? Really?”
Well, I want to say, yeah. Really. Fourteen books. What do you want from me?
So in the interest of proving the worth of all of these piles, recently I’ve been writing essays about them. Some of them I’ve published. My essay “The Art of the Epigraph,” published a few weeks ago right here on The Millions, came out of my desperate ploy. Now, I’m turning my attention to opening sentences. Why? Well, first, because I have a prodigious and unembarrassed passion for opening sentences. But also: Look at all the goddamn books.
I tend to prefer opening sentences that get right to the point, so I’m just going to state right off the bat that this essay intends to analyze a handful of opening sentences from classic to recent novels and examine their effects. Opening sentences have long fascinated me, so much so that I’ve even made a point to memorize the beginnings of most of the books I read. This is what I do with my time. If possible, I love opening sentences even more than epigraphs. If I were ever a contestant on Jeopardy!, and “Opening Sentences” popped up in one of the blue boxes, I would destroy that category.
Like any reader, when I pick up a book, I open it and check out the first words. I’m not looking for anything specific. Actually, what I love about opening sentences is the complete lack of rules, how each writer gets to decide how best to guide a reader into their narrative. A writer, after all, is the instructor for the experience of their own work, and the opening sentence—after the book design, title, and epigraph—is among the reader’s first impressions. Opening sentences are not to be written lightly.
But how do they work? What’s makes a good one effective? Is there a better way to do it? Or is it a creative free-for-all?
As a teen, I became enamored of the 19th-century standard: that of the Grand Declaration, a way of establishing the high themes of the work. We know these openings by heart: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina; “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife,” from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and, of course, Dickens’s “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…” from A Tale of Two Cities. When I first came upon these novels, these declarations thrilled me, as they implied high-mindedness, a lofty ambition of subject, even if that subject was treated satirically, as in Austen’s case. The absolutist vibe they gave off made the work itself feel chiseled into rock, as if each word were crafted to unimpeachable perfection. As a fledgling novelist, I now see the malleability of fiction, its fluidity, how it is never as hard as stone, how, at most, it only appears that way. The Grand Declaration has, thankfully, mostly fallen out of fashion, though our reverence for these famous sentences persists. They’re great lines, to be sure, but readers know by now that a novel is a perfect place for moral, emotional, political, and spiritual investigation. We don’t need to be cued into the game so directly.
Later, writers offered increasingly subtle and idiosyncratic opening lines. Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself,” expressed a woman’s small claim of autonomy. Ken Kesey established the mood of paranoia of authority in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with, “They’re out there.” J.D. Salinger distinguished his novel’s famous protagonist from a particular famous protagonist of the past with the honesty of his voice and the statement contained in the opening:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Contained in each of the above sentences is something crucial to the novel it opens, all without stating it outright. Much can be accomplished in seemingly straightforward prose.
It would be easy to think of opening sentences as somehow representative of the rest of the book, as exemplifying some quintessence of the novel’s aims, but this isn’t—and shouldn’t—always be so. Take D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which opens with, “Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically,” and goes on to describe the state of life after WWI. The pronouns here—the first-person-plurals “our” and “we”—are not used in the rest of the book, which stays firmly in third person. The line immediately following this section is: “This was more or less Constance Chatterley’s position.” The switch from first- to third-person places us squarely into the mind and story of Lady Chatterley, and makes us, because of their aberrance, remember those lines as we read on. Does the “tragic age” remain tragic? Or, as Doris Lessing puts it, will “England…be saved through warm-hearted fucking”?
Jumping ahead a number of decades, let’s examine another work in which the opening line is far from representative of the style to follow. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections starts with curiously ill-fitting grandness: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Isolated, this is a wonderfully evocative opening, but once I read the rest of the book (which is utterly fantastic), I wondered about those first lines. They now seemed such a transparent attempt to elevate the book to classic status. On my second read, I came across this lit bit of dialogue from Chip, about his unsold and pretentious screenplay:
“My idea,” Chip said, “was to have this ‘hump’ that the moviegoer has to get over. Putting something offputting at the beginning, it’s a classic modernist strategy. There’s a lot of rich suspense toward the end.”
Is Franzen being meta here? Is he acknowledging the ill-fitting language of his opening when set against the “rich suspense” of the rest? It’s hard not to see Chip as the closest character resembling Franzen himself, who, before publishing The Corrections famously worried about the direction of the novel in his Harper’s essay “Why Bother?” He writes:
I resist, finally, the notion of literature as a noble higher calling, because elitism doesn’t sit well with my American nature, and because even if my belief in mystery didn’t incline me to distrust feelings of superiority, my belief in manners would make it difficult for me to explain to my brother, who is a fan of Michael Crichton, that the work I’m doing is simply better than Crichton’s.
Is The Corrections, which marked a significant shift in Franzen’s style, his way of leaving his past behind? Of declaring a new ambition for fiction? Maybe the following bit of dialogue captures how Franzen felt about his former fiction, and maybe about difficult social fiction in general: As Chip’s girlfriend (who couldn’t make it all the way through his script) leaves him, he tries to convince her of the opening’s value: “You see, though,” he says, “the entire story is prefigured in that monologue. Every single theme is there in capsule form—gender, power, identity, authenticity—and the thing is…Wait. Wait. Julia?” Though Chip’s argument is probably reasonably founded, no one really cares about prefiguring themes in capsule form. Readers aren’t necessarily looking for structural innovations or cerebral thematic overtures. More likely, they’re looking, as Franzen himself wrote, “for a way out of loneliness.”
I do not mean to suggest that great, classic novels can’t begin simply and straightforwardly, in a style that is illustrative of the novel it opens. In fact, it’s the more common practice. But that fact does not diminish the power or the greatness of any work. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, for instance, gets right into the story, like the thriller it is: “Early one evening, during an exceptional heat wave in the beginning of July, a young man walked out into the street from the closet-like room he rented on Stoliarny Place.” From there, we are thrust into the mind of Raskolnikov and his murderous, immoral descent. Any other kind of opening would have been unnecessary.
A novelist teaches the reader how to read the novel, and along the way they express innumerable opinions about their view of literature in relation to this one work. Dostoyevsky didn’t believe that Crime and Punishment needed a conspicuous opening. (It needed a quotidian introduction with hints of aberrance. The “exceptional heat wave” (implying tension, heat, murkiness, anger) pops out of the routine, and so although Raskolnikov attempts to act naturally and arouse no suspicion, the reader knows—subtly, maybe inexpressibly—that something is amiss. (Regular life, this isn’t.) But Dostoyevsky did think his incredible short novel Notes from Underground ought to start ostentatiously: “I am a sick man…I am a spiteful man.” You do not get any grander than that.
In other words, a portion of our measurement of an opening line’s efficacy must be contextual. How does it set up what follows? From what perspective is it written? Where does it take us? And yet, it must also be judged completely on its own, for if a novel starts slowly, unpromisingly, no one will want to continue. Inserting something “offputting” at the beginning, despite what Chip thinks, is generally a really stupid idea.
Two of the best novels of last year open with sentences that are simple, straightforward and representative of the whole, and they both get right to the point. Meg Wolitzer’s beautiful and funny novel The Interestings begins like this: “On a warm night in early July of that long-evaporated year, the Interestings gathered for the very first time.” Simple, direct, yet enticing—suggestive of a history about to unfold. See, this is an opening aimed at both establishing the focus and the narrative. The Interestings are nothing more than a group of artists who meet at a summer camp in 1974 when they’re fifteen and sixteen years old. They named themselves The Interestings. Still, with this sentence Wolitzer imbues a sense of grandeur—a kind of historical importance—to the story of these friends as they age, as they wax and wane in their careers, and as they struggle to stay together. They all grow up, eventually, but when they first met, when they were teens, they believed they were important, destined for fame, fortune, critical respect—and the opening sentence reflects that.
Eleanor Catton’s whopper of a masterpiece, the Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries, is set in nineteenth-century New Zealand, and its language harkens back to those big Victorian novels. It is undoubtedly a tale—no other word for it—with rousing adventure and ridiculously complex intrigue and mystery. It also features an enormous cast and a narrative that moves through all of their points of view. How does one begin such a novel? How does a writer set the style, hint at its high population, and yet still retain the enigmatic air of a tale? Here’s how Catton answers those questions: “The twelve men congregated in the smoking room of the Crown Hotel gave the impression of a party accidentally met.” Pretty perfect, right? In this short, direct sentence, you’ve got the large cast (twelve men), the period and atmosphere (smoking room), and the air of mystery: why have these men met? Do they know each other? Who are they? But Catton does one better with the next sentence:
From the variety of their comportment and dress—frock coats, tailcoats, Norfolk jackets with buttons of horn, yellow moleskin, cambric, and twill—they might have been twelve strangers on a railway car, each bound for a separate quarter of a city that possessed fog and tides enough to divide them; indeed, the studied isolation of each man as he pored over his paper, or leaned forward to tap his ashes into the grate, or placed the splay of his hand upon the baize to take his shot at billiards, conspired to form the very type of bodily silence that occurs, late in the evening, on a public railway—deadened here not by the slur and clunk of the coaches, but by the fat clatter of the rain.
Come on! How masterful is that stretch of writing? How evocative, how eloquent, how, how…inviting. As soon as I read those words, I knew I would read all 834 pages of The Luminaries, and quickly. And I did: I blazed through it at (at least) a hundred-and-fifty-page-a-day pace. Everything in the novel is, like Chip’s screenplay, “prefigured” in that opening. Except here, Catton’s work is so sly, so skillfully wrought you’d have to read the whole thing to even begin to understand how expertly Catton guided you as a reader.
Catton, by the way, is twenty-eight years old.
Both Wolitzer’s and Catton’s openings skirt grandness and express no overarching theme directly. They are elegant and direct, but that doesn’t mean they are only accomplishing one thing. Often the most artful way to communicate something is when it is couched within ostensible artlessness.
Then, of course, there are the allusive openings, the ones that, to use a crass verb, borrow from the work of their forebears. Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle references what is perhaps the most famous opening line ever, “Call me Ishmael,” from Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville’s line, more than simply being famous, is also one of the most complex (and economic, at three words). First, this narrator is talking to us, and in a friendly, almost conspiratorial way. Second, someone asking you to call them something usually means it’s not their real name, so “Ishmael” appears a tad suspicious. Third, the reference to the Biblical Ishmael (son of Abraham, half-brother of Isaac, ancestor of the Arab peoples) hints at our narrator’s exiled status.
Vonnegut plays a great joke on Melville’s line in Cat’s Cradle: “Call me Jonah. My parents did. Or nearly did. They called me John.” Again, the same direct, conversational tone toward the reader; again, the discrepancy between given name and chosen name (except here, we’re given his real name); and again, the Biblical reference. And that’s the great joke: the Book of Jonah tells the story of a man who is—you guessed it—swallowed by a whale. Vonnegut’s Jonah, through his adventures on the mysterious island of San Lorenzo, gets swallowed by much bigger whales—religion and politics.
Zadie Smith’s allusive opening of On Beauty isn’t nearly as cheeky as Vonnegut’s (after all, how many people in the world are as cheeky as Vonnegut?). Her novel begins: “One may as well begin with Jerome’s e-mails to his father,” and proceeds to do just that. This is an update of the opening of E.M. Forster’s Howards End, which goes: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letters to her sisters.” Smith’s is a respectful nod, a deferential ode to a writer “to whom,” she writes, “all my fiction is indebted.” But Smith goes one further: her protagonist is named after Forster’s titular house, and, considering what happens to Howard in On Beauty, Smith’s novel may have borrowed Forster’s title as well, with one addition: an apostrophe between the d and s in Howards. (Instead, Smith borrowed her title from Elaine Scarry’s essay “On Beauty and Being Just.”)
Allusions are risky, as they can fall flat very easily. I’ve seen numerous stories that, for example, open with something similar to Kafka’s famous, “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect,” from The Metamorphosis. Most of these referential lines are just plain bad. Recently, Haruki Murakami showed that a writer could tackle Kafka’s famous sentence with wit and originally. His story “Samsa in Love” from The New Yorker takes this approach: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.” Now that’s interesting. In Kafka’s time, the idea of changing into a bug was novel, terrifying, and confounding. We’re used to such a premise by this point. Now, our great terror would be becoming a Kafka character.
But, you know, that’s Murakami. Most writers aren’t as imaginative.
And last but not least are those openings that provoke, that immediately stun a reader with brutal frankness. Philip Roth’s Sabbath Theater is a dark, twisted novel, full of sexual explicitness and moral ambiguity, and Roth wastes no time letting a reader know this: “Either forswear fucking others or the affair is over.” This ultimatum comes from Mickey Sabbath’s mistress, and it aptly captures the strange, strict limitations sex and love can force upon us, even when they are “maddeningly improbable.” Roth really does his reader a favor—if you’re not comfortable with this level of candidness, this isn’t the novel for you. Because, oh yeah, it only goes down (or up, depending on your view) from there.
Toni Morrison’s Paradise famously provides immediate and heartbreaking shock: “They shot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” The massacre at the Convent sets up the complex and tragic tale of Ruby, Oklahoma, an all-black community. We never learn who the “white girl” is; she joins the list of millions—billions, even—of the anonymous dead. Morrison, no stranger to frankness, is particularly good at opening her books. A Mercy: “Don’t be afraid.” Song of Solomon: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” And, of course, Beloved: “124 was spiteful.” Morrison’s prose style is one-of-a-kind, and her ambition—to, in part, “work credibly and, perhaps, elegantly with a discredited vocabulary”—has more than been met, surpassed, even stunned into submission. These opening lines are her first punches.
I probably fetishize opening lines because, well, I’m a reader and a writer. As a reader, a really wonderful opening line makes me giddy with excitement. I nestle myself as deeply into my couch as I can go, and I accept the deal the novel has offered me. Yes, I will read the rest of you. You’ve earned it. As a writer, the opening line is the purest, most unadulterated part of a work. Before it, the blank page. After it, the whole of a story, a novel, a book. It is the division between nothing and something, the bridge between emptiness and fullness, between something in your head and something on the page. The opening sentence is the first utterance of life, the initial gasp of air that birth forces out.
Perhaps this would be better expressed through what is perhaps my favorite opening line from a recent novel. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin revolves around Philippe Petit’s incredible guerilla tight-rope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, and this is how it starts: “Those who saw him hushed.” The image of Philippe Petit does not need to be described here, though a beautiful image it undoubtedly is. McCann wisely focuses our attention to the people on the pavement. Their hush is full of more beauty than any description ever could be. This accurately captures how I feel about a great opening—hell, about great literature in general: it’s amazing and unbelievable, and although there is so much you can say about it, sometimes all I can do is shut up and witness.
Image credit: Pexels/Plush Design Studio.
Sex ed for teenagers is a famously knotty subject, which explains why Pavel Astakhov, Russia’s children’s ombudsman, wants to eschew sex ed classes in favor of literature courses. “It is unacceptable to allow things that could corrupt children,” he said in a television interview. “The best sex education that exists is Russian literature.” (No word yet on what he thinks of Crime and Punishment.) (h/t The Paris Review)
For the past month my almost-three-year-old son and I have shared a joke. In idle moments, sitting around the table or on the playroom floor, we’ll make eye contact and start to grin. Then one or the other of us will whisper quietly, “Stinking Lizaveta,” and we’ll laugh and say it again and again in happy singsong voices.
Stinking Lizaveta, if you don’t know, is a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. She is a short girl with a “completely idiotic” look fixed to her face and hair that “was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.” She’s not a wholesome character, and one very unwholesome thing happens to her, which makes it all the funnier to me that my son should take such joy in pronouncing her name. (Which really is a pleasure to say out loud. Try it. “Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”).
A couple nights ago I finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was riveted by long sections of the book but in the end I concluded that my taste in fiction leans more towards Tolstoy. In the last few years I’ve read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment; overall, Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life was more revelatory to me than Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.
There were places in The Brothers Karamazov that left me enthralled. Last month I wrote on The Millions about how the famed “Grand Inquisitor” chapter made me consider the similarities between the power I hold over my kids and the power religion holds over the faithful. Overall, though, the novel’s provocations about religion never fully grabbed me. I admired the fever with which Ivan Karamazov tries to convince his brother Alyosha that God does not exist (“It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket”), but for whatever unaccountable reasons, Ivan’s preoccupations landed like a relic in my own life.
Dmitri Karamazov did grab me, though. If you were to evaluate him just on his actions, he’s a fool, of course. He’s passionate and volatile and often acts immorally: He makes a craven offer to a desperate woman; He steals; He publically abuses a weak man, dragging him around the square by his beard. But Dmitri has integrity despite his licentiousness. At the turning point in the novel, he flies to his beloved and unattainable Grushenka and initiates an evening of unbridled revelry. When the party comes to a crashing stop he declares:
You see, gentlemen, you seem to be taking me for quite a different man from what I am. It is a noble man you are speaking with, a most noble person; above all — do not lose sight of this — a man who has done a world of mean things, but who always was and remained a most noble person.
I believed Dmitri’s claims that he is a noble person. I sympathized with the plight he’d gotten himself into and saw in his tragic position a reflection of the tragic position in which we all find ourselves from time to time: driven by emotion to places our rational selves would rather not go. And maybe I agree, too, with Dostoevsky, who might say that we lose something essential if we go too far in subjugating passion to reason or to social authority (like religion or bureaucracy).
There were other pleasures in The Brothers Karamazov. The courtroom drama at the end of the novel is so much better than anything Law and Order or John Grisham have ever produced that it demeans Dostoevsky to even mention them by comparison. In particular, the defense attorney’s closing argument is remarkable for its command of human psychology, as the hired gun from St. Petersburg shows that all the supposedly incriminating circumstances of the case can be understood differently if only you’re inclined to think that way.
(The closing argument also introduces an epistemological standard that I think I’m going to lean on more often and which might lead to a run on The Brothers Karamazov among global warming denialists. The defense attorney warns the jury to be skeptical in situations like the case at hand where, “the overwhelming totality of the facts is against the defendant, and at the same time there is not one fact that will stand up to criticism.”)
I’d be omitting one of the most rewarding parts of having read The Brothers Karamazov if I didn’t mention that it facilitated my introduction to a remarkable writer named Chris Huntington. Chris sent me an email after my first Brothers Karamazov essay was published in January. Since then we’ve exchanged several rounds of highly enjoyable correspondence about literature and raising kids and his life as a teacher in China. He shared an essay he’d written recently for The Rumpus on The Brothers Karamazov called “The Last Book I Loved” that left me breathless (as well as a funny cartoon of Lisa Simpson clutching a copy of the book). I would have linked to Chris’ essay much earlier in this post, but for the fact that after reading his there’s not much reason to return to reading mine.
In total, The Brothers Karamazov was not the profound reading experience that I’d hoped for when I started the book, but that’s probably too high a standard with which to begin any relationship. That said, I don’t consider the entire history of my involvement with The Brothers Karamazov to have been written. For, as the peerless defense attorney from St. Petersburg might note, there is one last thread that hasn’t been sewn up.
The six weeks I spent reading The Brothers Karamazov happened to coincide almost exactly with the time in his life when my son became aware of letters. He’s known how to sing the alphabet for a long time, but he’s only recently started to understand that letters are discrete things that populate his world in important ways. Now that he looks for them he finds them everywhere: Two “C”s on our license plate; a “J” on a cereal box; an “I” (“or maybe it’s an ‘F,’” he said to me this morning) on a Valentine that hangs on our fridge.
My son has a long way to go until he’s reading The Brothers Karamazov, but hopefully not so long that he forgets about Stinking Lizaveta before he gets there. I hope I’ll be near at hand, or only a phone call away, when he discovers that the funny name we used to whisper to each other is actually a very sad character in a great novel, and that the line between life and art is arbitrary, if it exists at all.
Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays famously opens with the question, “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”
I’m one of the people who asks. Samuel Coleridge might have called the search for Iago “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity,” but I lack the capacity to accept that certain truths are just inscrutable. I reason that because fictional characters are born in the mind of the author, their actions must necessarily stem from something resembling Kantian categorical imperatives. Within the confines of their own logic, their actions make perfect sense. There is internal consistency and cause and effect. The system is governed by rules; the game is to discern exactly what those rules are.
It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you.
1. As An Aside
Having searched for Iago predominantly throughout other works of fiction, I think it is worth pointing out that I’m aware of the tenuous merit of this project. It’s considered fairly dubious practice to explain the motivations of real people via fictional characters. But what about explaining the motivations of fictional characters via other fictional characters? Let alone fictional characters created long after the fictional characters in question? Won’t that turn into something of an analytical Ponzi scheme?
It may also be worth noting that real world psychology, if not always an exact science, is farther along than any such fictional goose chase. Iago might simply be found in the entry under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV for demonstrating “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Real world sociopaths have been described in detail in nonfiction, from Charles Manson in Helter Skelter to Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood. Dick Hickock has “one of those smiles that really work,” an IQ of 130 and the sort of toughness that “existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand.” Dick even looks exactly how Iago should look: “his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful …”
But I’m not interested in diagnosing Iago, per se. I’m not trying to discern what he looks like, or what his childhood practices might have been. I am searching for the emotional truth of his nature, which (as Tim O’Brien famously opined) may be better found in another fictional story than in facts.
2. Excerpts From A Guide To Literary Sociopaths
The sort of villains in popular fiction that enjoy the same level of celebrity as Iago include the likes of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The common thread through many a literary sociopath is, as you may have noticed, that they have extremely evil-sounding names. Sociopaths in fiction are often intended to either appeal to readers’ fantasies that good and bad could be so easy to identify in real life, or are so absurdly riddled with diabolical clichés that they are parodies of themselves (like the pantheon of villains in Pynchon’s and Heller’s comic masterpieces, or Jasper Fforde’s Acheron Hades, who explains in his memoir, “Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit,” that the “best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts – and let’s face it, I am considered something of an expert in the field – is purely for their own sake.”)
But there is something far more understated, and sinister, about Iago as a villain. Like Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal, Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers, or perhaps even Brontë’s Heathcliff, the real evil that Iago inflicts is upon the people to whom he is closest. He is the godfather of villains who rot from the inside out.
Destroying those to whom one is closest reeks of a certain sort of motivelessness. Kevin Frazier, in his excellent essay on A.C. Bradley here at The Millions, points to the following discussion of Iago from Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog … So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
What strikes me most about this passage is that the examples chosen for being akin to Iago’s cruelty suggest that Iagoesque cruelty is almost commonplace. Horrifying though it is, there is nothing particularly rare or exotic about a man bullying a wife or child, or about thwarted superiority craving satisfaction. The implication is that it might not be such a mystery why Iago’s victims line up so willingly to be abused. Likewise, there might be nothing so superhuman about Iago’s power to abuse them. From Katherine Dunn’s sublime novel Geek Love, the following description of Arturo Binewski, the book’s megalomaniacal villain, struck me as pure, undifferentiated Iago: “He seems to have no sympathy for anyone, but total empathy.”
Empathy is a curious source of power. Relatively speaking, it is unglamorous in the extreme – it is of the sort best suited to Dostoevsky’s contention in Crime and Punishment that “Power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up.” Far more than any sheer irresistibility, the ingratiating, servile role Iago must steadfastly play for both Desdemona and Othello is the key to his seductiveness. Othello the Venetian general might be a natural leader, but Iago cannot be puppet master without being puppet himself. He succeeds as long as he does solely because the near-sightedness of his victims prevent them from asking – not “why would he lie?” but – “why doesn’t he have any life of his own?”
3. How I Picture Iago When He Is Off-Stage
In Geek Love, while attempting to gain total control over his family, Arturo Binewski starts bugging the room of his sisters Iphy and Elly. Reports his documentarian Norval:
I find this depressing. The idea of Arty sitting and listening to hour after hour of footsteps, pages turning, toilet flushing, comb running through hair. Elly’s conversation has been reduced to the syllable mmmmmm and Iphy is not in the mood for song. Her piano is covered with dust … and Arty is listening to her file her nails.
4. A Comic Detour
That villainy can be pathetic is a well-explored contradiction in fiction. Brett Easton Ellis’ oddly beloved misanthrope and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his ilk suffer from the incurable disadvantage of being impossible to take seriously. Their particular breed of literary sociopath consists, perhaps naturally, of comic characters, because there is something so pathetic about hating absolutely everyone. Grandiose ambitions aside, these characters are as paralyzed by issues as Phillip Roth’s Portnoy, and just about as menacing. In Sartre’s darkly funny “Erostratus,” the narrator sends out over a hundred letters announcing the following:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and killing half a dozen of them; perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver only has six cartridges. A monstrosity, isn’t it? And moreover, an act strictly impolitic?
Now, there is a relationship between the extent to which someone declares themselves to be a particular thing, and the extent to which he or she actually is that thing – and that relationship is plainly inverse. The comic sociopaths are so desperate to be taken seriously that they can never be taken seriously, and so fumbling and impotent in their attempts that you know they will only get themselves into trouble.
Returning now to Othello and the genre of tragedy, if you subtract the comedic element from being pathetic, who are you left with?
5. The Regular Joe
I suppose I always knew I’d arrive here at the end.
Dunn gets here first, of course. In one of Geek Love’s final notes on Arturo, his documentarian writes:
General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions in this spectrum at one time or another … however, I come to see him as just a regular Joe – jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge.
What Dunn so evocatively indicates is that the trick to the complexity of characters such as Arturo is that there is no complexity. The documentarian’s final notes on him ring of disgust upon making this discovery – self-disgust, and perhaps even a little disgust for his subject.
Likewise, we build a labyrinth of motive and mythology around Iago because for all of his manipulation and the epic destruction it causes, we believe – or hope – he must be a monster. We are wont to compare him to the vilest of both real world and fictional sociopaths. We resist stripping away at him, knowing we will be sorely disappointed by what we find underneath.
The Russian language is the real hero of Tolstoy’s masterpiece; it is his voice of truth. The English-speaking world is indebted to these two magnificent translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, for revealing more of its hidden riches than any who have tried to translate the book before. — Orlando Figes
After reading their 2007 translation of War and Peace, Orlando Figes, the eminent Russian historian, did not mince words about Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. And so, neither will I: When I found out that I had the opportunity to interview the translators, I was giddy as a girlish Beatles fan circa 1964.
As the bestselling and award-winning translators of sixteen great works of Russian literature, Pevear and Volokhonsky are something of a rock star duo in the literary world. The fluency of their translations, grounded in a nuanced understanding of the time and place that the source texts were written, have given cause for many of us to fall more deeply in love with The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Notes from Underground, The Master and Margarita, Dead Souls, and the fiction of Anton Chekhov, among many others. The pair have been working together since 1986; Pevear has also published individual translations from French and Italian. As a duo, they were twice awarded the PEN Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize. Their 2004 translation of Anna Karenina was an Oprah’s Book Club pick.
The couple, who are married and live in Paris, added a new title to their oeuvre just last month: The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. The collection includes eleven glittering and strange tales, among them “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Master and Man,” “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” and the novella Hadji Murat, which was Tolstoy’s final work. While Pevear and Volokhonsky have previously translated the short fiction of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, and Nikolai Gogol, this is their first turn at the stories of Tolstoy. The ones they’ve chosen are largely from Tolstoy’s later years; together, the stories wrestle with questions of war, honor, death, sex, obsession, resentment, redemption, crime, and innocence. Seven of the stories collected were never published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.
So how do they do it? Pevear and Volokhonsky are candid about their tag-team approach to translation. Volokhonsky, a native speaker of Russian, pores over the original text first and creates a transliterated draft marked with her comments about the author’s literary style. Pevear, who does not read Russian, works from that draft to polish the English text, discussing pressing questions that emerge along the way with Volokhonsky. Should any disagreements emerge, Pevear makes the call. As Volokhonsky recently told Jeffrey Tractenberg in the Wall Street Journal:
Richard is a native speaker of English. I’m a native speaker of Russian. My task is to explain to Richard what is happening in the Russian text. Then it is up to him to do what he can. The final word is always his. I can say this is not quite what the Russian says. Either he finds something that satisfies me or he says no, this is how we’re going to do it. We discuss endlessly and sometimes it becomes a nuisance because we return to it again and again even after the manuscript goes off. But we really don’t quarrel. It would be much more interesting if we did.
Pevear and Volokhonsky do agree, however, to refrain from using contemporary expressions in their translations, choosing to remain faithful to the style of the novel’s time. Their current project? A translation of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.
In kind with their team approach, Pevear and Volokhonsky approached this email interview for The Millions as a pair.
The Millions: Your newest translation together is The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories. Why did you choose to do this particular book?
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky: Quite simply because these later stories are among Tolstoy’s greatest works. In fact, the short novel Hadji Murat is perhaps the finest thing he wrote, and he seems to have known it. After all his storming against the notion of beauty, he could not help himself, being a born artist, and “in secret from himself” (as he put it) wrote his most perfectly beautiful work – “beautiful” in the way that The Iliad is beautiful. “Master and Man” is also a perfect work of a very different sort, vividly told and deeply moving. But even the opening story of the collection, “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” which he wrote for a children’s reading book in the simplest style possible, is gripping and unforgettable. How could we not want to translate them?
TM: Having also translated War and Peace and Anna Karenina, what have you found to be unique about how Leo Tolstoy worked in short fiction, compared to his novels?
RP and LV: Tolstoy’s two big novels, like almost all of his work before 1880, portrayed people of his own class, the landed aristocracy, and their social milieu. Most often his heroes were self-conscious men, seekers of the meaning of life – in other words, self-portraits to one degree or another. In his later stories, there is much more variety: one hero is a narrow-minded bureaucrat, another is a well-to-do peasant, still another is a sort of holy fool, and finally there is the Chechen chief Hadji Murat. “The Forged Coupon” portrays people from all levels of Russian society, from the tsar to the lowest criminal. And there is a corresponding variety of “worlds.” That’s one thing. Another is the effort Tolstoy made to rid his art of what he considered the “superfluous detail” of the novels. His compositions became tighter, more formal, without losing any of the sensual immediacy that was the essence of his art.
TM: What are the greatest misconceptions about Tolstoy?
RP and LV: The greatest misconception might come from believing what Tolstoy said about his artistic work after his “conversion to true Christianity,” as he called it; that is, from believing what he preached in the series of tracts and polemical works he wrote after 1880. He was never able to practice what he preached. He remained a deeply divided and contradictory man all his life. And that nourished his artistic work. We took a phrase from W. B. Yeats as the epigraph for our introduction to Anna Karenina: “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry.” That is even more true of Tolstoy in his later works, because his inner quarrel was more intense. “The Kreutzer Sonata” was meant to teach a lesson about the evils of modern marriage, but it does something quite different and humanly much more complex. Another misconception is that Tolstoy only wrote those two huge, unreadable novels.
TM: Together, you’ve worked your way through some of the greatest fiction ever written. What are the unique pressures you have as translators of fiction that is both beloved and so highly regarded?
RP and LV: The pressure comes more from the quality of the writing itself. There are two questions that it might seem quite proper for a translator to keep in mind, but that in fact will spoil the translation. The first is, “What will the reader think?” And the second is, “How do we say that in English?” A good writer does what he or she has to do in the writing so that it “goes right,” as Robert Frost put it. There is at least as much intuition as intention in the process. A good translator has to follow that process far more consciously than the writer and yet come as close as possible in the new language to the instinctive “rightness” of the original. The greater the writer, the closer you want to come. That is both the challenge and the joy of it. But exactly what that “rightness” is remains undefinable, which is why there is no such thing as a definitive translation.
TM: Only about three percent of books published in the U. S. are in translation; the rate is even lower for translated fiction. What do you make of these numbers?
RP and LV: There are a number of things that might be made of them. The percentages are much higher in Europe, of course – 12% in Germany, 15% in France, 24% in Spain. We might say that that’s because Europe is small, a sort of family of countries, despite all past wars and present rivalries. And so translation comes naturally, like overhearing a conversation in the next room. But the analogy doesn’t quite work, because Europeans also translate a great deal of American writing and writing from all over the world. And Russia, which is a rather large country, has always given great importance to literary translation and has produced many superb translators. Is it American insularity, then? A lack of curiosity about what happens elsewhere? But what about the statistics for Great Britain? Surprisingly, they are about the same as for the U. S. Which suggests a linguistic insularity specific to English itself: if you speak the language of the hegemony, why notice the babble going on around you? It might also be a question of the market and marketing. Americans read an enormous amount of junk, which is dutifully supplied to them by publishers – unless it is actually the publishers who create the taste for junk. In either case, publishers are not likely to pay for the rights to translate junk and turn over a good percentage of the book’s earnings to the original publisher. They tend to pick up the small number of books that win the major European prizes, hoping that the momentary notoriety will create a market among more discerning readers with a minimum of advertising. But, on the positive side, we do have publishers who have consistently gone against the market statistics and made a point of publishing translations: Dalkey Archive Press, for instance, and first of all New Directions. Among major publishers, Knopf, Vintage, and Everyman’s Library, who publish most of our translations, are the exception that proves the rule.
TM: Your translations have achieved immense acclaim and success. Particularly in context of the low numbers of translations in the U. S., as well as the many other versions available of some of the books you work on, what is it about your translations that resonates with readers?
RP and LV: We’re the last people who can answer that question.
TM: Russian or otherwise, who are the writers you’d most love to see translated into English? What books are U. S. publishers and readers lacking?
RP and LV: There are three fine Italian writers of the twentieth century who should be translated into English: Alberto Savinio, Cristina Campo, and Guido Ceronetti. A very few of Savinio’s many books have been translated and gone out of print. One book by Ceronetti (who is still living) was published by Farrar, Straus in 1993. No English translations of Campo have been published as far as we know. Then there is the French poet Jacques Darras, who is incidentally a major translator from English. Some of his more scholarly books have been translated, but not his remarkable poetry and artistic prose. And there is the fine essayist and “culturologist” Sergei Averintsev, one of the most important Russian thinkers of recent times, a brilliant and witty writer. A few of his essays have been translated into English, but nothing like the substantial collections available in Italian, German, and French (the French publisher Cerf has recently commissioned a translation of Averintsev’s complete works).
TM: What books have you decided not to translate, and why?
RP and LV: We have decided not to translate Turgenev, because not everyone can be Mrs. [Constance] Garnett.
TM: Does contemporary literature lack the deep engagement the Russians had with the mysteries of life, like the existence of God and the meaning of death? If so, why do you think this is and what is lost?
RP and LV: These questions are very difficult to talk about or even to formulate correctly. They lead to glittering generalities that are almost certain to be wrong. But we might say tentatively that the qualities we find in nineteenth century Russian literature came in part from the late maturing of Russian culture, which reached its “golden age” not in the time of Shakespeare or Molière or Cervantes, but in the age of Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. These writers belonged fully to the nineteenth century, with all its social and spiritual conflicts, but at the same time they were creating the language and the forms of their literature, and posing these “accursed questions,” as Dostoevsky called them, for the first time. There is a primary energy in their work. As for what may have been lost, writers themselves have little choice about these things; they are determined by forces much larger than the individual will. Besides, what is lost here is found there.
TM: What is the social resonance of Tolstoy’s ideas today? Why do we keep turning back to him?
RP and LV: There are people all over the world who are still taken with Tolstoy’s social ideas – that is, with “Tolstoyism,” as he and his followers defined it: the radical simplification of life, egalitarianism, non-violent opposition to the state, pacifism, vegetarianism, post-marital chastity. But that’s probably not what you mean by “Tolstoy’s ideas.” We turn back to him, we keep reading him, because in his artistic work he deals with universal conditions and almost never with topical issues, and because he has such an extraordinary gift for concrete realization.
TM: Judging by your output, you both seem to work so much and so efficiently. Do you have time to read for pure enjoyment? If so, what have you read recently that you have loved?
RP and LV: Dorothy Sayers’ mystery novels, Don Quixote in Liubimov’s Russian translation, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, the essays of Eliot Weinberger (Oranges and Peanuts for Sale and An Elemental Thing), the journals of Kornei Chukovsky, Guido Ceronetti’s La Pazienza dell’arrostito (The Patience of the Roasted), Martin Chuzzlewit…
Once you have seen the astonishingly evocative portraits of the neo-Modernist painter Carl Köhler (1919-2006), you will wonder how he died relatively unknown outside of his native Sweden. Such are the vagaries of the art world: Andy Warhol’s rather uninteresting 200 One Dollar Bills sells for over 40 million dollars, while the remarkable author portraits of Carl Köhler go all but unnoticed.
But this, perhaps, is changing. Thanks to the efforts of his son, Henry, Köhler’s work has made its way outside of Sweden for the first time. If you live in New York, you might have seen “Beyond the Words: The Author Portraits of Carl Köhler” at the Brooklyn Central Library this past winter and spring, or the write-up in The New York Times’ blog Paper Cuts. The show was also briefly at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, in Washington, D.C., in July and August. Now, this exhibit is on its way to Canada: Its next stop is the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto (January-March 2010). After that, the show’s on to the University of British Columbia’s Irving K. Barber Learning Centre in Vancouver (April-June/July 2010). With any luck, these shows will not be the last.
While Köhler’s figure drawings from his time in Paris in the 1950’s are remarkable, as are his abstract figural paintings, it is what he called his “authorportraits,” his paintings of European and American writers, intellectuals, and popular artists that I am most taken with—as much for their content as for their formal diversity. These portraits comprise an astonishing variety of media and styles, a variety that reflects the variety of Köhler’s subjects, who included James Joyce, Günter Grass, Joyce Carol Oats, Michael Jackson, Simone de Beauvoir, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, among many others. With the exception of a few Swedish artists, Köhler did not actually meet any of his subjects. His inspiration for his portraits came through each artist’s work. He was an avid reader of wide-ranging tastes and wrote himself, though he never published. Literature—and music and film—were his inspiration, but paint, ink, collage, and blockprint were his media.
While artists like R.B Kitaj and Don Bachardy have also produced significant collections of artist/author portraits, their own artistic styles remained relatively unchanged regardless of their artist subjects. Köhler’s experimentation with many startlingly different techniques and media in his portraiture, and his often exquisite pairings of style and subject, give his work an arresting and distinctive expressiveness. His portraits infuse the physiognomy of each artist’s face with the immaterial, spiritual dimension of his or her work and life. The authorportraits distill the essence of each artist—the mood and aesthetics of each artist’s work—with an uncanny, luminous intensity.
Köhler’s woodblock print of Franz Kafka, for instance, offers a disorienting, sinister labyrinth of lines whose sharp edges seem simultaneously to represent and dismantle the face of the artist. This vision of Kafka’s face is tenuous (a few more lines carved in the woodblock and the face would be unrecognizable) and this sense of human fragility suggested by the print echoes Kafka’s own. In works like The Metamorphosis or “Josephine the Singer (The Mouse Folk)”, Kafka asks us to see how delicate and vulnerable our lives and loves and societies are. This print’s black maze is also a vision of the byzantine, dehumanizing bureaucracy of a novel like The Trial, and a demonstration of metamorphosis: the longer you look at the portrait, the more it seems to represent the carapace of an insect, or a skull, or a snarled, unreadable web—all symbols of the Kafkaesque, with its the atmosphere of impending danger and death, its sense of menacing, disorienting complexity, of something becoming something else.
Köhler painted the American poet and novelist Charles Bukowski— uninhibited, antisocial spokesman for drinking, fighting, and fucking; defender of the inescapable squalor, oppressiveness, and futility of life—in an earthy, visceral red. The paint looks, appropriately, like dried, clotted blood. Bukowski was a poet of bodies and bodily hungers. His writings depict the dirty, lusty, ignoble side of human life and human nature and don’t apologize for their unsavory vision. Köhler’s rough, mottled, blood-colored paint communicates this essence precisely. The wound-like eyes and mouth of Köhler’s Bukowski—rough-gouged scars where the sensory organs ought to be—emphasize again the raw, brutal quality of Bukowski’s poetic vision, while the whole composition’s symmetry and balanced color palate suggest the lyricism of which Bukowski was also capable.
Henry Miller, the controversial and much demonized author of Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and Black Spring, Köhler depicts “as Demon.” Using again the black and white block-print style of his Kafka, Köhler reassembles Miller’s rather benign facial features into a snarled, sinewy, black fist. Miller’s work is raw, uncomfortable stuff. I struggled with the apathy, squalor, and obscenity of Tropic of Cancer, and even the admiring can be a little circumspect about his work: George Orwell, ultimately Miller’s champion, described him as, “a completely negative, unconstructive, amoral writer, a mere Jonah, a passive acceptor of evil, a sort of Whitman among the corpses.” Köhler’s distortion of Miller’s face befits his work’s darkness, its difficulty, its simultaneously arresting and repellent frankness.
In contrast to Andy Warhol’s iconic images of Monroe, whose garish colors and tiled formats offer the actress as a celebrity brand, as something both less and more than human, Köhler’s portrait, with its delicate, wash-out palate and deconstructed, barely recognizable features, draws attention to the artifice and constructedness of Monroe’s celebrity. Köhler’s portrait is the inverse, the negative, of Warhol’s: it captures the troubled, shy, stuttering Monroe—the fragile private self that her celebrity obscured.
In this photo-collage, Michael Jackson’s face looks as if it is made of porcelain, as if it is a doll’s face—but a doll’s face that has been vandalized or inexpertly drawn. The lips, eyebrows, and nostrils are, deliberately, not quite right. Köhler’s altered photo and the collage technique emphasize Jackson’s physical freakishness, which became the outward sign of his freakish personal life. The toy-like quality of the face also connotes Jackson’s obsession with childhood, while the doll face’s troublingly irregular features—somewhat suggestive of Heath Ledger’s Joker make-up—recall his brutal childhood and his questionable interest in children.
The portrait and it’s title borrow something from surrealist painting (Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, sometimes known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe./This is not a pipe.) Köhler’s technique here forces the viewer into a kind of blindness, an approximation of Joyce’s failing sight.
Köhler’s portrait of Fyodor Doestoyevsky gives the author’s profile an otherworldly incandescence and suggests itself as perhaps inflected by the redemption plot of Crime and Punishment.
There are more images of Köhler’s work at the official website.
All images © Carl Köhler.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Film critics have lauded the French thriller Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One) with adjectives fit for a personal ad: “taut,” “sexy,” “smart…” Having recently caught a matinee, I’m willing to attest to its tautness. However, the climax reminded me that dramatic smarts entail more than a pensive hero and a Gallic pedigree. By way of elaboration, I will now spoil the ending: A bad guy, training a gun on the hero, maps out one of the most convoluted conspiracies this side of Behold, A Pale Horse. Then he orders the hero to keep listening: “But wait, there’s more. I also killed your father.”The “Let me explain my master plan” speech is a staple of crime novels, and has enlivened any number of TV shows. We accept the convention without balking because generic narratives like The ABC Murders, Scooby Doo, and Murder, She Wrote aren’t claiming to be “smart”; they’re meant to entertain. But when characters who’ve been granted all the appurtenances of serious drama – histories, mannerisms, tastes – are suddenly reduced to conduits for information, as they are in Tell No One, the reader experiences cognitive dissonance. Who writes this stuff? he wonders.The answer, in this case, is the quintessentially American Harlan Coben, from whose novel the film was adapted. In a memorable Atlantic Monthly profile last year, Eric Konigsberg portrayed Coben as a nice guy, albeit slightly insecure about his reputation vis-a-vis that of his Amherst dorm-mate, David Foster Wallace. But this being the Atlantic, the profile also attempted to pose questions (or stoke resentments) about the nature of literary distinction:In Las Vegas, I asked Coben how he felt about being invisible to the world represented by The New York Times Book Review, and about the parallel-universe status that so much crime fiction, including his books, has. At first he was au fait about it, but then he got worked up. ‘If I asked you to name five great books that survived 100 years ago that don’t have a crime in them, you couldn’t,’ he said.Not having read the work, I was willing to give Coben the benefit of the doubt. Now, after seeing the movie, I’m more inclined to agree with his later admission, “It’s not like I’m an artist.”Konigsberg and Coben are right to suggest (and I’ve argued before) that the distinction between art and genre fiction rests on false premises. Cormac McCarthy alone should demonstrate that a novel can contain a murder, or an apocalypse, or a dead mule, and still be literature. Yet to imply that a writer of westerns, thrillers, or romances automatically deserves to be considered alongside Dostoevsky is to err in the other direction. If anything, the NYTBR’s problem is not that it accords too little serious consideration to genre writers, but that it accords too much to novelists toiling in the vineyards of literary fiction.That is, there is a distinction between art and entertainment; it’s just not the one we’ve been thinking of. FSG’s Jonathan Galassi and Grove/Atlantic’s Morgan Entrekin came close to pinning it down at a publishing panel last year, when they suggested that “genre fiction” aims to repeat an excitement, by meeting established conventions, whereas literature inaugurates new conventions, and thus new excitements. (Of course, innovations of character and of language require more column-inches to explain to potential readers.) By this definition, plenty of the short stories in The New Yorker constitute genre fiction, while some “crime novels” – those of Richard Price, for example – are literature. And even great artists – the Dickens of Little Dorrit, comes to mind – can lean too heavily on crutches like the expository filibuster.Without knocking the pure entertainment value of watching Harlan Coben’s characters fulfill their generic destinies, Tell No One is no Crime and Punishment. It’s not even The Fugitive. Yet it seems frivolous to bemoan the literary establishment’s “parallel universe” when your own universe comprises a vast audience and sums of money Dostoevsky only dreamed of. If literary discrimination is, by definition, elitism, it is, in America, an elitism without teeth. And even when elitists like me campaign to preserve the meaning of the words “smart” and “literary,” we know that a taut, sexy, and ultimately silly thriller is still nothing to sniff at.
About a year ago, The Millions readers recommended that I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita after I wrote about Crime and Punishment – which was not so much a commentary on Dostoevsky’s fantastic writing, but a plea for more excellent Russian literature. As happens with a lot of books I end up reading, I stumbled upon the novel per chance: a friend visiting me in DC had a copy he intended to read, but gave it to me as a travel companion.Enter the devil – or Messire, as his servants respectfully call him. Set in Moscow, ostensibly sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, and in Yershalayim right before and after the Crucifixion, Bulgakov’s eccentric satire brings the ruler of the shadows into the lives of unassuming citizens.As a heavily censored author in communist Russia, Bulgakov mocks the bureaucracy, hints at literary and political persecution, and employs the tightly regulated social life under Stalin to create a colorful scene of chaos.It all begins when Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz urges the poet Ivan Homeless to revise his latest piece in a way to demonstrate that religion is bogus – namely by explaining that Jesus never existed. A curious stranger joins the debate and, taken aback by the suggestion that the devil does not exist, begins prophesizing about Berlioz’s fast-approaching death. When the chubby publisher succumbs to his fate as foretold, Ivan loses it. And soon, many people in Moscow do too.Surrounded by an incredible retinue comprising an odd-looking fellow in a pince-nez suit; a talking, drinking and mischievous black tom; a beautiful and often naked red-haired woman; and a vicious, stocky, short man with a fang protruding from his mouth, Messire – or Woland as others call the devil – rules Moscow for a brief few days, amusing himself and his entourage and terrifying many others.But the devil’s show is not inherently evil, rather it is a collection of minor acts that play on the actors’ vices: bribery, free-goods and personal favors go a long way for the citizens of a cash-strapped USSR. And while Bulgakov amuses his reader with Woland’s deeds and his victims, he introduces the Master and his lover, Margarita. And, he solemnly tells the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.The Master, who is banished to an insane asylum after his novel about the Crucifixion is deemed unfit for publishing and subjected to scathing reviews by literary authorities, might just symbolize the author. For The Master and Margarita shared the same fate as the Master’s piece on Pilate – it was published in 1967, 27 years after Bulgakov died.But the similarities do not stop there. Like the Master who burns his manuscripts, Bulgakov, in an effort to convince Soviet authorities to let him emigrate, destroyed his “book about the devil,” and later rewrote the novel from memory. At the time of his death, the work was still not in its final form.Bulgakov dictated revisions and additions to his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, even from his death bed, and it was she who brought the work to light. Much like Margarita in the novel, who relentlessly pursues her Master and his writings, aiming to both satisfy her desire to know how the story in Yershalayim unfolds and share the masterpiece with the world.The Master is not the sole teller of this story, however. As time winds back and forth between certain parts of the book, the reader hears the story from Woland, the Master and a narrator from ancient times. One is, all of a sudden, observing the painful contemplations of Pilate, his disgust for the post in the Middle East and the brewing tensions in Yershalayim. I’m not much for Christian history, but from what I can tell Bulgakov sheds a different light on to the whole situation. This becomes manifest later on as the reader sees the symbiotic tie between the devil and Jesus as they decide certain characters’ fate.The Master and Margarita shows the folly of Soviet repression, but it does not stop at mere cynicism and irony. Bulgakov also illustrates that the devil might watch out for Jesus, and vice versa, i.e., there are more gray areas even in the scripture than one might ordinarily perceive.The gripping plot surely helps with the read, but Bulgakov’s genius is in the subtle theories and observations he advances throughout this page-turner, forcing a reader to think about what it all means as a grin maliciously spreads across his face.PS: I was reading the book on the bus in DC one evening. A kid, probably about five, saw the cover and remarked, “The cat has a snake’s tongue. That’s stupid.” Clearly the subtlety was lost on the child, but I still find the comment very amusing. This brings me to a stylistic note: The version I have has the black tom in a suit looking over his left shoulder and slithering his split tongue; similarly, The Heart of a Dog – also by the same author – features a dog in a suit, with his tongue out, and looking over his right shoulder. Just a random note…
In Sexual Personae, a landmark work in the field of pseudo-intellectual posturing, Camille Paglia claims that Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him everywhere he went. To DaVinci, the painting was more than just a pretty smile, it was a power object, an “apotropaion,” a totem with the power to protect its bearer from harm. This sort of fetishization is hardly unique to Italian artists. Rather, it seems almost fundamental to human nature, perhaps even that which, in the final analysis, separates us from the animals. After all, what member of the animal kingdom would ever display the same unflagging devotion to an object as a child to its security blanket or would seek to define itself by its clothes? Perhaps the fact that dogs and monkeys don’t wear Armani (at least not consentingly) is definitive proof that they have no sense of self.Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort could easily be titled “Apotropian.” The protagonist is a marketing man (shades of Morris himself) who, after witnessing a suicide, begins to collect objects associated with tragedy in the belief that they have the power to protect him from disaster in his own life. A novel about materialism may sound, at first, cliche, but it’s carried off with a deft touch, the material presented in a way that is at once fresh and familiar. Morris plays a dangerous game with his narrative, constantly switching perspectives and focusing the action in each chapter on the relationship between a character and an object. The gambit pays off, as we’re shown the inner life of a multitude of characters, both incidental and essential to the main action of the story, a tactic that allows Morris a hard-to-achieve combination of introspection and brisk pacing. Inevitably, the objects the book fetishizes become part of the characters, even characters themselves. Everything from birth control pills to a coffee mug exert a powerful influence over their owners/users, contributing to identities that possess, in their reliance on the things with which they surround themselves, an alarming malleability.Whether these relationships are good or bad, Morris never makes clear. What is unavoidable, though, is his thesis that our relationships to things are meaningful, whether we like it or not. Although other authors, notably Brett Easton Ellis have sought to comment on the moral emptiness of modern life by describing their characters with brand names and designer goods, Morris’s characters’ relationships with their possessions rise above cynical manipulations, achieving something like poetry. Morris has a gift for spare, vital prose, and both characters and objects are described with the loving precision of a man who makes his living selling things. The book is written in the language of the marketplace, and it possesses an odd lyricism, ripped off of billboards and television spots, that in some ways predicts the future, a time when the low culture of advertising, god help us, merges with the high culture of literature (much to the delight of the late Andy Warhol, no doubt).Perhaps this is Morris’s greatest accomplishment, one that could have only been carried off by a marketing man: he makes us believe in things, not as mere manifestations of our material culture, but as incarnations of hope, desire, and courage. He makes us believe they’re important. By the sex scene in the middle of the book, even the body is, inevitably and with great power, reduced to nothing more than an object, over which the main protagonist’s girlfriend floats observing. With this epiphanic out of body experience, one of the book’s most stirring images, Morris makes it clear that our bodies themselves are nothing more than things, our possessions mere extensions of ourselves.Although the ending lacks the feeling of inevitability that distinguishes a truly masterful novel, Morris’s book is as good as, if not better than, most of the Booker and Whitbread (now Costa) winning novels I’ve read over the last few years (Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Vernon God Little come to mind) and deserves all of the attention that has been heaped on those projects.With his soon to be released second book, The Gentle Axe, a high concept thriller starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment, already garnering praise, Morris is a name to keep an eye on.
It has, once again, been a long time since I wrote to The Millions. My hiatus this time around was due to constant travels and lack of time to read. I managed, nevertheless, to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment as intended and began David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I do not dare comment on Crime and Punishment, since it is merely my introduction to Russian literature and so many people and scholars have already done a much better job than I can ever hope to do. Let it suffice that I really enjoyed every word in Crime and Punishment and look forward to continuing my Russian Lit. education through both Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov, I think, will be next – and Tolstoy – I have War and Peace in mind, please tell me your suggestions – before I move onto others such as Pushkin and Chekhov – whose The Cherry Orchard and some other plays I have read. Next I picked up Infinite Jest with the naive hope that I could make serious headway into it in one month. I enjoyed the 150 pages that I managed to read in my month-long quest to devour Wallace’s little monster. It was, I have to admit, very confusing and I constantly found myself in anticipation of stories that begun and were, in the mere 150 pages I read, not continued. The reason I stopped was not because of my growing frustration with the novel – as happened to a couple of my friends – but because I reported to the army to serve my mandatory military service. Infinite Jest is not quite the light read that I could manage in the barracks after a full day of marching and obeying orders barked at me, therefore I put it on hold. Thus far I have not managed to return to it.[See Also: Max’s thoughts on Crime and Punishment]While in the army I picked up Turkey’s bestseller Su Ciglin Turkler (Those Crazy Turks) by Turgut Ozakman. Ozakman studied both national and private archives related to the Turkish Independence War for over sixty years. About fifteen years ago the premise of his book and most of his research was complete and the novel in progress was turned into a movie script for a four-part TV series. I remember watching the series at a very young age and being very impressed by it. My father had read the newly published Su Ciglin Turkler during my parents’ visit to New York in January and left the novel for me to read. I took the novel to the army, where only pre-approved books are allowed into the barracks and subversive writers are banned, and began reading it there. Ozakman’s narrative is very simple and fluent. The story sticks to historic facts to the point of making Su Ciglin Turkler more of a history book than a novel. The author avoided writing a history book by narrating the individual lives and adventures of historic characters in fiction. The combination creates a very strong storyline that reflects the historic moments in Turkey’s three year long struggle to freedom following World War I and touches a nerve in the reader by relating the greatly humane stories of unheard heroes and heroines. Su Ciglin Turkler makes its readers laugh and cry out loud at certain points, infuses a healthy dose of nationality that makes the reader long for the determination and unity exhibited in the birth of the Turkish Republic – as well as wonder why such stamina and selfless goodwill is missing from the scene today – and provides a great glimpse of the nation’s foundations. Unfortunately, as with most Turkish novels I read, with the exception of Orhan Pamuk’s novels, Su Ciglin Turkler is only available in Turkish. If you know the language or the novel is ever translated, I strongly recommend it. That was my army novel, and I admit the setting proved perfect.See also: Part 2, 3
After Sakincali Piyade I embarked on my Chicago trip and returned to The Fortress of Solitude, which I finished during the journey. Next was In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which I had been meaning to read for a long time. The release of Capote with Phillip Seymour Hoffman rekindled my desire to read In Cold Blood, as I did not want to see the movie prior to reading the book. So, I dove into the gruesome story of the Clutter family murder in Holcomb, Kansas, in 1959. Capote divided In Cold Blood to three sections and created two parallel storylines, both of which make his narrative very fluid, factual and captivating. Given that in our time we have been witnesses to more outbursts of seemingly aimless violence than previous generations (Red Lake High School, Columbine), In Cold Blood does not come across as shocking as it might have when the Clutter murders took place and when the book was published in 1965. The unfolding events also show that the Clutters were not murdered by a random psychopath, rather by two ex-cons, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, who were motivated to rob the estate. The murders described in In Cold Blood may not surprise the modern reader but Capote’s masterful chronicling of the events and extensive research that leads to the psyche of the Clutters, Perry Smith, Dick Hickock, investigator Alvin Dewey and the characters surrounding the murder arouses a sense of real familiarity with the events and leaves the reader wondering why the world works the way it does. I found myself wondering why the outstanding citizens, as exemplified in Herb Clutter’s honesty and dedication to society and Nancy Clutter’s impeccable record as a student and as a role model to all the young girls of Holcomb, always seem to be victim to society’s ills. I also thought about delusional and broken men such as Hickock and Smith: two men who had troubled childhoods, had been in and out of jail, tried to – and succeeded at times – to make an honest living, but always relapsed and turned to wicked means, the most disturbing of which resulted in the Clutter murder. I enjoyed In Cold Blood immensely, not because the story is particularly interesting or fresh, but because of the insightful details that Capote presents and the issues it brings up with regards to society and life.After In Cold Blood I read nothing but The Economist and other news outlets for two months. I really enjoy reading The Economist and it is my favorite news publication, but two months of not reading any literature made me sad. When I last visited my friend John he asked me what I was reading and I told him nothing at the moment, implying that I was looking for a book that would drag me back to the wonderful world of literature. His suggestion was Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Since I was so impressed by The Fortress of Solitude, another recommendation from John, I started the novel right away and, as had happened with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, could not put the book down, even at the expense of sleep. Lionel Essrog is the main character of Motherless Brooklyn and suffers from Tourette’s syndrome (that’s when you cannot control what your saying and your mouth/brain spurts out profanities or meaningless words at random, mostly when you are under stress/strain). The title works magnificently to describe Lionel and his three friends from St. Vincent’s Orphanage in Brooklyn: Tony, Danny and Gilbert. The motley four work for Frank Minna, a shady small time mobster whose murder at the outset of the novel sets off the chain of events. The demise of Minna is dramatic for each individual as he was more than an employer to them: a father figure to Lionel and Gilbert, a role-model/rival for Tony and a comforting personage for Danny. Immediately after Minna’s murder Lionel and Tony get on the case to find the killers, but it soon appears that whereas Lionel is sincere in his desire to find the suspects, Tony has other motives. Lethem takes you through a fast two days through Lionel’s eyes, prompting Tourette’s in you, embedding tics in your mind and causing you to read compulsively to reach a resolution. The mystery is intricate yet Lethem drops hints all along for the careful reader to decipher the plot. But if you get carried away with Lionel’s Tourette’s (as I did) chances are that you will be as oblivious, yet simultaneously, surprisingly and equally alert, to everything that unfolds. The ending will, nevertheless, put a smile on your face.If Motherless Brooklyn put a smile on my face in the end, Anneannem (My Grandmother) by Fethiye Cetin did the exact opposite. A good balance I might add. Lethem had me in 5th gear by the time I finished Motherless Brooklyn and I picked up Anneannem, which my friend Ela had brought me from Turkey and urged me to read, for a light read. The memoirs that Cetin relates are a mere 116 pages and I figured it would be a good transitional book between Lethem to Dostoyevsky. I started reading Anneannem on Sunday morning and Cetin’s style, as well as the romantic light under which she presented her story, captivated me. I took a break a quarter of the way through and went outside to enjoy the day. I called one of my grandmas on my way to the movie theater, just to hear her voice and rejoice in her presence. When I went to bed at night I picked up Anneannem and it kept me up until 3, crying, thinking and feeling emotions that were left alone for a long time. Cetin’s grandmother was an Armenian separated from her family during the Turkish deportation of Armenians in World War I. She was brought up by a Turkish family in Maden, Elazig in Eastern Turkey. She and the seven other girls that were separated from their families at the same time managed to preserve their heritage despite being converted to Islam and marrying Turks. Cetin grew up in her grandmother’s house, when, after her father’s unexpected and early death, her family moved in with the grandparents. It was, however, not until very late that Cetin learned about her grandmother’s past and, in the process, became one of her sole confidantes regarding the hardships she lived through. As Cetin relates her grandmother’s story, she also tells the reader of her own frustrations, embarrassment and disillusionment with the official Turkish line regarding the Armenian deportation. Horanus Gadarian’s story is heart wrenching, it makes one wonder how people can cause such pain on their neighbors, their fellow countrymen or, simply, to each other. Horanus’s wisdom and love for not only her family but towards all who sought her company is awe-inspiring. Cetin manages to trace Horanus’s family in the United States and tells the story of a very touching reunion after her grandmother’s death. Anneannem is a captivating little book that in the space of a 116 pages tickled my own pleasant memories and admiration of my grandparents, had me thinking about the cruelties that humans suffer in each others’ hands and the beautiful Armenian culture that Turkish officials did their best to destroy. Finally, Anneannem impressed me for its candid and lovely storyline. Unfortunately, Anneannem too is only available in Turkish.I have just begun my first Russian novel, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Wish me luck, I probably won’t be writing again for a while, especially because I intend to read David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest after this one. Of course, all of this planning is subject to change on impulse. Good luck and good reads everyone, cheers!(So, that’s all from Emre for a little while. Thanks, Emre! — Max)Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5Emre’s previous reading journal
Back to finish things up:Bangkok 8 by John Burdett: As I was reading this murder mystery set in Thailand, I was also following the travels of my friend Cem, who happened to be in the same part of the world at the time. Cem’s back now and I keep meaning to ask him about the element of the book that I found most fascinating: a Thai brand of Buddhism that allows the main character of this book to be both resourceful and calm despite his madcap surroundings. I’ve never managed to fully engage myself in learning about Eastern religions, I think because there is a certain lifestyle associated with them in the West, but the fully modern and worldly Thai police officer who is at the center of this murder mystery cuts an interesting path through life. I left the book satisfied, though not enthralled, and wanting to know more about Thai Buddhism.Train by Pete Dexter: This book was thrown in, unasked for, with a couple of books that a contact at a publishing company gave to me. I’m really glad she did that because I’m always looking for writers whose catalog I want to read all the way through. I’ve already done this with a few and am on the cusp with a couple of others, so adding a new writer to this category is exciting. Dexter’s book really blew me away. Train is both spare and violent and there is a lot going on beneath the surface, like Hemingway but darker and with more at stake somehow. I saw Dexter read, and knowing his personality, part guffawing storyteller, part literary outlaw, lends even more depth to my experience with the book. (note: I’ll be reading Dexter’s National Book Award winner Paris Trout, next.)Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers: This book was highly recommended by a coworker as well as by Edwin Frank of the NYRB Press, and so, when I came across a hardcover copy of it on a bookfinding expedition, I snatched it up. I read it in the early fall, a perfect time of year for me to read this sort of book, as it reminded me of my early years as a student at a Catholic elementary school in the suburbs. The book follows the life of a Catholic priest named Joe Hackett who struggles with faith and politics and more than anything else the shattering mundanity of his suburban life. Tree-lined streets, shopping malls, station wagons, vinyl siding, and wall to wall carpeting are Hackett’s foils in a book that manages to be charming, melancholy, and very funny at the same time. Reading the book turned out to be a great way to spend a few September weeks. If anyone out there happened to enjoy The Sportswriter and Independence Day by Richard Ford, then you will enjoy this book as well.The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell: I read this book little by little on lunch breaks over the course of couple of months. The Tipping Point is one of those books that is so popular that it has generated its own vocabulary, and it is now not uncommon to hear people talk about tipping points when discussing trends and fads. Most books like this have a sort of hucksterish salesman’s pitch quality to them, but this one is different. Gladwell approaches the topic of how things become popular and universal scientifically, and in the process you learn a lot more about the world you live in.Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota by Chuck Klosterman: Ah, Klosterman… Like him or not, I’m afraid Chuck Klosterman is here to stay. Here’s what I had to say about this book after I read it: “The book started strong, and I found myself laughing out loud once every couple of pages; however, by the end, Klosterman’s personality, which is as much on display as the subjects about which he writes and which is an odd mix of self-effacement and shameless arrogance, began to grate on me. To make things worse, right after I finished the book, I read a couple of horrendous reviews of his new book which brought into even clearer focus what had bugged me so much about Klosterman. Nonetheless, the ranks of readers devoted to Klosterman’s absurd and witty social commentary seems to be growing, because his new book, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto seems to be selling at an ever quickening clip.”Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky: After several readers of The Millions came together to help me select which book by the great Russians should be my first, I settled on and then into Crime and Punishment, and it carried me through the fall. I was deep into this one for many weeks, fully immersed really, and when I finally came up for air again, it felt as though I had been gone a long time. It had been a long time since I had read such a challenging and rewarding book. Here were my initial thoughts.Jamesland by Michelle Huneven: And then came Jamesland, another great book to add to a year of great reading. If you’ve been reading The Millions regularly you probably remember my comments well enough, so I’ll just link to them for anyone who wants a refresher.The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski: And so, with the clock striking midnight, I finished another book and the year was done. Well, not quite, but it was a great year in reading. Kapuscinski provided bookends more or less to the healthy doses of everything else that I read in between. Shadow of the Sun, I should say, was yet another amazing effort by Kapuscinski. The book covers his time in Africa over the last 40 years, and he is as illuminating as ever on the subject. As I read, it seemed to me that he had perhaps slept on a dirt floor in a hut in every village on the continent. This book is ideal for anyone who has that urge to wander around the most exotic locales. My favorite part: Kapuscinski arrives in Monrovia, Liberia, where his vaccination records, passport, and return ticket are promptly snatched from his hands the moment he steps off the plane. Though he knows no one there, Kapuscinski is soon taken under the wings of some Lebanese business men who live there and who explain to him that the “transaction” at the airport is simply a part of how business is done in the war torn country. Kapuscinski eventually leaves the country, but you’ll have to read the book to find out how.So, that was my a year in reading, and a good year it was. My goals for 2004? Well, I don’t want to put a number on it, but 50 books would be nice.
When: Afternoon 11/16/03Where: The Pig, a Bar B Q joint on La Brea Ave. In Los AngelesWho: The woman behind the counterWhat: The Corrections by Jonathan FranzenDescription: “A comic, tragic masterpiece of an American family breaking down in an age of easy fixes, Franzen’s third novel brings an old-time America into wild collision with the era of home surveillance and New Economy speculation. Winner of the National Book Award.”A Lingering QuestionAs much as I loved Crime and Punishment, it is refreshing to step away from Raskolnikov’s paranoid world; however, I still have one unresolved question about the book… Towards the beginning, Raskolnikov has an encounter with a very drunk girl wandering in the street. At first he is protecting her from a predatory man lurking in the shadows, then a police officer shows up and Raskolnikov begins to antagonize him. It’s a very odd scene that I assumed would have some significance later in the book, but as far as I could tell, the three characters never appear again and the incident is forgotten. Has anyone read the book recently? Does anyone remember this scene? Can anyone shed some light on why it is in the book and what it means… if I manage to figure it out on my own. I’ll let you know.
After more than a month of intense reading I’ve finally finished Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. As some of you may remember from a post a while back, this was my first serious excursion into the golden era of 19th century Russian fiction. After seeking the advice of several trusted fellow readers (aside: see how well it works! Make sure to Ask a Book Question if you ever find yourself in a similar predicament. We’re here to help!) We collectively decided that C & P was the best place to start. I reacted to the book in a couple of different ways. My first reaction, from almost the very beginning, was that the book felt like a Dickens novel to me. I saw similarities in both the gothic overwrought characters and the lurking shady characters who alternately seemed for or against young Raskolnikov. The friendship between Raskolnikov and Razumikhin, in particular, reminded me of the friendship between Pip and Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. Other similarities, I think, are structural. Both books were written serially, and as with Dickens, I looked forward to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter which would ensure that readers would look forward to the next installment. When I read a book like this, it always occurs to me that it’s too bad books aren’t written that way any more. It seems like it would be a really fun way to read a book. (Now that I think of it, I’m pretty sure that Stephen King has experimented with this in recent years). My other reaction was how psychological and modern the book seemed. I never read this or any other Russian novels in school (not sure how that happened) so I had neither expectations nor preconceptions when I began. The book was, in its own verbose way, a very profound discussion of morality and power. More specifically, I was interested in the relationship between the power of murder and the power of wealth and social class. These themes were buried beneath layers of prose. The book seemed to be divided almost equally between action and Raskolnikov’s internal monologue. It was very readable, but occasionally overwhelming. A final observation: the book is filled with events and real people drawn from real life in 1860s St. Petersburg. In the present day, as an established classic, it gives the book a historical context, but I couldn’t help but think about how it must have appeared at the time of its publication. In this day and age, writers are often derided for relying too much on current events and pop culture. Critics claim the these books will lose their cultural significance as they become quickly dated. Yet, in C&P, Dostoyevsky’s practice of referring to specific scandals and amusements that were the hot topics of conversation at the time serves to cement the book very specifically in a time and place and it manages to make the story feel real and complete. I should also mention that I really enjoyed the particular edition that I read. A multitude of informative notes augment the text, and the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky felt inventive and engaging. But now I am done, and I am looking forward to a change of pace. I’ve already embarked upon Jamesland by LA author Michele Huneven. The book club that I help run is reading it, and Huneven herself is planning to make an appearance at the end of our meeting so that she can answer our questions. Should be lots of fun.
From the book I’m reading right now: “The black serpent of stung vanity had sucked all night at his heart.”
All of a sudden I’ve worked my way pretty quickly through the pile of books I have lying around, so I was digging through my shelves looking for what to read next. I dug up an old copy of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that I’d come across on a book finding expedition a while back. The Russians occupy a gaping hole among books that I have read. I have never read any of the 19th century classics, and I figure I ought to start sooner rather than later. However, staring at this brick-like copy of Karamazov, I became intimidated as I wondered if this was the best place to begin my education in Russian literature. Yet, I did not panic; instead I emailed my friend Brian, who I happen to know is a great connoisseur of Russian Lit. Here is what I wrote: I’ve never read any of the classic Russian writers, and I want to start, but I’m not sure which one to start with. Any ideas? I’ve got The Brothers Karamazov… so I’m thinking of starting with that. …and here is his response…the russians are my favorites — all of ’em, dostoevsky, tolstoy, chekhov, gogol, turgenev, pushkin, etc…my favorite russian writer is Dostoevsky (chekhov is second) and my favorite novel is definitely The Brothers Karamazov. it might be my favorite novel of all time, but i think you should start with Crime and Punishment a much more conventional and accessible book. not that i think you couldn’t handle The Brothers, but just think you might wanna ease your way in… check out Gogol’s short stories “The Overcoat” and “The Nose” [in The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol] and Chekhov’s story “Ward No. 6” [in Stories] is a masterpiece, as are many (most) of his stories.Thanks, Brian… If anyone else has insights on the Russians, let us know by using the comment button below.Two Hot New BooksA couple of very different brand new books have been getting lots of attention from customers lately: The Zanzibar Chest by Aidan Hartley is part mystery, part memoir that is a story of life in post-colonial Africa, which must necessarily touch upon the history of colonialism as well as all too recent war and genocide. Here is an excerpt. Completely unrelated but also very interesting is Where’d You Get Those? New York City’s Sneaker Culture: 1960-1987 a pictorial history of playground basketball and the footwear that accompanied it by Bobbito Garcia, writer for Vibe, world-class DJ, “basketball performer,” and world-renowned break-dancer. For pics of the hot kicks… go here.