Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which marks Martin Riker’s first book-length foray into fiction, is a book that I imagine has been simmering for a long time, and one that likely has taken a back seat to Marty’s many other pursuits. As one of our most perceptive critics—I’ve made it a rule to read books he reviews favorably—and publishing do-it-alls (at Dalkey Archive and now, with his wife, novelist and publisher Danielle Dutton, at Dorothy, a Publishing Project), Marty has been one of the great champions of daring, innovative fiction. This, of course, leaves little time for other things.
And so it was with great excitement and pleasure that I read Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, which is characteristically subtle, funny, and well-seasoned. To say it’s a novel about identity or parenthood or our collective fixation on television may be partially true, but as with all significant works of fiction, those descriptors may be in the ballpark but miss the game entirely. For the game, you’ve got to read the book.
The Millions: As I was reading Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, I couldn’t help thinking of the television show Quantum Leap. The differences between the time-traveling, body-jumping hero of that show and the eponymous character of your novel are vast and in that gulf is a world of possibilities, which you mine to great effect. What is it about the trope of inhabiting another body or consciousness that appeals to you?
Martin Riker: I actually don’t know that show! In fact I’ll admit right out of the gate that even though the novel contains a whole narrative history of television programming, I don’t own a TV. Growing up I was a TV kid, not a book kid. In the eighties I loved network television with all my heart. But I stopped watching in the early nineties and didn’t look at screens at all for 10 or 15 years. Having a kid of my own brought TV back into my life, but our son doesn’t watch much. I mean, we Netflix. We’re not hermits.
Anyway, the trope: The logistical answer (there are two answers) is that this novel was originally conceived as a modern retelling of Robert Montgomery Bird’s 1836 Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself, which is a picaresque novel narrated by a man who’s died and whose soul travels from body to body, uncovering the reality of lives across the socioeconomic spectrum of early America. I loved the playfulness of that premise, its expansiveness, but beyond that I loved its democratic ambitions, the Whitman-like project of trying to sing America from the inside out. My own version took some pretty radical digressions from Bird’s original; for example, I abandoned very early any attempt to be “representative” of the diversity of modern America, which is just too broad, and instead focused on points of commonality and difference, themes that define life for all of us (media, family, solitude).
The more general answer is that I am a lifelong admirer of the Menippean satire, a 2,000-year-old literary genre the particulars of which I won’t go into here except to say that one of its 13 attributes (according to Mikhail Bakhtin in his Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics) is the transgression of boundaries between this world, heaven, and the underworld. Starting around the “Myth of Er” in Plato’s Republic, there’s a long line of writers playing with these boundaries, and specifically with the idea of metempsychosis—the transmigration of the soul through bodies. The point, from an art perspective, is that it allows the writer (and reader) to step back from everyday life and look at our human experiences from a distance. The pettiness of human endeavor is revealed for what it is, etc. The oddity of my narrator is that, despite how separated he (mostly) is from the world he witnesses, he can’t seem to attain anything like a comforting objectivity. Death gives him “perspective,” but that’s almost all it gives him. It doesn’t free him from human concerns. He’s still as frustrated and petty as anybody.
TM: I suspect rendering one of those consciousnesses almost helplessly passive was a great challenge. Did you set yourself any formal limitations in the composition of the plot?
MR: Yeah, that was what made me want to write the book in the first place, that challenge. For years I had been thinking about how to write an adventure novel in an age when modern transportation and telecommunications have left us with pitifully few unexplored places and when a life of “action” feels like a movie cliche. You could set it in space, or inside the earth, I guess. Cyberspace feels more Kafkaesque than adventurous to me. So what I saw in the premise of Sheppard Lee was the possibility of an adventure story in which the protagonist lacks agency—a passive action novel! And then immediately I realized it would be a book about media culture as well.
As for plot composition, I have an almost embarrassingly specific answer for this. Edgar Allan Poe reviewed Sheppard Lee when it first came out. He liked it, but cited among its problems that Bird couldn’t seem to decide when or to what extent his protagonist (Sheppard Lee) should control the bodies he inhabits. My interest in writing about media sort of solved this problem for me—my protagonist would have as much control over what he sees as you or I have over a television program—but it raised a different problem, which was how to make that into an interesting book. I wasn’t excited to write something boring and hopeless. My Samuel Johnson had to be able to (and forced to) make decisions with moral consequences, even if he tended to make very bad ones. So I had to have a narrative device by which my protagonist might gain control of his existence (under certain circumstances), and the invention of that device is another reason my novel took a very different direction from Bird’s. The device itself, and the emotional possibilities it opened up, took me to unexpected places, and that element of adventure (compositional adventure) was one of the great pleasures of writing this book. Fortunately, sticking to the plan was never part of the plan.
TM: There is perhaps no way of answering this, but I’m going to ask to see where an answer might lead: Could you have written this novel before becoming a father?
MR: I don’t think I could have, but not for the obvious reason (that I now know what being a father is like). The actual reason is much more personal, and I doubt I can articulate it very well. It has to do with how having a kid changes what you care about, where you invest your emotions and your aspirations. I’ve written fiction for many years but not much of it was very sharable, because I was constantly getting in the way of myself (don’t ask me what I mean by that). One of the biggest changes for me, in becoming a dad, was that I stopped caring very much about myself. I like myself just fine, but my emotional attention is now directed elsewhere, toward my son and my wife but also outward more generally. And for some reason that change in myself had a tangible impact on my ability to craft sentences and paragraphs. It’s not the only change that mattered for writing this book, but it’s maybe the most interesting.
TM: Am I correct in reading SJER as a satire?
MR: Not in the conventional sense. I’m not out to attack anyone. There’s no target. I mentioned Menippean satire earlier, and one of the funny things about that genre is that despite the name, it isn’t really satire as we think of it. Where satire attacks one point of view from the perspective of a different point of view, the Menippean satire is all about copia, plentitude, the diversity of ways of seeing the world. The only thing it attacks is the presumption that any single worldview might constitute “truth,” and this it often attacks viciously, if comically. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, for example, or Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. Bakhtin admires menippea (as he calls it) because he’s all about polyphony and the idea that a novel is not a political statement but rather a space in which many different voices and ideas and ways of seeing are constantly mixing and contending with one another. This is what I like about it as well.
TM: When we met, you were still at Dalkey Archive Press, and you are now the publisher, with Danielle, of Dorothy, so I must ask the question of influence. Which writers and/or schools influenced this novel? Who are you reading or what excites you in contemporary fiction?
MR: I don’t know about influence, but I start to salivate at the opportunity to make book recommendations. But first I’ll try to answer about influence.
Aside from Bird’s novel, it’s hard to say precisely what influenced SJER. I was rereading Dickens when I started writing it, and I’m sure he’s in there somehow—the voice, maybe. Georges Perec is probably the most important, and in some ways that influence is clear: the mixing of an adventure story with other genres, the almost schematic breadth of subjects, Perec’s passion for telling tales. There’s a lot of linguistic parody in SJER, and some of that might be coming from Fran Ross’s Oreo, which is in my all-time top five. Ross’s parody has more satirical punch, though. I’m just interested in all the cool things language can do (so was she, of course). More generally, I think my ideas about art and literature were shaped from a very early age by the Beastie Boys, whose work I see as fundamentally about friendship, first, and, second, about the endlessly various ways a bunch of stuff can be thrown together to make something wonderful. That’s the quality William Gass meant when he called Donald Barthelme—quoting Barthelme himself—“the leading edge of the trash phenomenon.” It was a compliment.
Lately I’ve been rereading a lot—for my classes and for fun—and it’s been a great joy to revisit Flann O’Brien and Nikolai Gogol and people like that. After the fact, I saw a lot of Dead Souls in SJER, even though it wasn’t in my mind while writing. In fact, I find that writing a book causes you to see your own book in every other book you read, or at least in a lot of them. Other books I’ve been loving but that have nothing to do with SJER include everything Dorothy is publishing (!) and quite a number of the books I’ve been reviewing. Best in Show goes to Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones, which I think you and I both liked a great deal. McCormack’s novel made me feel loose and ready, like a boxer. It made the question of “the novel” feel suddenly up for grabs again, which for me is the best thing a book can do.
TM: You mention that when writing a book you start to see your book in every other book. This is such a simple but revelatory statement! It also speaks to something apparent in the novel: a current trend (that’s too light a term for it, but it’ll stay for now) that is all about the… if not the dissolution, then at least the fragmentation or break-up of the idea of a concrete individual who is bound by gender, age, demographics. I love how SJER’s shifting forms reflect this pivotal moment in Western culture. All of which is to ask: What good is the individual in fiction? Does he/she have a future in literature?
MR: I’m not sure he/she even has much of a past! Or at least that past is admirably patchy. It seems to me literature’s been ahead of the curve when it comes to complicating or fragmenting or subverting received ideas about the cleanly coherent self for at least a couple hundred years. Maybe not so much in the outwardly visible ways we’re seeing now in the culture, not until books like Orlando, or Brigid Brophy’s 1969 In Transit, or Anne Garréta’s Sphinx—but those books seem to me natural extensions of the novel’s essential polyphony. Once the menippean values I mentioned earlier got mixed up with the idea of character, which was happening at least by the time of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew in the mid-18th century, the instability and multiplicity of identity became what novels—some novels—were all about. Dostoevsky, whole swaths of modernism, etc.
In comparison to that stuff, my Samuel Johnson is pretty simple. He starts off without much self to speak of, so he’s relatively unpresumptuous, and comfortable in the role of sponge. What interests me most is that even though he inhabits all these other lives, and forgets himself and “becomes” these others, still he doesn’t often feel that he knows these people very well. He knows them as well as you could possibly know someone, but that turns out to be: not that well! In part because they don’t know themselves, or are too human-messy to be easily defined, but mostly because he doesn’t have access to their thoughts, and so there’s this invisible wall, consciousness.
I do get put off (this is a different way of answering your question) by writing that doesn’t allow room, formally, for experiences of instability, possibility, surprise, change. A lot of commercially successful fiction makes me feel constricted in that way. It takes itself too seriously, or doesn’t take me (reader) seriously enough. But maybe that’s just a way of saying that uninteresting books aren’t interesting. Whereas identity as a site of possibility or contention, the individual as an ongoing dialogue—those ideas I hope have a future, because literature would be pretty dull without them.
TM: Your reference points for the book are, for the most part, 19th century and earlier, though of course there are more modern influences. What is it about these forms that allows them the plasticity to be continually reinvented and to feel so fresh?
MR: You are my dream interviewer. I think all literary forms have the plasticity you’re talking about. Forms come with some basic characteristics (e.g., a “list” contains “items”), but they don’t come with any prescribed values or freshness potential—that’s all in what you do with them.
If I were going to really do this question justice I would go on a longish rant about friendship. I would talk about the sense I have in reading certain 18th-century works—for example, Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist—that they were written long before the idea of the “professionalized author” was even conceived. I would then attempt to describe the pleasure I get—with Diderot—from feeling that what I am reading is written not by a “professional” but by an incredibly smart and interesting friend. Wayne Booth makes the argument, in his The Company We Keep, that the idea of friendship as a literary value falls off somewhere in the 19th century. In fact, he says the idea of friendship as a subject worthy of critical attention falls out of intellectual life entirely, even though for the longest time the notion that books were like friends was the primary way of seeing them. He doesn’t mean we’ve lost friendship itself, even in books; he just means we don’t really think or talk about books in those terms.
I’ve noticed that the books I feel the greatest friendship toward tend to resist the veneer of professionalization in one way or another. I mentioned earlier Fran Ross and Georges Perec. Alasdair Gray is another. Also Joanna Ruocco, whom I publish, though I don’t know her personally very well. Not long ago I interviewed her, primarily because I wanted to confirm for myself that she was actually as cool as I thought she was (she is). There are others, but not very many. It’s a specific feeling, not a common thing, more a recognition of shared values than “liking” or admiring or even loving the work. For example, I don’t feel this way about David Foster Wallace’s work, even though David was my real-life friend, someone I cared about quite a lot. I love his writing, too (well, I love about half of his writing), but I don’t have that “friendship” feeling toward it.
All I mean to say is that I’ve always wanted my own writing to be friendly, approachable. Meaningful, but in a manner completely in step with everyday life. My favorite writers read like they might easily live next-door to you. You can go over and borrow their lawnmowers, plus they write these wonderful, interesting things. And maybe 18th- and 19th-century storytelling devices appeal to me—to try to loop this back to your question—because things like conversational narrators and tale-telling and “then fate took an unexpected turn!” are very approachable and are as likely as anything else to produce interesting art.
TM: I really like your take on the question about fatherhood. That fatherhood provides an out from yourself that opens up a whole set of possibilities that open up whole avenues previously untraveled or at least infrequently visited is a refreshing take—especially for a writer, since so many male writers have been aloof or absent from the lives of their children. I wonder if the passivity of the narrator is a reflection of what must feel like occasional helplessness in viewing the life of a child.
MR: That’s a really ideal way to read it. The book thinks a lot about feelings of helplessness, both with regard to parenting and more generally to life. The idea that we are stuck in our own heads and there’s little we can do for one another has been a staple of existential comedy since Beckett at least, in addition to being a painfully obvious fact of every parent’s daily reality, and I like seeing those two seemingly distinct anxieties—one existential, the other mundane—as not so different.
As far as my narrator goes, I would stop short of saying his passivity is caused by his helpless-parent feelings. He is modern man! He’s passive from way, way back.
TM: I don’t want to talk about the ending, but I do want to ask, in a general way, one of those craft questions about the structure of the novel and how it came to you. Were you writing toward that ending? At a certain point, the narrative picks up momentum and you can see where it’s going, and my hunch is that it was lurking there all along, but I’m curious to know if that’s accurate.
MR: When I first conceived of the book and had written the opening two chapters, I had a particular ending in mind. Danielle wanted to know what it was, but I wouldn’t tell her, and she said “Well, I just hope that…” and then said the thing she hoped would happen, which was not the ending I had in mind. I wanted my wife to be happy with my book—it was quite possible she would be the only one reading it—so I thought, maybe I can have both endings? It took me a while to figure out how to make that work, but the result is that the book really has two endings, and this is essential, I think, to how and what the story “means.” We talk of stories having happy endings or sad endings and I very much dislike those being the options. I’ve always loved the start of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds, where the narrator says a good book ought to be allowed to have three entirely different openings. I didn’t want entirely different endings, though; I just wanted the ending to “mean” in several directions at once. I can’t say more without saying too much. But if there’s anything I’m particularly proud of in this book, it’s those last two chapters.
I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.
Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.
Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.
James Stavridis: Why?
MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.
JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.
MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.
JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.
MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?
JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.
I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.
MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?
JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.
MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.
JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.
Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.
I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.
MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.
JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.
MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.
JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.
You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.
And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.
Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.
MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?
JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.
I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.
For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.
JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.
MD: That was one of my questions, actually.
JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.
MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?
JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.
JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.
MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?
JS: Of course.
MD: There are many.
JS: Oh, sure.
MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.
JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).
In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.
MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?
JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.
MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?
JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.
MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?
MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?
JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.
MD: I do.
JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.
JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.
MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.
JS: Stop it.
MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.
JS: Is he still alive, by the way?
MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?
JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.
Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…
MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.
JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.
MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?
JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.
JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.
MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?
JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.
MD: Really? Why?
JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.
MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…
MD: Gulag: A History, yes.
JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.
MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?
JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.
MD: Name a few that you love.
JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.
The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.
MD: It is.
JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.
MD: Tell me what you like about it.
JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.
MD: That’s a good war book.
JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.
MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?
JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.
So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.
MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?
JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.
MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?
JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
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…