“The consolation of acute bitterness is the biting retort.”—Hark
1.“Is it too soon?” It’s one of those recurring cultural questions that has lately been revived in the context of the #MeToo movement, regarding the matter of when, if ever, such high-profile sexual abusers as Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Mario Batali, Garrison Keillor, and Kevin Spacey might make their way back into the public sphere, or at least a paying job. Alpha males, however disgraced, get twitchy on the sidelines, and so, as James Wolcott put it in his Vanity Fair column on “The Return of the Scuzzies, “we hear the # MeToo Men tap on the microphone as they seek to reintroduce themselves.”
For a male fiction writer, a foray into this massively trip-wired territory might seem about as inviting as a several-mile stroll atop a third rail. Yet there, in the pages of the Nov. 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, was the fearless edgemeister Sam Lipsyte with “Show Recent Some Love,” surely the first male work of fiction to address, in no way obliquely, the issues raised by the movement. To do this in what we call “the current climate” was an act of perhaps foolhardy courage; to have pulled it off with as artful and well judged mixture of sensitivity and sharpness as Lipsyte did, is a high-wire achievement of no small dimension.
The story succeeds in “going there”
without inducing moral nausea because the ogre of the piece, the abusive and
predatory Mike Maltby, CEO of Mike Maltby Media Solutions (now renamed Haven
Media) is unambiguously presented as one of “history’s ceaseless cavalcade of
dickheads.” Left to navigate the treacherous cross-currents of Maltby’s ignominious
departure is Isaac, his one-time stepson, whom Maltby rescued from a life of
video gaming and Jagermeister shots by giving him a job as a copywriter. Not
unreasonably he fears for his position now, given the toxicity of his
association with Maltby; underneath Isaac’s vocal disgust he also experiences
involuntary and unnerving spasms of sympathy, as confused and anxious humans
In Lipsyte’s fiction it is the
wives who see right through the husbands, and Isaac gets pinned to the specimen
board of contemporary male fecklessness by his wife with this observation:
“Standing next to a villain and hoping people will notice the difference is not
the same as being a hero, Isaac.” Isaac stands in here for the legions of men trapped
in the queasy twilight zone between innocence and complicity. “And don’t be
certain they won’t come for you one of these days,” she adds with brutal
Since his 1999 debut story collection Venus Drive Sam Lipsyte has published four novels and two more collections that have established him as the premier anatomist of contemporary male malaise and sexual confusion. A skilled and consistently hilarious satirist with tummler-tight timing, he explores with merciless and lacerating precision the demoralized state of the urban man-boy and alterna-dad, marinated in gender guilt, trapped in the low-paying and uncertain jobs that are the portion these days of liberal arts majors, barely tolerated or peevishly despised by his spouse and children. Call him Lipsyte Man—a baffled and wounded specimen.
2.A North Jersey native and high school shot putter and teen literary phenom (“a little show pony writer”, in his words), Sam Lipsyte amusingly was named as a Presidential Scholar of the Arts by none other than Ronald Reagan; the award was given to him by the once famed virtuecrat William Bennett. A no doubt formative lesson in the uses of cognitive dissonance. He attended Brown in the late ’80s in its peak years as a powerhouse in semiotics, cultural studies, and advanced fiction, studying with such luminaries as Robert Coover and graduating in the same cohort as Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides. Dispirited by the hegemony of literary theory over practice, however, he drifted into music for a time when he came back to New York, fronting a noise rock band called Dung Beetle and dutifully picking up the bad habits of dissipation the position called for.
Sam’s path back to literature took him through Gordon Lish’s fabled and/or notorious writing workshop, where the shameful and unsayable were quarried for the rawest of raw material. Lish was also fanatical on matters of style, and perhaps Sam’s chief takeaway from his time in Gordon’s boot camp was that every word of every sentence had to count. “There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part,” he once approvingly quoted Lish.
Venus Drive, published in 2000 by the much-missed literary magazine and publisher Open City, strongly reflects that aesthetic. Its sentences display aphoristic economy and keenly calibrated rhythm, as in this specimen: “His eyes had the ebb of his liver in them and he bore the air of a man who looks right at you and only sees the last of himself.” Several of the stories draw on the druggy discontinuities, moral squalor and grim, bone-in-your-throat humor of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. One character does Keith Richards considerably better by shooting up his mother’s cremains. (What stage of grief is that anyway?) Another informs us with addled precision that “I wasn’t nodding, I was passing out.” William Burroughs’s algebra of need was clearly a familiar equation to the author.
Other stories engage with a broader consensus reality, specifically the emerging service economy that appears to be our portion until the robot overlords dispose of us. In “Probe to the Negative”—the very title can be taken as an ars poetica—a failed artist with dependency issues works as a phone marketer under the faux-helpful supervision of Frank the Fink.
“Maybe Frank was a decent guy once, but he’s management now … the higher you move up, the more of a tragedy you are,” the narrator mordantly observes. But as he also says, “We’re all cold callers now,” an epitaph that has ominous ring of truth.
“My Life, for Promotional Use Only”
opens with a perfect snapshot of the emerging dot-com economy:
The building where I work used to be a bank. Now it’s lots of little start-ups, private suites, outlaw architects, renegade CPA’s, club kids with three-picture deals. It’s very arty in the elevators. Everybody’s shaved and pierced in dainty places. They are lords of tiny telephones, keepers of dogs on battery-operated ropes.
The basis of
effective satire is simply close, cruel observation.
I heard Sam Lipsyte read one of his stories at an Open City event, a literary event for me of major proportions. So I made my predatory desires known and as a result became the editor of his first novel, The Subject Steve. The shock of recognition I experienced upon first reading it was electrifying; somehow this young writer managed to channel the irreverent and unruly reading of my formative years of the ’60s and had made that sensibility his own. It was the first of many times he has caused me to use my inhaler for an episode of laughter-induced asthma.
Black humor had emerged in the late ’50s as a literary mode and broader cultural style as a release valve for the stifling seriousness and repression of the decade and also an expression of paranoia and delayed trauma from the horrors of the late war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Its strategies were the send-up, the put-on, the resigned shrug, the spasm of panic, the barely stifled scream, the bitter laugh, the taboo-busting saying of the Unsayable. It was born on whatever day the first lampshade joke was told. Its emergence was coterminous with and fueled by what Wallace Markfield, a now forgotten black humorist himself, called in 1965 “The Yiddishization of American Humor”—comedy that, drawing on the traditions of the Borscht Belt and the shetl, was” involuted, ironic, more parable than patter”—and infused with a distinctively Jewish fatalism.
The ur-black humorist was of course Joseph Heller and as I read The Subject Steve I could, I thought, detect his influence in every line. Begin with the book’s premise: The book’s narrator and antihero Steve is informed by two quack doctors that he is dying of a disease unquestionably fatal, yet with no discernible cause nor duration; they dub it Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome. A terser name would of course be “Life.” Lipsyte elaborates this illogically logical Catch-22 premise with caustic wit and a verbal energy that recalls Stanley Elkin at his most manic. Savor the spritzing pungency and tart wordplay of this passage:
The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had every died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. … My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.
Heller’s brilliantly morose novel of white collar angst, Something Happened, is also a presiding influence on this and subsequent novels by Lipsyte. Steve quits his indeterminate cube-based job, stating in his exit interview: “My work, albeit inane, jibed with the greater inanities required of us to maintain the fictions of our industry.” He fails to get much sympathy from either his divorced wife or disaffected daughter, and fleeing a media frenzy goes on an increasingly violent and saturnalian New Age odyssey in search of a cure or at least of modicum of certainty.
The Yiddish word for a hapless soul like Steve is “schlemiel,” a character without much agency and dignity, buffeted by domestic or historical forces far beyond his resistance. The schlemiel is a stock figure of black humor fiction—Yossarian, Billy Pilgrim, Benny Profane, just for starters—and can be traced as far back in American literature as Lemuel Pitkin, the All-American designated victim who gets literally taken apart in Nathanael West’s Depression-era demolishment of the Horatio Alger luck-and-pluck, A Cool Milllion. With The Subject Steve Lipsyte had revived a tradition of gleefully cynical disillusion that had largely faded from our increasingly earnest literary fiction.
Sadly, rather too much black humor of a distinctly unfunny sort attended the novel’s publication, as it was literally published on Sept. 11, 2001. Irony of any sort, however well achieved, was not in favor that grievous season; the reviews were complimentary enough but thin on the ground, and sales suffered accordingly. As a result Sam’s next novel, Home Land, was not offered on (with the keenest possible sadness) by me, and went on to garner an astounding 22 editorial rejections before being finally published as a Picador paperback original in 2004. That the novel quickly became the book to be reading on the L and M trains and with each passing year feels more and more like a masterpiece—to the point of having been selected by Christian Lorentzen in New York as one of the canonical works of fiction of the newish century, calling it “a Gen-X Notes from Underground—must prove something besides the need to pick your pub date carefully, but what? Perhaps that as the Iraq War and the broader war on terror were both clearly becoming clusterfucks of Vietnam-esque proportions, black humor Lipsyte-style acquired a new relevance and resonance that has only become stronger in the 15 disillusioning years since Home Land’s publication.
Among other things it has one of the best premises for a comic novel ever devised. Lewis Miner, aka “Teabag,” the member of the Eastern Valley High Class of ’89 who most conclusively has not panned out, pens a series of uproariously bitter letters to his Alumni Newsletter, bringing his cohort of bankers and brokers and doctors and state senators and “double major[s] in philosophy and aquatic life management” up to date on “the soft cold facts of me.” At first he “shudders” at the prospect of his successful classmates chortling at the particulars of his dismal tale, but quickly rethinks his phrasing: “Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How’s bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?”
Miner rents a dismal apartment in his hometown, attends the occasional “aphorism slam,” and ekes out a sort of living concocting fake anecdotes for a soft drink’s newsletter Fizz (while spending even more time trawling the net for lovelies in legwarmers). His dispatches at once satirize the nauseating smugness of most alumni updates and recount in granular detail the hell on earth that was most people’s experience of high school. The novel’s climax takes place at a predictably disastrous tenth anniversary “Togethering” reunion—“one big horrible flashback,” as these things tend to be.
Miner’s spew of snark is a beautiful thing to experience and he represents Lipsyte Man in his first full incarnation. Imagine—work with me on this—if Rodney Dangerfield had somehow managed to attend Oberlin or Hampshire College, but emerged with his sense of humor intact. Miner and his successors also partake a bit of W.C. Fields’s befuddled in-the-American-grain misanthropy and his sense of terminal male embattlement. These suckers are never going to get an even break.
Published in 2010 in the rump of the Great Recession, Sam’s next novel The Ask shifts the scene to an academic setting: the development office of an institution its denizens call the Mediocre University at New York, whose art program affords the marginally talented the opportunity to “take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk.” Milo Burke is a failed painter who works there none too effectively; as the book opens he has been cashiered for using an ill-advised epithet to an obnoxious coed whose ‘father had paid for our shitty observatory upstate.” Saddled with a wife and young child, his one route back to a paying job is if he can engineer a hefty give from his college friend Purdy, who ‘had been one of the first to predict that people only really wanted to be alone and scratching themselves and smelling their fingers and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life forms”—in other words a pioneering internet tycoon. (One of the many updated and flourishing Milo Minderbinder-types who populate Sam’s fiction.)
In Milo Burke, Sam Lipsyte perfected his portrayal of the sad sack contemporary male—a failure at work, a barely tolerated presence at home, overloaded with seemingly immortal student debt and untenable notions from his trendily overpriced liberal arts education. All that Lipsyte Man has to fight back with is his hefty reserved of disappointed spleen and a verbal facility that is a consistent delight to the reader if not to his interlocutors. The Ask is saturated with the feeling that the promise of American life has curdled and vanished, leaving us the task of managing our disappointments as best we can. Sam’s acute sense of the small-bore sorrows and indignities of contemporary domestic life sometimes puts me in mind of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, his late, terminally disenchanted satire of two dimwitted clerks failing to escape their petit bourgeois fate. Wherever you go, there you are—unfortunately.
Eight years on, with his new novel Hark, Sam engages with the Age of Trump, aka the Big Con—a time when our disappointments are so acute that the need to believe on the part of a large percentage of the citizenry apparently cannot be extinguished by the preponderance of evidence or application of common sense.
The first thing to be said about the book is that Sam has never been sharper or funnier. It is my habit when reading a bound galley for review to dog ear pages where passages that made me laugh or that seem worth quoting strike me. My galley of Hark is so comprehensively dog eared that the whole thing resembles a dog’s ear. The second thing to be said is that Hark presents Sam’s most socially expansive portrait and diagnosis of American life, tinged with a slightly futuristic and dystopian vibe. It features the largest canvas and cast of characters of all his novels, and is the first of them to be written in the third person rather than the first, allowing access to a several competing and complimentary points of views and interior realities.
The Hark of the title is Hark Morner—his mother mistook the word in the Christmas carol for a name rather than an exhortation—who has accidentally drifted from stand-up into guru status when his routine on “Mental Archery” and its sharpening of “focus” proves congenial to corporate conventions and TED-type conclaves. Despite his lack of internal conviction he has attracted a circle of seekers who see in him whatever it is they seem to need. Chief among them is Kate Rumpler, an heiress and financial angel who is on her own private atonement tour, flying bone marrow from donors on flights around the country. Then there is the obligatory Lipsyte Man, Fraz Penig, an unemployed—actually never-employed—filmmaker who tutors the children of the one percent for a sort of living and produces video content for the Harkist website. He is married to Tovah Gold, a poet who earns the real paycheck in the family concocting bullshit-speak for something called the Blended Learning Enhancement Project”; both partners are “locked in a low-level quotidian apocalypse” and the marriage is mired on the shoals of her boredom and barely contained annoyance. (“The qualities in Fraz she once claimed to adore are not so adorable anymore.”)
Hark, a cipher to himself and an empty vessel similar to the figure of Chance in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, serves as a blank screen on which these and other characters project their ambitions and unreasonable hopes, family, work, sex, country and community having proven to be letdowns or outright delusions.
Lipstye’s satire in Hark has never been more cutting or timely. Meg, one of Hark’s acolytes, excitedly extols the virtues of something called Mercystream: “It’s amazing. Instead of letting refugees into the country, we can give them laptops and listen to their stories as they stream them from their camps. It’s all about empathy.” Fraz’s prematurely wised-up daughter Lisa declares, “School’s like a factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people.” Musing on the root of her attraction to Hark, a character decides, “Your brain gets tired, brittle. It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time. You crave a certain stupor, aka belief”—in itself a neat capsule statement of the novel’s controlling theme.
Lipsyte crams quite a lot of event into Hark’s 284 pages, much of it violent, some of tragic and fatal, and some of it even mystical and visionary, with a final chapter taking place in what is clearly the afterlife. To my mind Sam is attempting to craft a contemporary parable about the birth of religion, how faith, battered into near-extinction by the fraudulence and mendacity of the world, will batten on to the nearest plausible object. In this sense the novel is strikingly similar to Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists, the powerful, even overwhelming first novel of his teacher at Brown that similarly deals with the birth of a cult in the wake of death and disaster. There are also many parallels to be found in the way Nathanael West handles the volatile mixture of credulity and rage in the people he calls “the disappointed” in his indelible The Day of the Locust. In this as in so many other ways Sam Lipsyte is West’s truest successor among our living American novelists. I can offer no higher compliment.
3.Sam Lipsyte began writing in earnest in the early ’90s, just as the pundits were declaring the end of history and a global reign of liberal (or neoliberal) democracy and a goodies-producing market economy stretched into the foreseeable (hah) future. It was not perhaps the best psychic weather for a natural-born naysayer with a provocateur’s instinct and a shot putter’s explosive delivery. But what happened on 9/11 and the subsequent dot-com crash and then the Great Recession opened up a space in the culture for the sort of uncompromising and truth-telling satirist Sam was born to be and the mode of black humor most congenial to his extravagant gifts of language and imagination. It is a critical commonplace that the brain-numbing events of the Trump presidency have rendered satire powerless—a critique of fiction’s incapacity in the wake of American idiocy that dates back to Philip Roth’s in the early ’60s, a time of comparative legibility. Tell it to Aristophanes, Juvenal, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, the George Orwell of Animal Farm.
Tell it to Sam Lipstye. And then you’d better duck.
Image: Flickr/Pete Banks
At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die.
The nightmare started when the police burst into his apartment and dragged him away in the middle of the night, along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a group made up of artists and thinkers who discussed radical ideas together, such as equality and justice, and occasionally read books. Madmen, clearly. To be fair, the tsar, Nicholas I, had a right to be worried about revolution. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it was obvious throughout the world that something was happening. In addition to earlier revolutions in America and France, revolutionary ideas were spreading like a virus around the world through art, literature, philosophy, science, and more. To the younger generation and Russians who suffered most under the current regime, it was exhilarating. For those like Nicholas I, whose power depended on the established order, it was terrifying.
So these revolutionaries, most barely in their 20s, were hauled off to the Peter and Paul Fortress, a prison that contained some of Russia’s most vicious criminals. After months of isolation broken up by the occasional interrogation, Dostoevsky and the rest were condemned to death by firing squad.
They were marched into the cold. A priest allowed each man to kiss a cross. Then shrouds were draped over their heads, which did nothing to drown out the soul-crushing sound of soldiers raising their rifles as their commander cried out ONE!…TWO!…
WAIT! someone cried. The tsar had changed his mind — the prisoners would be spared!
Dostoevsky and the rest had been victims of a hilarious prank Nicholas I sometimes played on prisoners, staging mock-executions before sending them off to Siberia. When the condemned men heard they had been “saved” by their benevolent tsar, some immediately lost their minds. But not Dostoevsky. He held on and endured two brutal years in a Siberian prison, before enduring another two brutal years in the army. His life wasn’t exactly easy after that. But in large part because of all that suffering, he would grow into the author of such classics as Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, and more.
Plenty of readers know about the later, mature Dostoevsky, but far fewer know about the young man he once was, the one who thought he was moments away from execution. His presence in front of a firing squad may come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Dostoevsky’s later writing, in which he was a ferocious opponent of the young generation’s revolutionary ideas, and an equally ferocious defender of the tsar’s authority and the Russian Orthodox Church. It’s no exaggeration to say that Dostoevsky felt the very soul of Russia was at stake. Ivan Turgenev, in his short novel Fathers and Sons, coined the word “nihilists” for these young radicals, who seemed hell bent on smashing the existing society and replacing it with one founded on values inimical to people like Dostoevsky. They were an existential threat to the nation and they are presented as such throughout all of Dostoevsky’s later works. Sometimes their ideas are the focus of his attacks, like in Notes from Underground, which is essentially a rebuttal to the socialist arguments made in What Is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky, (a book that, more than any other, inspired those who would later instigate the Russian Revolution). Other times, the youth of Russia are the explicit enemy. The plot of Demons was directly inspired by the murder of a Russian at the hands of a group not all that different from the Petrashevsky Circle. In fact, Dostoevsky later acknowledged in his Diary of a Writer that, as a young man, he himself might have been swayed to commit such a horrible act.
Clearly, the post-Siberia Dostoevsky was a different man than the one who faced down that firing squad, to put it mildly. So how do we understand this abrupt transformation? Perhaps the best way is by exploring Dostoevsky’s early major works — Poor Folk, The Double, and Netochka Nezvanova — which offer invaluable insights into just how Dostoevsky became Dostoevsky.
Poor Folk, Dostoevsky’s first novel, is in some ways the most atypical novel of his career. First, it is his only epistolary novel, composed of letters between a poor old man, Makar Devushkin, and Varvara Dobroselova, a poor young woman he helps support financially (to the extent that he can). They live humble lives, and struggle with daily life rather than colossal questions about existence or morality. Compared with a book like Crime and Punishment, Poor Folk feels small. The author’s focus is on meticulously outlining the dreary existence that those on the outskirts of society quietly endure every single day. When Varvara receives a flower Makar has bought her, she is overwhelmed with gratitude, and when a father is able to help pay for a birthday gift for his son, he is equally ecstatic. A flower and a birthday gift — these are important not as symbols but for what they are, tiny tokens of the love that make life bearable. Of course, there are tragedies, too. Friends and family are lost, and the devastation is all the more profound because Dostoevsky’s poor folk have so little to lose.
The persistent need for money is always on characters’ minds. Given the extraordinary sympathy Dostoevsky shows his characters and the sometimes subtle, sometimes not-so-subtle, criticism of society throughout, it’s easy to see why Vissarion Belinsky, the most important Russian critic at the time, deemed it the first “social novel.” It was emblematic of the kind of literature many involved in revolutionary circles thought was the way of the future — the novel as a cry for social justice, a working-class weapon.
Poor Folk is a fine novel, and Dostoevsky demonstrates the kind of negative capability, to use John Keats’s phrase, that would allow him to create characters like Raskolnikov and Ivan Karamazov, who are discussed by scholars to this day as if they were real people. But it’s absurd to think Poor Folk would have become the national sensation it did and launch the 23-year-old Dostoevsky to literary superstardom had it not been the right kind of book at the right time. Dostoevsky likely didn’t set out to upend the capitalist system with Poor Folk, but it certainly fit in well with a growing trend in literature that focused on the downtrodden and weak, along with the shameful indifference of a society that allowed such suffering to persist. Nikolai Gogol’s short story, “The Overcoat,” also caused a sensation in Russia (and is actually read and written about by Makar in Poor Folk). It also highlighted the indignities that the poor had to endure every day, but like many of Gogol’s stories, there is a supernatural element, in this case involving a ghost. Poor Folk has no such supernatural element. It is painfully, unflinchingly realistic. Consequently, Belinsky and others praised it and predicted nothing but great things for the newly-arrived genius.
You’re in your early 20s, your first book is a major national success, and the most influential literary critic in the country has literally declared you are a genius. How would you react?
Maybe you’d take the fame and flattery in stride and stay level-headed. But Dostoevsky didn’t, and by all accounts, he became an insufferable jerk. Worse, he was an incredibly sensitive insufferable jerk, unable to handle any criticism. And that was all he got after Poor Folk. Everything he wrote was one commercial disappointment after another. At first people like Belinsky thought it was a temporary slump, and Dostoevsky would bounce back with another great social novel. But Dostoevsky continued to experiment with different kinds of stories, none of which suited the political climate of Russia at the time or the taste of the very critics who had made Dostoevsky a star. In the eyes of most literary circles, Dostoevsky was just a one-hit wonder.
One of these “disappointments” was his second major work, The Double. From the very first page, it’s clear that this is not another Poor Folk. It feels like a different species of literature altogether. For one thing, whereas his first book focused on two characters and a community of other people in their lives, The Double is all about Goliadkin, a nobody who finds merely existing a difficult task. He is nervous, jumpy, paranoid, awkward, and incapable of a sane conversation. At multiple points, people interrupt his jumbled, meandering monologues to confess they have no idea what the hell he’s talking about. And this is before his exact double, also named Goliadkin, gets hired at his office. But the similarities are only skin-deep. This Goliadkin is a success in every way that the first Goliadkin is a miserable failure, and the new version gradually begins displacing the original from his own life. The story becomes increasingly bizarre until it ends the only way the life of someone like Goliadkin ever could — total insanity.
There are many things to admire about the hallucinatory world of this novella. The surreal nature of Goliadkin’s double anticipates the dialogue between Ivan Karamazov and the Devil in The Brothers Karamazov. Second, the inner monologue of Goliadkin shows Dostoevsky already toying with the idea of excessive-consciousness as sickness that will become a hallmark of his greatest novels. The plot is almost secondary to the maze-without-an-exit that is Goliadkin’s mind. And third, just writing this novella was brave. Dostoevsky could have stuck with what worked and cranked out another Poor Folk, but he chose to stretch himself beyond the social novel, to not write in the service of any ideology.
Belinsky and others didn’t see it this way, and the flops kept on coming right up to the point when Dostoevsky was arrested in the middle of the night. However, he was at work just then on his first full-length novel, which he believed would redeem his literary reputation. We’ll never know what the public’s reaction would have been to the full novel because it was never finished. Only the beginning chapters were completed and, by the time he got back to writing many years later, he had moved on to other projects.
However, fragment or not, the parts of Netochka Nezvanoza that do exist are worth our attention because, compared to Poor Folk and The Double, this is the closet the young Dostoevsky gets to becoming the Dostoevsky we all know today.
This story is also another outlier in terms of structure — while Poor Folk was an epistolary novel, Netochka Nezvanova was meant to be a kind of Dickensian story that would cover the life of its protagonist from childhood to adulthood. Think of it as David Copperfield, only with more mental breakdowns and sadomasochistic relationships.
Dostoevsky can’t help injecting the story with the kind of increasingly-acute psychological realism he does so well. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than in the fact that, for nearly half of the existing text, Netochka, the little Dickensian soon-to-be orphan, is completely overshadowed by her explosive stepfather, Efimov. Efimov is a clear precursor to the Underground Man, whose life is a stark warning that we need to live our lives, not dream our way through them. Efimov’s dream is to be a great violinist, but alcoholism and his petty nature drive him to poverty, along with Netochka and her poor mother, who sadly fell for Efimov’s self-narrative that he was a genius destined for glory.
If Efimov’s story ended there, his degradation would just be a compelling portrait of a man’s gradual ruination. But this is Dostoevsky, so it’s only the beginning. Although Efimov knows on some level he will never be an internationally famous violinist, he clings to the idea that he is the best violinist in the world. It doesn’t matter if no one else knows it — he knows it, and that self-delusion becomes the foundation for his life. His whole psyche becomes nothing but a jumble of rationalizations he comes to define himself by. If he isn’t the world’s greatest violinist, he’s nothing. And when he hears a violinist who is undeniably greater than he ever was or could be, we see what happens when a man wakes up from a dream he’s been living for far, far too long.
There are other shades of the later, great Dostoevsky to be found in this unfinished novel, but Efimov alone testifies to his development as a writer whose understanding of the human condition would become infinitely richer than anything that could have been explored within the predetermined confines of a social novel.
Each of these works hints at the kind of writer Dostoevsky could have become. Had he followed Poor Folk with another social novel, stuck with the surrealism of The Double, or written more Dickensian bildungsromans like Netochka Nezvanova, we would be talking about a very different Dostoevsky today, if we talked about him at all. But instead he synthesized the best elements of all these works and enhanced them with the profound understanding of human nature he began to develop in Siberia.
Of course, it’s not necessary to read any of these early works to appreciate Dostoevsky, one of the few writers who can scream in print. But the arc of his literary life becomes all the more fascinating when we consider Dostoevsky’s early career, when he was still figuring out what to scream about, and had his hardest days, and greatest works, still ahead of him.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
“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.
When it comes to this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s almost Biblical: in the beginning there was Twitter, and the tweets were about toilets. Whether as a result of poor planning and corruption — or whether as a call-back to the uniquely Soviet production quota issues that led to backwards high heels and sticky raincoats — the facilities in Sochi have been the butt of jokes across the internet since the first reporters touched down weeks ago. The issues are legion: there are missing pipes; there are innovative seat covers; and everywhere there are reminders that privacy is a lie.
(Of course, these superficial issues belie much more systemic and widespread problems, and I hope that the journalists decrying the last-minute paint jobs are going to be equally vocal about Russia’s deeply unsettling human rights issues.)
Yet and still, I’ll admit that my Millions colleague Janet Potter and I have indulged our affinity for Schadenfreude by cataloguing some of the more outrageous entries popping up on our Twitter timelines. (The best typically bear the hashtags #SochiProblems and #RatchetOlympics.) All the while, I’ve found myself subconsciously pairing the absurdities with their analogues from the canon of Russian literature. And as I’ve come to learn, the Russian masters saw the writing on the wall well before the Olympic torch made its way to the Black Sea’s coast. Below, I offer a brief compendium of classic quotations paired with some of the more incredible and regrettable sights that Sochi has to offer.
“Such complete, absolute ignorance of everyday reality was touching and somehow repulsive.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
Sochi menu. Not a joke. pic.twitter.com/OAnXN9h5rk
— Eugene Gourevitch (@gourev) February 5, 2014
“Death can only be profitable: there’s no need to eat.” – Anton Chekhov, “Rothschild’s Fiddle”
— Liz Clarke (@lizclarketweet) February 6, 2014
“There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
— Wayne Drehs (@espnWD) February 6, 2014
“It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.” – Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector General
— Steph Stricklen (@StephStricklen) February 6, 2014
“By words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.” – Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?
— The Straits Times (@STcom) February 6, 2014
“’No strangers allowed. Go away.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘Understanding is strictly forbidden. Even dreams have the right to dream. Isn’t that so? Now go away.’” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
— The Atlantic Cities (@AtlanticCities) February 6, 2014
“Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!” ― Vladimir Mayakovksy, “An Extraordinary Adventure…”
— U.S. Figure Skating (@USFigureSkating) February 7, 2014
“In fact, I’m beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly.” – Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
— Baiba Rubesa (@rubesita) January 25, 2014
“Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel.” – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
Russian deputy PM on Sochi (through a translator): "There are no jobless people here." Also said there will be a Russian Disneyland here.
— SeanFitz_Gerald (@SeanFitz_Gerald) February 6, 2014
“Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism; other men die
But I am not another: therefore I’ll not die” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
I was taking a shower and the door got locked/jammed….
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
“And over the village slipped the days, passing into the nights; the weeks flowed by, the months crept on, the wind howled, and, glassified with an autumnal, translucent, greenish-azure, the Don flowed tranquilly down to the sea.” – Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don
— Sochi 2014 (@Sochi2014) January 29, 2014
“And everything that he saw before him / He despised or hated.” – Mikhail Lermontov, “The Demon” (Note: Russian)
— Mark Connolly (@MarkConnollyCBC) February 6, 2014
“—The point is Americans are always scared about something—frightened they’ll be kicked out of their job or their wife’s going to get raped or their car stolen…they’re scared stiff the whole time…
—Still, they don’t have these queues.
—No, they don’t have the queues, that’s true.” – Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue
Sochi residents standing in a line to enter live site where opening ceremony will be broadcast. Entry is free. pic.twitter.com/taLBCzibIW
— Артем Тихомиров (@tyomson1) February 7, 2014
“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
— Jeanessa Garcia (@JeanessaPR) February 10, 2014
“If you have pain in one tooth, rejoice that it is not all your teeth that are aching.” – Anton Chekhov, “Life is Wonderful” *
— The Verge (@verge) February 7, 2014
* Alternate: “The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
“The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” – Alexander Pushkin, “The Hero” (as quoted in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”)
— Aayush Sidd (@ayush_1901) February 7, 2014
“…as I was sifting through a heap of old and new ‘identity cards,’ I noticed that something was missing: my identity.” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse
— Lisa LaFlamme (@LisaLaFlammeCTV) February 7, 2014
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…