This year felt like a year in which I read poorly. Or at least my reading felt inconsistent, and punctuated by long passages in which I was unable to read at all. But now that I have drawn up a list, I seem to have read exactly 50 books, which isn’t too bad.
I read Family Lexicon by Natalia Ginzburg this summer inside a hot, nearly uninhabitable farmhouse on a couch frequented by ants, while everyone else was sitting outside being sociable and eating melon. Ginzburg narrates the rise of fascism in Italy with a dry simplicity that I found extraordinary and very affecting. Perhaps predictably, the book also made me reflect on some of the bizarre sayings that have remained current in my own family over the years. I read Ginzburg’s The Little Virtues a few weeks ago. This one came into my hands with perfect timing, particularly the essay “Human Relationships.”
I inhaled Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise when ill with flu one weekend this spring, mostly while lying on my pink sofa. (Apparently I do a lot of reading on sofas.) Enthralling plot, delicious prose, marked by surprising, instinctual metaphors. Also delicious prose: Penelope Fitzgerald’s At Freddie’s. Both Trust Exercise and At Freddie’s follow a theatrical theme. Trust Exercise (which just won the National Book Award) is set, at least first, at an American performing arts high school. At Freddie’s follows a children’s theatre school running into financial difficulties, although like all Fitzgerald novels its plot winds whimsically out of your hands so that when you reach the end you feel a little uncertain about what just happened, while the afterimages of the characters are so strong they stay with you for ages. I’ll have to start spacing my Fitzgerald novels out every two years or I will run through them too quickly. At Freddie’s is also hysterically funny. I read it in Spain.
I read three Etel Adnan books in quick succession: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Sitt Marie Rose, and Of Cities & Women. She is a wonderful person to spend time with, writing with great wisdom of war, womanhood, exile, wandering, the weather.
I read three Etel Adnan books in quick succession: In the Heart of the Heart of Another Country, Sitt Marie Rose, and Of Cities & Women. She is a wonderful person to spend time with, writing with great wisdom of war, womanhood, exile, wandering, the weather.
I started José Saramago’s A Year of the Death of Ricardo Reís in Madrid and finished it on a series of hallucinatory morning bus journeys to the British Library in London. I read Raja Shehadeh’s Going Home while in Palestine, in Ramallah, which is the main subject of his ruminations as he walks the city’s streets, recounting its inhabitants, insurgencies, and repressions with vividness and insight. This is also where I read The Years by Annie Ernaux, a memoir mostly in the third person and a masterpiece of granular history-telling, mingling the large and the small, the private and the public, with great beauty. I thought her descriptions of consumerism were amazing. My only regret was that I didn’t have my own copy, so I couldn’t underline everything. Two people in the space of a week mentioned they had just read it, and I somehow ended up with both copies on loan, one of which had a couple of bougainvillea flowers pressed separately inside; I asked the friend who lent that copy if the location of the flowers signified anything, but they did not, disappointingly.
In London, I reread Beloved by Toni Morrison, which made me cry like I cried when I was 16. It reminded me of another rereading, of a very different book—Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Only when I returned to Portrait a few years ago did I realize how formative it must have been when I first read it as a teenager: it seemed to have left a permanent imprint on my brain which, reread, it slotted into. I felt the same way about Beloved.
Some other memorable reads this year: Passing by Nella Larsen, The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell, Soul by Andrey Platonov, Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg, All The Battles by Maan Abu Taleb, Children of the Ghetto by Elias Khoury, The Twenty-Ninth Year by Hala Alyan, The Body Artist by Don DeLillo, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun.
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Mary Gaitskill’s singular ability to create characters that are rigid and vulnerable, complex and demanding, has earned her a devoted readership, along with a National Book Award nomination, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a PEN/Faulkner nomination. Her new novel, The Mare, is softer in many ways than her previous books. The characters are easier to root for, but at the same time, Gaitskill delivers the same hard edges; it’s a compelling book, but it’s not easy reading.
The Mare tells the story of an 11-year-old Dominican-American girl named Velvet who lives in Crown Heights, N.Y. She joins a summer program called Fresh Air, where city kids live upstate for a few weeks with a sponsor family. Through Fresh Air, she meets Ginger, a middle-aged woman with no children, and the two form a bond during their summers together, filled with both love and struggle. Perhaps more important for Velvet than her relationship with Ginger, however, is a deep connection she develops with an abused horse named Fiery Girl. The novel follows Velvet through several years of school, vacations, and home life, and because it’s a Gaitskill novel, it’s not just a book about a girl and a horse, but a meditation on abuse, betrayal, self-defeat, self-discovery, and ultimately, love.
I talked to Gaitskill over the phone about The Mare, about listening to the story within, and about her life as a writer.
The Millions: Can you talk about your writing habits? What does your daily schedule look like?
Mary Gaitskill: That really varies. I’m not consistent like some people seem to be. Sometimes I don’t write at all. If I’m not really working on anything, I might go for quite a while without writing. I’ve never kept a record of it, but I could guess the longest time I went without writing anything was probably two months. Then at other times, I’ve written, but it was just magazine articles. It wasn’t heavy lifting. But if I am working on something, I usually do work every day. The pattern is usually, starting sometime in the morning after eating, working for maybe two hours, stopping, doing errands, eating lunch, coming back, working for another two to four hours, going to the gym maybe. Eating dinner. Working for another period of two hours. It’s usually a two to four hour block of time. Sometimes it gets up to six. That’s unusual, but it does happen.
I’ve never worked over six hours, which I’m sorry to admit because you do read about great writers working 10 hours at a stretch. I’ve never done that, but six has happened. If I’m really into the piece, I’ll start before I eat in the morning. I’ll wake up, have coffee, and start writing. If I’m really, really excited, I can write wherever I am. When I’m really interested in something, I’ve written at airport restaurants. That’s if I’m really, really into it. But, I usually have to have a quiet place, and really spend some time sitting, without any distractions, and then I get into a frame of mind where I really focus. That’s more normal.
TM: Do you find that you still read while you’re working? I hear many writers say, “I can’t read any fiction while I’m writing a novel. I only read nonfiction” — but I find that I’m the opposite. I have to be constantly reading.
MG: I don’t stop reading fiction when I’m writing. I make a half-conscious attempt to read things that I think might be inspiring, but it’s not necessarily a direct thing, like I’m looking specifically for influence or anything like that. But I sometimes do that, try to think of something that’s going to be helpful somehow.
TM: Let’s talk about The Mare, or really, about another piece I think might be connected. You published a nonfiction piece in Granta, titled “Lost Cat,” that discussed, among other things, your personal experience fostering two inner-city kids during a summer program. There are some obvious parallels, so I wanted to ask you what relation that essay has to The Mare.
MG: Not very much really. You’re right, that the character Velvet is inspired by the girl in “Lost Cat,” but the circumstances are really different. She’s got a different character, different personality, and her life is different, things that happen are different. So, there’s not really very many parallels in the sense of action.
TM: Both pieces also have an animal or animals as central figures, so in “Lost Cat,” it’s your runaway kitten Gattino and in The Mare, it’s an abused horse named Fiery Girl. In both cases, there’s a relationship between the human woman and the non-human animal that seems primal and nonverbal, or pre-verbal, and you say in “Lost Cat,” “Gattino was attuned to me. I think he could feel me even from far away. I think feeling fear from me further unmoored him.” Then in The Mare, Velvet also mentions repeatedly that “the horses feel her thoughts.”
MG: I wouldn’t stand behind that statement in any argumentative way. I definitely can’t. It’s not something I can prove at all, and I may have felt that way because I was really upset. It could be that people imagine things like that when they’re in a heightened state of emotion or they want to believe it, or they’re thinking so powerfully about the animal that they imagine the animal feels them. I do think it’s possible. I think animals have highly developed senses. That the senses that we know about in them may be beyond what we can understand. So it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually was true. I wouldn’t try to convince anyone of that though, if they didn’t believe it.
TM: Were you worried at all about writing a novel about a horse?
MG: In what way? You mean, could I do it?
TM: I mean…I was very touched by the piece “Lost Cat” because I lost a dog two years ago, and it was devastating, completely devastating. But other people found it really unserious.
MG: Yeah. Oh, people totally make fun of “Lost Cat.” People just utterly laughed at it. I think people who don’t…It’s difficult to understand somebody’s grief, actually, even when it’s about a human being. I remember when my father died, I was so utterly wrapped up in grief, and really stunned by it, and yet maybe a year later, someone told me his mother had died and I realized I wasn’t taking it in. I had no memory anymore of how it had felt. I could remember it, and then deleted it. I couldn’t really remember what that feeling was like, and he told me in an email. I started to answer his email kind of briefly, and then I realized, wait a minute, he just told you his mother died. It’s hard to connect with those feelings even if it’s actually about a person. So if it’s about an animal, and you’re not a person who really has ever had that kind of relationship with a pet, of course it looks utterly ridiculous and sentimental and histrionic and just absurd. So I’m not surprised if people react like that.
TM: The beginning of The Mare moves back and forth between just two points of view, the two main characters, Velvet and Ginger, giving each of them alternating first person chapters. But then starting on page 61, we first get Ginger’s husband Paul’s perspective and then eventually get Velvet’s mother, Silvia, and then one of the horse trainers, and even Velvet’s brother. Why and how did you decide to open up the narrative in that way?
MG: Those choices were mostly intuitive, and I really resisted making Silvia a point-of-view character. She was a character that I did not intend to go into. I originally just meant to keep it Ginger and Velvet, and then Paul seemed like…That was a very natural decision because he was somebody who could describe the situation in a way that Ginger never would. He could create a perspective that I felt was important. But Silvia, at first I thought, I can’t do this. I can’t understand her well enough and I won’t do her justice.
My editor, even, when she saw a first draft, said, “I don’t know about this. I loved all that but I don’t know about this.” And yet, it kept coming to me almost like a physical feeling. At a certain point, I really wanted to hear what she had to say, even though that’s a silly way to put it because I’m inventing her, but she seemed like she had to be there at certain times, so I kept doing it. I’m not sure how successful it is, because she really was the character who I had the most difficulty…Not understanding her on a really basic level but on a more detailed level, on a more intimate level.
I don’t know what it would be like to be her. Velvet was hard too, but she is somebody who was born in this country, so she’s maybe half Dominican, but she’s American. She is very attuned to American culture far more than she would be to Dominican culture. She’s never been to the DR. So I felt more familiar with her, but Silvia was really hard. I hope I did her justice. I couldn’t keep her out of it though, finally.
TM: As you were saying, Silvia is an immigrant. She doesn’t have a lot of money. She’s abusive. She has a traumatic emotional background in terms of Velvet’s father. So you’re writing across race, and then obviously Velvet is so young. I couldn’t think of another character who is a teenager in your work. I could be wrong about that, but I thought she was the first one.
MG: There was a character in my second book of short stories, a teenage girl named Elise. The girl was 16 years old, which is older than Velvet. Then the girl in “Secretary” actually, I never gave her age. I pictured her being about 17. But Velvet is much younger. At the beginning she’s 11, and that was really, really hard because I think kids of that age, and younger even, are incredibly perceptive about what’s going on around them. They don’t even have to be especially intelligent, which Velvet, in my mind, is, but they don’t even have to be. I think even kids with average intelligence are very, very aware of what they’re looking at, but they don’t have the vocabulary to describe it.
I remember when I was young, looking at people and taking in a tremendous amount of information about them, but I would never have been able to say in words even to myself what it was I was looking at. I think adults have that experience too, even very articulate adults, but for children it’s just constant.
So the challenge was to create this girl who would be very, very perceptive about everything she’s seeing, and particularly vigilant because in her own neighborhood it’s a tough environment. Then when she’s upstate, she’s surrounded by people who don’t quite understand what’s going on. So she’s looking much more closely than somebody who lived there would look. But, at the same time, she’s not going to have a sophisticated vocabulary with which to describe any of it. You do have a little leeway with fictional characters. You can make them speak in a more sophisticated way than they really would, but you should be somewhat true to life. So that was a challenge.
And then when writing across race, that was also really a challenge because I don’t know what it would be like to be non-white. I can guess at it. I can feel my way into some of it, but at the end of the day, I don’t really know. So I found that very challenging. When I first had the idea of the book, my first thought was, “I can’t do that.” I didn’t sit down confidently and go, “Oh, wow, that’s great idea,” and then sit down to write it. My first thought was, “No, you can’t do that.”
I’d had the idea in 2007, and I just thought, “No,” and yet it kept coming to me. This has never happened before, actually. Scenes would come into my mind when I wasn’t even thinking about it. I’d be just like in an airport or just walking down the street or waking up in the morning, and I would get these images and scenes. One of the first scenes that came to me like that was the scene of Velvet riding the horse bareback when she’s angry at Beverly for mistreating a different horse. That scene came into my mind back in 2007, I think, when I thought I wasn’t going to write it. It kept happening, and so I thought, “well, I’m going to try this.” I was so strongly compelled that I went against my better judgement in a way and thought, I’ll try.
I also was working on another book, so I didn’t really have any need to start another novel right then. But I sat down, and I wrote maybe 50 pages. I showed it to my editor, and she really liked it. So that’s how it happened. But I never had a feeling of confidence about what I was doing in any of it really. The whole project of writing, trying to write people who are not only of a different ethnicity, but also I don’t know what it would be like to be that color. They’re also very poor. They’re even poor for the people around them. Velvet has less than the other girls in her school. So that’s a very, very heavy and particular experience.
TM: Setting seems incredibly important for the novel. It’s as if Ginger’s house and Velvet’s apartment are different planets altogether. I found the train travel really interesting between the two places. It allows the characters to transition, but there’s also a lot of waiting. There are a lot of missed meetings.
MG: I don’t know if I’ve got anything interesting to say about that. It’s an interesting observation, and I think you’re right that I do spend time covering the distance between the two places. It is like a passage going somewhere else. I didn’t really think about it other than it would literally be the case that they’d be spending time on this train.
It’s a dreamy place because, in a way, I really underplay the influence of phones and devices. The timing, I believe, I set it 2006 to 2009. I don’t remember exactly, but that was before phones completely exploded and people were just staring at their phone non-stop. Velvet actually, believe it or not, as poor as they are, she doesn’t even have a phone until fairly late in the book. So there isn’t anything to do but either talk, or read a magazine, or look out the window. She does listen to music sometimes. So it’s a dreamy state, and it’s a state where there’s a lot of nature. They’re not in the city, and they’re not in the cultured world of upstate either. There’s just trees and water around them.
TM: Did you set it during that time period on purpose so you wouldn’t have to deal with the distraction of characters texting each other, or did it just seem natural for the novel?
MG: It did seem natural, partly because, I hate to admit it, I don’t feel like I understand the world I’m living in very well at this point. Whereas at that point, I still did. I felt very connected to the culture. I’ve never been a person who’s super culturally connected. People sometimes have talked about me as if I’m a cultural analyst, and I am not.
This culture is like a chimera before which I stand agog. I’ve never really felt like I understood it, but during that time period I did feel more tuned in. I think that’s probably an unconscious reason I set it during that time.
TM: There’s so much about riding in this book. Do you ride horses at all?
MG: Well, I never did. When you asked me earlier, “Did I feel worried about writing about a horse,” actually yes. I didn’t see it as about the horse at first, because I was so focused on the girl. I didn’t understand going into it how complicated the horse world is, how many different facets it has, and also riding itself and the relationship between people and horses.
There’s a lot there, and I didn’t know how to ride. I actually was dumb enough to think that I could learn about it by asking people questions. I went into the stable with my notebook and pen was like, “Have you ever had a real connection with a horse? What did it feel like?” I actually asked that question. But I realized, and very quickly, that this wasn’t going to work, that I had to do it myself.
I didn’t want to because I was somewhat afraid of horses. I wasn’t phobic or anything, but I had no draw to them the way some girls do when they’re little. I thought they were nice. I don’t dislike any animal, but when it came to handling them and being on top of them, I was afraid. So it was hard.
I ended up spending three years with them. I didn’t ride for all that time because I was just so honestly uncomfortable doing it, and that made the horses uncomfortable. They’re extraordinarily sensitive, and if they feel you are uncomfortable, especially if they feel you’re actually frightened, they don’t enjoy having you on top of them at all.
If it’s a lesson horse, they’re used to it. But they don’t like it, and it’s a horrible feedback loop that gets started. Even when I was just tacking a horse and getting it ready. If it did any normal horse-like thing like toss its head or paw at the ground, I would flinch, and then the horse would flinch, and I would flinch even more and it would just…It was terrible. Then I fell off of a horse at a certain point. Fortunately, I didn’t get hurt. It didn’t throw me off or anything, but I just fell off. I was bareback so it’s pretty easy to slide off.
I was too afraid to get back on, and I just decided I would groom them and clean out their stalls instead of riding, and I did that for a few months. But the weird thing was I became very comfortable with them because of handling, and they became comfortable with me because I was very predictable. I did a good job. I liked grooming them. I learned where they liked to be scratched and touched, and I was very thorough and they came to feel comfortable with me. So one day realized I’m not afraid of them right now. I decided I had to start riding again so I did, and it was a really interesting experience. I fell in love with one of them actually.
With horses especially, they’re looking at you to be in charge, to be the confident person who is going to guide them through whatever it is you’re going to do and sometimes it’s more of a partnership, but mostly they’re looking at you to be the boss. If you’re not, if you’re frightened, they’re going, what’s happening? Why is she doing this? Why is she afraid? It makes them nervous.
TM: What have you been reading lately?
MG: Right now, I’m reading something called Soul by a Russian writer named Andrey Platonov. I don’t have it with me right now, but it’s really good. I just started it. And before that, I was reading Brian Boyd’s biography of Vladimir Nabokov. And before that, I was really into the book called The Orientalist by Tom Reiss.
TM: What are you working on right now, if anything?
MG: I’m not really working on anything right now, but I’ve got a book that I stopped writing in order to write The Mare that I hope to return to. I’m also working on a book of essays that will be published in a year or so.
Last summer, several sheets to the wind, a novelist friend of mine and I found ourselves waxing nostalgic about 1997 – the year when Underworld, American Pastoral, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and Mason & Dixon came out. (It was also probably the year both of us finished working our way through Infinite Jest, which had been published a year earlier.) Ah, sweet 1997. I was tempted to say that times like those wouldn’t come around again.
This year, however, Pisces must have been in Aquarius, or vice versa, or something. The number of novelists with a plausible claim to having published major work forms a kind of alphabet: Aira, Amis, Bolaño, Boyd, Carey, Cohen, Cunningam, Donoghue, Flaubert (by way of Davis), Grossman, Krauss, Krilanovich, Lee, Lipsyte, Marlantes, McCarthy, Mitchell, Moody, Ozick, Shriver, Shteyngart, Udall, Valtat, Yamashita… A career-defining omnibus appeared from Deborah Eisenberg, and also from Ann Beattie. Philip Roth, if the reviews are to believed, got his groove back. It even feels like I’m forgetting someone. Oh, well, it will come to me, I’m sure. In the meantime, you get the point. 2010 was a really good year for fiction.
Among the most enjoyable new novels I read were a couple that had affinities: Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies and Adam Levin’s The Instructions. (Disclosure: Adam Levin once rewired a ceiling fan for me. (Disclosure: not really.)) Each of these huge and hugely ambitious books has some notable flaws, and I wanted to resist them both, having developed an allergy to hyperintelligent junior high students. But each finds a way to reconnect the hermetic world of the ‘tween with the wider world our hopes eventually run up against. Murray and Levin are writers of great promise, and, more importantly, deep feeling, and their average age is something like 34, which means there’s likely more good stuff to come.
Another book I admired this year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but since everybody else did, too, you can read about it elsewhere in this series. Let me instead direct your attention to Matthew Sharpe’s more modestly pyrotechnic You Were Wrong. Here Sharpe trains his considerable narrative brio on the most mundane of worlds – Long Island – with illuminating, and disconcerting, results. You Were Wrong, unlike The Instructions et al, also has the virtue of being short. As does Bolaño’s incendiary Antwerp (or any of the several great stories in The Return). Or Cesar Aira’s wonderful Ghosts, which I finally got around to. Hey, maybe 2010 was actually the year of the short novel, I began to think, right after I finished a piece arguing exactly the opposite.
Then, late in the year, when I thought I had my reading nailed down, the translation of Mathias Énard’s Zone arrived like a bomb in my mailbox. The synopsis makes it sounds like rough sledding – a 500-page run-on sentence about a guy on a train – but don’t be fooled. Zone turns out to be vital and moving and vast in its scope, like W.G. Sebald at his most anxious, or Graham Greene at his most urgent, or (why not) James Joyce at his most earthy, only all at the same time.
When it came to nonfiction, three books stood out for me, each of them a bit older. The first was Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, an utterly unclassifiable, conspicuously brilliant, and criminally entertaining magnum opus about consciousness, brains, and formal systems that has been blowing minds for several generations now. The second was Alberto Manguel’s 2008 essay collection, The Library at Night. No better argument for the book qua book exists, not so much because of what Manguel says here, but because the manner in which he says it – ruminative, learned, patient, just – embodies its greatest virtues. And the third was The Magician’s Doubts, a searching look at Nabokov by Michael Wood, who is surely one of our best critics.
Speaking of Nabokov: as great a year as 2010 was for new fiction, it was also the year in which I read Ada, and so a year when the best books I read were classics. In this, it was like any other year. I loved Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children for its language. I loved Andrey Platonov’s Soul for its intimate comedy and its tragic sensibility. I loved that Chekhov’s story “The Duel” was secretly a novel. I loved the Pevear/Volokhonsky production The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories for making a third fat Tolstoy masterpiece to lose myself in. About A House for Mr. Biswas, I loved Mr. Biswas.
And then there were my three favorite reading experiences of the year: Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies, a book about the chains of history and paternity and politics that reads like pure freedom; Dr. Faustus, which I loved less than I did The Magic Mountain, but admired more, if that’s even possible; and The Age of Innocence. Our own Lydia Kiesling has said pretty much everything I want to say about the latter, but let me just add that it’s about as close to perfection as you’d want that imperfect beast, the novel, to come. She was wild in her way, Edith Wharton, a secret sensualist, and still as scrupulous as her great friend Henry James. Like his, her understanding of what makes people tick remains utterly up-to-the-minute, and is likely to remain so in 2015, and 2035… by which time we may know about which of the many fine books that came out this year we can say the same thing. Ah, sweet 2010, we hardly knew ye.
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It’s always a fraught moment when you sit down with a book you’ve been meaning to read for many years. It’s exciting, of course, but you’re aware that the book is not likely to live up to your expectations, and most of the time it doesn’t. Sometimes it does. Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity was first published in 1982; even back then I was a fan of Berman’s idiosyncratic blend of leftist politics with cultural and literary history, but I was too broke to buy new books, and somehow I never got my hands on it in the intervening decades. This year a friend gave me the beautiful Penguin edition, and it lived up to its promise, moving in dizzying, exhilarating fashion from Goethe to Marx to Baudelaire to Petersburg (“The Real and Unreal City”) to “Some Notes on Modernism in New York.” That probably makes it sound off-puttingly formidable, so I’ll repeat Robert Christgau’s words, leading off the review that first made me want the book: what’s most important about it is that it’s a good read. Anyone can toss a bunch of cultural touchstones into a blender and come up with a dense text; very few can make anyone but grad students want to read it. At the beginning of his introduction, Berman says “To be modern is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.” That’s what the book is about, and that sense of adventure, joy, and danger is carried through triumphantly. To give one small example of its effect, I had never been particularly interested in Goethe’s Faust, regarding it as one of those sacred monsters of two centuries ago that inexplicably got everyone excited; now I actually want to read it. And I expect to be rereading Berman every few years from now on.
The most exciting literary discovery I made this past year was Andrey Platonov, who died in obscurity the year I was born. His major works were first published in the ’80s, and reliable texts only appeared in the ’90s; since then his reputation has grown to the point that he is frequently considered the greatest Russian prose writer of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is The Foundation Pit, which boils all the utopianism and horror of the forced collectivization and industrialization of the early 1930s into 150 tightly written pages about a laid-off worker, a bear, and a little girl, among other unforgettable characters. (You can read more about the book at Languagehat.) English-speaking readers are lucky to have the superb translation by Robert Chandler and Olga Meerson, published last year by New York Review Books; the novel was so important to Chandler that he translated it twice, this NYRB version superseding a 1996 one he did for Harvill Press. Platonov’s other major novel is Chevengur, a sprawling work (three times as long as The Foundation Pit) whose inherent tragedy is leavened by picaresque humor; I’m happy to report Chandler and Meerson are working on a translation of that as well, and I look forward to reading it when it appears. Platonov’s brilliant short works can be sampled in the collection Soul, also published by NYRB.
Anyone interested in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and ’60s should read Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia, by Vladislav Zubok, which is, like Berman’s, one of the best works of cultural history I’ve read in many years. After I finished it, I felt as if I’d been reading a great, tragic novel; Zubok’s work is thoroughly reliable (every paragraph has several footnotes referencing histories, diaries, and other sources) but gripping and full of the kind of human insight you don’t usually get from academic history. Michael Scammell, in his review, complained that Zubok slighted dissident heroes like Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel, but their stories are so familiar it’s hard to see what yet another account could provide; the people Zubok writes about were hoping to create an intellectual and artistic renaissance within a country whose leadership turned out to be unwilling to countenance it, so that it all dissipated into the stagnation of the Brezhnev years. For a while, though, it seemed as if anything was possible.
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The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
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Pasternak may be more celebrated, Babel more influential, Grossman more expansive, and Solzhenitsyn more heroic, but for my money, Andrey Platonov might be the finest Russian-language fiction writer of the Soviet era. It’s yet another black mark against Stalinism that “there is probably no twentieth-century writer of [his] stature who is so little known in the English-speaking world,” as Platonov’s translator Robert Chandler has put it. But with this volume, Chandler goes a long way toward rectifying the injustice. Soul and Other Stories reveals Platonov as an incomparable stylist and an utterly singular sensibility. Indeed, as in only the greatest art, the two form a perfect unity.
The Sufi-inflected novel from which the collection takes its title echoes the plot of several other Platonov works, including The Foundation Pit (one of my favorite books of 2009): An idealistic young man sets out to bring the fruits of the revolution to impoverished hinterlands. It would seem that this story can only end in one of two ways: propaganda (the revolution arrives), or dissent (the revolution is a fraud). The miracle of Platonov’s writing, however, is that the depredations it records somehow make his Utopian yearning burn brighter. As Soul’s Mosaic protagonist, Nazar Chagataev, leads his ragtag “nation” across the deserts of Uzbekistan, he comes to see the ineffable…well, soul that blazes in every camel and turtle and tumbleweed, and, by extension, in every person. Of a “savage, enfeebled” mongrel, Platonov writes:
The dog lay down obediently; it was trembling from exhaustion – old, bewildered, lacking the strength to cease living the life that tormented it, yet still convinced of the perfect bliss of its existence, because in its very endurance, in its thin trembling body, there was something good.
Soul is as visionary as any of Cormac McCarthy’s Westerns – which it often resembles – but Platonov is looking in exactly the opposite direction. In Paul Eluard’s formulation: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” The seven short stories that follow are, if possible, even better, transplanting Soul’s huge-heartedness into more recognizably domestic settings. The tender irony with which Platonov observes his proletarian characters’ outward movements is balanced against sudden, startling forays into the interior. “Among Animals and Plants,” “Fro,” “The River Potudan,” “The Cow,” and “The Return” are, simply put, some of the best short stories of the 20th Century. (“Fro” is a good place to start, if you want to ease your way in.)
Soul also represents a correction, of sorts, to a previous NYRB Classics edition, The Fierce and Beautiful World, based on earlier Platonov scholarship. Such is the difficulty of bringing to American readers a writer whose work was, at various points, suppressed, bowdlerized, and destroyed. But now that Platonov’s fierce and beautiful humanism has infected me, I have dreams of seeing his other novels and collected stories translated and in print in the next decade. In the meantime, we can be grateful for the present collection, which can stand alongside the works of Svevo and Walser – and indeed, as Edwin Frank has suggested, those of Kafka and Beckett – as a modernist masterwork.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.
Today’s Question: In honor of the 10th anniversary of NYRB Classics: What out-of-print book would you like to see become an NYRB Classic?
Emily: With presses like Dover, Everyman, the Library of America, Broadview, NYRB, and the Persephone Press (not to mention Oxford and Penguin classics series) doing excellent rediscovery and reprinting work of all kinds, I don’t often find myself longing for a new edition. The one great—nay, I would go so far as to say glaring—exception is the work of Ogden Nash, perhaps best know for epigrams like “Candy/Is dandy/But liquor/Is quicker” and “The Cow”: “The cow is of the bovine ilk;/One end is moo, the other, milk.” Yes, there is a “best of” anthology arranged by Nash’s daughters and printed by Ivan R. Dee, and, yes, he’s in Library of America’s American Wits: An Anthology of Light Verse, but what I long for is a chronological, scholarly “complete works” volume: I want America’s great comic poet to be taken seriously.
Those who’ve only encountered “Custard the Dragon” or Nash’s epigrams (my favorite, which he composed with Dorothy Parker: “Hoggamus higgamus,/ Man is polygamous,/ Higgamus hoggamus,/ Women monogamus”), might question whether Nash is a serious artist deserving of such attention, but if you’ve read poems like “Don’t Look Now, But Your Noblesse Oblige Is Showing,” “Curl Up And Diet,” “Don’t Wait, Hit Me Now!”, or “Bankers Are Just Like Anybody Else, Except Richer”, you know that Nash is a keen social observer with a satirical edge (an edge sharpened by the Great Depression), and an approachable, conversational stylist reminiscent of Frank O’Hara (think “Ave Maria”). Nash’s conversational style sometimes obscures his sparkling wordplay (Cole Porter-ish), his deft, innovative use of meter, and his subtle allusiveness, but look again at poems like “Pastoral” or “Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” or “Columbus.”
Garth: This year, a panel at the PEN World Voices festival prompted me to explore the work of an author who was barely on my radar: Andrey Platonov. I devoured The Foundation Pit in one gulp, on a plane, intoxicated by the discovery of a sensibility as potent, distinctive, and hard to describe as Kafka’s. I’ve since moved on to the stories in Soul, in an impressive translation by Robert & Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson. A certain novelist friend of mine, who’s also a reputable critic, assured me that Platonov’s other major novel Chevengur, is even better than The Foundation Pit, and that a Chandler translation already exists…in the U.K. Apparently, the unreconstructed character of Platonov’s socialism makes Chevengur a tough sell for U.S. audiences. His response to Stalinism was not to abandon utopia, but to turn it into an organizing principle for his art. Still, this is one of the major stylists of his age. We deserve to have his work in print domestically, no matter how undomesticated it may be.
Max: I was introduced to Vasily Aksyonov via his epic Generations of Winter. Here is the twentieth-century Russian analog of the multi-generational epic, tracking the Gradov family through the tragic and tumultuous decades spanning 1925 to 1945. It is a historical period deserving of the weightiness of the once exiled Aksyonov’s novel, and yet the book is not widely known or read. But at least it is still in print. The rest of Aksyonov’s books are unavailable in the U.S.
While Generations of Winter was published after the fall of the Soviet Union (it became a mini-series on Russian television), his dissident novels, originally banned from the Soviet Union, may be more important. The New York Times this year called The Burn and The Island of Crimea “increasingly phantasmagoric and outspoken in their dissidence.” The Burn, the Times said “is a surreal, jazz-inspired riff on the plight of intellectuals under Communism, and Island of Crimea imagines what life would have been like on the Black Sea peninsula if the White Army had staved off the Bolsheviks there during the Russian Civil War and their descendants had flourished.” See also: Vasily Aksyonov, Giant of Russian Literature, Dies at 76; Sonya’s recent championing of another hard-to-find contemporary Russian author.
Let us know what out-of-print books you’d like to see returned to print.
It was raining last Thursday (because it is always raining in New York) when I went to the CUNY Graduate Center to hear a panel called “Language in New Forms: The Work of Andrey Platonov.” I’m glad I braved the weather, however. The panel featured four of the most mellifluous voices in Anglo-American letters – Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Threepenny Review editor Wendy Lesser, and intellectual historian T.J. Clark. I could listen to Ondaatje read the phone book. Even more remarkable, though, was Platonov himself. Indeed, this Russian writer of the Soviet epoch turned out to be my big discovery of this year’s festival.Edwin Frank, whose NYRB Classics imprint has brought Platonov’s fiction back into print, opened the proceedings. Reminding the audience to turn off cellphones, Frank had a kind of Woody Allenish mien, but he waxed eloquent as soon as he began discussing Platonov’s complicated publishing history. Platonov’s “pressurized, contorted. . . lyrical” style made him “the most inventive writer of the revolutionary era,” Frank suggested – a Slavic peer of Beckett and Kafka, only with a desire “to bind up [the world’s] wounds” in addition to probing them. His admirers and champions included Yevtuschenko and Gorky, and like the latter, Platonov truly believed in the revolution. He had the utopian spirit. And yet, perhaps detecting the negative capability that is always hostile to ideology, Stalin’s functionaries suppressed Platonov’s best writing.After this fulsome introduction, the panelists let Platonov’s work speak for itself. Ondaatje read from an early short story. Then Lesser undertook a mash-up, reading half of “Fro” from the recently retranslated collection Soul and half from the “barbaric” older translation (which NYRB published in 2000 as The Fierce and Beautiful World). Apparently, publishing complications have followed Platonov even into English, and Lesser’s reading made clear why. Platonov is an intensely unusual stylist, blending modernist subjectivity with futurist, revolutionary diction and visionary mysticism. Francine Prose’s reading from “his finest story,” the eponymous “Soul,” revealed an animist sympathy with trees and rocks and buildings. “After reading him for a while,” she said, nodding toward her bottle of Aquafina, “you start to wonder what the water bottle might think of this evening’s proceedings.”The most spirited performer of the night, however, turned out to be T.J. Clark, who read a remarkable excerpt from the newly reissued novel, The Foundation Pit. Clark “did all the voices,” as the third-graders I used to teach would say, and drew the audience into a story remarkable, above all, for its sensibility: passionate, tender, absurd, and tragic. It’s a sensibility I look forward to reading much more of in the coming weeks.