Stalin’s Russia was full of self-promoting con-men with invented personas, ambitious intellectuals with questionable credentials, and audacious imposters who for a time succeeded in both faking it and making it. Even some of the highest officials of the Communist Party were revolutionary improvisers lacking either the experience or training to do what history demanded of them. Mikhail Sholokhov (1905?- 1984) can be viewed as the most talented and successful of them all. Rising from obscure, rural origins, he impersonated a great writer long enough to truly become one. He earned the admiration of Joseph Stalin. Sholokhov gamed the most important mark in the Soviet Union. Or was it perhaps the other way around?
Sholokhov had written several promising, but by no means brilliant, short stories by his early twenties. His writing career was on the verge of stalling when he somehow managed to acquire an archive that was left behind when anti-Soviet forces were routed by the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. At a minimum, this archive appears to have included an unfinished novel that ended around 1919 and a trove of scrapbooks consisting of stories, sketches, newspaper clippings, and articles spanning over a decade of Cossack history. In 1926-27 his work with “the big thing,” as he sometimes called it, became more than a novel. It became a mission. From the moment he started to connect narrative threads and patch seams, he transformed from passive consumer to passionate co-creator. He moved, merged, and juxtaposed texts, combining them with new sections drawn from his own background. He added communist threads and amplified communist characters to create the Soviet Union’s epic equivalent to Gone with the Wind. The result was the first volume of Quiet Don, a deeply tragic epic centered on two star-crossed lovers and the twilight of a culture swept up into a whirlwind of war and revolution.
In 1927-28, the first volume of the planned trilogy became an overnight success. Sholokhov was immediately vaulted into the spotlight of Soviet celebrity and acclaimed as a rising star of Russian literature. The novel was hailed as a War and Peace of the revolutionary era. With fame came envy and suspicion. In Moscow, one of Sholokov’s first editors, Feoktist Berezovskii, became highly skeptical of his rapid metamorphosis from an apprentice into a virtuoso. It just seemed too good to be true. He doubted that astonishing prose could emanate from the pen of the same young author whose short story he had laboriously edited just three years earlier.
The ensuing plagiarism scandal brought Sholokhov to Stalin’s attention. In early 1929, rumors began to circulate in Moscow that an old woman had written to Soviet authorities claiming that her son, who disappeared during the Civil War, had written a novel. She insisted that the recently published chapters of Quiet Don were identical to her son’s book. As the story spread, it became more and more elaborate. In some versions the poor old woman was going from publisher to publisher hoping to arrange a tearful reunion with her missing son. In others, she was angrily demanding justice from the authorities. When the rumors reached Stalin, the controversy became a matter of life and death for Sholokhov.
In March 1929, the editorial board of Pravda (the Soviet Union’s most important daily newspaper) convened an ad hoc tribunal to examine the allegations that Sholokhov had plagiarized Quiet Don. Several days later, Pravda publicly exonerated Sholokhov and pronounced the plagiarism gossip to be “malicious slander being spread by enemies of the proletarian dictatorship.” Although Sholokhov weathered the plagiarism scandal, bureaucrats soon banned the newest installments of his novel as anti-Soviet.
Critics complained that his sympathies were not unequivocally on the side of the proletariat. They accused him of humanism, pacifism, and worst of all, objectivism. He dared to portray class enemies without expressing excessive, exaggerated hatred of them. In a desperate effort to save Quiet Don, in the spring of 1931 Sholokhov appealed to Maxim Gorky, Russia’s most famous living writer. The ploy worked. A few weeks later Gorky invited him to a meeting to discuss the novel at his mansion in the heart of Moscow. When Sholokhov arrived Gorky was not alone. A remarkably familiar mustachioed face filled the large room with his presence. The mustache belonged to a face made famous by newspaper engravings and grainy photos of May day parades.
That evening Joseph Stalin decided to discuss characters and scenes in Quiet Don rather than unravel conspiracies or analyze grain reports. Following introductions, Gorky receded into the background. Stalin beckoned Sholokhov to approach. In seconds it became clear that this was no social call. Stalin immediately accused Sholokhov of sympathizing with some of the revolution’s most vicious adversaries. Resorting to one of his favorite tactics, Stalin advanced a series of damning allegations. These were calculated to knock his adversary off balance and unmask his true character. Would his target retreat? Would he submit and become subservient? Or would he push back?
Sholokhov saw the dictator’s eyes burning like those of a tiger ready to pounce. The snap decision he made in that instant had the potential to either influence his life for decades or to end it. He stood his ground. With his career on the line, he confidently argued with Stalin and vigorously defended his audacious decision to write sympathetically about the Cossacks, the former tsarist military caste which rose in rebellion against the Soviet government.
Stalin was impressed by Sholokhov’s tenacity. Concluding his barrage of questions, he started to reminisce about his first, albeit temporary, taste of dictatorship in 1918. The dictator and the writer bonded over conversations about battles which had faded from public memory but would soon become central to the emerging Stalin cult. Elated, Sholokhov departed from the mansion with the most coveted prize in the USSR—Stalin’s telephone number.
Though fate had smiled upon him that evening, Sholokhov soon discovered that a dictator’s favor comes with daily dangers and crushing burdens. As Stalin’s prized protégé he would have to become a new man. That fateful meeting in a mansion forever changed the calculus of young Sholokhov’s literary gambit. The instant Stalin revealed that he too was a fan of the novel, Sholokhov understood that he was in way too deep. The novel transformed him into a Soviet Scheherazade. His very fate now hinged on satisfying a dictator’s literary cravings. He would have to become a cunning courtier to stay alive during the Great Terror. An opportunistic, literary caper became a life-long con…with no possibility of escape.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and originally appeared on publishersweekly.com.
I took Purity in one long gallop, reading it over four days at my friend’s house. Sarah had already read it, and was desperate for me to hurry up and finish so we could talk about it. The minute I put it down, I went to go find her. She was wearing clean white shorts and a miraculously uncreased blue linen shirt. I was wearing a regretted purchase from H&M — a white cotton dress with little roses on it that looked fine in the shop, but depressing on me. I told Sarah that I’d finished and she said, “Have you noticed,” she asked, “the clothes thing?”
Yes, the clothes thing. The whole point of Jonathan Franzen is the richness of his description, his eye for a telling detail. Where are all the clothes, then? Why are there almost no descriptions of what anyone is wearing? It seems like the most amazing oversight. How is it possible that two characters can have an extremely detailed conversation about a third character being “jealous of the internet”, or that we are subjected to a long and over-vivid description of Pip’s boring job, or the smells of different kinds of soil, and yet we are given almost nothing in the way of clothing? They all might as well be walking around naked. The only detailed description of an outfit in the first section, for instance, is the following: “she saw Stephen sitting on the front steps, wearing his little-boy clothes, his secondhand Keds and secondhand seersucker shirt.” The word “seersucker” is latched onto and used twice more (“she whispered into the seersucker of his shirt”; “she said, nuzzling the seersucker”). It gets slightly better as the novel progresses, but not by much. The first time Pip sees Andreas Wolf, for instance, his “glow of charged fame particles” are vividly described, but his clothes? No. Even Tom’s mother’s significant sundress is described only as being “of Western cut.” It’s unsettling.
I know this to be a petty criticism, but there are all kinds of nerds who write long, aggrieved blog posts about how some novelist got a car wrong, or misdated the death of an actress. Clothes have always been important to me, and while their fictional depiction might be beneath some people’s notice, it is always one of the first things I see. Clothes aren’t just something one puts on a character to stop her from being naked. Done right, clothes are everything — a way of describing class, affluence, taste, self-presentation, mental health, body image. Clothes matter. Besides all that, clothes are fun. Descriptions of dresses got me through War and Peace. I think about Dolores Haze’s outfits on a near-daily basis (“check weaves, bright cottons, frills, puffed-out short sleeves, snug-fitting bodices and generously full skirts!”) I think about her cotton pyjamas in the popular butcher-boy style. Holden Caulfield’s hounds-tooth jacket, and Franny Glass’s coat, the lapel of which is kissed by Lane as a perfectly desirable extension of herself. Sara Crewe’s black velvet dress in A Little Princess, and the matching one made for her favourite doll. The green dress in Atonement (“dark green bias-cut backless evening gown with a halter neck.”) Anna Karenina’s entire wardrobe, obviously, but also Nicola Six’s clothes in London Fields. Nicola Six’s clothes are fantastic.
Aviva Rossner’s angora sweaters and “socks with little pom-poms at the heels” in The Virgins. Pnin’s “sloppy socks of scarlet wool with lilac lozenges”, his “conservative black Oxfords [which] had cost him about as much as all the rest of his clothing (flamboyant goon tie included).” May Welland at the August meeting of the Newport Archery Club, in her white dress with the pale green ribbon. I quite often get dressed with Maria Wyeth from Play It As It Lays in mind (“cotton skirt, a jersey, sandals she could kick off when she wanted the touch of the accelerator”). I think about unfortunate clothes, as well. I think about Zora’s terrible party dress in On Beauty, and about how badly she wanted it to be right. The meanest thing Kingsley Amis ever did to a woman was to put Margaret Peele in that green paisley dress and “quasi-velvet” shoes in Lucky Jim. Vanity Fair’s Jos Sedley in his buckskins and Hessian boots, his “several immense neckcloths” and “apple green coat with steel buttons almost as large as crown pieces.”
This list changes all the time, but my current favorite fictional clothes are the ones in A Good Man is Hard to Find. There is no one quite like Flannery O’Connor for creeping out the reader via dress. Bailey’s “yellow sport shirt with bright blue parrots designed on it” contrasts in the most sinister way with the The Misfit’s too tight blue jeans, the fact that he “didn’t have on any shirt or undershirt.” I’d also like to make a plug for one of The Misfit’s companions, “a fat boy in black trousers and a red sweat shirt with a silver stallion embossed on the front of it.” Any Flannery O’Connor story will contain something similar, because she used clothes as exposition, as dialogue, as mood. Anyone to who clothes matter will have their own highlight reel, and will argue strenuously for the inclusion of Topaz’s dresses in I Capture the Castle, or Gatsby’s shirts, or Dorothea Brooke’s ugly crepe dress. They will point out, for instance, that I have neglected to mention Donna Tartt, top five fluent speaker of the language of dress. What of Judge Holden’s kid boots, in Blood Meridian? What about Ayn Rand, who, as Mallory Ortberg has noted, is just about unparalleled?
The point is, we do not lack for excellent and illuminating descriptions of clothes in literature. Given such riches, it is perhaps churlish to object to the times when people get it wrong. Haven’t we been given enough? Apparently not. Just as I can think of hundreds of times when a writer knocked it out of the park, attire-wise, (Phlox’s stupid clothes in The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, all those layers and scarves and hideous cuffs), I can just as easily recall the failures. There are a variety of ways for an author to get clothes wrong, but I will stick to just two categories of offense here.
1. Outfits that don’t sound real
Purity again, and Andreas’s “good narrow jeans and a close-fitting polo shirt.” This is wrong. Andreas is a charismatic weirdo, a maniac, and I struggle to believe that he would be slinking around in such tight, nerdy clothes. Another jarring example is Princess Margaret’s dress, in Edward St. Aubyn’s Some Hope: “the ambassador raised his fork with such an extravagant gesture of appreciation that he flicked glistening brown globules over the front of the Princess’s blue tulle dress.” The Princess here is supposed to be in her sixties. Would a post-menopausal aristocrat really be wearing a blue tulle dress? Is the whole thing made out of tulle? Wouldn’t that make it more the kind of thing a small girl at a ballet recital would choose? St. Aubyn’s novels are largely autobiographical, and he has mentioned in interviews that he met the allegedly blue-tulle-dress-wearing Princess on a number of occasions. Maybe that really is what she was wearing. It doesn’t sound right, though, or not to me.
One last example, from The Rings of Saturn: “One of them, a bridal gown made of hundreds of scraps of silk embroidered with silken thread, or rather woven over cobweb-fashion, which hung on a headless tailor’s dummy, was a work of art so colourful and of such intricacy and perfection that it seemed almost to have come to life, and at the time I could no more believe my eyes than now I can trust my memory.” One believes the narrator, when he says that he cannot trust his memory, because this actually doesn’t sound like a dress, or not a very nice one. It sounds like a dress a person might buy from a stall at a psytrance party. The word “colourful” here is a dead giveaway that the narrator does not necessarily have a particular dress in mind: what kind of colours, exactly? “Intricate” is also no good — it seeks to give the impression of specificity, but is in fact very vague.
2. Outfits that make too much of a point
Many people are suspicious of fashion. They do not trust it or like it, and, while they see that it serves a purpose, they wish it was somehow enforceable to make everyone wear a uniform at all times. Deep down, they also believe that anyone who does take pleasure in it is lying to themselves, or doing it for the wrong reasons. I argue with such people in my head all the time, because this is not what clothes are about for me, at all. I argue with the books they have written as well. To be fair to Jeffrey Eugenides, he is mostly excellent on the subject of dress. The Lisbon girls’ prom dresses and the Obscure Object’s High Wasp style are in my own personal highlight reel. The Marriage Plot is different, though. It is deeply cynical on the subject of dress. Clothes in that novel are always an affectation or a disguise, a way for a character to control the way others see her.
Here is Madeline, getting Leonard back “Madeleine … put on her first spring dress: an apple-green baby-doll dress with a bib collar and a high hem.” Here is Madeline, trying to seem like the kind of girl who is at home in a semiotics class: “She took out her diamond studs, leaving her ears bare. She stood in front of the mirror wondering if her Annie Hall glasses might possibly project a New Wave look…She unearthed a pair of Beatle boots … She put up her collar, and wore more black.” And here is Madeline, failed Bohemian, despondent semiotician, after she has gone back to reading novels: “The next Thursday, “Madeleine came to class wearing a Norwegian sweater with a snowflake design.” After college, she realizes that she can dress the way she has always, in her haute-bourgeois heart, wanted to dress: like a Kennedy girlfriend on holiday. Another costume, for a girl who doesn’t know who she really is. The problem with these clothes is not that they don’t sound real, or that they are badly described. It’s that Madeline only ever wears clothes to make a point, to manipulate or to persuade her audience that she is someone other than she really is. Worse, there is the implication that she has no real identity outside from what she projects. It’s exact opposite approach to O’Connor’s wardrobe choices in A Good Man is Hard to Find. The guy in the red sweat shirt, with the silver stallion? He is not wearing those clothes for anyone but himself. Same with The Misfit and his frightening jeans.
Those who are suspicious of fashion tend to believe that people (especially women) only ever wear clothes as a form of armor, a costume, and never because they get pleasure out of it. Madeline, in other words, doesn’t wear clothes because she likes them, but because she likes what they do. I find this line of thinking very depressing.
There are other categories (clothes that I think sound ugly, clothes in over-researched historical novels where the writer takes too much relish in describing jerkins and the smell of wet leather etc.), but these two stand out. I’m not asking for anything too excessive — just a few more details, a bit more effort when getting a character dressed. Clothes matter, to some of us, and we need to see them done right.
Image: John Singer Sargent, Wikipedia
The way historical fiction works is by using some basic recognizable details to situate the reader in a time and place (the historical part), and then to imagine the rest, in order to make a narrative (the fiction part). Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a fictional account of a historical event — the experiences of Australian soldiers in a Japanese prisoner of war camp on the Thai Burma Death Railway, also known as The Line, in 1943. A plan by the Imperial Japanese Army to speedily construct a railway between Bangkok and Burma, they used, among others, tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war. One of them was Arch Flanagan, the father of Richard, to whom The Narrow Road to the Deep North is dedicated: “prisoner san byaku san ju go (335).” The prisoners were starved and abused, thousands died.
The imagined details of this book: Dorrigo Evans is a doctor and a colonel of the Australian soldiers in the camp. He is handsome, intelligent, a natural leader, irresistible to every person around him, even his captors. All of his weaknesses come from how good he is, how virtuous: “The more he was accused of virtue as he grew older, the more he hated it. Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.” In the camp, the Australian soldiers die off as they are beaten and starved to death by the rank of brutally efficient Japanese commanders, who themselves have been driven mad by the conditions under which they live. The Japanese see the Australians as useless — oversized, stupid, and lazy — and are annoyed by their constant singing and joking. The Australians see the Japanese as slave drivers, demented by their devotion to the abstraction that is the Emperor. Both believe that the other is morally corrupt in some way. In the vacuum that follows the end of the war, however, all moral reasoning that made sense at the time becomes unfamiliar. The war ends, and everyone who survives tries to fold themselves into the compromise of normal life. There is an epigraph is from Paul Celan, which speaks of the horror of returning to life after deep, specific suffering — “Mother, they write poems.”
Outside of the camp, the most important story is Dorrigo’s love affair before the war, with his uncle’s wife Amy, which took place in a hotel pub in Adelaide. The love affair is stopped by the war, but its memory and the sadness of its failed connection stays around, forming a Shakespearean subplot. The primary subject of this book is human suffering, and all the endlessly interesting ways in which people cause themselves and others to suffer. The strange euphemism “Prisoner of War” eventually comes to describe every character in the book.
The title comes from the travel journal of Basho, the Edo poet. Basho took a long solitary journey north, questioning, in his journal, whether life has any meaning at all. The question of meaning, and whether or not it can be extracted through the study of history, has preoccupied writers of historical fiction over the past fifty years. Authors such as Peter Carey, Laurent Binet, Salman Rushdie, and E.L. Doctorow, have felt the need to meta-theorize or “postmodernize” the re-creation of the past, to question the writing of history and the usefulness of fiction even as they do it. They are preoccupied by the need to tell the difference between the real (unattainable), the true (mostly nonexistent), and the told (unreliable). The conclusion, insofar as there is one, is that meaning and memory are slippery surfaces across which we can only slide.
Part of the problem of meaning, for what might be called the postmodern or “meta” writers of history and historical fiction, is plausibility. That is, the reader being able to believe what they are reading is “true,” (true, in this sense, meaning that it really happened). Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, the French historian who founded the movement of “New History,” began in the 1970s to write history using the first person “I” pronoun, as a way of moving history from story to discourse, and signaling to his readers that they would never read history that hadn’t been written by a human, and therefore wasn’t subject to being falsified by a human imagination. Data are unable to speak for themselves, intervention is needed. History becomes fiction, in this view, because it is narrative. Flanagan presents an opposite pole to this view. This book is historical in every sense; it could almost have been written at the time of its setting, in the 1940s, before the parsing of the horror of the Second World War caused us to reorient our worldview in almost every sphere of life, and to question the very possibility of meaning.
In historical fiction, the world has in some ways already been invented, and the task of the author is to describe it, that is, to fictionalize it. According to E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, “‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot.” Writers of historical fiction change story to plot, using description.
The difference between history and fiction, Sir Philip Sidney argued, in his A Defense of Poetry (c.1579), is not what did happen, but what could. It was a rebuttal to those who were suspicious of the power of fiction, from Plato to the Puritans:
Only the poet, disdaining to be tied to any such subjection, lifted up with the vigor of his own invention, doth grow in effect another nature, in making things either better than nature bringeth forth, or, quite anew, forms such as never were in nature.
The imagination required to write fiction, in Sidney’s line of argument, is not gnosis but praxis, and becomes an empathetic force, a virtue. Fiction is “true” not in a historical sense, but in a moral one, exactly because of its inventive power. Fiction, unlike history or philosophy, can create a world that didn’t previously exist, out of the one that does.
Description is where the story is, and also where the postmodern complaint with the story is. It’s where the poetry of the writing is. Those writers of literary historical fiction over the past forty or fifty years who have become fed up with traditional, novelistic historical storytelling have often revived the Platonic quarrel with poetry, in questioning of the usefulness of that leap to fiction. Description, though, is what Flanagan revels in. He is a storyteller in the mythic sense, of lives determined by emotion, error, and turns of coincidence and fate. This book goes from one end of a life to other, with an epic journey and a romantic tragedy in the middle (there are many references to Ulysses; Dorrigo’s life continually marked with poetry). The plot is driven by suffering and desire. Destiny of the characters is the number and nature of words spoken (One of Dorrigo Evans’s tasks is to choose which soldiers get sent on the march and which stay behind, essentially, which ones will stay alive and which won’t, an echo of the Judenräte).
Haiku poetry, the great poetic forms of restraint, is interspersed throughout the chapters, highlighting the overflowing quality of Flanagan’s sentences. His sentences are poetic, even if they lack the precision and control of the poetry that intersects the chapters:
A drop dripped.
Tiny, whispered Darky Gardiner.
The noise of the monsoonal rain flogging the canvas roof of the long, A-framed shelter — bamboo-strutted and open-walled — meant Darky Gardiner could hardly hear himself. The clamor of the rain made such nights only more desolate, worse, in a way, than the days when he was just trying to survive but at least had company to do it with. The jungle shuddering in sheets of noise, the incessant drumming of mud churning as the rain slammed into it, the strange slaps and punches of invisible water runs, all of it he found dismal.
Another drop dripped.
There is an amputation scene that the squeamish will have to divide up and read in shifts, taking breaks in between to hold the open book aside, turn their faces away and gasp for air. It’s all part of the stinking sensuality of Flanagan’s writing. It isn’t enough to be told the story. We sit through it, like a cinema for smell and touch.
His language is ornate:
Dorrigo would sway back and forth and imagine himself shaping into one of the boughs of the wildly snaking peppermint gums that fingered and flew through the great blue sky overhead…he would drink in the birdsong of the wrens and the honeyeaters, the whip-crack call of the jo-wittys, punctuated by Gracie’s steady clop, and the creak and clink of the cart’s leather traces and wood shafts and iron chains, a universe of sensation that returned in dreams.
His dialogue can be dramatic, almost to the point of seeming parodic:
She took a puff, put the cigarette in the ashtray and stared at it. Without looking up, she said, But do you believe in love, Mr Evans?
She rolled the cigarette end around in the ashtray.
Yet even when his writing cloys, it still feels sincere, in its faith in the redemptive power of art after tragedy.
Flanagan seems to be at heart a novelist, without interest in questioning the utility of historical fiction, only in using it to create fiction; using one experience to make another. In history, other than narrative, all we have are statistics, and the leap required to get from statistics to history is one of imagination. That leap is where Flanagan lives, as a writer. Belief, as Flanagan shows us, comes not just from accuracy, but from the power of the writing itself. “A poem is not a law, Sir” a soldier tells Dorrigo, known in the camp as Big Fella. “But he realized with a shock it more or less was.” In Flanagan’s books, story becomes true by being poetry. The truth in this book is not that of the historical sense, but in a Keatsian, moral sense. We don’t read historical novels like War and Peace to find out about the French influence in Russia, but for the very pleasure of exercising the imagination — for their virtue.
There is an endearing overabundance of almost everything in this book, which in its enthusiasm, becomes part of the pleasure, though some faith is needed to get through some of the love scenes, and to travel along with the humorless, masculine sentimentality of the hero. Readers of this book should do away with all suspicions, and get ready for an avalanche of feeling and sincerity, or else risk living in the sad restraint of Flanagan’s characters.
Reading War and Peace was always a challenge, but how much harder is it in an age of constant distraction? At Salon, Mike Harris, a self-confessed distraction addict, writes about his experience tackling the Russian classic. You could also read our own Kevin Hartnett on the book’s effect on perception.
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
In 2009, the Book Industry Environmental Council set a couple of environmental goals for the U.S. book industry. Using a calculation of the industry’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2006 as its baseline, the BIEC and its members pledged to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint by 20% in 2020 and by 80% in 2050. When the pledge was made, the Kindle had existed for only a year and a half, and the Nook was still eight months away. (Kobo eReaders and iPads didn’t emerge until 2010.) eBooks, still in their infancy, accounted for a measly 5% of books sold in America.
Today, it seems like many publishing houses are on their ways toward achieving the BIEC goals. Thanks to the proliferation of FTP software, most major publishing houses have slashed the amount of printing done in-office. At John Wiley & Sons, my production group had a paperless workflow: Adobe was our editing tool of choice, and to be one of our freelancers, you had to pass an exhaustive MS Word screening test. Later on, at Oxford University Press, a common email signature asked readers to “save paper and print only what’s necessary.” Organizing stacks of paper on your desk was out; navigating sub-folders on a shared drive was in.
Meanwhile eBooks were becoming ever more popular. By the end of 2011, Amazon announced it was selling one million Kindles a week, and Apple said it had sold over 40 million iPads. Consequently, eBooks accounted for 31% of U.S. book sales by 2012. According to a Pew Internet study, as many as one in four American adults now own an eReader or tablet (one in three if they went to college). The trend toward digitization is undeniable, and there are many reasons to be optimistic: big publishers are making more money off of more products than ever before; it’s easier than ever to publish a book; and the number of books available to anyone with an internet connection is unprecedented. Some analysts even predict that soon print books, like CDs a few years ago, will be almost entirely replaced by digital files.
But is all of this really cutting the industry’s carbon footprint? Is total eBook adoption — that is: elimination of the print book — really an ecologically responsible goal?
Put in absolute terms, the number of books — regardless of format — produced and sold across the globe increases each year. This is mostly due to an increasing global population. While America, Australia, India and the UK are the most rapid adopters of digital reading devices — at least for the time being — eBooks presently account for only a small fraction of the world book market. (This is due to factors such as availability of technology, reliable internet connections, and disposable income.)
Necessarily, the increased consumption of print and digital books has led to an ever-increasing demand for the materials required to create, transport, and store them. In the case of eBooks, though, vast amounts of materials are also necessary for the eReaders themselves, and this is something typically overlooked by proponents of digitization: the material costs are either ignored, or, more misleadingly, they’re classified as the byproduct of the tech industry instead of the book industry.
National Geographic correspondent Allen Tellis recently posted a brief note of encouragement to owners of eReaders, and it illustrates exactly the type of oversight I just mentioned. “The steady rise of eBooks,” Tellis wrote, “should benefit the environment by reducing use of paper and ink, and by slashing transportation, warehouse, and shelf-space limits.” He went on to note how certain study groups have determined “that the carbon released from eBooks is offset after people read more than 14 eBooks” on a single eReader. But Tellis ignores the fact that global print book consumption is rising concurrently with eBook consumption. In other words: the carbon footprint of the digital book industry is mostly growing in addition to, not to the detriment of, the growing carbon footprint of the print book industry.
I couldn’t locate the source of Tellis’ information about those 14 eBooks offsetting the ecological cost of their owner’s eReader. Instead, I found this New York Times op-ed which painted a starkly different picture: “the impact of one e-reader … equals roughly 40 to 50 books. When it comes to global warming, though, it’s 100 books.” Still more damning, Ted Genoways’ excellent VQR article about the raw materials needed for the production of eReaders (and other gizmos), found that:
At present, the average e-reader is used less than two years before it is replaced. That means that the nearly ten million e-readers expected to be in use by next year would have to supplant the sales of 250 million new books — not used or rare editions, 250 million new books — each year just to come out footprint-neutral. Considering the fact that the Association of American Publishers estimates that the combined sales of all books in America (adult books, children’s books, textbooks, and religious works) amounted to fewer than 25 million copies last year, we have already increased the environmental impact of reading by tenfold. Moreover, it takes almost exactly fifty times as much fossil fuel production to power an iPad for the hours it takes to read a book as it would take to read the same book on paper by electric light.
Usage figures are an important element in the estimation of a book’s environmental impact. According to Apple, an iPad is responsible for 2.5 grams of CO2e per hour of use. A single print book, on the other hand, is responsible for “a net 8.85 pounds” (PDF) of carbon emissions over the course of its life (e.g. production, transportation, and retail). Note that the former figure, however, is open-ended; the latter figure is finite. If you ignore the environmental cost of an eReader, that means you would need to read the iBookstore version of War and Peace for 1,605.39 hours (~67 days) to damage the environment as badly as that paperback copy of Tolstoy’s tome on your bookshelf. That certainly sounds like a point for eBooks, but it’s a totally misleading evaluation.
For a demonstration of just how misleading that comparison is, I used basic arithmetic and some minimal Googling to calculate the carbon footprint of the average American reading an average number of average novels at an average speed both in print and on an iPad. (I picked iPads because Amazon doesn’t release Kindle data. I picked America because we’re the most voracious consumers of digital books.) Here’s what I found:
I. One Year of Reading:
First I calculated the average rate of consumption for the average reader. I found average reading speed, average book length, and average number of books consumed, and then I calculated the carbon emissions caused by one year of reading.
The average adult reads 200-250 words per minute. (Source)
The average novel is 64,500 words. (Source)
That means the average adult spends 4.3 hours reading an average novel.
[(64,500 words / 250 wpm) / 60 minutes]
The average adult reads 6.5 books per year. (Source; PDF)
The average adult spends 27.95 hours reading each year.
[6.5 books * 4.3 hours]
Paperback Footprint: 26,087.59 grams of CO2e
[6.5 books * 8.85 pounds of emissions * 453.5 g. per lb.]
eBook Footprint: 69.875 grams of CO2e
[6.5 books * 4.3 hours * 2.5 g. of emissions per hr.]
This is the comparison eBook proponents typically cite. Unfortunately, it’s at best lousy mathematics and at worst a manipulative comparison.
II. One Year of Reading (Device Footprints Included):
Next I found the lifetime carbon emissions from one iPad and one iPad 2, and I plugged those into my one year of reading calculations.
Paperback Footprint: 26,087.59 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad): 130,069.875 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad 2): 105,069.875 grams of CO2e
As you can plainly see, factoring in the carbon footprint of an eReader drastically changes the comparison. One year of reading eBooks accounts for a carbon footprint five times greater than a year’s worth of print books.
Fans of eReaders will of course refute this data by claiming that their devices level out with — and could even become “greener” than — print books on a long enough timeline. This claim is indeed theoretically true after five years, and I’ll show you how.
III. Five Years of Reading on One Device (Device Footprints Included):
I extrapolated the data to account for five years of use at the same rate of consumption as above. (And on the same device for all five years — more on that in a minute.)
Paperback Footprint: 130,437.95 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad): 130,349.375 grams of CO2e
eBook Footprint (iPad 2): 105,349.375 grams of CO2e
I determined that it takes five years (32.5 books) of steady eBook consumption (on the same device) to match the ecological footprint of reading the same number of print books the old fashioned way. This number is smack in between Tellis’ (14 books) and The New York Times’ (50 books) calculations. However it, too, is misleading because it doesn’t correctly account for device replacement.
As Ted Genoways was saying, most eReaders are used for only two years before being discarded, replaced, lost or broken. More than 20% of all Kindles sit unused after Christmas. So, that in mind, let’s look at the numbers when we factor in average eReader use — and account for device replacement every two years.
IV. Five Years of Reading (Device Replacement Included):
Assuming a device is replaced every two years (years 0, 2, and 4), this is the most accurate depiction of how an eReader compares to a pile of print books.
That eReader, then, accounts for an initial carbon footprint 200-250% greater than your typical household library, and it increases every time you get a new eReader for Christmas, or every time the latest Apple Keynote lights a fire in your wallet.
Also, these figures simply calculate the impact one person’s consumption has on the environment. If you live in a household with multiple eReaders — say, one for your husband and one for your daughter, too — your family’s carbon emissions are more than 600-750% higher per year than they would be if you invested in a bunch of bookshelves or, better yet, a library card.
Things are trickier than they seem, too. The truth is that the dedicated eReader died almost as soon as it arrived, and it’s since been replaced by items even worse for the environment than its ancestors. What we presently refer to as eReaders are more like all-purpose tablets equipped with email clients, web browsers, games, movie players, and more. (Even one of the earliest generations of Kindles offered a prototype web browser — buried in subfolders within the device’s navigation system, though clearly a hint of what was coming.) As these devices become more sophisticated, they invite more prolonged usage, so those 2.5 g of emissions per hour of use continue to add up. Likewise, as these devices become more sophisticated, their manufacture demands more precious materials — often from Southeast Asia, Africa, and South America.
Still more problematic is the fact that outdated devices are too often discarded inappropriately. You don’t need to investigate very hard to find evidence of the toll this mineral mining and e-waste dumping takes on fragile ecosystems.
The emissions and e-waste numbers could be stretched even further if I went down the resource rabbit hole to factor in: electricity needed at the Amazon and Apple data centers; communication infrastructure needed to transmit digital files across vast distances; the incessant need to recharge or replace the batteries of eReaders; the resources needed to recycle a digital device (compared to how easy it is to pulp or recycle a book); the packaging and physical mailing of digital devices; the need to replace a device when it breaks (instead of replacing a book when it’s lost); the fact that every reader of eBooks requires his or her own eReading device (whereas print books can be loaned out as needed from a library); the fact that most digital devices are manufactured abroad (and therefore transported across oceans); and etc…
This is the ultimate result of our culture’s fetishization of technology — a problem which will assuredly worsen before it improves. It wasn’t long ago that sophisticated electronics were few and far between. I grew up in a house with one desktop computer, and it was located in the kitchen. That was eleven years ago, and when I remember all the times I argued with my brother over who got to play StarCraft, my memory seems as quaint and outdated as a scene from Mad Men. Today, my thirteen-year-old sister has her own laptop, smartphone, and television to supplement the two desktop computers, additional television set, and Kindle Fire located in my mother’s home.
There’s an Apple store in Grand Central Station that I pass each day on my way to work; every morning I watch hundreds of commuters browse iPads as though they were magazines or candy. In the end, this conspicuous (and often unnecessary) tech consumption — eReaders included — contributes to an inflating carbon footprint far beyond anything ever caused by traditional book production.
Of course, it’s slippery ethics to rationalize the book industry’s carbon footprint by focusing, instead, on the larger problem of the tech industry’s carbon footprint. Both are problems that need to be addressed. But for right now, if we’re forced to choose, the traditional paper route is the better one. If you worry for the future of our rainforests, and if you worry for the future of our planet, the responsible decision is to purchase or borrow books printed on recycled paper and from ecologically conscious vendors. (You can find a handy list of such places and printers here.)
While this tactic alone will not solve the problem, it will certainly make a difference if enough people choose library cards instead of Kindle Singles. And while it’s true that, now that digital has arrived, digital is here to stay, the book reading community needs to ask itself which is more important: developing a greener way to produce print books while we halt the growth of eBooks’ market share, committing fully to the creation of “greener” eReading devices — or some combination of both. Doing neither is not an option.
Raz Godelnik, CEO of Eco-Libris, estimates that 80% of a paperback book’s carbon footprint is caused by the earliest stages in its production process: paper harvesting, forest clearing, and material shipping. The BIEC recognized this, and one of its chief aims was to work on a more eco-friendly means of producing books. As consumers, though, we also have the power to fix this by demanding an even more responsible method of production from the largest publishing houses and their contractors. (This means we’d have to pay more for the end product, of course.) We must also demand better accountability from the technology companies that create eReaders, and that begins with demanding Amazon release better information about the Kindle.
Consumer outcry works: a few months ago, because everyone flipped out about the mistreatment of Foxconn workers, Apple instituted major changes to the pay structure for their subcontractors. If we can do this with labor, we can do this with resources.
We must also resist the urge to purchase the next hot technology when it comes out. If you have an eReader, use your eReader until it no longer works, and then recycle it responsibly. Do not purchase a new one before the old one has stopped working. If you own an eReader that you do not use, sell it to someone who will actually use it so that they don’t have to buy a fresh one. In simple terms: you wouldn’t buy a new edition of a book if nothing was wrong with the edition you already owned, so why would you do it with something ecologically equal to fifty of those books put together?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
In 2006, a young American expat named Jonathan Littell published one of the most audacious literary debuts in recent memory: a 900-page novel about the Holocaust, narrated by an aging ex-SS Officer. It was called Les Bienveillantes, and except for a few German bureaucratic terms, it was written entirely in French. (Littell had produced a cyberpunk novel in English at age 21, but subsequently renounced it as juvenilia.) Given its choice of protagonist, Les Bienveillantes might have seemed to be what marketers call “a tough sell,” but it went on to win the Prix Goncourt – France’s most prestigious literary award – and to move some 700,000 copies. It was subsequently translated into 17 languages, including English, where it became The Kindly Ones.
Meanwhile, a young Frenchman named Laurent Binet was tearing his hair out. Binet had been toiling away on a work-in-progress that turned out to have striking similarities with Littell’s succès de scandale. Where The Kindly Ones featured cameos from Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich and concluded with a physical assault on the person of the Führer, Binet’s novel-in-progress focused on many of the same characters, and culminated in Heydrich’s assassination. These resemblances were superficial, of course. Littell’s nervy postmodern update on the historical novel had affinities with William T. Vollmann’s blend of research, pastiche, and hallucination. Binet’s owed more to W.G. Sebald…and maybe Jacques Roubaud, insofar as he had already taken the step of writing himself into the book. Still, he seemed to have landed in a writer’s nightmare, akin to that of the studio exec who realizes in postproduction that a version his movie Armageddon has just appeared under the title Deep Impact. What’s a good postmodern to do? Well, write that into the novel, too.
Among chapters devoted to the plot against Heydrich and chapters devoted to his own research and aesthetic anxieties, Binet began to interpolate passages covering, in real-time, his reading of The Kindly Ones and his fears about what it meant for his book. These fears would prove unjustified; in 2010 his novel was published under the title HHhH (an acronym for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” – “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). But his French publisher, Grasset, redacted all passages concerning The Kindly Ones, apparently for fear of offending Littell’s admirers in the public, the press, and the académie Goncourt – which awarded HHhH its prize for first novels.
This month, an English translation of HHhH arrives in U.S. bookstores, trailing blurbs by the likes of Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, and Wells Tower. This edition, too, is missing the Littell material. But Binet and his translator Sam Taylor have graciously allowed The Millions to publish the lost pages of HHhH for the first time anywhere. Their tone of comical anxiety and competitive ardor – of wishing at once for a colleague to succeed and to fail – will be familiar to many writers. Unsurprisingly, Binet ends up judging Littell harshly, as did many American critics, including this one (although I should confess that I still think about The Kindly Ones often). More important than their literary judgments, though, or their portrait of the artist as a young man, are the still controversial questions about representation and the Holocaust these pages candidly take up. Even relegated, as it were, to the margins of the published work, these questions transform the historical thriller at the heart of HHhH into a powerful meditation on the ethics of storytelling. — Garth Risk Hallberg
The Kindly Ones
Next to me on the sofa is Jonathan Littell’s weighty tome The Kindly Ones, which has just been published by Gallimard. The (false) memoirs of an old SS veteran, it is nine hundred pages long. Having created a massive buzz in the press, and sold out in most bookstores, this novel is crushing all its competitors on the bestseller list. Not only that, but its success is apparently causing problems for the entire publishing industry, as it is so long that it is lasting readers from September to Christmas, so they aren’t buying any other books.
There is a savage review of the book in Libération, with the headline “Night and Mud.” But even this review hails the author’s depth of research simply because Jon Littell uses SS ranks. Apparently, if one writes “I caught a Scharführer by the sleeve: ‘What’s happening?’ — ‘I don’t know, Obersturmführer. I think there’s a problem with the Standartenführer ,’” that is enough to produce a “heady feeling of realism.” I’m not sure if the journalist who wrote this is being ironic or not, but I’m afraid he isn’t. I remember having made a joke on this subject in one (invented) line during one of my chapters on the Night of the Long Knives. But anyway…
One of the book’s severest critics is Claude Lanzmann (although he also recognizes its good qualities), but according to his detractors, that’s because he believes himself to be the only person in the world (along with Raoul Hilberg) with the right to talk about the Holocaust. I met Lanzmann once: he is, in the flesh, a courteous man with an impressive presence. If you judge him solely on his public statements, though, you might easily regard him as narrow-minded. In this case, however, I think he shows great judgment when he criticizes Littell for his character’s “invasive psychology.” Not a good sign. But he, too, acclaims the author’s research: “Not one error; flawless erudition.” Well, all right, if you say so.
Apart from these examples, everything else is ecstatic. In Le Nouvel Observateur: “A new War and Peace”; in Le Monde: “one of the most impressive books ever written about Nazism.” And so on.
But the highest praise comes on the back cover of the book, where Gallimard has not skimped on the name-dropping: Eschyle, Visconti, even Grossman’s Life and Fate. Talk about bringing out the big guns.
Obviously, the book is up for every literary prize in the galaxy.
So I begin to read it, feeling simultaneously suspicious and excited. After three pages, my feelings have turned to puzzlement. It is quite badly written, and yet at the same time it is so very literary. This is not at all how I imagined an eighty-year-old SS veteran speaking or thinking. And, of course, I am allergic to interior monologues, at least when we are supposedly talking about history.
I am saying all this now, before continuing with my reading, because I am sure that, when it comes down to it, I am going to devour this book.
Let’s begin with the first line of Jonathan Littell’s novel: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.”
I don’t like this line. But the point here is not, for once, my personal tastes. Let’s look more closely at that opening: “Oh my human brothers.” With these first four words, we already know the book’s thesis. By beginning in this way, Littell deliberately places his novel in the lineage of Hannah Arendt. He is proposing the idea that evil is not the prerogative of monsters, but that it emanates from people like you and me. I subscribe to this thesis, of course, but I fail to see how its validity can be demonstrated in a novel. Even a nine-hundred-page novel.
From the moment when you create an imaginary character — a character who belongs to you, whom you can make say anything you want (“Oh my human brothers,” for instance), a puppet whom you are able to manipulate in any way you wish — it is easy and all too artificial to use this character to illustrate whatever theory you have in mind. A character may illustrate, certainly, but it cannot demonstrate anything. If you wish to suggest that the SS were sickened by the horrors they committed, you make your protagonist vomit at inconvenient moments. If you wish to suggest that the SS loved animals, you give him a dog. And then, to make it more real, you give the dog a name. Fritz?
But what interests me about the SS — if I wish to understand something about that troubled era, if I wish to extract something from all of that which can help me understand man and the world — is what they did, not what Jonathan Littell thinks they might have done.
The problem with this type of historical novel is that it shamelessly mixes the true with the plausible. That’s fine if I know about the episode in question. But if I don’t, I am left in limbo: perhaps this is true, or perhaps it’s not.
I wonder how Jonathan Littell knows that Blobel, the alcoholic head of Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C in Ukraine, had an Opel. And I wonder whether Lanzmann, before deciding that The Kindly Ones did not contain “a single error, a single flaw,” checked this detail. If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before Littell’s superior research. But if it’s a bluff, it weakens the whole book. Of course it does! It’s true that the Nazis were supplied in bulk by Opel, and so it’s perfectly plausible that Blobel possessed, or used, a vehicle of that make. But plausible is not the same as known. I’m talking rot, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.
Perhaps Blobel had an Opel, or perhaps he had a BMW. And if Littell has invented the make of Blobel’s car, perhaps he has invented all the rest. The dialogue, for example. I find it surprising that an SS officer could exclaim: “Il a pété les plombs!” [“He’s blown a gasket!”] Littell’s entire book can teach me only one thing: how this writer imagines Nazism. And I am not really interested in that, particularly when the depiction is so dubious. I want to know how things really happened, so I expect him to tell me — at the very least — when an episode is true and when it is his invention. Otherwise, reality is reduced to the level of fiction. I think that is wrong.
So, irrespective of the Opel question, Jonathan Littell’s novel — as compelling as it may be (I am still at the beginning) — lost all credibility as a reflection on history from the moment its author chose to use a fictional protagonist. Which is a shame because, after all, it does seem quite well-researched.
I will, of course, apologize if it turns out that Blobel really did drive an Opel. But fundamentally, it wouldn’t change a thing.
Littell’s Portrait of Heydrich, p. 58
You might have guessed that I was a bit disturbed by the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel, and by its success. And even if I can comfort myself by saying that our projects are not the same, I am forced to admit that the subject matter is fairly similar. I’m reading his book at the moment, and each page gives me the urge to write something. I have to suppress this urge. All I will say is that there’s a description of Heydrich at the beginning of the book, from which I will quote only one line: “His hands seemed too long, like nervous algae attached to his arms.” I don’t know why, but I like that image.
More on The Kindly Ones
Just a few more words. Let’s agree on this: an interior monologue, if designed to reveal to us the psychology of an imaginary character, is at best an amusing farce. If it is supposed to allow the reader access to someone’s thoughts, it becomes downright risible. An interior monologue can only ever reveal the psychology of two people: the author and the reader. And that is already quite a lot, let me tell you!
Having said that, I must admit something: I did not know that most of the cars used by the SS were Opels. Did they sign a contract with the firm? That is what I would like to ask Jonathan Littell. Or Lanzmann.
But, to return to the interior monologue, there is a real problem with The Kindly Ones: the tone of the imaginary SS veteran’s supposed confession is unbelievably neutral, almost like a history book. It is the kind of tone I myself try to adopt when I describe horrors, in order to avoid the twin traps of pathos and grandiloquence (not that I always succeed). But what is the point of writing in the first person if you are going to erase practically all trace of subjectivity? From time to time, it’s true, the narrator reminds us of his existence with little, discreetly ironic remarks. These don’t seem very plausible to me, but still. Interior monologues are everywhere! But it is not even the psychological implausibility that bothers me; it is just the pointlessness of the procedure. Putting an idea, no matter how interesting, in the head of an invented character… I cannot bring myself to do it; I find it completely puerile, even if it is a dramatic convention.
One Last Word?
All right, this is my last word on this, I promise. I have just read my chapters about The Kindly Ones to my half brother. He pointed out that many historical novels use fictional inventions, sometimes with interesting results. Of course, I cannot deny that. For Alexandre Dumas to use historical material for its novelistic possibilities, and for him to mix it with his own invented stories, does not shock me at all. Everything depends on the author’s intention. If it is to tell a beautiful and exciting story, without any other pretention, then that is perfectly fine; I would happily surrender to the pleasure of the novel. But I heard Jonathan Littell speaking on the radio, and apparently this was not his intention: he really did want, as I’d suspected, to understand evil. As Alexandre (my brother, not Dumas) put it, tackling a speculative question with a supposedly historical angle by way of an invented character (and, I repeat, even with solid research as backup) is “entropic.” I don’t really understand that word, but I know I agree with him. In fact, I think that what he means by “entropic” is something between “centripetal” and “tautological.” So, upon closer examination, the term is inappropriate, which is a shame because it struck me as quite eloquent. But never mind, the idea remains the same. What I am saying is that inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, as my brother says, It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.
I am not saying that all invented characters are worthless. I would happily swap Napoleon, Kutuzov, Julius Caesar, or Heydrich for Josef K. Or even the real Mark Antony for Shakespeare’s Mark Antony. As soon as fictional characters are loosened from their historical roots, they are able to become universal — even if (and perhaps because) they differ from their historical models: Richard III, Rameau’s nephew, Zaitsev in Life and Fate, Edison in Tomorrow’s Eve, and so on. But in all these cases, we are not interested in what kind of car they drive.
A Littell Mistake, p. 209
Despite all this, I did end up getting into The Kindly Ones. In other words, I finally managed to abandon myself to the innocent pleasures of reading, except for my brain’s never-ending production of critical and metacritical thoughts.
But, while lazing in the bath, book in hand, feeling vaguely guilty about the idea of spending my weekend in this way when I have a thousand things to do, what should I read, on page 209? In the course of his story, Littell writes that Heydrich “was wounded in Prague on May 29”! I cannot believe my eyes. Okay, okay, it’s only a date. But for me, it’s a bit like being told that the Bastille was stormed on July 12, or that the United States declared its independence on July 6.
I had been so close to trusting Littell that, when I saw this, I even came up with an excuse for him: it is possible, after all, that news of the assassination attempt was not divulged until two days afterward, and that even members of the SD, such as the narrator, were not informed immediately. But that doesn’t make sense, because the story is supposedly being told by an SS veteran, years later, when the facts and dates are well known.
Of course, this doesn’t discredit all of Littell’s work. In the context of his book, it is a small and inconsequential error, probably nothing more than a simple typo. But I think again of Lanzmann: “Not a single error,” he said! And I had believed him. This makes me think about the way we accept — daily, constantly, unthinkingly — the arguments of authority. I truly have a great deal of respect for Lanzmann, but the moral of this story is that everyone — even the world’s most authoritative specialist — can make a mistake.
This makes me think of a specialist on the life and works of Saint-John Perse (the most famous specialist in France and, I imagine, in the world) who declared on the radio, with the learned assurance typical of French universities, that the poet was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner in 1938 when he was working at the Quai d’Orsay. This seems somewhat surprising, given that he was one of the two diplomats who had accompanied Daladier at the agreement’s signing! Open any history book that mentions Munich, and you can check just how deeply Alexis Léger, the Foreign Office’s general secretary, was implicated in this infamous agreement. But evidently this great specialist did not consider it useful to consult even one book, preferring to rely on a biographical note written by . . . the subject himself! According to Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger,
In spite of his personal opposition to the so-called policy of ‘appeasement’ and to Hitler’s well-known hostility towards him, the general secretary [talking about himself in the third person!] reluctantly agreed to attend the Conference as the Quai d’Orsay’s representative, as the Foreign Secretary had not been summoned to this meeting of government heads.
Apparently, our specialist did not wonder what Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger meant by “reluctantly.” Was he dragged to Munich against his will, surrounded by policemen? Was his family threatened? Was it really impossible to contemplate resigning in protest of a policy that went so strongly against his personal beliefs? Was there really no choice, once the agreement had been signed, than to adopt that contemptuous, arrogant attitude toward the Czechs? Did he at least have the decency to resign after the agreement was signed in order to register his disapproval? Clearly, French literature specialists do not feel any great obligation to study history in much depth. But this does not prevent them sounding categorical. The end result is that this myth is taken up and spread by all the country’s literary authorities. And the students swallow it. In any case, literary types rarely differentiate between fable and reality, so when it comes down to it, they couldn’t care less about Alexis Léger’s diplomatic career. But this does not prevent them from repeating, with the perfect assurance of those in the know, that Saint-John Perse, this great Nobel Prize winner, was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner. If he was anti-Munich, you have to wonder what a pro-Munich campaigner would look like. A German.
So anyway, Saint-John Perse, Littell . . . you must always be suspicious, of everybody! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It’s not my fault, but well-intentioned friends send me everything they can find about Jonathan Littell, and I am yet again forced to return to the subject. Things are not going well at all. I have just read the account of a speech he gave at a Normale Supérieure school, where he said: “Evil is committed by people like us, people who sleep, who shit, who fuck, and who have the same relationship as we do to the body and to the fear of death, with thought coming afterwards. All killers are like us.”
Fair enough. In fact, I agree completely. Here again is Hannah Arendt’s thesis, and here, again, I cannot deny its truth. But it is a very strange speech to justify his book, precisely because Littell seems to have done his utmost to invent the most singular character possible. Let us recall, for those few unfortunates who have not been able to read The Kindly Ones, that the SS veteran Aue is an intellectual who sleeps with his sister, kills his parents, actively participates in genocide, sucks off Robert Brasillach, survives a bullet in the head, is never separated from his Flaubert, and enjoys rolling in his shit from time to time. For a guy who is just like you and me, that is quite a list!
Do you often carry your Flaubert around with you?
The vise is tightening around my book. The warning shot was in fact a nuclear attack. The atomic bomb was Littell, his Prix Goncourt, his million copies sold, and all the newsprint he’s generated in reviews and exegeses. (Only this week, a reading guide called The Kindly Ones Decoded has come out.) What publisher of any kind of renown would want to publish a book on roughly the same theme in the decade to come? What publisher would be prepared to look like a follower, while taking the risk of publishing someone who is more or less unknown? There is more to lose than to gain: unsold copies if the book is a failure, being accused of opportunism or even cynicism if it’s a success. And that’s without even considering that the horde of critics who’d decreed that The Kindly Ones was the novel of the century will not want to go back on their decision (although, knowing them, this problem is surmountable).
My editorial problems don’t end there. For years, I have been writing to the tranquil rhythm of my own erratic inspiration, but no one warned me that I was in a race against the clock. The longer I wait to finish my book, the greater the risk that I will arrive after the battle has ended. Someone told me on the phone the day before yesterday that a biography of Heydrich has just come out, written by a German whose name I have never heard, Mario Dederichs. It is translated into French and is already on the bookshelves at Gibert. I felt both excited and slightly ill. I was thrilled at the chance to learn new anecdotes and facts about Heydrich, but at the same time, I have to admit, it gets on my nerves a bit. And today, in a bookshop in Normandy, I discover a novel by Georges-Marc Benamou, entitled The Ghost of Munich, featuring frequent appearances by Alexis Léger / Saint-John Perse. If this continues, everything I have to say will already have been said! I am avidly reading Benamou’s book: in literary terms, it has no merit, but it is pleasant to read all the same, and I am learning new things. At least, I think I am. No matter what, I know I have to stop reading. I need to hurry up and finish telling my story because I am convinced, probably irrationally, that I am the only person capable of writing it. This could seem pretentious, obviously. But I do not want my story to be wasted — it’s as simple as that.
A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue “rings true because he is the mirror of his age.” What? No! He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age: a postmodern nihilist, essentially. At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism. On the contrary, he is often critically detached from National Socialist doctrine — and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time. On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts… but of course! How did I not see it before? Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.”
Yesterday, I met a young woman who works in a library. She told me about an old lady, a former Resistance fighter, who regularly borrows books. One day, the old lady took home Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Soon afterwards, she brought it back, exclaiming: “What is this shit?” When I heard this, I thought straightaway that it would require a great deal of willpower not to put this anecdote in my book.
For the past month my almost-three-year-old son and I have shared a joke. In idle moments, sitting around the table or on the playroom floor, we’ll make eye contact and start to grin. Then one or the other of us will whisper quietly, “Stinking Lizaveta,” and we’ll laugh and say it again and again in happy singsong voices.
Stinking Lizaveta, if you don’t know, is a minor character in The Brothers Karamazov. She is a short girl with a “completely idiotic” look fixed to her face and hair that “was always dirty with earth and mud, and had little leaves, splinters, and shavings stuck to it, because she always slept on the ground and in the mud.” She’s not a wholesome character, and one very unwholesome thing happens to her, which makes it all the funnier to me that my son should take such joy in pronouncing her name. (Which really is a pleasure to say out loud. Try it. “Stiiiin-kin’ Liiizaveta!”).
A couple nights ago I finished The Brothers Karamazov. I was riveted by long sections of the book but in the end I concluded that my taste in fiction leans more towards Tolstoy. In the last few years I’ve read Anna Karenina, War and Peace, and Crime and Punishment; overall, Tolstoy’s ability to see the angles of everyday life was more revelatory to me than Dostoevsky’s taste for the manic edges of experience.
There were places in The Brothers Karamazov that left me enthralled. Last month I wrote on The Millions about how the famed “Grand Inquisitor” chapter made me consider the similarities between the power I hold over my kids and the power religion holds over the faithful. Overall, though, the novel’s provocations about religion never fully grabbed me. I admired the fever with which Ivan Karamazov tries to convince his brother Alyosha that God does not exist (“It’s not that I don’t accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket”), but for whatever unaccountable reasons, Ivan’s preoccupations landed like a relic in my own life.
Dmitri Karamazov did grab me, though. If you were to evaluate him just on his actions, he’s a fool, of course. He’s passionate and volatile and often acts immorally: He makes a craven offer to a desperate woman; He steals; He publically abuses a weak man, dragging him around the square by his beard. But Dmitri has integrity despite his licentiousness. At the turning point in the novel, he flies to his beloved and unattainable Grushenka and initiates an evening of unbridled revelry. When the party comes to a crashing stop he declares:
You see, gentlemen, you seem to be taking me for quite a different man from what I am. It is a noble man you are speaking with, a most noble person; above all — do not lose sight of this — a man who has done a world of mean things, but who always was and remained a most noble person.
I believed Dmitri’s claims that he is a noble person. I sympathized with the plight he’d gotten himself into and saw in his tragic position a reflection of the tragic position in which we all find ourselves from time to time: driven by emotion to places our rational selves would rather not go. And maybe I agree, too, with Dostoevsky, who might say that we lose something essential if we go too far in subjugating passion to reason or to social authority (like religion or bureaucracy).
There were other pleasures in The Brothers Karamazov. The courtroom drama at the end of the novel is so much better than anything Law and Order or John Grisham have ever produced that it demeans Dostoevsky to even mention them by comparison. In particular, the defense attorney’s closing argument is remarkable for its command of human psychology, as the hired gun from St. Petersburg shows that all the supposedly incriminating circumstances of the case can be understood differently if only you’re inclined to think that way.
(The closing argument also introduces an epistemological standard that I think I’m going to lean on more often and which might lead to a run on The Brothers Karamazov among global warming denialists. The defense attorney warns the jury to be skeptical in situations like the case at hand where, “the overwhelming totality of the facts is against the defendant, and at the same time there is not one fact that will stand up to criticism.”)
I’d be omitting one of the most rewarding parts of having read The Brothers Karamazov if I didn’t mention that it facilitated my introduction to a remarkable writer named Chris Huntington. Chris sent me an email after my first Brothers Karamazov essay was published in January. Since then we’ve exchanged several rounds of highly enjoyable correspondence about literature and raising kids and his life as a teacher in China. He shared an essay he’d written recently for The Rumpus on The Brothers Karamazov called “The Last Book I Loved” that left me breathless (as well as a funny cartoon of Lisa Simpson clutching a copy of the book). I would have linked to Chris’ essay much earlier in this post, but for the fact that after reading his there’s not much reason to return to reading mine.
In total, The Brothers Karamazov was not the profound reading experience that I’d hoped for when I started the book, but that’s probably too high a standard with which to begin any relationship. That said, I don’t consider the entire history of my involvement with The Brothers Karamazov to have been written. For, as the peerless defense attorney from St. Petersburg might note, there is one last thread that hasn’t been sewn up.
The six weeks I spent reading The Brothers Karamazov happened to coincide almost exactly with the time in his life when my son became aware of letters. He’s known how to sing the alphabet for a long time, but he’s only recently started to understand that letters are discrete things that populate his world in important ways. Now that he looks for them he finds them everywhere: Two “C”s on our license plate; a “J” on a cereal box; an “I” (“or maybe it’s an ‘F,’” he said to me this morning) on a Valentine that hangs on our fridge.
My son has a long way to go until he’s reading The Brothers Karamazov, but hopefully not so long that he forgets about Stinking Lizaveta before he gets there. I hope I’ll be near at hand, or only a phone call away, when he discovers that the funny name we used to whisper to each other is actually a very sad character in a great novel, and that the line between life and art is arbitrary, if it exists at all.
A mist hung over the earth. So begins one of the great novels of the twentieth century, Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate; the short drumroll of a sentence is somehow ominous, and we soon discover we are outside a German prison camp, looking through barbed wire at a set of identical wooden barracks. The next chapter takes us inside the camp, where we meet a collection of Russians of various political persuasions, as well as Spaniards, Italians, Englishmen, even an American colonel (who finds it strange that an intelligent-looking Russian major can’t understand his English). This movement, from outside in, is typical of the novel, which takes us places we don’t want to go, but does so with a humane insistence we find impossible to resist. After six chapters in which we get to know these people – especially the Old Bolshevik Mostovskoy, who is troubled that “much in his own soul had become alien to him” – we are suddenly dropped into a command post in the besieged city of Stalingrad, where we are confronted with an entirely different collection of people, some of them historical figures (generals and commissars) and others fictional. This too is typical; the novel does not let us rest for long in any situation, but whisks us up and down the Volga (much of it is set in cities like Kazan and Saratov), west to Moscow, and further west to the German camps, showing us a vast panorama of Russia (and Germany) at war.
If this is reminiscent of War and Peace, it should be; Grossman, a war correspondent who visited the front as often as he could and shared as much as he could of the soldiers’ lives, carried a copy with him and read it constantly, and he was deliberately creating a counterpart to Tolstoy’s epic. A foolish undertaking, you might think, but he pulled it off. His huge novel has nothing in common with the modernist works that stand beside it on the shelf of twentieth-century Russian masterpieces, Bely’s Petersburg and Olesha’s Envy and Nabokov’s The Gift; there are no magical interludes or language games or hidden messages, just a well-told tale of an extended family caught up in circumstances beyond their, or anyone’s, control. We get to know Lyudmila, annoyed with her husband, her daughter, and her mother (who lives with her in Kazan), terrified for her son Tolya (who’s in the army), and concerned for her sister Evgeniya; Evgeniya’s ex-husband Krymov, who’s sent to Stalingrad as a commissar; and especially Lyudmila’s husband Viktor Shtrum, a physicist who almost as soon as we’re introduced to him we find thinking “about something he’d never thought about before, something fascism had forced him to think about – the fact that he was a Jew, and that his mother was a Jew.” Those facts are guns on the wall, and following Chekhov’s prescription they go off.
It is of course inevitable that the Nazis play a considerable role in a World War II novel, and the horrors of their beliefs and their actions are not stinted; what is astonishing is that they are presented as human beings with understandable motives, unlike in almost any other Russian war novel. And what is even more astonishing is that the doctrinaire communists are presented as no better than the doctrinaire Nazis – the Soviet system of camps and terror is explicitly compared to the German one. It is almost inconceivable that Grossman thought this book could be published in the Soviet Union in 1960, but he did; he was doubtless prepared for it to be rejected by the magazine he sent it to, but not for the secret police to show up and confiscate every scrap of it they could get their hands on – Grossman was told by a top member of the Politburo that it could not be published for two hundred years. However, a copy was eventually smuggled abroad (long after the author’s premature death in 1964) and published in 1980; at that point, in the depths of the Brezhnev stagnation, no one could have guessed that in less than a decade it would be published in the Soviet Union, shortly before that country ceased to exist. It had a powerful effect, but it was only one of a flood of forbidden works that were suddenly appearing; we can only imagine the effect it would have had if it could have appeared in its full, scarifying glory in 1960, with the war fresh in memory and Stalin even fresher. It might well be Grossman rather than Pasternak or Solzhenitsyn who was remembered as the writer who exploded the frozen Stalinist world of literature.
I said there were no language games, but I didn’t mean the writing is not superbly effective. Remember that opening sentence? The payoff comes hundreds of pages later, in part II, chapter 29 (chapter 28 in the NYRB translation). Obersturmbannführer Liss is visiting the site where an extermination camp is being constructed, and as his plane lands Grossman says A mist spread over the earth. Even if a reader doesn’t consciously remember the first line of the novel, this reprise should make a chill run up the spine. Unfortunately, the existing translation does not bring this out (I’ve retranslated all the quotes here); it’s well enough done that I encourage everyone to go out and get it, but it’s got enough omissions and mistranslations that it’s high time another one appeared. Many of the other recent Russian classics (like Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki) have multiple translations, and it’s the least Grossman deserves. His combination of bravura storytelling and clear moral vision has few peers.
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A friend of mine told me this story. He was sitting in a medical office waiting to get a CAT scan, trying to read Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. He’d started the book some years before, then lost it, found it again, and started over. He didn’t like it all that much (it wasn’t as good as Lolita or Pale Fire, the novels that had driven him to pick it up in the first place), and as he sat there reading in the waiting room, he thought about the CAT scan he was about to undergo. I may have only a few months to live, he thought. Is this the book I want to spend my remaining hours on?
My friend is fine, it turns out. The CAT scan came back normal. But as he told me this story, I thought back to a recent evening when I lay in my bed reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace’s unfinished novel. Like Wallace’s oeuvre in general, the book has some absolutely stunning sections that command your attention and make you feel intensely alive and aware (see chapters 6, 19, 22, or 46, e.g.), along with some that drive you batty with their dullness and perseverating detail.
I was struggling with the long, tedious section in which “David Wallace” is caught in a traffic jam outside the Peoria IRS office. In the next room, my two daughters, five and seven, were not going to sleep. I was getting more and more irritated with them and their demands for water, etc., which kept interrupting me from concentrating on the book.
Underlying my irritation was another anxiety: my sense that here I was, yelling at my kids to go to sleep just so that I could finish reading something that I myself found incredibly boring, a book that I had no practical need to read, a book whose own author had committed suicide before he was able to finish. A precious, irreplaceable moment of my own life was slipping away. I was declining a chance to interact with my children in a more positive way. And why? To read something that might best have been left on the cutting room floor.
I’ve read a fair number of short story collections. In most of them, there’s at least one and usually several stories that seem so clearly inferior to the rest that I have to wonder, Why is this in here? Does the author know that this story is bad? Is it here merely to serve as filler?
These questions remind me of an old Kurt Vonnegut appearance on Charlie Rose in which Vonnegut explains that he has graded all of his own novels. Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five received A pluses. Slapstick got an F. The book he was on the show to plug at the time (I think it was Timequake) was a B minus.
Vonnegut’s admirable candor makes me think that writers must have a sense of the relative merits of their works. Indeed, the placement of mediocre stories in short story collections is usually a good indicator of the grade the writers would give them. Such stories tend to be buried in the middle of the second half of a collection, or sandwiched in between two more successful pieces.
But why publish them at all? Why not spare us readers that experience of feeling that we’re spending finite moments of our lives on something that is less than the best?
Zadie Smith wasn’t addressing these particular questions at the time, but she pointed nevertheless to one answer to them when she wrote that “writers do not write what they want, they write what they can.”
If Vonnegut could have written nothing but A pluses, he would have. He couldn’t, however. No writer can. Yet Vonnegut still had contracts to fulfill, bills to pay. He had to publish books. It was in his job description.
Moreover, I suspect that, for Vonnegut and for most writers, there comes a time when they just need to accept that a novel or a story or a song is as good as it’s going to get, even if it’s not an A plus. The book needs to come out. The collection of stories needs to be a certain length. The writer’s time has been spent on the piece, for good or ill. It might as well see the light of publication as long as someone is willing to publish it. Who knows: some reader or critic might actually like it. Even if no one does, the writer needs to move on to the next story, the next novel.
It’s a delicate calibration. When do we, as writers, accept that a piece is as good as it will ever be, even if it’s not that great? When do we decide that a piece will never be good enough to be published? As readers, when do we decide that a book or a story is simply not going to be worth reading? When do we decide to press on in the face of boredom?
The CAT scan might come back normal, but in the larger sense, we’re all dying anyway. Our lives as writers, as readers, as human beings, will come to an end. What we write, what we read, what we spend our time on—these are incredibly weighty choices, though we may fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
There’s a danger in perfectionism, in the compulsive attempt to make every novel and story and essay an A plus, or to finish reading everything we start. Yet there’s also a danger in easy abandonment, in the lack of persistence needed to push through the slow parts of War and Peace or Infinite Jest, or in the lack of writerly belief in one’s powers of revision and discovery.
In this way, as in so many others, writing and reading are metaphors for living. In the end, you do the best you can, and then, in one way or another, you let it go and move on.
(Image: fading contrail from dnorman’s photostream)
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
Both are comic-realist novels about recent history, family stories and love stories with subplots about technology and the environment. Both are ambitious books that attempt to examine the struggles of contemporary America, and both writers model their novels on great 19th Century realist fiction. While Franzen invokes Tolstoy, Goodman (without ever announcing it) structures her book loosely around Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility.
Both books are concerned with authenticity, and both books’ protagonists are obsessed with environmental preservation. In Freedom, Walter Berglund wants to protect songbirds. In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach wants to save redwood trees. In both, the main character’s environmentalism is posed against a second major character’s struggle with aesthetics and materialism. Both Freedom’s Richard Katz (a musician) and The Cookbook Collector’s George Friedman (an antiquarian) make long speeches about the commodification of beauty. And in both books, there’s a subplot concerning a dickish and acquisitive young man, aggressive and faux-heroic, who gets into some morally disreputable W. Bush-related business by going after money: in Freedom it’s war profiteering and contracting, in The Cookbook Collector it’s Internet invasion of privacy and eventually government surveillance. As Freedom gets much of its ripped-from-the-headlines feel from subplots about the Iraq war, so The Cookbook Collector with the boom and bust of the Internet era.
Both are loose, baggy novels that move from character to character and year to year, with great big imaginative sweeps. Both books center around a family (the Berglunds, the Bachs), both books climax with a love triangle and a trip to a place of environmental crisis, and conclude with a violent death and the consolation of marriage. Both novels have big canvases that the writers attack with comic gusto. (The Cookbook Collector moves from boardrooms in Boston to communal houses in Berkeley; it makes you cry about 9/11 and makes you think about David Hume and culinary history.) Both novels are really books about value, both material and moral. These are serious books that question value in American life in light of the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the Iraq war.
Both are addictive reading. I couldn’t put either one down. And both books were well received. Reviewers really liked The Cookbook Collector. They marveled at its intelligence and grace. It was called “a feast of love;” critics said that Goodman “makes us care,” and that her books was “enchanting and sensuous,” and “flush with warmth and color.” Critics were somewhat more divided over Freedom, but those who liked it liked it a lot: “A masterpiece of American fiction,” said Sam Tanenhaus in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, “an indelible portrait of our times,” said Michiko Kakutani in the daily. And this difference in response mimicked the gap between the two books’ pre-publication hype. Franzen’s was sold as “The Great American Novel” (that’s what Esquire called it), while The Cookbook Collector was (I guess) just another good book by Allegra Goodman.
Why such a big gap?
I’m sure that a lot of the hype probably has to do with vagaries of the publishing marketplace, mysterious stuff that I can’t speak to. (Like, how’d they get Obama to buy it?) A lot of the gap in expectations also has to do with the relative success of the authors’ previous books—on the one hand, there was that long wait after Franzen’s mega big hit The Corrections, on the other, a shorter wait after Goodman’s well-regarded Intuition. (I, for one, sort of expect that every few years Allegra Goodman will give me another terrific novel to read.) I’m sure part of the wide gap in response has to do with the genders of the authors. It’s as impossible to imagine Goodman on the cover of Time magazine as it is impossible to imagine Jonathan Franzen getting called “warm and sensuous.” (There’s a subtext to the praise of The Cookbook Collector that I quoted above, and it’s: Allegra writes like a girl.) But the difference also is in the books themselves, in the way they approach their readers and their subjects. As a hundred critics before me have argued, Franzen’s book swaggered out and demanded the response it achieved. Its title, its 561 pages, and its sweep boldly proclaimed it a Major Novel and critics had to deal with this claim to Majorness. If you didn’t compare it to The Great Gatsby or Moby-Dick, that was almost a diss.
Freedom got more negative press than did The Cookbook Collector, but that hardly means it’s a weaker book: it just got more press period, and probably much of the nastier criticism was just counterreaction to all the noise around the novel’s release. But the book was part of that noise. Freedom is a terrific performance, but it also sometimes feels like a guy at a dinner party who’s talking very, very loudly. It mentions War and Peace so many times you’d have to be a dolt not to get the Tolstoyan ambitions. And some of the book’s weaknesses are part of its terrible roar. As Charles Baxter wrote in The New York Review of Books, “Freedom’s ambition is to be the sort of novel that sums up an age and that gets everything into it, a heroic and desperate project. The author all but comes out and says so.” And Franzen’s characters’ actions are sometimes presented with such broad irony that they better serve his point than his plot. As a result the characters can seem dimwitted; as Baxter put it, “almost every reader of Freedom will be more worldly than its protagonist and will have anticipated several of its key moments many pages before they arrive.”
Meanwhile, for all its sweep and ambition, The Cookbook Collector comes on quite modestly. As Ron Charles said in The Washington Post: “Goodman is a fantastically fluid writer, and yet for all her skill, she’s a humble, transparent one who stays out of the way, never drawing attention to her style or cleverness.” Goodman’s gaze is always on her subjects, and she handles her big themes lightly, submerging them in the lives of the books’ characters. The Cookbook Collector’s literary elegance is part of what made the book invisible to a broad public, while Franzen’s roaring crassness is part of what made his book such a smash. He’s just a lot louder than she is.
Which is not to say there aren’t lots of ways in which I prefer Franzen to Goodman. He’s much more interested in the dark side of life than she is. He writes with sympathy and intelligence about addictions and failed marriages, career failures, and failures in raising children—almost everyone in Freedom is some kind of anxious wreck. Meanwhile The Cookbook Collector has a pretty uniformly well-adjusted, privileged cast (that’s what you get for following Jane Austen, the lives of the smartest rich girls in the county), most of whom are either making a mint in computers or are enjoying tenure at MIT. The exception is Goodman’s heroine, Jessamine, the family flake, a confused grad student at Berkeley (egads!), but by the time the novel is done she’s found love, money, and has embarked on a promising academic career.
When people have sex in Freedom, heads bang on walls. In The Cookbook Collector it’s a finger on the chest and then fade out. (Goodman does write a very sexy scene of a girl eating a peach.) There are gorgeous flights of imagination in The Cookbook Collector—like the scene where George stumbles upon the collection of its title, 17th Century manuscripts stored in the cabinets and ovens of a musty Bay Area kitchen:
For a moment, he thought she was searching for the iodine, and then he saw them. Leather-bound, cloth-bound, quartos and folios, books of every size. The cabinets were stocked with books. Not a dish or cup in sight. Only books. Sandra bent and opened the lower cabinets. Not a single pot or pan. Just books. She stood on a chair to reach the cabinet above the refrigerator. Books there as well.
George stepped away from the sink without noticing that he had left the water running. Injury forgotten, he gazed in awe. He leaned against the counter and stared at bindings of hooped leather, red morocco, black and gold. Sandra opened a drawer and there lay Le Livre de Cuisine. She opened the drawer below and took out The Accomplisht Cook: or, The Art and Mystery of Cookery. He opened the book at random: Section XIII: The First Section for dressing of fish, Shewing divers ways, and the most excellent, for dressing Carps, either Boiled, Stewed, Broiled, Roasted, or Baked, &c. He had never tried to roast a carp.
But there’s nothing in The Cookbook Collector like the scene in Freedom where a young adulterous husband digs through his own shit for the wedding ring he has swallowed:
He knelt on the cool floor and peered into the bowl at the four large turds afloat in it, hoping to see the glint of gold immediately. The oldest turd was dark and firm and noduled, the ones from deeper inside him were paler and already dissolving a little. Although he, like all people, secretly enjoyed the smell of his own farts, the smell of his shit was something else. It was so bad as to seem evil in a moral way. He poked one of the softer turds with a fork, trying to rotate it and examine its underside, but it bent and began to crumble, clouding the water brown, and he saw that this business of the fork had been a wishful fantasy. The water would soon be too turbid to see a ring through, and if the ring broke free of its enveloping matter it would sink to the bottom and possibly go down the drain. He had no choice but to lift out each turd and run it through fingers, and he had to do this quickly, before things got too waterlogged. Holding his breath, his eyes watering furiously, he grasped the most promising turd and let go of his most recent fantasy, which was that one hand would suffice. He had to use both hands, one to hold the shit, and the other to pick through it. He retched once, drily, and got to work, pushing his fingers into the soft and body-warm and surprisingly lightweight log of excrement.
Goodman glides through her fiction, while with Franzen, it’s always a triple lutz with a camel. When Jessamine Bach joins an environmental group it’s the prosaically named Save the Trees, and like a real environmentalist, she sits in a treetop canopy to preserve the redwood from loggers. (That scene in the redwood is beautifully turned.) When Walter Berglund starts an environmental group, it’s called the Cerulean Warbler Mountain Trust, and Walter’s got a scheme wherein he’ll give over some pristine wilderness to a coal company and then after they’ve removed the mountaintops and fouled the groundwater, he’ll replant the place as a songbird preserve.
Franzen has written a lot about his break from difficult, satiric post-modernism. In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he pronounced his split from his one-time hero William Gaddis. He doesn’t want to write really, really hard intellectual books anymore. Thing is, Franzen’s over-the-top satire and his pressing of his characters’ faces into humiliation and into the meaningless void—these things really do derive in Franzen from Gaddis, from a dire, post-Beckett aesthetic. Part of what makes Franzen so exciting to his admirers and so frustrating to his critics is his attempt to wed whacked-out and dark postmodern irony to sympathetic humanist realism. And in this unlikely marriage problems do arise. In a crazy-ass postmodern spoof, you can have a character dig through his shit or have an environmentalist join up with a coal company, and this can be part of the cold icy whacky comic mayhem (like in Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own, a novel about a set of interrelated lawsuits, where the cars are called Isuyu and Sosume). But in a realist novel, this kind of irony can shade into something ugly, can make characters seem plastic and thin and (as Charles Baxter argued) a little stupid. Franzen’s willingness to abase his characters often reads as if he holds them in contempt.
Part of the difference in reception of the novels might actually have something to do with the two books’ Jewishness—and here we come to another one of the weird parallels between the books. Both of these are very Jewish novels, and their subplots about Jewishness mirror each other. In both books, mothers hide their Jewishness from their children, children discover their secret family histories, and these discoveries of secret histories coincide with violent global convulsions.
In Freedom, Patty Berglund, Walter’s wife, keeps her Jewish identity a secret from her kids, and her son Joey (the one who digs through his own shit, the one who gets mixed up in phony arms deals in the Iraq war) discovers his Jewishness late in the novel. After he makes this discovery of his identity, Joey gets involved with in a scary Jewish family—one that might be modeled on the Kristols or the Wolfowitzes, rich Jews whose interest in Joey’s Jewishness is almost as creepy as their interest in right wing politics, Jews who distribute false information that leads to war.
In The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine and Emily Bach’s mother is dead, but her Jewishness is similarly locked away from them, kept hidden from the girls by their father. They both learn about their Jewishness at a post-9/11 memorial service—the Bach sisters are related not to assimilated or political Jews, but to Hassidic Jews, in fact to the Bialostoker Rebbe himself. Goodman’s treatment of Jewishness has a completely different purpose than does Franzen’s. For Franzen, Jewishness marks another opportunity to explore self-loathing and to memorialize the times—here, to skewer neo-conservatives. In The Cookbook Collector, the presence of Jews—of rabbis—allows the novel to contemplate value in a whole new light. Religious value is a central value for Goodman, and one that underpins the whole of her work. In this book, it is contemplated alongside other human values—material, aesthetic, filial, and romantic. And all of these things, in Goodman’s eyes, have worth.
Twenty years ago, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay called “E Unibus Plurum: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in which he worried that the irony of his favorite post-moderns (Pynchon, Delillo, Gaddis, Barth) had been co-opted in his generation of post-modernists’ lives by television, in particular leering, cynical “I know this is just an ad” kind of TV ads. Wallace worried that his generation of post-modernists had fallen into a trap, a reflexive, cold irony he called “televisual,” and he described this irony’s gaze as “the girl who’s dancing with you but who would rather be dancing with someone else.” Allegra Goodman, of course, is in no danger of falling into this trap. At the end of The Cookbook Collector, Jessamine Bach’s newly discovered uncle, Rabbi Helfgott, presides over her and George Friedman’s marriage, and it’s clear that the book believes in God and in love, and that Goodman’s fiction exists in a stable, meaningful, social world. Her subtle literary ironies are of a piece with this large-hearted view.
Meanwhile Franzen’s novel—his whole career, really—is a struggle with this postmodern ironical trap, a struggle to inhabit it and get out of it, to be humane and to be ironic. At the end of Freedom, when the Berglunds, Walter and Patty, huddle together after 500-plus pages of humiliations, affairs, failures, and addictions, and in the ruins of their marriage find some comfort from the horrid world all around—well, it’s proof (if proof was ever needed) of Franzen’s extraordinary gifts. This final section succeeds movingly.
But he never can quite turn it off, and you feel it, the televisual irony, all throughout the course of Freedom. Franzen is dancing with you, sure, and with Walter and Patty as well, and his moves are wild and Tony Manero dazzling—but he’s not wholeheartedly on the floor with his partners. Allegra Goodman loves her characters—they absorb her attention as if she could wish for nothing more, and she offers them intimately to her readers, so much so that the author herself all but vanishes. Franzen’s characters meanwhile exist somewhere beneath the glory of his prose. His book is not so much addressed to the intimate reader, it’s addressed to the judges and the crowds. His characters are anxious, but he is supremely confident. He has managed to shuck the difficulties of postmodern fiction while retaining much of its cool and distant pose.
David Foster Wallace had lots of moral and aesthetic problems with televisual irony—he ends that essay about it with an interesting call for earnestness—but he also noted how well it sells. Half a year after its release, The Cookbook Collector, full of earnestness and love, is between hardcover and paperback editions, and it’s hard to find at your local bookstore. Meanwhile, cool and calculating Freedom sits high on the bestseller list, alone among its literary contemporaries. That’s some kind of triumph.
Fifteen things about my year in reading:
1. My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles. Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.
3. The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.
4. The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.
5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
6. Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great. The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.
7. The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.
8. The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.
9. The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse. In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)
10. I found Keith Richards’ Life incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids. The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.
11. Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.
12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.
13. Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)
14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.
15. In September, I got a Kindle. It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better. The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.
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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
Super Sad True Love Story
Summer favorites stayed firmly ensconsed on our list in September, but Emma Donoghue’s Booker shortlisted Room managed to debut on the list in the tenth spot. Edan recently offered up a compelling review of the book in our pages. Meanwhile, the top three spots on our list remain unchanged from the prior month, with Freedom by Jonathan Franzen still in the top spot. Garth’s review of the book was published here in August. Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month was Michael Lewis’ The Big Short. Garth offered up a a look at the book and n+1’s entry into the financial meltdown post-mortem genre earlier this week. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Gone-Away World, War and Peace, Things We Didn’t See Coming, The Imperfectionists. See Also: Last month’s list
When I think of the books I really love, the ones I rant about and buy spare copies of so I can give them away, I do not associate many of them with the place where I first read them. I extol an author’s language and humor, a particularly memorable character, the ideas that make the book hum, the sense of place imparted on the pages between the covers. For the most part, what I’m reading is much more important than where I’m reading it.
One notable exception to this dates back to 1998, when as a college student I had the good fortune to participate in Semester as Sea (back before MTV sullied the program’s reputation). I had already gotten a taste for travel and the narratives it inspired by authors like Jan Morris and Paul Theroux. Before leaving for four months at sea, I knew I needed the right book. I found it in The Size of the World, Jeff Greenwald’s recounting of his journey around the world without ever leaving its surface. Utilizing any available mode of ground transport, Greenwald put together more than just a travel story, and I will never forget reading it during my time on that ship.
I’m writing this in Granada, Spain, the Alhambra’s foreboding exterior walls hulking above the hills visible from my window. I knew I would be here for close to a month and had this very much on my mind as I ferreted around for a book to bring along. I wanted something big, entertaining thoughts of War and Peace or Mason & Dixon, maybe JR. The end of the harried week prior to departure found me at Posman Books in Grand Central (my first New York City employer), not wanting to rush my decision but also feeling a self-imposed pressure to get home, finish packing, tidy up the apartment and leave town the next day.
I fondled all of the books I had considered but none of them felt right. With my list out the window, I started looking at books I haven’t read by authors I like. This didn’t work either. No stranger to such bookstore dilemmas, I defaulted to books published by houses I admire: FSG, NYRB, Vintage, New Directions, Dalkey Archive. I was getting warmer. Great Russian World War II novels didn’t seem right, neither did woeful contemporary tales of struggling writers. But then a spine that read Balcony of Europe caught my eye. I liked the cover: Roman arches holding up a great black edifice – housing the title and author’s name, Aidan Higgins – seemingly floating on the mountain-rimmed Mediterranean, two semblances of sail boats, triangles of red and yellow. The back cover copy declares the book a long-unavailable masterpiece, based in “a village on the coast of Spain,” which the table of contents pinpoints to Andalusia. I was sold.
Andalusia comprises the bottom chunk of Spain between Portugal and the Mediterranean. It contains several provinces, including Granada and Malaga at the region’s southern most reach. Nerja, where a great deal of Balcony of Europe takes place, is located in Malaga province. While the euro and technology have radically changed this part of Spain compared to the novel’s early 1960s setting, the craggy coastline and hilly interior dotted with remnants of Roman and Muslim conquests remain the same. At its core, this novel is about history, as the W.B. Yeats epigraph attests: “I begin seeing things double – doubled in history, world history, personal history.”
From early 1962 until the summer of 1963 Irish painter Dan Ruttle, the narrator, and his wife Olivia live in Nerja, a coastal village reluctantly awakening to the advent of tourism that helped spur Spain’s “economic miracle.” Attracting expatriated artists, writers and eccentrics eager to live cheap and focus on art and pastimes, the Ruttles work, read, swim and haunt local bars and cafes with other Europeans, Canadians and Americans. Chief among them are Bob and Charlotte Bayless, he a native Californian writing a scholarly book about Shelley and Byron and she a Lower East Side Jew, beauty her greatest craft.
Dan Ruttle and Charlotte Bayless have an affair. And in one sense, that’s the book. But though the affair is physically consummated, it exists mostly in Dan’s mind. He is obsessed by thoughts of their handful of assignations and how national, political and cultural histories cut their characters out of time’s fabric. The ghost of World War II is inescapable: Franco’s unfulfilled pledge of alliance to Hitler; drunken ex-Nazis; American “we saved your ass” bravado; Jewish identity; “American bombers” constantly flying exercises, contrails embroidering the clear skies. There are also Joycean weaves of history, bobbing in and out of myth and time as read from mountains and sea changes.
From what was and what is and what could be, all of the individuals in this book fill time and waste it. Both Olivia and Bob realize their spouses’ infidelities, but most of their reactions only ever exist in Dan’s head, his interpretation of glances and body language, how they echo the first time Bob slept with Charlotte years before in San Francisco. More than once, Olivia does raise the issue of Dan’s none too subtle preoccupation with Charlotte, but he never responds to her. Dan internalizes everything, and is aware of it, asking himself, “Would my sensations be forever intellectual?”
Interestingly, the characters solidify based on wonderfully descriptive and repeated details of physical traits and personalities. Charlotte doesn’t carry change because it is bad for the ovaries; Schiller kept rotting apples in his drawer because the smell inspired him. Such details are reported over and over again, sometimes more than once on the page, other times two hundred pages apart, providing a perspective like a fly’s: multi-faceted visions that form a whole.
Such repetition might suggest boredom or lack of anything better to say, but the opposite is true, as this book insists: “If a thing is boring, keep repeating it.” Nothing is boring or insignificant by virtue of its existence, and characters like Dan Ruttle tower over most fictional figures, able to create a worldview that synthesizes personal quirks with two thousand years of history. His attitude renders him a passive character, to be sure, but for Dan that’s the rub of history, all experiences are a return to a time that is and was, now and forever. Watching a tipsy old man search for a key to unlock a door, Dan thinks, “I sensed his discomfort; he did not want to go in, though by staying out he could not alter anything. He looked for neither truth nor the likelihood, stood there play-acting, making me feel uncomfortable. How well I understood how he felt, deforming himself, deforming habit and custom. But nothing would change.”
Of course, change is inevitable and constant. Today in this part of Spain there are more tourists, no language is uncommon to hear, no one bats an eye at topless sunbathing. But, dinner is still eaten very late, and breakfast is often accompanied by beer, the church bells still clang and the Sierra Nevada stand tall, dimpled with snow even in summer’s hottest months.
There is no doubt that reading this book at home in New York, riding the train and before bed, would be memorable, but reading it here, covering some of the same ground as these characters, makes it lasting. Watching patterns of swifts cross the sky, the movement of sand on the sea floor, flamenco guitar strings plucked as bright and crisp as the sun – these qualities of place have shaped my reading of Balcony of Europe.
The other day I pulled a stone out of the Mediterranean. It has probably not been dry for a very long time. I will return home with this soft, weathered stone, carrying its history, most likely older than human history and our constructs of space and time. In creating Dan Ruttle, Aidan Higgins has deftly distilled a great many ideas into one very important one: a place defines history, but history cannot be contained by a place.
What book has made an impression on you because of where you read it?
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
The Big Short
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
Super Sad True Love Story
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Three of the summer’s biggest literary novels vaulted onto our list in August. Surprising probably no one, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen came out on August 31 and in one day was popular enough to debut at the top of our list. Two other literary superstars also debuted, Gary Shteyngart with Super Sad True Love Story, reviewed here, and Jennifer Egan with A Visit from the Goon Squad, reviewed and profiled here. Meanwhile, David Shields’ controversial Reality Hunger ended its run on our list and graduated to the Hall of Fame. Shields wrote a spritied defense of his book for us and provided a supplementary and exhaustive reading list as well. Elsewhere, Stieg Larsson’s second “Millennium” book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, got bumped from our list (though the trilogy’s final book remains firmly ensconced), as did weighty fave War and Peace. Near Misses: The Girl Who Played with Fire, War and Peace, The Imperfectionists, The Gone-Away World, Things We Didn’t See Coming. See Also: Last month’s list
I’ll do you the favor of summarizing all the major plot points of the second volume of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Jia Bao-yu, the eccentric adolescent heir of the phenomenally wealthy Jia family, has a crush on his cousin, Lin Dai-yu, and she has a crush on him. He unintentionally slights her, and they have a fight, which is quickly resolved. Bao-yu’s flirtation with a maid inadvertently leads to her suicide; as the result of the maid’s suicide and his friendship with an escaped slave of the Imperial household, his father beats Bao-yu brutally, leaving him bed-ridden. However, he eventually recovers, and starts a poetry club with his sisters and cousins. They have a poetry contest. At the matriarch’s insistence, the family throws an extravagant birthday party for her granddaughter-in-law, Wang Xi-feng. The party ends poorly when Wang Xi-feng catches her husband cheating on her with a maid. More cousins come to visit, and to honor them, Bao-yu’s sister invites them to the poetry club, which holds another meeting. The family celebrates the New Year festival. That’s more or less all that really happens, and that story takes some 560 pages of tiny, dense text to tell. It’s also only the second volume of five, each about the same length.
At the beginning of the summer, I set out to read the entirety of the David Hawkes translation of The Dream of the Red Chamber. Its author, Cao Xueqin, was the scion of one of the wealthiest families of early Qing China. He was also unfortunate enough, as a child, to be a witness to its dramatic downfall–a result of political purges and property confiscations. Cao spent most of his life in dire poverty, writing and re-writing the semi-autobiographical Dream of the Red Chamber continuously until his death in 1764. Dream of the Red Chamber–circulated in coveted hand-copied manuscripts until the first print edition in 1792–was an almost instant success. The novel has had a profound impact on the Chinese literary tradition; scholarly studies of Red Chamber are so numerous that there is a minor field of study dedicated to the novel – hongxue, literally, “redology.” Red Chamber serves as an invaluable record of the lifestyle of a wealthy Chinese family at the beginning of the eighteenth century, faithfully portraying the Neo-Confucian conservatism of the newly established Qing dynasty and the anxieties that preoccupied its governing scholar bureaucracy. Its doomed lovers, Jia Bao-yu and Lin Dai-yu, are as iconic in China as Romeo and Juliet are in the West. It’s also notable for its staggering length. At about twenty-eight hundred pages, Dream of the Red Chamber is about twice as long as my copy of War and Peace.
What is most striking to me about the experience of reading this book, however, is not the length. It is the vast distance between The Dream of the Red Chamber and the modern sensibility. In the post-Lish verbal economics of the contemporary novel, where every word has to count, the dramatic waste of words in Red Chamber is astoundingly alien. I am aware, of course, that not every novel is plot-driven, but most novels do tend to have some sort of force propelling them forward, some sort of urgency, whether that urgency is derived from the events, the character, or themes alluded to by the work. Dream of the Red Chamber, on the other hand, is unbelievably comfortable with its own languor. It is often content to bring the story to a complete standstill while it explains the minutiae of household management. The novel often seems to proceed only with a great reluctance.
I won’t tell you it isn’t occasionally boring to read this novel. I also won’t tell you that it isn’t maddening. Or that, after reading every excruciating detail of the umpteenth drinking game, I didn’t want to angrily trample it, like an apostate stomping on the cross. But the extravagant waste of the prose is also part of the overall design of the novel. The low signal-to-noise ratio causes the mind to actively search for the tiny anomalies that reveal the profundity behind the endless series of parties. I love this single sentence, for example:
It was customary in the Jia household to treat the older generation of servants – those who had served the parents of the present masters – with even greater respect than the younger generation of masters, so that in this instance it was not thought at all surprising that You-shi, Xi-feng and Li Wan should remain standing while old Mrs. Lai and three or four other old nannies (though not without first apologizing for the liberty) seated themselves on the stools.
I cannot remember where I last saw the relationships between servants and their masters so concisely described. This sentence (particularly the parenthetical) perfectly captures the way a master’s gesture of apparent humility and gratitude can end up as nothing more than the ultimate expression of power.
The novel is filled with these diamonds in the rough. In fact, the overall technique of the novel is that of an elaborate shell game, as if the narrator were attempting to hide something behind every description of a meal. Surrounded by reams and reams of meaningless detail, the sudden dismissal of a maid jars us as an unconscionable cruelty. We come to understand the magnitude of the Jia family matriarch’s vanity and selfishness by carefully reading between the lines. And only by trudging through each and every poetry contest can the reader absorb the tremendous depth of the regret that suffuses the novel; with each innocent poem written about transience, with each second idly wasted, the young residents of the Jia family mansions unknowingly signal their own doom.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the novel is dead. Heck, forget the novel; the short story is dead. It’s all about flash fiction now. Not only is this a foregone conclusion, everyone knows how it happened, too. Television, or video games, or the internet, or Twitter destroyed our attention spans. For one thing, nobody reads anymore (a sentiment expressed exclusively, it should be noted, by people who read a great deal). And besides, nobody’s interested in fiction anymore (again, a statement that is only ever written by people who love literary fiction).
Myriad and ever-emerging like cockroaches, those essays that would pronounce a final sentence on the novel rely on a gross misperception of how culture works. The logic behind most of these arguments is that readers are only willing to read works that reflect their direct experience; thus, a faster paced world demands shorter stories, or an image-obsessed world eschews text altogether. “Death of the novel” essayists would condemn the art form to the dustbin of history like the telegraph, the typewriter or some other piece of outdated machinery. Theirs is a brutally determinist view of the world; they seem to believe that culture can only reflect–and never influence–the societies and people that produce it.
However, that’s never been my experience. I have continually been shaped by books. To Kill A Mockingbird taught me what courage is. Beowulf taught me about death. Swann’s Way taught me how to let go of love. And I hope that Dream of the Red Chamber will teach me to pay attention. For as much as life is made out of Joycean epiphanies, it seems that a great deal more of it is composed of lunches and dinners, awful parties, boring family get-togethers, and countless, idly-watched episodes of Law and Order. There seems to be a great deal of value in learning how to find the beauty that lies in this “wasted” time. Not to say that we can’t also have quick beach reads. But we don’t only read to consume; we also read in order to learn and maybe even in order to change and to grow.
Since the beginning of time, there have been long novels and there have been flash fiction–though, back then, flash fiction pieces were called epigrams. I’d argue that the first post-modern novel was Don Quixote. I’d argue that the first anti-novel was Tristam Shandy. The same modes of expression have always been around, albeit with different names and different styles. Their use has only been limited by the mind, which has generally proved flexible enough to find new meaning in the old forms and come up with new forms to talk about those same old universal human experiences.
Through books–both sweepingly long ones and dramatic short ones–we’ve come to terms with the staggering impact of science, the economic traumas of capitalism, the dislocations of globalization, and the unique nightmare of modern war. I think we’ll figure out a way to deal with Twitter, too.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]
2010 has already been a strong year for fiction lovers, with new novels by the likes of Joshua Ferris, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Egan, and David Mitchell. Meanwhile, publishing houses offered up posthumous works by Ralph Ellison, Robert Walser, and Henry Roth, and the font of Roberto Bolaño fiction continued to flow.
The second half of 2010 will bring much anticipated work by Gary Shteyngart, Antonya Nelson, Salman Rushdie, and especially Jonathan Franzen. So that readers may set their literary calendars anew, we’ve selected a few dozen books we’re looking forward to. (The writer of each preview is noted in parenthesis.)
July (or already available)
The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman: I first took note of Allegra Goodman’s off-kilter prose thanks to a New Yorker short story five years ago. As it turns out, that story, gently poking fun at the exuberance of the late 1990s, but also quietly weighty, touching on pain, religion and the whole idea of being “centered,” was a piece of Goodman’s new novel, The Cookbook Collector. The book focuses on a pair of sisters at the turn of the millennium toiling on either end of the technology continuum, one the founder of a dot-com startup, the other an antiquarian book dealer. PW loves the book, calling it “Goodman’s most robust, fully realized and trenchantly meaningful work yet.” (Max)
The Four Fingers of Death by Rick Moody: The Four Fingers of Death is a 700 page supercollider. It brings together the various interests Rick Moody has explored in his eight previous books: metafiction, domestic drama, satire, the entertainment industry, and the Way We Live Now…er, tomorrow. The framing tale, set in the year 2025 (yes, man is still alive), concerns Montese Crandall, a self-involved writer-type who will be familiar to readers of Moody’s short stories. The longer, framed section is a Vonnegut-inspired sci-fi romp. Gradually, one imagines, the two converge. Mutual illumination ensues. (Garth)
Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr: Doerr came to the attention of many readers with his debut collection of stories The Shell Collector. Now, after a novel and a travel memoir, he’s back with another collection that includes two novellas and four short stories. As with The Shell Collector, Doerr’s scope in Memory Wall is global. A recent profile with Boise Weekly — Doerr is wrapping up his tenure as Idaho’s writer in residence — places the action in China, South Africa, Germany, Korea, Lithuania, Wyoming and, of course, Idaho. (Max)
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: The author of the critically acclaimed and deliriously off-kilter novels The Russian Debutante’s Handbook and Absurdistan returns with a third novel set in an apocalyptic near-future. Books are all but extinct and America is functionally illiterate, there are riots in Central Park and National Guard tanks on every Manhattan street corner, and the narrator is, as the Random House publicity department puts it, “the proud owner of what may well be the world’s last diary.” It’s difficult to resist the book’s opening lines: “Today I’ve made a major decision: I am never going to die. Others will die around me. They will be nullified. Nothing of their personality will remain. The light switch will be turned off.” (Emily M.)
Faithful Place by Tana French: Faithful Place is the #1 Indie Next Pick for the month of July. (This is a big deal—it means that independent booksellers across the United States have picked French’s new novel as their favorite out of all the books being published in the US in July 2010.) This alone should be enough to make us sit up and take notice,
but the plotline is particularly beguiling: when Frank Mackey was nineteen, he made plans with his girlfriend Rosie to leave the poverty and dysfunction of their lives in Dublin’s inner city and flee to London. But Rosie never appeared on the night they were supposed to meet, and Frank, assuming that she’d changed her mind, went on to England without her. Twenty-two years later, a suitcase is found behind a fireplace in a run-down building on the street where Frank grew up; when it becomes clear that the suitcase belonged to Rosie, Frank returns home to try and unravel the mystery of what happened to her. French is also the author
of two previous critically-acclaimed novels: In the Woods, which won the Edgar, Barry, Macavity, and Anthony awards, and The Likeness. (Emily M.)
The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer: Adam Langer, who is the author of the well-received Crossing California and two other books, will publish The Thieves of Manhattan this month. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called it “an über-hip caper that pays homage to and skewers the state of publishing and flash-in-the-pan authors… Part Bright Lights, Big City, part The Grifters, this delicious satire of the literary world is peppered with slang so trendy a glossary is included.” (Edan)
The Return and The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication continues. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories. And The Insufferable Gaucho (August) — more stories, plus two essays — was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And we hear there’s more “new” Bolaño to come in 2011. (Max)
My Hollywood by Mona Simpson: Simpson, author of Anywhere but Here and Off Keck Road, among others, took ten years to write this new novel about Claire, who has recently moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young son, and Lola, their Filipina nanny. In Publishers Weekly, Simpson said, “There are thousands of women who are here working, often with their own young children left behind. That leads to a whole different vision of what it is to raise a child, what’s important.” (Edan)
Hollywood by Larry McMurtry: Although Texas epicist Larry McMurtry has written dozens of novels, he’s best known for the films that have come from them: The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Hud, and the CBS colossus “Lonesome Dove.” Over the last five decades, he’s turned others’ work into triumph (Brokeback Mountain), seen his own ground into pabulum (Texasville), and written a screenplay for The Cougar (John Mellencamp’s Falling From Grace). In short, he’s a veteran of the L.A. movie wars, and in Hollywood—his third memoir in as many years—he’ll share the stories behind them. Or, at least, he should: in a harsh review of his second memoir, 2009’s Literary Life, The New York Times wrote, “Too often… Mr. McMurtry will sidle up to an interesting anecdote and then tell the reader to wait for his third and concluding memoir, Hollywood… He’ll explain then.” (Jacob)
I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a “sample translation” on Petterson’s agent’s website, it begins: “I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual.” (Max)
Encounter by Milan Kundera: Fans of Milan Kundera’s previous essays on the power of art (particularly that of the novel), memory, mortality, and human nature can look forward to Encounter, his newest collection, which was released in France in 2009 and will land in the English-speaking world in August. Kundera’s devotion to modernism is a particular focus here, with reflections both critical and personal on the work of established masters – Francis Bacon, Leo Janacek, Garcia Marquez, Dostoevsky, and Fellini – as well as homages to those he considers unsung, including Anatole France, Curzio, Malaparte, and Celine. (Both the Malaparte and Celine sections apparently hone in on episodes involving dogs – the dignified way in which animals face death, in contrast to human posturing and vanity – which I especially look forward to). In a review last year, Trevor Cribben Merrill described Encounter as “a self-portrait of the artist as an old man […]the most personal of Kundera’s essays.” (Sonya)
You Lost Me There by Rosecrans Baldwin: In this debut novel by the co-founder of one of The Millions’ favorite sites, The Morning News, Alzheimer’s researcher Victor Aaron discovers his late wife’s notes about the state of their marriage. Her version of their relationship differs greatly from his own, and Victor is forced to reexamine their life together. Wells Tower says the novel “is a work of lucid literary art, roisterous wit, and close, wry knowledge of the vexed circuits of the human mind and heart.” (Edan)
Sympathy for the Devil, edited by Tim Pratt: This anthology will collect stories from an impressive roster of writers — Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others — with the devil being the common thread. This being a reprint anthology, fans of the individual authors included may find nothing new, though they may appreciate the clever theme and may encounter work by writers they don’t regularly read. (Max)
The Thousand by Kevin Guilfoile: While many readers might associate Guilfoile with McSweeney’s, where he’s a frequent contributor, or The Morning News, where with John Warner he provides essential commentary for the Tournament of Books, his fiction occupies a space that some readers might not associate with these latter-day literary tastemakers. Case in point, the titular Thousand are “a clandestine group of powerful individuals safeguarding and exploiting the secret teachings of Pythagoras.” That may sound like Dan Brown fodder, but you’ll be getting something much, much smarter. (Max)
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Freedom, Jonathan Franzen’s first novel in nearly a decade, is a love story – albeit one surrounded by more ideas and insights and plot-lines than many novelists manage in a career. As he anatomizes the marriage of Minnesotans Patty and Walter Berglund, Franzen also looks at environmentalism, politics, sex, gentrification, and the pains and pleasures of growing up. And though a youthful anger animates his writing on the Bush years, his patience with Patty, in particular, suggests a writer who has done some growing himself. Franzen’s longest book is also, for great swaths of pages, his best. (Garth)
Bound by Antonya Nelson: If two women can bond by mutual disdain for a third, then reading Antonya Nelson’s fiction is like being the second woman listening as Nelson dishes tales of family, friends, and small town life with precision, venom, and humor. Typical to Nelson is a swift and biting portrait that’s as honest as it is unsentimental–consider this line from her story “Incognito” for example: “My mother the widow had revealed a boisterous yet needy personality, now that she was alone, and Eddie, least favorite sibling, oily since young, did nothing more superbly than prop her up.” Nelson’s latest novel, Bound, returns to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, and depicts the turmoil of a couple on the rocks–the wife haunted by her past and the husband a serial adulterer–while a serial killer, the BTK (Bound Torture, and Kill), reappears after a long silence, taking vicious to a new level. (Anne)
Zero History by William Gibson: Zero History will round out a trilogy that also includes Pattern Recognition and Spook Country. Gibson recently laid out how the three books fit into our 21st century milieu: “If Pattern Recognition was about the immediate psychic aftermath of 9-11, and Spook Country about the deep end of the Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq, I could say that Zero History is about the global financial crisis as some sort of nodal event.” (Max)
Ape House by Sara Gruen: Following her surprise hit with Water for Elephants, Gruen earned a $5 million advance for Ape House and whatever she writes next. Whether or not Gruen earns back that hefty advance, the new book sounds like madness: super smart apes — bonobos, specifically — escape a lab in an explosion and not long after, a mega-hit reality TV show appears featuring the missing apes. This reminds me of that movie Project X. (Max)
C by Tom McCarthy: One of Tom McCarthy’s many roles in addition to novelist includes acting as the General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society, who in their first manifesto declared: “our very bodies are no more than vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death” and that “the construction of mankind’s sole chance of survival lies in its ability, as yet unsynthesised, to die in new, imaginative ways.” In keeping with these moribund tendencies, McCarthy returns with his second third novel, C, which in general terms deals with technology and mourning. In McCarthy’s own words, “C is about the age of the wireless: the roar of transmission, signals flung from towering masts, global reaches crackling out of earphones. And empire. And insects. And incest.” Simultaneously a bildungsroman and an anti-realist period novel, C follows the life of Serge Carrefax, the son of a man who runs a school for the blind, who grows up to become a WWI radio operator for reconnaissance planes, is imprisoned by the Germans, and escapes. The book jacket designer, Peter Mendelsund, claims that if MacCarthy’s first novel, Remainder, recalls Beckett then C reads like Joyce. McCarthy says that if Remainder is his French novel, then C is his German. If one can judge a book by its cover and anticipatory buzz, C will be one to remember. (Anne)
True Prep by Lisa Birnbach with Chip Kidd: The Official Preppy Handbook had that rare spark of wit that makes a good joke many things to many people. Actual preppy people were chuffed to find themselves the subject of a well-drawn lampoon (or earnestly concerned with inaccuracies), the great unwashed found an arsenal or an atlas, depending on their aspirations, and people somewhere in the middle could feel a sheepish pride in being kind of sort of related to a tribe important enough to have its own book. People with real problems, of course, didn’t care either way. Now, True Prep is upon us, and if it fulfills the 1.3 million-print run promise of its precursor, Knopf Doubleday and authors Lisa Birnbach and Chip Kidd (original collaborator Jonathan Roberts did not participate, fearing the project wasn’t true to the subversive intention of the Handbook) stand to rake it in. But the popularity of the original book, the shifting sands of American society and wealth, and the proliferation of lifestyle blogs by people with no sense of humor or irony have created a monster simulacrum of “prepdom,” one without easily defined parameters. Will the sequel be able to paint such a sharp and comic portrait as the first Handbook, or will it be yet another non-book littering the aisles of Borders? (Lydia)
All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost by Lan Samantha Chang: Chang, who is the author of one other novel, Inheritance, and a story collection, Hunger, is also the director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Perhaps the Workshop inspired her new book, which is about poets at a renowned writing school. At just over 200 pages, this slim novel examines the age-old question, “What are the personal costs of a life devoted to the pursuit of art?” (Edan)
By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham: Cunningham’s last novel Specimen Days didn’t quite replicate the critical and commercial success of The Hours. This new novel was initially called Olympia, and a long excerpt of it was published in the inaugural issue of Electric Literature. Discussing the novel, Cunningham told Entertainment Weekly, “Peter is the central character. He’s an art dealer and he finds that he is increasingly drawn to his wife’s very much younger brother, who evinces for him everything that was appealing about his wife when he first met her. He’s not gay. Well, he’s probably a little gay because we’re all a little gay, right? But it’s certainly eroticized. It’s not because he wants to f— this boy. The boy is like the young wife.” (Max)
Salvation City by Sigrid Nunez: In early 2009 in these pages, Sana Krasikov considered the contention the women aren’t known for writing novels of ideas. Her rejoinder to this was Sigrid Nunez’s The Last of Her Kind, “a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters.” This new novel exploring a dystopia — it’s set in the near future after a flu pandemic has ravaged the world and a sheltered, but cultish community has survived the carnage — seems likely to extend Krasikov’s thesis. (Max)
The Elephant’s Journey by Jose Saramago: From the late Nobel laureate, this novel “traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria.” (Max)
Nemesis by Philip Roth: This latest novel from Roth should prove to be more accessible than his last, The Humbling. The book is set during a war-time polio epidemic in Newark, New Jersey in 1944. At the center of the book is a 23-year-old playground director who sees polio ravage the children he looks after. The book has been in the works since at least early 2009, when it was first described by Roth. (Max)
Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier: If, like me, you were wowed when you read in The New Yorker Ian Frazier’s expansive, two-part travelogue of a trip across Siberia at the turn of the millennium, then you’ll be thrilled to find out that this massive piece was likely just a small fraction of Frazier’s forthcoming 544-page book. Frazier’s entertaining guides Sergei and Volodya (they are a pair of lovable, though sometimes frightening, curmudgeons), his insistence on traveling by car (which lent Frazier’s NYer piece many comic moments but also an unimpeachable authenticity), and the moment in history when his trip takes place (he arrives at the Pacific on September 11th, 2001), seem likely to make this book a classic. (Max)
Listen to This by Alex Ross: If New Yorker music critic Alex Ross’s second book Listen to This lives up to its title essay, then we’re in for a treat. I remember being floored and invigorated by that essay in 2004; Ross’s depth of knowledge, passion, and youth – just 36 then – converted me to his cause in a blink. “I hate ‘classical music,’” he wrote, “not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past… Yes, the music can be great and serious… It can also be stupid, vulgar, and insane. Music is too personal a medium to support an absolute hierarchy of values.” In other words, no music, classical or otherwise, is categorically superior nor the moribund realm of rich ladies; all great music is by definition “something worth loving.” In Listen to This, Ross reaches beyond “classical” (his award-winning first book The Rest is Noise explored 20th century classical composers) into a more eclectic canvass — in Ross’s words, a “panoramic view” – of music worth loving, including Verdi, Brahms, Marian Anderson, Chinese classical music, Kiki and Herb, Led Zeppelin, Björk, Radiohead, Mitsuko Uchida, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Bob Dylan. (Sonya)
Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book by Lynda Barry: For the visually patient—those who inspect collage, squint into details, and willingly sift through doodles—Lynda Barry’s work is a unique gift. The cartoonist/novelist/lecturer’s Picture This: The Near Sighted Monkey Book will continue the thread begun with 2008’s What It Is, her bust-out graphic memoir-cum-instructional. As What It Is encouraged the act of writing, Picture This will push the reader to draw and remind us of the happiness it once could bring. Remember when you filled your looseleaf margins with rough Darth Vaders and ridiculous monsters? If anyone can get us to put down our phones, pick up our pencils, and get back to that pleasure, it’s Barry—whose boundless, cramming technique is evidence of both the work and reward of creation. (Jacob)
The Masque of Africa by V.S. Naipaul: V.S. Naipaul, hoping to reach “the beginning of things,” traveled to six sub-Saharan African countries and examined the belief structures found therein for The Masque of Africa, a travelogue and treatise on the role of religion in culture. Apparently Naipaul learned much from this project, which complicated his sense of an old-new dichotomy and his notion that religious practices varied greatly between nations. Naipaul’s detractors have accused him of being a colonial apologist, so it will be interesting to see how this work of non-fiction will engage with complex ideas of faith and progress, neither of which can be separated from Africa’s colonial past, nor, as Naipaul concedes, from the present-day politics of the nations he explores. (Lydia)
Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky): Pevear and Volokhonsky’s vigorous translations have turned new editions of the Russian greats into publishing events, and we’ve watched as their translations of classics like War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories climbed our otherwise contemporary-leaning top-ten lists. Last year, we interviewed the husband and wife team and got a sense of their unique process. In an interview around the same time with the Wall Street Journal, the couple called Zhivago the toughest of the 16 books they’ve translated: “The issue is the prose. It’s not that rich or ornate, but it’s extremely difficult to translate. His language is very studied. Even when it looks simple, it’s not. The sentences aren’t long or complex, but it’s the quality of the words. It’s never what you expect.” (Max)
The Great House by Nicole Krauss: Bestselling author of The History of Love, Nicole Krauss returns with The Great House, a novel about a desk that, according to the publisher’s description, “contains the secrets, and becomes the obsession, of the lives it passes through… a desk of enormous dimension and many drawers that exerts a power over those who possess it or give it away.” Krauss was one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” writers, and “The Young Painters,” published in the magazine’s June 28, 2010 issue, is an excerpt from her forthcoming novel. You can read a Q&A with her here. (Edan)
X’ed Out by Charles Burns: I once saw a comics panel discussion in which Charles Burns complained, fairly wryly, about the amount of effort he forces into his work: in one issue of Black Hole, he said, he spent hours applying his sharp black inks to an endpaper image of twigs—a picture that each reader would spend “maybe three seconds on,” then move along. Such frustration is understandable, but I don’t know that he was actually right. Each page, each panel, of Burns’ work claws you in; each line is unsettling in its perfection. He cannot be read casually. His newest, X’ed Out, will touch on typically Burnisan themes: quiet distress, eerie isolation, a heavy apocalyptic oddness. But, as always, the look of the book is the thing: we’ll be gripped by its feel as much as by its story—and, yes, take our time with its potent renderings of splintered boards, broken walls, and specimens shut in jars. (Jacob)
False Friends by Myla Goldberg: We included Goldberg on our own “20 under 40” list and suggested that “literary mandarins” put off by her smash-hit debut Bee Season take a look. Another opportunity to do so will arrive in October with Goldberg’s third novel. (Max)
If You’re Not Yet Like Me by Edan Lepucki: In October, Millions contributor Edan Lepucki will publish her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me under Flatmancrooked’s New Novella imprint. The title will initially be available for limited edition presale under Flatmancrooked’s LAUNCH program, designed for emerging authors. (Max)
Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie: In the wake of the fatwa and accompanying media frenzy that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie, apparently at the prodding of his then nine-year-old son, shifted gears to focus on something much less contentious, a children’s book called Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Now, twenty years later, Rushdie is returning with a sequel to the book he wrote for his son. Fatherhood has once again inspired Rushdie, who, according to bookseller.com, decided to write this new book for his “youngest son, Milan, who was born in 1999.” (Max)
Autobiography of Mark Twain: On April 21, 1910, Mark Twain died of a heart attack. His death brought to a close maybe the greatest literary life America has ever known, and it started the countdown to the publication of Twain’s autobiography, which Twain instructed was not to be released until he had been good and gone for 100 years. Well, the waiting is finally over, and from early reports it appears as though it might have taken an entire century to wrestle the mass of writing Twain left behind into publishable form. This November, the University of California Press will release the first volume in a trilogy that Twain wrote according to the rambling dictate, “talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment.” (Kevin)
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass: The publisher’s description of this one lays out its unique premise: “In an audacious literary experiment, Günter Grass writes in the voices of his eight children as they record memories of their childhoods, of growing up, of their father, who was always at work on a new book, always at the margins of their lives.” It’s another journey into autobiography for Grass, whose Peeling the Onion set off a furor in Germany and elsewhere with its revelation that Grass had been a member of the Waffen-SS during World War II. (Max)
Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer: FSG will collect the “best” short fiction from the South African Nobel laureate in this hefty volume. (Max)
The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll: Readers mourned the death of punk poet Jim Carroll last year. As Garth wrote in these pages, “Before he was a screenwriter, Carroll was a diarist, a frontman, an addict, and a poet, and he left behind at least a couple of very good books.” For Carroll fans, this posthumously published novel that takes the late-1980s art scene as its inspiration, will at the very least be another opportunity to experience his work and at best may be another one of those “very good books.” (Max)
Selected Stories by William Trevor: This volume will collect nearly 600 pages worth of short stories from this verable master of the form. (Max)
Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick: This forthcoming novel from Ozick is framed as a nifty literary trick. It’s a retelling of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, but, according to the publisher’s description, “the plot is the same, [but] the meaning is reversed.” (Max)
Dead or Alive by Tom Clancy: It’s actually been seven years since the last Tom Clancy book came out, the longest gap of his career. This fact plus the usual excitement from Jack Ryan fans could make this more of a publishing event than expected. (Max)
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard: This collection of essays was originally published in 1980 but never in the U.S. The book will be a balm to those worked up by literary prizes and the teapot tempests they tend to foment. Bernhard’s focus here is the myriad prizes he collected and his bemused, sardonic reaction to them. The book seems likely to stand as an irreverent footnote at the intersection of 20th century literary history and 20th century publishing culture. A review of the German edition of the book suggests: “Although it’s a barrel of laughs, it’s also a serious book about what drove Bernhard to become the writer he eventually turned out to be.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Karen Russell was just 23 when she had a story in The New Yorker’s 2005 debut fiction issue. Since then, she has published an acclaimed collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and been named to The New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 list. With the accolades already piled sky high, this will be one of the more anticipated debut novels in recent years. The publishers’ description suggests we should expect big, ambitious things: “think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades.” (Max)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III Dubus, already much feted for his short stories and novels, will be trying his hand at the memoir. In this case, the trajectory is from hard-bitten youth to redemption in writing. Fans can expect perhaps to gain some insights into the genesis of Dubus’ fiction. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad: Stories by Jim Shepard: You Think That’s Bad will be Shepard’s fourth collection of short stories, and from the Knopf catalogue description, it sounds like it won’t disappoint; there’s a story about a farm boy who “becomes the manservant of a French nobleman who’s as proud of having served with Joan of Arc as he’s aroused by slaughtering children”–need we say more? Shepard’s previous collection, Like You’d Understand, Anyway, was nominated for the National Book Award. (Edan)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Obreht secured a special place in the literary pantheon not just by being on The New Yorker’s recent 20 under 40 list, but by being, at 25, the youngest one on it. With her debut novel, readers will get a larger sense of what the praise for Obreht is all about (an excerpt of the novel, in the form of a peculiar story of the same title, appeared in the magazine last year). (Max)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When he died in September 2008, David Foster Wallace left behind more than 1,000 pages of notes and drafts of an unfinished novel that he had given the preliminary title The Pale King. The book had been in progress for more than a decade and one of the last things Wallace did before taking his own life was to tidy what he written so that it would be easier to sort after he was gone. Since then the manuscript has been in the hands of Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s longtime editor at Little, Brown, and it is expected that a version of the book running about 400 pages will be published late this year or early next. Four confirmed excerpts from The Pale King have appeared in The New Yorker and Harper’s. They suggest a story centered around IRS agents at a Midwestern processing office struggling to deal with the “intense tediousness” of their work. (Kevin)
There are many other exciting books coming out in the coming months not mentioned here – let us know what books you are most looking forward to in the comments section below.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
The Big Short
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
War and Peace
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
With four books — The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The Mystery Guest, Let the Great World Spin, and The Interrogative Mood? — graduating to our Hall of Fame, we have plenty of room for newcomers on our latest list. The late Stieg Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already in our Hall of Fame, has the rest of his trilogy make the list, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Meanwhile, David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was released only a few days ago, debuts tied at number five, and Geoff Dyer’s 1998 bio of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which was recently championed by David Shields in these pages, debuts in the last spot on the list.
And it’s Shields’ controversial Reality Hunger that’s still holding on to our top spot.
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Let the Great World Spin
The Mystery Guest
The Big Short
The Interrogative Mood
War and Peace
Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which appeared at the top of our panel’s list and number eight on our readers’ list in our “Best of the Millennium (So Far)” series last year. We’ve been learning more about Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, out later this year.
Near Misses: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Twilight of the Superheroes, Then We Came to the End
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Let the Great World Spin
The Mystery Guest
The Big Short
The Interrogative Mood
War and Peace
Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel’s list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel’s winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We’ve been looking forward to Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, out later this year.
Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin’s thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art.
Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes
See Also: Last month’s list
I remember the moment, the slow walk across the second grade classroom, to one of those bookshelves that could be pushed around on wheels. This one was parked, though, and I was heading for it.
What was I thinking at the time? That, I can’t remember now, I can only recall the purposeful walk, as if something about that bookshelf called to me. And when I got there, I found a book that would change my life. Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary.
I don’t know why I picked it. I shouldn’t have. I was one of the worst readers in the class, and I can remember tearful sessions with my parents at home as I tried to make my way through the simplest of texts. This book was far more difficult than anything I’d ever attempted to read before.
Perhaps it was the story, of Henry Huggins determined to take a stray dog home, the uncooperative bus driver indifferent to the delivery of Henry’s heart’s desire. At the time I had no dog myself. Did I want a dog, was that it? I can’t remember. Perhaps it was Henry’s quiet insistence in keeping this companion, his inventive persistence at achieving his goal. Maybe Henry’s example inspired me, helped me to teach myself how to use the dictionary so I could to make my way through this book filled with difficult words.
Because I needed a companion too. Outside the closed door of my room, my parents’ inexhaustible battles played themselves out, arguments I could further muffle by entering the world of a book, though I couldn’t have put this into words back then, I’m sure. But I must have understood that I needed to learn how to read, in order to open the invisible door I sensed was there. Once I’d navigated Henry Huggins, other books easily followed, other companions: Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys, and then, as I grew older, a succession of adventure books set on fantastic worlds, packed with swords and gunplay. I wonder now, as I write this, was all that drama a way of domesticating the domestic warfare still waged by my mother and father, a way to ease the sting of conflict?
Or was some form of escape the secret desire, the traveling to the distant worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs, following John Carter to Mars, Carson Napier to Venus and David Innes to the center of the earth. Even now, I can’t believe that I can remember their names, or that Mars was called Barsoom.
Whatever the desire, I read so much that eventually my parents forced me to go outside and play, and they talked to each other—and I overheard—of taking me to a child specialist to see if there was anything wrong with me. And still I devoured books, increasing the real estate inside me where I could find a place of my own, where my heroes always managed to slip away from disaster.
But no book could prevent the disaster that occurred when I was eleven, when arguments seemed to serve no further purpose, when my mother tried to stab my father with a knife, when on another occasion she strangled him with a towel around his neck, his head stuck between two rungs of a banister. In both cases I worked my way between my struggling parents, and at this moment as I write I’m struck by a new thought, that perhaps all those years of reading adventure stories had given me a vocabulary of action, a means to save my father’s life, as if I’d been preparing, through books, for those charged moments without knowing it.
Some poison had been leached by that violence, and in the months and years that followed my parents reverted back to the rituals of verbal sparring. What had set all this in motion, the steps to that terrible brink, and then the retreat? I couldn’t know.
A change had occurred in me, too. My beloved adventure books had somehow lost their adventure. I would still read obsessively, but now dutifully, because the literary rituals of crisis and escape felt somehow empty—what I read no longer gave me what I wanted, though I didn’t yet know what I wanted.
One day in seventh grade I ordered my usual stack of books from the Scholastic Books Service; one of them was an abridged version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. A little skeptical, I figured I could skip past the peace parts if they proved too boring. When the nine or so books I’d ordered finally arrived I saved Tolstoy’s novel for last—even abridged, the book was 500 pages long, longer than any book I’d ever read before. But its length was not the challenge, not in the way the vocabulary of Henry Huggins had been for me years ago. The challenge was of an entirely different order.
I can remember the moment I realized I’d stumbled into new territory. I was sitting on a lawn chair in the backyard, beneath the clothesline, in the shadow of a tree. I set Tolstoy’s novel on my lap, then picked it up and checked the page number. Page 73. I can actually remember the page number. And what most struck me was that, after reading 73 pages, of a novel titled War and Peace, nobody had died yet, there was none of the action that I’d come to expect from all my previous reading. And most surprising, I didn’t care. Because I knew that this was already the best book I’d ever read. And nobody had died yet. Now how could that be?
Here was action of a different sort: the action of the heart, the revelation of interior lives, the drama of inner conflict, all of which gave voice to my growing awareness of my own secret self. Here was a vast world that wasn’t Mars, or Venus, or the center of the earth. What had once been the pleasure of escape was now a pleasure of a different sort—that of a journey, a way to map inner landscapes. And a way, perhaps, to make sense of the tangled knots of my family, what we’d tied ourselves into.
But never quite to make sense, never to completely unravel, because the books I read now offered no easy solutions, and that was the confounding joy of them, the messy truth no matter how elegant the prose or canny the structure.
Such books gave me my future, not so much my future as a writer, though of course there is that, but my future as a human, a fallible human engaged in the futile attempt to know oneself and others. Each new book, like Zeno’s arrow, gets closer to but never hits the target. There is no easy or final understanding, but without the attempt, who can bear to live the isolation that is the alternative? And the more I read, the more I think that all readers have secret histories connected to the books they love, the books that have served for them as havens, or interventions.
So every day, I open a book. Its words were once the thoughts of another human being, thoughts that could have remained private but are instead lined up in row after row on each page. An invitation to begin, to take the first steps into another mind, to step and step until there are no steps but instead the blessed drama of art’s illusion delivering the pith of human contradiction, the greatest gift of one mind offering itself to another, the foreign air we best breathe.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Let the Great World Spin
The Big Short
The Interrogative Mood
The Mystery Guest
Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which was the readers’ favorite in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. That allows our panel’s winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, to take over the top spot. Of late, readers have begun looking forward to Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, out later this year.
Our only debut this month is Michael Lewis’ look at the financial crisis of the last two years, The Big Short. Of the hundreds of books on the topic, Lewis’ was one of the most widely anticipated, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis.
Near Misses: Asterios Polyp, The Known World, War and Peace, Then We Came to the End, Union Atlantic
See Also: Last month’s list
In the same way that it would be hard to meet Scarlett Johansson and not be distracted by her beauty, it is difficult to read War and Peace and not be preoccupied with its reputation as the greatest novel ever written. As lay readers, the specific qualities that make War and Peace so great can be hard to assess. But just as it takes specialized knowledge to understand exactly why a magnet attracts metal, yet any five-year-old can identify a magnet when he sees one, it is one thing to apprehend the formal properties of a great work of art, but another, much more accessible question, to assess its effects. And so, having recently finished reading War and Peace, what I want to think about is just what it is that great art does.
One way to think about what a work of art does is to imagine the counterfactual—how would my life have been different had I not spent the last three months reading War and Peace? The answers, I think, tend to group into three categories: The social experiences I had because of the book; the ideas the book incorporated into my life; and the aesthetic moments that were opened to me because of what I was reading.
The social consequences first. It’s a fair bet that without War and Peace I would not know that my father-in-law read the book himself in two feverish weeks 35 years ago while on sabbatical in West Berlin. People, as I discovered, tend to remember where they were when they read War and Peace, and when they saw me with the book they told me those stories. I learned that my friend Paul read War and Peace as a 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer in Colombia in the late-sixties. He told me that the experience was revelatory in that it showed him that “a classic that came with the gravity of adult recommendations could be more engaging than life and easy to read, too.”
War and Peace lends itself to sharing with others more than most books. I wouldn’t say that shareability is an essential element of great literature, but where present, it helps. As I read, I frequently retold episodes from the book. I remember taking a long walk with my wife in early February and telling her the story of how Pierre, who was kind-hearted but lacked will, became engaged unwittingly to Helene who was beautiful. With my father-in-law, as part of a conversation about how to plan for the future, I brought up the tragic tale of young Petya Rostov, who joined the Russian army in a fit of patriotic fervor, but whose romantic visions of war blinded him to its dangers right up until the moment he was shot through the head. And on a happier note, I shared with my friend Eric a retelling of the scene of Natasha at the opera, a scene charged through with the erotic energy of a young woman suddenly becoming aware of her beauty and the power it holds over men.
This is not something I usually do, tell stories from books I read, but the spectrum of experience depicted in War and Peace, combined with the precision with which it’s captured, creates an infinite number of roads into the book and an infinite number back out. The fact that the scenes in War and Peace are easy to retell is also in keeping with a claim my friend Paul likes to make that Tolstoy’s writing is so irreducible that the translation doesn’t matter. (For my part, I began reading the Maude translation and switched halfway through to the new Pevear and Volokhonsky; I found that while my mind was stimulated all the same, my heart raced twice as fast with the newer version.)
After the social experience of the book there is the intellectual one. I have read other novels where the controlling idea of the story came to serve as a lens through which I viewed my days, but never has this happened quite as thoroughly as it did with War and Peace. Tolstoy’s intellectual agenda in the book was to expose the meagerness of historical accounts of the War of 1812 that tried to reduce the world-remaking conflict to a finite and knowable set of causes. Instead, Tolstoy wanted to depict the war in all its complexity and contingency, to show that the outcome rested at least as much on the decision of an individual soldier to charge or not as it did on Napoleon’s machinations, and that both the soldiers and the Emperor were controlled equally by forces larger than themselves.
It’s an expansive idea and one that finds ready application in almost any facet of one’s life. I thought of Tolstoy when reading about climate change (he probably would have been a skeptic) and when assessing President Obama’s leadership on health care (I think, based on his favorable depiction of General Kutuzov, who abandoned Moscow to the French in order to preserve the Russian army, that Tolstoy would have endorsed Obama’s decision to forego the public option).
I applied War and Peace to my life in smaller ways, too. A passage about the forced idleness of regimental life clarified vague thoughts I’d had about how having a baby makes it easier to nap guilt-free. And at one point—I may have been walking through a park when this happened—I stopped short after reading a passage on Prince Andrei’s decision to withdraw from life into the work of his estates that seemed, minus the part about the estates, like a mimeograph of my own mind. (One somewhat disquieting effect of reading War and Peace is that the more your own thoughts show up in its pages, the less original your life begins to feel.)
In the end, though, the reason I read novels is not because I can talk about them with other people, or because I’m looking for ideas to explain the world. I read them for the pure aesthetic moment that comes from seeing life perfectly distilled into words. In this respect, I don’t think there is a more able book than War and Peace. Tolstoy’s singular genius is to be able to take the torrent of conscious experience and master it. There are countless moments in the book where this happens, but the one that left me reeling was Tolstoy’s long, exquisite depiction of the Battle of Borodino, which was the deciding battle in the war and one of the bloodiest in history.
The night I finished reading about Borodino, it was plainly obvious that I had just read something great. Yet here I was sitting in a corner of my couch, just the same as I had been an hour before. I thought about the question with which I opened—what is it that greatness does? An encounter with greatness, I would say, is like a bright light fixed in time, a marker that defines memory and makes it clearer than it otherwise might have been, that we were here.
A recent Millions essay by Michelle Huneven got us thinking: much hay has been made of how various print and digital platforms affect reading practices, but what about setting? Where you do your reading, and how much unbroken time you can give to it, will arguably shape your experience far more than does the difference between screen and page. And as cable and the web colonize our homes, it seems to us that the best reading is increasingly done in transit – for better and for worse. We’ve read pieces of War and Peace on the DC Metro (tough) and half of Anna Karenina in a single gulp on a night train through Tuscany (sublime).
By way of starting a conversation about the ideal marriage of text and transportation, we’ve asked our contributors and our Facebook group to make recommendations for three modes of transportation: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. “Planes” should be self-explanatory; “Trains” comprises commuter rail (and buses) as well as longer distance trips; and “Automobiles,” perforce, centers on audiobooks, podcasts, and works read out loud by those not behind the wheel. Contributor responses appear first, followed by selections from the Facebook response. We invite you to add your own in the comments section or via twitter (using the hashtag #roadbooks). Bon voyage!
Sonya: While traveling far from home, I like to give myself over fully to a changed perspective, leaving my customary myopia behind as much as possible; The Economist is my preferred reading. The robust “World” and “Business” sections in particular knock me off my precious literary perch, which can be awfully refreshing.
Kevin: My criteria for a plane book are two: I want it to be fast-paced, and I want to be able to finish it, if not by the time I touch down, then at least during the return flight home. I’ve never had a better plane reading experience than Boston to Los Angeles, 1994, The Hunt for Red October.
Edan: When flying, I always want something short enough to read cover-to-cover (in addition to a novel, a fashion magazine or gossip rag, and a book of jumbles, crosswords, or soduku). On my last few flights, I’ve brought a volume from Melville House’s Art of the Novella series. I’ve written about Bonsai by Alejandro Zambra here. I can also recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteutre, about a man with cell phone issues who just wants help from a goddamned human being. It’s an appropriate read for when you’re flying through the air in a magical bullet, and you’ve just been forced to pay for a bag of peanut m&ms (a.k.a., dinner) with your credit card because cash is no longer accepted.
Garth: Last summer, en route to Hawaii, I read most of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife. If I say that I wasn’t even tempted to look at The Real Housewives of New Jersey (on a continuous loop on my back-of-seat TV), it’s not to slight Jacqueline or Dina, but to indicate how engrossing and provocative I found Talese’s exploration of sex in America.
Anne: For the nervous flyer (like myself), who wants to forget they’re in a fuselage for the duration of the flight, Lucy Grealy’s memoir Autobiography of a Face offers a gripping and unsentimental account of her childhood bone cancer and living with the consequent facial disfiguration. The book can captivate for the time it takes to cross an ocean – even, in my case, the Pacific.
Emily W: My fear of flying makes reading when skybound a rare pleasure. For me, it’s usually the iPod, cocktails, and a Vogue or a Harper’s Bazaar. The one book that managed to suppress my fear of death in the sky for five hours was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read from cover-to-cover on a red-eye from San Francisco to DC.
Max: Plane rides are perfect for magazines, especially the New Yorker. The freedom to work through an entire issue in one sitting feels like a luxury, even if the leg room is lacking.
Anne: Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories offer enchantments brief enough for daily a commute, but the collection provides a cornucopia of word play and eclectic tales to occupy a longer haul. Plus, Hempel’s story, “To Those of You Who Missed Your Connecting Flights Out of O’Hare,” is a sure endorsement of the soothing lull of a long train ride.
Sonya: I like the Russians for train travel. When you’re watching the natural landscape – the largely uninhabited regions – of a country fly by in flashes, it just feels right to be reading stories that take place over the great land mass of Mother Russia. For a long trip, Dr. Zhivago; for, say, the DC-New York Metroliner, Chekhov’s “The Steppe” – in both cases, the land journey is also the journey of the soul.
Garth: The subway is feast or famine for me. The right book, and I’ll miss my stop; the wrong one, and I’ll read for half an hour without registering a single word. When I don’t have a New Yorker handy, Joan Didion – say, Play it as it Lays or Salvador – is perfect subway reading: lucid enough to let me in quickly; sophisticated enough to hold my attention; and discretely structured, for ease of exit.
Kevin: Typically before boarding at 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, I stop at a news kiosk and pick up the NYT and the WSJ. I enjoy having the time to read each front to back, and I like being able to change from news to business to sports and then back again. There’s also no doubt that I like the romance of a newspaper on the train: the economy fold, the crinkle of the pages mixed with the sound of the clattering tracks.
Emily W: On trains, I’m usually one for gazing out the window or striking up a conversation with a stranger, but this winter on the Northeast Direct from DC to Boston, I found Poets and Writers’ January/February 2010 issue quite absorbing, particularly their “Literary Life” essays. I’m a bit of skeptic when it comes to writing about writing but P&W convinced me otherwise.
Edan: I never travel by train, but the next time – or, really, the first time – I get the opportunity to ride one across the country, or even state lines, I plan to bring along my copy of Selected Stories by Alice Munro. I will flip immediately to “Wild Swans,” a startling, discomfiting, and accurate account of an encounter with a stranger on a train. Munro writes: “Victim and accomplice she was borne past Glasco’s jams and Marmalades, past the big pulsating pipes of oil refineries.” I’d like to read that sentence as another landscape glides by my own train car window.
Max: There’s something about taking a longer train ride that puts one in the mood for adventure. When I was younger, I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a train ride from Washington D.C. to New York and emerged from Penn Station feeling pleasantly addled and ready for a night on the town.
Amir Hother Yishay: I finished the last 200 hundred pages of A Storm of Swords, by George R.R. Martin, on a subway ride
Jane Weichert: Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose is an very readable story of the building of the first transcontinental railroad. It was built by the immigrant Chinese and Irish and gives an understanding of the brutal conditions under which they worked. Last Train to Paradise by Les Standiford is a spell-binding tale of the last of the privately financed infrastructure projects undertaken by larger-than-life 19th century businessmen. Here Henry Flagler races against his own mortality to complete a railroad from Jacksonville to Key West, with the final run south from Miami requiring herculean engineering, management, and financial resources.
Becky Donahue: Short stories are wonderful…just finished reading Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Podcasts…Slate does a great job and lots of content to choose from. My new favorites are Spilled Milk and The Moth.
Sonya: Once weekly, I drive two hours each way – prime audiobook time. “As read by the author” is often a great way to go when choosing nonfiction in particular. I recommend Elizabeth Gilbert reading Eat, Pray, Love; Anne Lamott reading any of her memoirs; Helene Cooper reading The House at Sugar Beach; and, my favorite among these, Dreams From My Father. The author was allowed much more range of expression back in 2005 when he recorded it, and it’s a rare experience hearing a future president do Kenyan accents and urban “Negro dialect” (ahem) and using the f- and n-words. [Ed.’s note: for the latter, we also recommend the Lyndon Johnson tapes.]
Anne: It’s rare that I travel by car these days, and even rarer that I find myself behind the wheel, but when I do, I like to listen to In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry. Listening to poems, like songs, lets me internalize their rhythms and cadences. This collection features a wide range of twentieth-century poets reciting their own poems, from Sylvia Plath’s contemptuous “Daddy” to Gertrude Stein’s playfully repetitive “If I Told Him: A Completed Portrait of Picasso.”
Emily W: With audiobooks, it’s all about the reader; audio samples are essential to choosing a good recording. On recent car trips, my husband and I have found Huckleberry Finn and The Da Vinci Code particularly entertaining (in the latter case, guffaw-inducing) because the readers were so excellent at accents, genders, and dialects. And I have extremely fond memories of listening to Larry McMurtry’s Anything for Billy with my parents and sisters on a childhood drive from Virginia to Massachusetts.
Kevin: Audiobooks are not foolproof. A couple years ago I tried to listen to Cold Mountain on a road trip; between changing lanes, counting out toll money, and generally trying to stay alert, I found Charles Frazier’s slow, somnolent reading impossible to follow. These days my voices of choice are David Sedaris (yes, please, Santaland Diaries one more time) and Garrison Keillor, or anyone else working in short-form comedy.
Garth: Though my wife and I like to read aloud to each other on long trips, The Lannan Literary Foundation podcasts are a recent discovery I’m pretty enthusiastic about: lengthy readings by writers like Deborah Eisenberg and Samuel R. Delany, followed by intelligent discussion with peers like Ben Marcus and Junot Díaz. We parcel them out like rest stops.
Max: A good travel audiobook can make even a drive from Chicago to New York seem something more than just endless fields and turnpikes. Most memorable was Paul Theroux’s account of his train trip from Cairo to Johannesburg, Dark Star Safari. The library is great for these.
Amir Hother Yishay: I always read on car rides, never having been a fan of audio books myself. One of my greatest car reading experiences would probably be reading One Hundred Years of Solitude over a two week trip from Toronto to St. Johns.
Miriam Parker: One of my most enjoyable long car rides included listening to Born Standing Up by Steve Martin. He reads it and is fantastic. I actually had to stop the car once to write down something brilliant he had said or else I would have caused a huge accident on I-40.
Christine Magee: Commuting in and out of the city on a regular basis last year was made palatable by listening to Carson McCullers, The Heart is a lonely Hunter. The fact that the narrative transported me to a different place and time made it the perfect choice. It got to the point where I was looking forward to sitting in traffic so I could hear more! This wonderful book full of tension and struggle made my daily commute seem like a breeze!
My winter reading project this year is War and Peace. On an average night I make it through 15-20 pages before I become too tired to follow the story anymore. At this rate I should be done by Easter.
I have read Anna Karenina and The Death Ivan Illych so I am well-acquainted with the pleasures of Tolstoy. A 2007 NYRB article on a new translation of War and Peace described those pleasures well: “No other writer,” wrote Orlando Figes, “can recreate emotions and experience with such precision and economy.”
Reading War and Peace, there is the sense of beginning one of the great experiences one might have in a lifetime. It is an enervating feeling, but also a melancholy one. I imagine I will feel a step closer to death 1,300 pages from now.
But before that happens, I’d like to annotate the most beautiful, strange, penetrating and sublime moments from the book. This desire owes in part to the natural inclination to want to share something as good as Tolstoy. But there are selfish motives at work, too. I hope that I might, by sharing the experience of reading War and Peace, be able to hold onto it a little longer.
First, A few of my favorite passages from the first third of the book:
I found his description of obligatory and irreproachable idleness to capture an unexpected pleasure of parenthood: that even something as lazy as a late-morning nap feels purposeful, even dutiful, when taken alongside a sleeping child.
The Bible legend tells us that the absence of labor—idleness—was a condition of the first man’s blessedness before the Fall. Fallen man has retained a love of idleness, but the curse weighs on the race not only because we have to seek our bread in the sweat of our brows, but because our moral nature is such that we cannot be both idle and at ease. An inner voice tells us we are in the wrong if we are idle. If man could find a state in which he felt that though idle he was fulfilling his duty, he would have found one of the conditions of man’s primitive blessedness. And such a state of obligatory and irreproachable idleness is the lot of a whole class- the military. The chief attraction of military service has consisted and will consist in this compulsory and irreproachable idleness.
It’s astounding how often in War and Peace Tolstoy is able to write about overwhelming elements of human experience as easily as if he were observing a rock in his front yard:
After dinner Natasha, at Prince Andre’s request, went to the clavichord and began singing. Prince Andre stood by a window talking to the ladies and listened to her. In the midst of a phrase he ceased speaking and suddenly felt tears choking him, a thing he had thought impossible for him. He looked at Natasha as she sang, and something new and joyful stirred in his soul. He felt happy and at the same time sad. He had absolutely nothing to weep about yet he was ready to weep. What about? His former love? The little princess? His disillusionments?…His hopes for the future?…Yes and no. The chief reason was a sudden, vivid sense of the terrible contrast between something infinitely great and illimitable within him and that limited and material something that he, and even she, was. This contrast weighed on and yet cheered him while she sang.
I often wonder whether the elements of our lives—the Internet, chain stores, abundance, self-consciousness—influence a conscious experience that is unique to our time. Tolstoy’s answer is that they don’t:
“Yes, that is true, Prince. In our days,” continued Vera—mentioning “our days” as people of limited intelligence are fond of doing, imagining that they have discovered and appraised the peculiarities of “our days” and that human characteristics change with the time.
It’s always hard for me to choose the best book I’ve read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I’ve read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year’s included Matthew Kneale’s wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro’s quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa’s masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield’s eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen’s Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?).
But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the “most printed original English book.” It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, “What if you reversed that? ‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.’ Doesn’t work at all, does it?” And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…” Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses.
A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first–or, perhaps, the second–sentence–and I wept over the last.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the story, in case you’ve waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away.
Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction–eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader–the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man’s shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did.
For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor).
Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page.
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…
As usual, my reading has focused on language and history, and I’ve got some recommendations in each field. In language, unfortunately, two of the most exciting books of the year (both from Oxford) are very expensive, but you might want to see if your library has them.
The Oxford History of English Lexicography is the best reference history I’ve read in a long time, and I feel confident in saying that if you love dictionaries, you will want to set some time aside for reading it. Volume I covers standard dictionaries, going into the early development of glosses and bilingual dictionaries and monolingual dictionaries of English, with chapters on Johnson, American dictionaries, and the OED, as well as dictionaries of national and regional varieties and of Old and Middle English; the long discussion of Webster’s Third in particular is a triumph, doing full justice to the greatness of the dictionary while fully acknowledging the justice of some of the criticisms. Volume II covers specialized dictionaries of science, dialects, synonyms, etymology, pronunciation, slang and cant, quotations, phraseology, and personal and place names.
The two volumes of the Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary are heavy (they come with a slipcase) and somewhat intimidating, but once you get used to them you wonder how you managed without them. Let’s say you look up squirrel in the OED and discover it entered English in the 14th century, and it occurs to you to wonder what they called the creature before they borrowed the French word. Until now, you would have had to ask a medievalist; now you look up squirrel and are directed to 01.02.06.20.05.08 (n.), where you discover that what they used to say was aquerne. And what if you want to know in general what words were available in a given period? Any historical novelist who cares about linguistic accuracy must have struggled with this; if your novel is set in the 1820s, how can you be sure you’re using vocabulary appropriate to the time and not introducing anachronisms? Now you can find out.
Some less expensive and more immediately appealing books I was happy to encounter during the year: Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers by Jan Freeman is a fine updating of the great cynic’s very idiosyncratic little usage book. Besides the well-written, sensible introduction, each of Bierce’s entries is followed by Freeman’s well-written, sensible update, saying pretty much what I would have wanted to say about each of his rants and shibboleths.
The third edition of Jesse Sheidlower’s The F-Word is a must for anyone interested in the most notorious of English obscenities. This is not one of those pro forma “revisions” that correct a few errors, toss in a few added items, and add a new preface; the text of the dictionary is twice as large as the second edition, over a hundred new words and senses have been added, and it now aims to cover the entire English-speaking world. This book makes me proud to be a part of a civilization that could produce such a thing.
H. W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition is another indispensable update. Keeping Fowler’s original text unchanged, it adds a superb introduction and a concluding section of notes updating some 300 entries, both by David Crystal. In the introduction, Crystal has written the best discussion of Fowler that I have seen or, really, can imagine, and the end notes are very useful, providing pointers to how things have changed since Fowler’s day and, in some cases, when he went astray. If you want to explore the ideas of one of the most interesting thinkers about English style in the early twentieth century, guided by a reliable modern linguist, this is the book for you.
Finally, In the Land of Invented Languages was the most unexpected pleasure of my reading year. I’ve never had much interest in artificial languages, but this completely won me over. Arika Okrent writes well and tells a great story, but she also has a PhD in linguistics, which makes all the difference; any good journalist could spin a lively tale out of some of this material (people who spend their lives creating and trying to publicize languages tend to be pretty colorful), but it takes a linguist to see what’s going on with the languages and be able to point out where they succeed and where they fail. Okrent has written a gripping account of some amazing people and some fascinating changes in the European cultural environment.
Two books have fundamentally affected the way I think about large chunks of history.
Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present by Christopher I. Beckwith is a reevaluation of the entire history of Eurasia, focusing on that often neglected portion called Central Asia. You can read the Introduction online, and it will give you an idea of the approach, but it’s the details that make the book. As a minor but telling example, each chapter starts off with an epigraph: perfectly normal, but he also includes the originals, in the original script. This isn’t just a nod to multiculturalism, it’s a refusal to privilege the easy-to-read translation over the normally effaced original, an insistence on the fact that people see and express the world through their own languages and we have to bear that constantly in mind. The author’s rethinking of not only Central Asian history but just about everything we think of as “world history” is convincing and important. The epilogue, “The Barbarians,” would make a superb little booklet on its own, and sums up the essence of what he’s trying to convey throughout the book, demonstrating that the Central Eurasians were no more violent than the “civilized” states with whom they sometimes fought, that what they desired above all else was trade (which requires peace), and that it was generally the peripheral states that attacked the Central Eurasians in an effort to expand their own territory and impose their own power, which they believed should be universal. (Unfortunately, the last two chapters are devoted almost entirely to a denunciation of “Modernism,” by which he means pretty much everything bad that’s happened since the nineteenth century, but they can be ignored.)
Gary B. Nash’s The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America is a complete overturning of the conventional picture of the Revolution, according to which a few white male geniuses who loved liberty aroused a nation of citizen-soldiers to overthrow the British yoke. Nash, who for years has been producing studies of the people forgotten in this account – the poor, the working-class, the women, the black, the Native American – has consolidated his work into a powerful history that will make you rethink everything you thought you knew. For instance, one of the main motivators of the Revolution was the Proclamation Line of 1763, which banned white settlement west of the Alleghenies; an attempt by the British Crown to secure its native subjects in their lands, it infuriated the land-hungry colonists, both the poor who wanted farms they could own and live on and the rich who wanted millions of acres they could rent out profitably. Among the latter were most of the revered Founding Fathers; in a single devastating paragraph, Nash names them and describes their financial interests: George Mason, author of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights, “had watched the Proclamation of 1763 destroy first his beloved Ohio Company and then his hopes of obtaining fifty thousand acres of Kentucky land”; Richard Henry Lee, who introduced the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress in July 1776, had hoped by his Mississippi Land Company to lay his hands on 2.5 million acres; George Washington “had thousands of acres of bounty lands that he purchased cheaply from veterans’ claims slip from his hands”; Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry likewise saw their land ventures “disappear like smoke. All these disappointments could be undone through… a double war: against England, and against the ancient inhabitants of the fertile region watered by the Ohio and its tributaries.”
One of the strands of the book is the increasingly desperate attempts by the Native Americans – Iroquois, Shawnee, Cherokee, and others – to find a way to survive and hold on to at least some of their land in the face of the increasingly brutal attacks of white invaders supported by greedy governments, and Nash does not try to hide his indignation at the language of the Declaration of Independence, which claims the king “has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” Jefferson, who wrote these lines, knew they were a lie, knew that it was the white settlers who had practiced “an undistinguished destruction” upon those they were trying to displace; this lie was left untouched by the drafting committee (Franklin, Adams, et al.) and by the Congress as a whole, and according to Nash it has been ignored ever since: “The silence of historians on this disingenuous charge is deafening in the most notable studies of the Declaration of Independence spanning more than eighty years. In Carl Becker…, in Garry Wills…, and in Pauline Maier… not a word appears on this vicious caricature of the American Indians, who had been trading partners, military allies, and marital consorts as often as enemies for two centuries.”
I could go on citing examples for pages, but I’ll cut to the chase: Nash’s well-chosen and vividly presented snapshots of people and events are tied together convincingly into a powerful picture of the have-nots rising up and demanding their rights against both the far-off British oppressors and against the local elite who kept them hungry and poor for their own profit, and his book makes me realize that the Revolution did not end with the War of Independence in 1783 but is still ongoing.
Finally, I finished War and Peace! I’ve read it twice in English (in college and in the mid-’90s) and now in Russian, and each time the characters come to life in the same mysterious way. From the protagonists to the minor walk-ons, they have the unruly undeniability of actual people. How does Tolstoy do it?
I’m in the early stages of War and Peace and last night read a battle scene in which the Russian troops are retreating from the advancing French army. The chapter follows Nicholas Rostov, as he and his company try to cross the Danube in time to destroy the bridge behind them. The scene is written with a sort of detached, tableau quality that reminded me a lot of the evacuation of Dunkirk section in Atonement. I went back to McEwan’s book to look for passages that compared directly with Tolstoy’s writing and found a couple:The crush of men.From War and PeaceThe soldiers, crowded together shoulder to shoulder, their bayonets interlocking, moved over the bridge in a dense mass. Looking down over the rails Prince Nesvitski saw the rapid, noisy little waves of the Enns, which rippling and eddying around the piles of the bridge chased each other along. Looking on the bridge he saw equally uniform living waves of soldiers, shoulder straps, covered shakos, knapsacks, bayonets, long muskets, and, under the shakos, faces with broad cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and listless tired expressions and feet that moved through the sticky mud that covered the planks of the bridge.From AtonementThe crowds were bunching up again. In front of the canal bridge was a junction and from the Dunkirk direction, on the road that ran along the canal, came a convoy of three-ton lorries which the military police were trying to direct into a field beyond where the horses were. But troops swarming across the road forced the convoy to a halt. The drivers leaned on their horns and shouted insults. The crowd pressed on. Men tired of waiting scrambled off the backs of the lorries. There was a shout of ‘Take cover!’Observing nature in the thick of the retreat.From AtonementAs they came out of the copse they heard bombers, so they went back in and smoked while they waited under the trees. From where they were they could not see the planes, but the view was fine. These were hardly hills that spread so expansively before them. They were ripples in the landscape, faint echoes of vast upheavals elsewhere. Each successive ridge was paler than the one before. He saw a receding wash of gray and blue fading in a haze towards the setting sun.From War and PeaceNicholas Rostov turned away and, as if searching for something, gazed into the distance, at the waters of the Danube, at the sky, and at the sun. How beautiful the sky looked; how blue, how calm, and how deep! How bright and glorious was the setting sun! With what soft glitter the waters of the distant Danube shone. And fairer still were the faraway blue mountains beyond the river, the nunnery, the mysterious gorges, and the pine forests veiled in mists to their summits.
Stephen Dodson is a freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.As usual, my reading this year has focused on language and Russian history and culture, and I have books to recommend in each area.The best language book I read during the year is Mikael Parkvall’s brand-new Limits of Language: Almost Everything You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know About Language and Languages. Parkvall is a Swedish linguist, so this is not one of the usual pop language books full of “fun facts” that aren’t actually facts. He says in the foreword, “I hope that Limits of Language can show the uninitiated some of the incredible aspects that linguistics and human languages have to offer, teach beginners some of the basics of linguistics, but also to serve as a reference book for experienced linguists – here, the linguist can identify the extremes, and thereby judge to what extent his or her own language is ‘normal’.” Opening it at random, I find a section on using linguistics to catch the Unabomber, one on odd phrase-book examples (“I was stabbed with a spear”; “At what time were these branches eaten by the rhinoceros?”), and one on linguistics in films (“Ball of Fire, Howard Hawks, 1941: A lexicographer [Gary Cooper], realizing that the slang section of his dictionary is outdated, visits a nightclub in order to update it…”); there are also, of course, basics like “Language change,” “Consonants,” and “Language myths.” It’s the best combination of fun and education I’ve seen in a long time.Other language books I can recommend are Nicholas Ostler’s “biography of Latin,” Ad Infinitum (I’m now reading his earlier history of language, Empires of the Word, and enjoying it greatly), and George R. Stewart’s Names on the Land, a classic history of American place names recently reprinted by New York Review Books (if the author’s name sounds familiar to you, it may be because he also wrote the science fiction novel Earth Abides, for which he won the first International Fantasy Award in 1951).On the Russian front, I loved Julie A. Buckler’s Mapping St. Petersburg: Imperial Text and Cityshape. In her introduction, she says: “this study poses two central questions: What kinds of writing correspond to specific places in Petersburg or to particular aspects of imperial-era Petersburg life? How does writing constitute imperial Petersburg, both before and after the imperial period? … My project aims at an archeological reconstruction of a complex discursive formation – the full textual articulation of imperial St. Petersburg as a cultural object.” Yes, I know, that sounds off-puttingly academical, but she mostly confines the jargon to the introduction, and the book is full of fascinating tidbits about the city and the writers who have tried to describe and interpret it, and not only the famous ones; she seems to have worked her way through every memoir, travel guide, and long-forgotten novella that ever described the imperial capital. To give an example of the kind of thing you’re unlikely to find anywhere else, in Chapter Four she investigates “a story about dancing chairs that circulated in Petersburg during the 1830s,” quoting Pushkin’s diary (“In one of the buildings belonging to the chancellery of the court equerry, the furniture was so bold as to move and jump about”) and a letter from Petr Viazemskii (“in one of the clerk’s rooms, the chairs and tables danced and turned somersaults; glasses filled with wine hurled themselves at the ceiling…”), ending with the casual mention in Gogol’s famous story “The Nose”: “And the story of the dancing chairs on Koniushennaia (Stables) Street was still fresh.” Who knew that wasn’t just another wild invention of Gogol’s? If that kind of thing interests you, you’ll enjoy the book.I was also bowled over by Entertaining Tsarist Russia: Tales, Songs, Plays, Movies, Jokes, Ads, and Images from Russian Urban Life 1779-1917, edited by James Von Geldern and Louise McReynolds. Sure, it’s important to read the Great Works, but you can’t really understand a country and its culture unless you’ve spent some time with the less exalted material most people devour. There’s an eighteenth-century knightly tale that begins: “Prince Zilagon, ruler of the Princedom of Florida, was a great and glorious man who who greatly expanded his territory and struck fear into the hearts of neighboring peoples.” (Zilagon conquers Canada and marries the daughter of the king of Mexico.) There are (among many other things) half-admiring accounts of famous criminals, bedroom farces, examples of war correspondence, prison songs, and a bizarre “novel of the occult” by V. I. Kryzhanovskaia (“The following excerpt picks up in the year 2284, with characters introduced in the first books: Supramati, who began life as British Dr. Ralph Morgan but was enticed by the original Prince Supramati, born in Egypt around 300 B.C., to exchange drops of blood so that the doctor would now live for eternity…”) that displays, as the editors point out, good old-fashioned Russian nationalism projected into the far future (“As for Tsargrad [i.e., Constantinople], it’s now the capital of the Russian Empire, one of the most powerful states in the world, standing at the head of the great All-Slavic Union”). This stuff entertained tsarist Russia and it will entertain you!Finally, for bragging rights I must mention that I finally finished Proust this year (in English, I’m afraid), and am now reading War and Peace in Russian. Let me tell you, this guy Tolstoy is a good writer!More from A Year in Reading 2008