Thanks to a comment from KevinfromCanada, there is now a New Yorker Fiction Forum here. The New Yorker publishes a piece of short fiction in each (practically) of its weekly (except for five times a year when they produce a double issue) issues. You may have seen my post I put up a few weeks ago that reviewed very briefly all of the fiction they published in 2009. As fun as that project was, I did miss the chance to see what other readers thought about the stories when they were published. For example, who else hated the except “Max at Sea” by Dave Eggers? I don’t know if anyone did. Who else loved “A Tiny Feast”? I would have loved to have discussed this piece when it was published last spring.
Well, for those who want to read at least one of the pieces of fiction published in 2010 (most are available for free on The New Yorker‘s website, and I will have links), there will be a place for you to share your thoughts, and hopefully a few discussions will arise. I have created a New Yorker Fiction Forum homepage that will contain links to a forum dedicated to each week’s piece of fiction.
Click here to see it in its first incarnation. A permanent link to the forum’s homepage will always be on the left sidebar. At this point, there is obviously very little content, but it will come! Please return often to share your thoughts.
When J.M.G. Le Clézio won the Nobel Prize in literature in 2008, I had no idea who he was — as I’m sure was the case with most of you. Not that that’s uncommon when the winner is announced in October — often the press release is my first encounter. I was pleased, then, when I saw that Godine Press’s Verba Mundi series had two of his books available, The Prospector and, more recently, Desert (Désert, 1980; tr. from the French by C. Dickson, 2009). I started with Desert because it is the book cited by the Nobel committee as Le Clézio’s “definitive breakthrough as a novelist.”
Review copy courtesy of Godine Publishers.
Reading this book took me back to my days in university when I was very engaged with post-colonial literature. In fact, it’s a major disappointment that though this book was published in French in 1980, it was unavailable to us in English until nearly thirty years later — thirty years! It is as good as any of the post-colonial books I read (Achebe, Soyinka, Walcott, Naipaul, Rushdie), and it is better than most. I would have loved to study it in a class. It deserves some serious attention, and hopefully it is on the road to getting it.
Now, admitedly, there are some embarassing reasons it wasn’t available to us in English sooner. Desertbegins with a fifty-page introduction, that reads as slowly and methodically as the trek through the desert that it is describing, taking us back to the winter of 1909 – 1910, to Saguiet al-Hamra, the “Red Canal” territory in present-day Western Sahara. There is a massive migration as the men and women and children of the desert are coming together at Smara at the feet of Ma al-Aïnine, their religious and political leader. It is slow — but it is breath-taking! This is a particularly beautiful passage that conveys the emotion and feel of the migration in the desert so wonderfully:
In the following days anxiety began to mount again in the Smara camp. It was incomprehensible, but everyone could feel it, like a pain in the heart, like a threat. The sun burned down hard during the day, bouncing its brutal light off the edges of rocks and the dried beds of torrents. The foothills of the rocky Hamada shimmered in the distance, and there were always mirages over the Saguiet Valley. New bands of nomads arrived each hour of the day, haggard with weariness and thirst, coming in forced marches from the south, and their silhouettes melted into the horizon along with the scintillating mirages. They walked slowly, feet bandaged with strips of goatskin, carrying their meager loads on their backs. Sometimes they were followed by half-starved camels and limping horses, goats, sheep. They set up their tents hastily on the edge of the camp. No one went to greet them or ask them where they came from. Some bore the marks of wounds from battles they had fought against the soldiers of the Christians or the looters in the desert; most were on the verge of collapse, spent from fevers and stomach ailments. Sometimes all that was left of an army arrived, decimated, bereft of a leader, womanless, black-skinned men, almost naked in their ragged garments, their glassy eyes bright with fever and folly. They went to drink at the spring in front of the gate to Smara, then they lay down on the ground in the shade of the city walls, as if to sleep, but their eyes remained wide open.
They are not in Smara long before Ma al-Aïnine, the founder of Smara, and already a bitter opponent to French and Spanish colonization then going on in North Africa (he had already proclaimed jihad against the colonizers), tells them they must all go north where more land is available for them to develop.
The book then shifts to some time after World War II. Here we meet the main character, Lalla, in some coastal town in Morocco or Algeria. Lalla is descended from these desert men, though she herself is now an orphan being raised by her aunt, Aamma. The Lalla passages don’t move any faster than the desert migration passages, but they are much more intimate, focusing in a most peculiar manner on this girl. She has an almost mythical past that keeps her elevated from us — that is, we try to approach her, but we never quite get inside her head.
She also speaks of the desert, the wide open desert that commences south of Goulimeine, east of Taroudant, beyond the Drâa Valley. It was there in the desert that Lalla was born, at the foot of a tree, as Aamma tells it. There in the open desert, the sky is immense; the horizon has no end because there is nothing for the eye to catch upon. The desert is like the sea, with the waves of wind over the hard sand, with the froth of rolling bramble bushes, with the flat stones, patches of lichen and plaques of salt, and the black shadows that dig out holes when the sun draws near to the earth.
Lalla herself seems to exist on some other plain along with her sometimes companion, the Hartani, a young man who also comes from the desert. Lalla sees the desert as a wonder-filled place, a rarefied atmosphere where she can commune with something primordial. It’s a nice contrast to the brutal desert we saw in 1909 when the migrants were dying there.
Lalla is moving forward, eyes almost closed against the reverberating light, and sweat is making her dress stick to her abdomen, to her chest, to her back. Never, perhaps, has there been so much light on earth, and never has Lalla so thirsted after it, as if she had come from a dark valley in which death and shadows prevailed. The air up here is still, it is hovering, it flickers and pulsates, and you think you can hear the sound of light waves, the strange music that resembles the song of bees.
The narrative shifts when the young Lalla begins to be courted by a rich old man. As the prospect of marriage becomes more concrete, Lalla decides to leave the desert. She migrates to Marseilles, where she and the other immigrants are very unwelcome. The chapter taking place in the desert was entitled “Happiness”; the chapter in Marseilles is called “Life with the Slaves.”
Lalla gets a lump in her throat when she sees them, or when she runs into an ugly young woman with a small child hanging at her breast, begging on the corner of the main avenue. She didn’t really know what fear was before, because back there in the Hartani’s land, there were only snakes and scorpions or, at worst, evil spirits making shadowy motions in the night; but here it’s the fear of emptiness, of need, of hunger, unnamed fear that seems to seep in from half-opened transoms into the horrid, stinking, basement rooms, well up from dark courtyards, enter rooms as cold as graves, or, like an evil wind, sweep along the wide avenues, where people are endlessly walking, walking, going away, pushing and shoving one another like that incessantly, day and night, for months on end, for years, through the unflagging sound of their rubber soles and, rising into the heavy air, the rumbling of their words, their motors, their grumbling, their gasping.
To me this is where the book really takes off. We’ve seen a series of migrations and settings, all very effectively exploring the world of migrants and immigrants from post-colonial settlements. Some would be theoretically appalled that a French author would deem himself capable of writing such an experience. I have no such qualms, and it is fascinating to see how Le Clézio manages to avoid the pitfall of appropriating Lalla’s voice. She remains, somehow I’m unable to figure out just now, distant even when we explore her thoughts. He doesn’t hold her in his hands as he discusses with us her experiences. There’s a great bit of scholarship there, so post-colonial theorists — if that is still partially in vogue — here is a piece worth your time. But for those of you with a less scholarly bent, as I have now, this is still an enriching reading experience.
I just read Dylan Thomas’s prose/poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (1954) and thought recommending it would nicely accompany my holiday greeting. The phyiscal book itself is striking. The high-quality paper is visible in the picture below as are some of the woodcuts that we find throughout this short but impactful book. It’s a book best read in one sitting, and perhaps with little more foreknowledge than this: “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” begins with childish mischief in the form of snowball fights and ends with a nice Christmas night.
I turned the gas down, I got into bed. I said some words to the close and holy darkness, and then I slept.
If there are any of you are trying to find some engaging material to read over the holidays, I can’t recommend enough searching through the fiction (and other articles) of The New Yorker. A subscription would be a great gift to you or from you (I know, because that’s how I got my subscription). The New Yorker is my favorite place to read short fiction, as well as many other things — no, any other thing. If you missed David Grann’s brilliant — brilliant – article on the execution of Cameron Todd Willingham and the investigations leading to his conviction, you must read it (you can click on the link above to read the whole aticle online). It is a tour de force in reporting and writing, a perfect specimen of what I consider The New Yorker to be. Also, I thoroughly enjoyed Ian Frazier’s long two-part article on his travel across Siberia (unfortunately, this links only to the abstract — you need a subscription to read it). And then there’s the fun “Shouts & Murmurs” column which featured this comical colloquium (also by Ian Frazier) on how climate change is affecting the temperature in Hell as well as this fun take on that farmboy who wants to use Rosetta Stone software to ensure his only chance with that Italian supermodel isn’t a failure: “Personalmente, sono stato un ammiratore di Valentino fin dalla scuola agraria” & “Familiarize yourself with the conjugation of the verb ‘to milk’”! (Wow! Also by Ian Frazier — sir, cheers to you!)
Back to the fiction — and there’s no Ian Frazier here — I have a hard time getting through a whole collection of short stories by one author, but a weekly short story from a variety of authors is just the ticket to maintaining a healthy short story appetite. Last year I saw that The Millions blog did a quick review of all of the short fiction titles published in The New Yorker in 2008, and I decided that I wanted to do that same thing this year. This goal forced me to keep current in my reading, which was certainly a pleasure, and to more deeply consider the gems (or duds) that come with this publication. Here’s what there was, complete with links to the stories should you be interested (and you should be : ) ). Links to each story, all but two available in its entirety on The New Yorker website, are included. My favorites of the year have the dates bolded, though others were also very good. Interestingly, I tended to favor the very strange stories, often involving myth or the supernatural, rather than the more realist pieces I would have first suspected.
January 5 - Julian Barnes: “The Limner” – Should be a good year for fiction that starts with Julian Barnes. This story takes readers back to an age of portrait painting. The limner of the title has just been commissioned to paint the portrait of the pompous customs collector. Barnes evokes the feel of an old story nicely while showing how this mute, deaf limner can interpret and portray hidden human traits.
January 12 - Joyce Carol Oates: “Pumpkin Head” — This disturbing story begins by immediately unsettling the reader. A widowed 39-year-old answers the door to find a tall, lanky man with a pumpkin in place of his head. While the immediate horror dissipates soon, the unsettling feeling continues when the widow invites the man into her home for a drink. Strange that with such a conceit, the story dwells on Americans’ relationships with other nationalities.
January 19 – Antonya Nelson: “Soldier’s Joy” – I both liked and didn’t like this story. On the one hand, I enjoyed the account of a slightly-over-middle-aged woman not really being the central person in anyone’slife. The central story is about the emptiness she feels as she navigates in her relationships with her husband, her friend, her ex-lover, her parents, and her dogs, though to them she’s a side-story. To the septuagenarian husband, she’s what makes him feel young, vital, and shamefully exciting. For her parents, she’s a lost cause they’ve already found a replacement for. For her ex-lover, she’s the fling who will never be the focus. And the way this emptiness makes her feel like an abandoned, mopey adolescent is intriguing. However, and this is not always a fault in a story, I had a hard time connecting with any of the stories. These are all empty people. They caused their own problems. That she would “love” her ex-lover, a stoner who kicked his children out of their own treehouse while he “searches for a job” is part of my problem with the characters. And this time, my problems with the characters turned into my problem with the story.
January 26 – Aravind Adiga: “The Elephant” – I was both intrigued and wary when I saw Mr. Adiga following up his Booker win with a short story in The New Yorker. While I was among the few who liked The White Tiger, I didn’t think it deserved the Booker. This story (on the longish side for The New Yorkerthese days) takes us to India, again, where a cooley is delivering items on a cycle-cart (or his head). I wasn’t enjoying it until I saw that the three rupee tip he got at one place was basically used to pay the boss for the opportunity to do the delivery. It’s the illumination of that kind of routine in India’s economy that helped me appreciate The White Tiger. Like that work, though, this short story felt a bit like an apprentice-piece. It was worthwhile but not entirely satisfying, and it was full of juvenile imagery that, to me, subverted the serious work without emphasizing the indignities therein.
February 2 – George Saunders: “Al Roosten” – Al Roosten is the overweight man in a gondolier costume waiting in a queue behind an attractive man in a skimpy swimsuit. That man is about to walk out to the stage for the Local Celebrity Auction, a charity event to raise money to fight drugs. Here’s a great line: “Roosten was deaf to the charity in this.” This is about as close a third-person narrator as your going to find, and it works brilliantly to show the angry, jealous mind of Al Roosten. It also helps usher in a mother who taps her foot impatiently at him in heaven when he acts out his frustration in an impotent manner when obviously he’d like to do so much more. Highly recommended.
February 9 & 16 - Steven Millhauser: “The Invasion from Outer Space” – One of the shortest of the year’s stories, “The Invasion from Outer Space” is about a town’s anticipation at the approach of something from above. Then there is disappointment. Though this story is short, Millhauser still manages to imbue it with his excellent run of fluid details.
February 23 – Italo Calvino: “The Daughers of the Moon” (translated from the Italian by Martin McLaughlin) — For those unitiated in Calvino’s Cosmicomicsthis story might be a bit too abstract. In these tales, narrated by the extremely old Qfwfq, Calvino extends some scientific tidbit into a great imaginative work. The tidbit this time? The gradual dissolution of the moon and its consequent descent to Earth. Or perhaps it’s more correct to say the dissolution of amoon, Qfwfq having seen so many come and go. Calvino links this dissolution with a highly consumeristic society, where the moon is one blighted ceiling that is due to be thrown away and a better one acquired. This is not my favorite story in the Cosmicomics(I have only read a few). I recommend beginning with some others and getting a sense of the motief and Qfwfq.
March 2 – A.M. Homes: “Brother on Sunday” — This was a rather slow moving story, which fit because most of it takes place on a sunny beach while Tom, a skin doctor, waits with some friends for his older brother Roger to arrive, like he does each year. Tom and his wife often go out with these friends, and they seem to know Tom doesn’t particularly like them. Still, as the story moves forward, we realize that Tom dislikes his brother even more, and fears somewhat that he considers these friends his friends. Then Roger arrives “like a storm.”
March 9 – David Foster Wallace: “Wiggle Room” — Possibly my favorite of the year, this short story is actually a segment of Wallace’s unfinished book, The Pale King. Here we go into the head of a man who reviews tax returns for any inconsistencies. Wallace shows how mind-numbing this job is and how a man seeks to get by, trying to keep from something simple like looking at the clock and to keep from something not so simple like thoughts of suicide. In walks a man who knows the history of the word “bore.”
March 16 – No fiction this issue, but there is a large selection of recent John Updike poems.
March 23 – Tessa Hadley: “She’s the One” — I didn’t think I’d like this story once I started it and realized what it was about. The main character is Ally, a young graduate of English studies who lives in Manchester, England, close to the moors. Her little brother Ryan has just committed suicide. It’s not that I don’t find this premise important. I just feel like I’ve read it several times. However, what I found instead was a freshly written account of the aftermath of such a tragedy, especially when the narrative introduces Ryan’s girlfriend Yvonne.
March 30 – Craig Raine: “Julia and Byron” — Though short, this story manages to get through the diagnosis and treatment of a cancer patient, her death, and the repercussions on the husband, who never treated her well. Its quality stems from the short details that give a lot of depth to Julia and Byron. Still, not one of my favorites of the year.
April 6 - Brad Watson: “Visitation” — This nicely paced, tense narrative describes a divorced father’s attempts to maintain a relationship with his young son. There’s a tragic sense of failure as the father takes the son to McDonald’s and then to a run-down hotel by the freeway for their weekend together. Turns out this is how they typically spend their time. Things are worse this weekend, however, when an obnoxious family of four takes over the swimming pool and intimidates the guests. I took a family law class wherein we read sad case after sad case, sad law review article after sad law review article, about “visitation.” This piece takes it in a different direction while maintaining the desperation.
April 13 - Colm Tóibín: “The Color of Shadows” — This was a fairly simple story about Dublin man, Paul, whose elderly aunt Josie, after falling in her home, needs now to be put into a rest home. We get a look at some elements that are expected: the guilt of putting someone you love in a care center when they just want to be home. However, as to be expected from such a brilliant writer, the story has other intriguing elements. Paul’s mother abandoned him when he was a young child, too young to remember her; Josie raised him. Sometime in this process, Paul’s mother has moved back the area. The ending, referring to breath, feels like a deep breath, opening up a larger story while remaining sadly ambiguous.
April 20 – Chris Adrian: “A Tiny Feast” – This strange little story took me by surprise. To reconcile after an argument, Oberon gives Titania a stolen mortal child. As a toddler, however, the child begins to suffer from leukemia, forcing the faerie king and queen to interact with mortals in a cancer ward. Mixing dark humor with genuine sadness, Adrian presents a unique perspective on parental love and on mortal folly. I love a story that shows how even a bizarre, implausible, potentially lame idea can become wonderful when rendered by a master. Here’s a quick passage where Titania reflects on the young child’s chemotherapy: “Within a few days, the poisons had made him peaceful. Titania could not conceive of the way they were made, except as distillations of sadness and heartbreak and despair . . . . Oberon had voiced a fear that the boy was sick for human things, that the cancer in his blood was only a symptom of a greater ill — that he was homesick unto death. So she imagined they were putting into him a sort of liquid mortal sadness, a corrective against a dangerous abundance of faerie joy.”
April 27 – Guillermo Martínez: “Vast Hell” (translated from the Spanish by Alberto Manguel) — This short short takes its name from an Argentinian proverb: “A small town is a vast hell.” And we go into one of those small towns. The narrator is a grocery store clerk, and he begins to reminisce about “that young man whose name we never knew and whom no one in town mentioned again.” Martínez lays bare the way gossip spreads and poisons a small town’s people, which has been done before. It is done very well here. But that is not where the heart of the story lies. What is discovered is far more hideous than the truth that gossip can cause pain. One of my favorites of the year.
May 4 – Gail Hareven: “The Slows” (translated from the Hebrew by Yaacov Jeffrey Green) — Yet another bizarre but excellently crafted story. Whoever said The New Yorker only publishes realism is way off this year. Still, here again we have a bizarre situation told in a realist voice. The narrator is a researcher at a Preserve, home of the Slows. I’ll let you find out for yourself who the Slows are, and what ethical battles the researcher must battle when a Slow woman comes to ask him not to take their children.
May 11 – J.G. Ballard: “The Autobiography of J.G.B.” — Placed in one of the year’s longest issues, this was the shortest story at a mere three columns. If we are to follow the title, apparently Ballard woke up one morning to find his neighborhood absolutely empty of its inhabitants — except for him. A bit of roaming around leads him to discover that his neighborhood is not the only one suddenly empty, with no explanations.
May 18 – Salman Rushdie: “In the South” — I admit it: Rushdie completely lost me with The Enchantress of Florence. About halfway through that book the author I respected (I loved Midnight’s Children) became for me what he was already for others: over writing, self-indulgent, overrated. I was not excited to read this short story, which only a year before I would have been thrilled about. I can’t say this story brought me back into the fold, but neither did it fully reinforce my disdain. A simple story — two octogenarians, Junior and Senior, live next door to each other, have opposing views on almost everything, and don’t want to get away from each other. Rushdie gives them and their environment a nice symbolic meaning, but I didn’t feel it ended up saying too much. Still, the last one-third of the story had me deep in though.
May 25 – Jonathan Lethem: “Ava’s Apartment” – A man abandons his old life and, following the directions of a friend, takes up residence in a strange apartment complex, an apartment complex made for abandoned dogs. His own roommate happens to be Ava, a three-legged pit-bull. Together they form a new life. While this maintained my interest, I kept hoping for more. Despite its pensive, drawn-out sentences and its tone, it actually seemed to take great pains to tie things together to say something meaningful.
June 1 – Craig Raine: “Love Affair with Secondaries” — And so Craig Raine becomes the first author to have a second story appear in the same year. I didn’t much care for “Julia and Byron.” Here we have a married man in the middle of an affair. While this one was better, it still left me a bit cold.
June 8 & 15 – Fiction Issue:
- Jonathan Franzen: “Good Neighbors” — In my opinion, this was the best written story in the fiction issue. It’s a disturbing tale about the dissolution of a family through the years. Starting out like a dream, the young couple moves into a cheap fixer-upper into a neighborhood not yet gentrified. Two children come along and grow up as the neighborhood does — and while the neighborhood’s gossip and backbiting grow. The wife seems to be mysteriously impervious to such talk; rather than cast judgment when she hears others gossip, she merely says something was “weird.” The husband remains aloof from the neighborhood and the family. Yet this family becomes the center of it all. I like this one because, while the topic is what feels typical in The New Yorker, its style if quite different, told from multiple perspectives, the verdict on this particular family is, to me at least, unascertainable.
- Edna O’Brien: “Old Wounds” (subscription required to read online) — It seems a good contemporary Irish story can’t help but deal with family wounds and burials. While different, I didn’t feel that this story added anything to this tradition, though I still enjoyed this story. The narrator’s mother’s family had a falling out when the narrator was very young. The only time they would get together was at funerals. Years later, the narrator meets and creates a healing friendship with her cousin, the cause of the initial falling out. Now much older, the two cousins feel that the wounds are healing, but the cousin’s wife and the burial ground come in between.
- Téa Obreht: “The Tiger’s Wife” (subscription required to read online) — This is the début fiction piece, and it did feel like the product of a creative writing program: each sentence carries a weight of profundity, there’s a multi-generational and multi-cultural current, the ending attempts to interpret it all before drifting into its own unknown. Often these features turn me off to new writers’ fiction, though I greatly respect what they are doing and wish them all the best and want to support them. While these features did limit my response, “The Tiger’s Wife” has the advantage of being well constructed and interesting. We are situated in Eastern Europe in 1941. Into the village walks a strange survivor of a recent battle: a tiger formerly held in a zoo. At first more of a phantom, soon the village is confronting its reality. Among those confronting the tiger are the narrator’s grandfather and a young Muslim girl purchased by the town’s butcher to be his wife. Sixty years later, the grandfather’s story reveals more about the psychology of the villagers than it does about the truth.
June 22 – Tim Gautreaux: “Idols” – I very much enjoyed this one about a lost remnant to a great family. In the beginning, our narrator, a fixer of manual typewriters who is over sixty, finds out that he has inherited what is left of his great-grandfather’s estate, which now includes only just over $20,000 and a dilapidated grand house. He decides to move to the house and fix it up to its original grandeur. To do this he hires a man in his fifties whose been kicked out by his wife. The man needs money to get his tatoo collection burned off his skin, hoping his wife will take him back then. So the hired man proceeds to fix up the house while going to the doctor weekly to get his tatoos burned off. It’s a nice story that looks at loneliness and greed.
June 29 – Stephen O’Connor: “Ziggurat” — Yet again, one of my favorites of the year takes some fantastical element and modernizes it and brings it into mundane realism (at least partly). Here the creature is the minotaur. The story starts when he sees one of the new virgins (well, not really, according to her, but, you know, what to tell the mother) playing a video game while he lounges on a pool table in some strange room in the labyrinth. I couldn’t believe that a story that combines some Greek myth with the decadent present would be that good, but it did an excellent job exploring emptiness. Definitely one of my favorites.
July 6 & 13 – Lorrie Moore: “Childcare” — I’ve been interested in reading something by Lorrie Moore because some of my friends get very anxious whenever something by her is put out there. They were really excited when this piece was published. When I began the piece, here’s what I was thinking: This is excellent stuff! She really does have a natural fluency in her writing! Then because of some distraction I put the magazine down and didn’t feel the need to pick it up again until two weeks later. I was ultimately pleased with the story which deals with a young woman getting a childcare job before the employer has even adopted her child. They go together to an interview with the birth mother, a sassy teen wearing an electronic bracelet. On the whole I enjoyed perspective this young employee provided on the tension between the birth mother and the hopeful adoptive mother, though I have to say that somewhere the steam ran out — but that was probably just me and my distractions. It was definitely excellently written and made me more interested in Moore.
July 20 – William Styron: “Rat Beach” — I was really excited when I saw that for this issue we’d be taken back to a prior era of writing. I wasn’t disappointed! Styron’s story about a young marine preparing to invade Japan during the final stages of WWII is affecting both because of its subject matter but also because of its powerful, controlled, and lucid prose. It’s an excellent look at a young man frightened to death trying to find any distractions, and what motivates him. Highly recommended read.
July 27 – Kirstin Valdez Quade: “The Five Wounds” – This fascinating story about a man playing Jesus in his community’s annual Passion play is well written with varied subtexts. Astonishing to me that this deft piece of writing was written by a recent MFA graduate. I like new writers’ material, but this one — to me — lacked the flaws inherent in most. Amadeo Padilla, the thirty-three-year-old man playing Jesus, is attempting to get holy and in the zone for the big day — he might just be the best Jesus since Manuel Garcia, who, because he actually used real nails, is still a legend as he wanders around the city, judging people with his curled, useless hands. Amadeo has been feeling pretty good, but then his pregnant fourteen-year-old daughter (who’ll turn fifteen on Good Friday) arrives, threatening to tarnish the whole affair. Very recommended.
August 3 – Joshua Ferris: “The Valetudinarian” — I’ve actually put off reading anything by Joshua Ferris, thinking he fit into what I consider to be the young, loud, overwriting writer. If this short story is any indication, I am so wrong. This story about a widower living his retirement alone in Florida is heartwarming/rending and funny and very nicely controlled. One of my favorites of the year.
August 10 & 17 – Sherman Alexie: “War Dances” – A few years ago I heard Sherman Alexie speak about his writing and his Indian heritage. I found it interesting, and though I know he’s a talented writer, I’ve always found it to be a one-note song: Native Americans have a tragic past and a tragic present suffering from alcoholism and nostalgia. It always seems he feels his job is to desentimentalize the Native American mystique. A bit of that is in here, but it is incidental to a much larger and subtler story about a man (Native American) suffering from a mysterious diagnosis that seems to be a recurrence of his hydrocephalia he suffered as a child. With wiffs of Kafka’s “Metamorphisis,” this is a stylistically acute piece of writing.
August 24 – Dave Eggers: “Max at Sea” — I was looking forward to this one. Even though I would never have thought to expand on the wonderful children’s classic Where the Wild Things Are, the trailer for the film version of Eggers’s work gave me hope. I have not seen the film, but if this short story is any indication, it will be awful. Sometimes an author can breath new life into a classic work, show some other dimensions, expand it a bit. This piece, however, diminishes the original, seems to limit it by defining what makes everything tick. It begins before the classic story did, explaining why Max is having such a wild day. Here Max is picked on by his older sister’s friends. She does not defend him. He retaliates. His high-strung mother punishes him. His father has left the family, though Max is still attached. The mother’s new boyfriend is a fat dweeb. The classic story contains all of this and so much more — not the least, the very real possibility that Max was simply being a child rather than being psychologically damaged (by all sorts of complexes). It also limits the magic of the island with the wild things, who are all unimpressively named. To me this story was a stroke against imagination. The writing was flat and clichéd. It failed on every level. Why did The New Yorker publish this?
August 31 – Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: “The Fountain House” (tr. from the Russian by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers) — Very short and even more strange. This story begins just after a bus has blown up. A man’s daughter was killed and taken away. Certain something can be done for her, the man steals her body and bribes a doctor to work on her (“Although the girl was not accompanied by a medical history, the doctor could see perfectly well that she was dead.”). It becomes very strange when the father keeps lapsing into dreams. I definitely didn’t understand this tale, but I did enjoy it.
September 7 – Orhan Pamuk: “Distant Relations” (tr. from the Turkish by Maureen Freely) — From the first few paragraphs, I didn’t expect to like this one as much as I did. It’s an interesting construct: a man is about to become engaged to his innocent love. She likes a purse they see in a window. The man goes to buy it for her, finds a distant relation at the store, and sinks into a deep lust. Very nicely drawn out.
September 14 – Paul Theroux: “The Lower River” — This one surprised me. I haven’t been much for short stories written in slow prose this year. The prose has felt weightier than the story itself. However, this nicely paced story – about an elderly missionary returning to a village in Africa where he’d spent some youthful years — was vivid and textured. Finally the weighty story felt substantiated by the prose itself.
September 21 – Sam Shepard: “Land of the Living” — I’m not sure I understood this one, and I don’t feel like going back to read it again. I enjoyed the beginning, where a man and his family are about to board a plane for a vacation. The man is in a very good mood. But then his wife asks, in front of the children, whether he’s having an affair. The tense vacation is great, but, like I said, in the end the pieces didn’t add up for me. Though I’m sure their is a sound equation that I failed to formulate.
September 29, 2009 – Marisa Silver: “Temporary” — I don’t have much to say about this piece because it didn’t interest me. It took me all week to get through it, in fact. The story is set up in the kind of down-and-out realism that I’m finding harder and harder to take, especially when in the end I don’t feel it offered much that is new. This one is about a woman who finds temporary work at an adoption agency. I did like her conversations and imaginings about a potential adopting family, but I’m afraid this one faded the moment I finished it.
October 5, 2009 – George Saunders: “Victory Lap” – George Saunders’ second piece of fiction to be published this year. When I started this bizarre piece, I thought I wouldn’t like it. We get inside the head of a Alison, a teenage girl, probably fourteen or fifteen, as she imagines descending a staircase to her suitors. She is interrupted by a knock at her door. Then we get insidethe head of a teenage boy, her neighbor and also probably around fourteen or fifteen, as he arrives home and imagines his parents scolding him for the rules he’s breaking while they’re away. He is interrupted when he goes outside and sees Alison open her door. All of this was interesting, but the highly stylized writing was getting grating. But then we realize that the man who knocked on the teenage girl’s door means to kidnap and rape her. The story then veers into the criminal’s head, then back to the boy’s, and finally to Alison’s. In the end it was a powerful trip, and the style augmented the irrationality of it all.
October 12, 2009 – Tessa Hadley: “The Godchildren” — After doubling up on George Saunders last week, this week The New Yorkergave a second spot to Tessa Hadley. I really liked where I thought this one was going. Three godchildren of the deceased have showed up at the house where they spent some days in their childhood. For two of them, the memories are either faded or perhaps repressed. But for the other, this is a big big deal. I’m afraid it lost some steam with me, though, towards the end.
October 19, 2009 – Julian Barnes: “Complicity” — It’s like I’m reading the same authors as I was in the first few months of 2009. However, Julian Barnes is one I love seeing in The New Yorker. Sadly, this story didn’t really work for me. A divorcee begins courting a doctor, and I like the various ways Barnes works around the word “complicity,” but I remain fairly indifferent about this one.
October 26, 2009 – Jonathan Lethem: “Procedure in Plain Air” – What a nicely strange story! For some reason, this year, the strange stories have been my favorites. They’ve been fresh and incredibly well written. Here Lethem describes a mundane day where an unemployed man, just getting over his severance pay, watches two workers excavate a hole in the pavement and then ”install” a captive man into the hole. In a matter-of-fact way, they give the man an umbrella to stand over the hole when it starts to rain. It’s a very short piece, and well worth the read.
November 2, 2009 – Javier Marias: “While the Women Are Sleeping” (tr. from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa) — As is the case with his novels, his short fiction also starts with a blessed tease: “For three weeks, I saw them every day, and now I don’t know what has become of them. I’ll probably never see them again — at least, not her. Summer conversations, and even confidences, rarely lead anywhere.” This story begins on a Spanish beach. The narrator and his wife people watch and are very intrigued by a large man who uses a videocamera to record his beautiful companion every day. One night, the narrator cannot sleep and, after he sees from his window the fat man sitting by the pool outside, he goes to chat. There’s a good reason this one was printed in the Halloween issue. It’s disturbing but very sophisticated.
November 9, 2009 – Stephen King: “Premium Harmony” — Stephen King, publishing in The New Yorker. If you’re surprised, as I was, it might surprise you further to know that this is the sixth piece of short fiction he’s published there. And I’d be unfair to say that it is just for sales — Stephen King has produced some pretty exceptional bits of writing in the mounds and mounds to choose from. Here we have an unhappy, poor couple. Each has a vice: Ray smokes and Mary eats hostess foods. On their way to Wal-Mart, Mary asks Ray to stop at a Quick-Pik so that Mary can go in and buy a 99 cent kickball as a birthday present for their niece. Ray knows it would be 20 cents cheaper at Wal-Mart, but Mary wants the purple one at Quick-Pik. As she’s going in, he asks her to buy him some cigarettes. The tension builds as Ray waits for Mary in the car, and we wonder if she’s going to come out with cigarettes or hostess cakes. But the tension really builds when Mary doesn’t come out at all. This has some of King’s usual cliches and you can sometimes see where it’s writing by numbers, and both of these have the tendency to subvert the parts where King is genuinely good — but I was surprised to find the story at times touching. Not a great success, though.
November 16, 2009 – Yiyun Li: “Alone” — This short story took me forever to read. I just wasn’t snagged in the first few pages, and for some reason, I really needed that snag in this case. However, when the story picked up — when the Chinese woman starts to tell her story about a fatal boating accident to the older man she’s just met at a ski resort — the story becomes quietly affecting and remained on my mind long after I finished. It remains one of my favorites of the year.
November 23, 2009 – Sam Shepard: “Indianapolis (Highway 74)” — I liked this story much more than Shepard’s last one. Here we still have the male narrator travelling, but this time he’s at a Holiday Inn near Indianapolis where he encounters a woman he had lived with forty years before. This is a great “road” story, even though most of it takes place in a lobby.
November 30, 2009 – Don DeLillo: “Midnight in Dostoevksy” – Despite the catchy title, this story confirmed my belief that I shouldn’t rush to buy DeLillo’s Point Omegawhen it is released. Here we have a couple of college students, kicking around town, arguing about the details of the life of a man they sometimes encounter. It starts with simple questions: What kind of coat is he wearing? Filled with his clippy dialogue, the story goes in and out of various discussions about the man and a class the students are taking. I’m sure there is a lot of brilliance hidden from my view in these lines, but I didn’t have the patience to seek it out.
December 7, 2009 – Ian McEwan: “The Use of Poetry” – McEwan used to be a writer I read voraciously. That has changed, and I actually wasn’t keen on reading this story when it appeared. As usual, however, I immediately fell into the rhythm of his sentences as he recounted, briefly, the youth of Henry Beard, a physicist who will one day win the Nobel Prize. The story slows down some when he meets Maisie Farmer at Oxford and they venture into the world of marriage, almost on a youthful whim to do just exactly what their sixties culture told them not to do — now there’s some conscientious rebellion. The story moves quickly and is told mostly in the tone of biographical summary. And, frankly, I’m not sure I caught the thread at the end that tied it all together. In the end I feel like his sentences are more impressive than his ideas. Which is not saying much with this piece.
December 14, 2009 – David Foster Wallace: “And All That” — I loved “Wiggle Room,” the first short story by David Foster Wallace to appear in this year’s The New Yorker. I loved it so much, in fact, that when I saw this issue featured another of his stories I lapped it up quickly. Not as good as “Wiggle Room” but still highly original. Our narrator tells us of a Christmas present he received as a child: a wooden cement mixer he could pull around on a string. His parents, in the way parents do, tell him that the mixer is magic, that it turns only when he is pulling it and only when he is not looking at the mixer. So the boy spends his time trying to come up with increasingly elaborate ways to try to catch the mixer rotating. It never crosses his mind that it was a joke. Later in life, he’s very religious and in a seminary. His parents are devout atheists but supportive.
December 21 & 28, 2009 – Helen Simpson: “Diary of an Interesting Year” — We close the year with this bleak The Road-like tale derived from a diary written in the year 2040, when the woman narrating it was thirty years old. The world is not right, and she and G., her boyfriend/husband, decide to go North towards Scotland to try to get to Russia, the land of milk and honey. In the chopped diary entries we rarely get a glimpse of what is actually happening except by intimation and by the author’s tone. This is a short piece, and great food for thought as we begin a new year, the year this narrator is to be born.
And that’s a wrap, folks. This was such a great project that I’m going to do it again in 2010. I can’t recommend enough that some of you join me in 2010.
I like the end of year lists. They are self-indulgent, giving the reviewer a chance to reminisce and even become prideful about a year’s-worth of reading (at least, I admit to those feelings). But as a fellow reader, I love to see others’ lists so I can see what books made the year’s reading pleasurable to others — and it gives me a chance to see what I’m missing. So here’s my contribution: my second year-end review.
Making this list is impossible this year. I was very selective in 2009, basically reading only books I was genuinely interested in from publishers whom I trust. Also, it was my most international year ever (30 of the 89 — 34% — books reviewed since December 17, 2008, when I last posted this year-end list, were in translation), so many books I read were illuminating in one regard or another. Indeed, I would have a difficult time coming up with ten books I didn’t like, let alone ten twelve I liked about all others. So this year, rather than list my top reads, I’m posting a nonexclusive list of some highlights. Each of these books, in one way or another, satisfied whatever mood I had at the moment, even if I wasn’t aware I was in the mood for anything in particular.
But before even listing the highlights, I’m going to put in this little paragraph that cheats. How can one leave out Philip Roth or Gilead or By Night in Chile from this list? These contemporary classics were obviously highlights of my reading year. But perhaps even more mysterious than leaving those off my list, why leave off classics like Madame Bovary, “The Turn of the Screw,” The Age of Innocence, and Moby-Dick. Well, here’s why I’m leaving them off the highlights list: because they have been highlighted time and time again, deservedly. Instead, I chose to focus on books I’d never really heard of before this year. While this will reveal some of the many gaps in my reading, I think it also might be helpful to others like me who have such gaps. (Not to mention the fact that this little shenanigan allows me to link to more of my favorite books!)
So, here is my list (seven works in translation, five in English), in alphabetical order by author’s last name. There’s just no way I can rank these in any other way. In fact, when I tried, I had most of them in the number one spot at one time or another. The list:
César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter – “Even when I was unsure where this was going, I was thoroughly enjoying the voyage. It is vast yet immediate, full of frenetic energy yet poised and controlled.” I read this book in one spell-bound sitting, and I can still remember the way the light fell in the room while I was reading it. It’s imprint on me and that moment in time are that vivid still. I also absolutely loved his Ghosts, and How I Became a Nun is not too distant in third.
Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel – “One of the best things about The Invention of Morel, though, is that even when we readers understand the nature of what is going on, Bioy Casares doesn’t stop there. Many lesser books stop with cleverness. In this one, the intelligent construct is only incidental to an even more intelligent examination of love, lust, loneliness — and the ambiguities of immortality.” The feelings of loneliness and interrupted silence stick with me as I think back on this dream-like book.
J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country – “It was moving and peaceful and interesting. In it Carr, about whom little is known but who has some whimsical biographical information detailed in the introduction to the NYRB edition, packs layers of nostalgia, making the reader aware of emotions lost to time but evident in what remains of the past.” Another peaceful masterpiece, and one book I’ll read again and again. I loved the complex arrangement of love, art, history, and nostalgia on a simple canvas. A truly affecting work I feel almost reverent toward.
Gérard Gavarry: Hoppla! 1, 2, 3 – “Each section carries the same people to the same event. Each is still unique and compelling and important. Indeed, through this book not only does Gavarry reveal some excellent insights into the roots of violence but, in doing so, he shows the power and vitality of literature.” Several months later, I’m still amazed at the multiple perspectives Gavarry uses in this book as it tells, retells, and then retells again, the story of a murder. And being stuck in traffic has never been the same.
Imre Kertész: The Pathseeker – “If this sounds like it should be a work by Kafka, that’s completely understandable. . . . However . . . unlike Kafka’s absurdity, this one is ‘real.’ Not that Kafka’s works aren’t real in their essence, but here is no heightened reality exaggerated for effect. As bizarre as it might sound, as elusive as the author is being, the exercise in silence and inference creates a very realistic piece.” For the year, this was my favorite book that succeeded by not saying directly what it was shouting indirectly.
William Maxwell: So Long, See You Tomorrow — “So silently does the story progress that the moments of violence are audible to the reader and reverberate in the later pages though silence returns.” Short, softly spoken, quietly impactful. If I were back in college, taking literature classes, I’d demand to read this as an American classic. A master-lesson in how to write directly, without all of the fanfare and preening, yet still engage in metafiction at its best. Disillusioned me towards McEwan’s Atonement.
Richard Price: Lush Life – “Lush Life builds and changes its form in unexpected ways, and I’d hate to give away too much. Then again, there is so much in the book that I could write in depth about aspects of it and it would still leave plenty for the reader to discover.” Indeed. I’m still uncovering layers of this excellent police procedural in downtown Manhattan. Brilliant dialogue, fantastic descriptions, very profound as it deals with class and race and crime. Why on earth haven’t I read Clockers yet?
Guillermo Rosales: The Halfway House – “A semi-autobiographical allegory, this is the best book I’ve read so far this year, and one of the best books I’ve read period. It is stunning in its execution and its content—indisputably the work of a literary master.” I stand by my review. This book is brilliant in its depravity as it describes a Cuban exile’s time in a corrupt Miami halfway house where the narrator’s complicity in brutality comes out. Very sad, very violent, very disturbing — if the book is any indicator, one can see why Rosales felt hopeless.
W.G. Sebald: The Emigrants – ”One of tales is told primarily by Mme Landau, and she talks about ‘the systematic thoroughness with which these people kept silent in the years after the war, kept their secrets, and even, I sometimes think, really did forget. . .’ But Sebald suggests they don’t forget. In fact, it’s all they can remember, and it follows them everywhere, to their death.” I think one of the reasons I didn’t care for Anne Michaels’ The Winter Vault was because I’d read this book just prior — this book was simply so so much better.
Robert Walser: The Tanners – “The precision with which Walser captures the seasons and the times of day makes the experience of reading these impressions almost surreal. Truly, Susan Bernofsky did a fantastic job translating this book.” This was the only book I read this year that took me back to my early days of reading literature, back when I was still discovering the European greats (which is fitting since Walser was a European great). There’s just something epic and yet fable-ish about this book — and it’s incredibly funny.
P.G. Wodehouse: Leave It to Psmith – ”[The first few lines] made me chuckle in the bookstore. Despite that, however, I did not expect to be incapable of holding in my laughter while on the train. But I couldn’t help it when unexpected things like legs dangling through ceilings and flung flower pots pepper the pages.” My introduction to Wodehouse — surely it will be a long and pleasant relationship. Since I read this book, I’ve purchased it for several people who could use a hearty laugh (in the wonderful Overlook edition, of course).
Tobias Wolff: Old School – “I’m not giving anything away when I say that Wolff completely reworks the perspective of the novel in the last few pages, not through a surprise twist or an epiphany but by unconventionally straying from the narrative he’d been so strict to follow up to that point, playing with our notions of the narrator’s aesthetic as well as his personal development — and justifications.” I loved reading the narrator’s encounters with literature and authorship, and how they affected his downfall — as well as that of another of the school’s luminaries.
Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a very happy 2010.
I’m not in front of the curve on reviewing the fantastic The Paris Review Interviews volumes, but while I’m highlighting books that you may want to buy others (or may want others to buy for you), I couldn’t help but remind everyone of these gems. If you haven’t picked up your copy yet, I highly recommend it. Even if you’ve discovered that you can get many – but not all — of these interviews for free on The Paris Review website, it’s not the same as having these great volumes on the shelf where they can soak in your veneration for years. Volume IV came out a little over a month ago (I thought they were stopping at three — thank goodness I was wrong), and it’s proved to be just as interesting and fun to read as the previous three volumes. Now you can get all four volumes in a box set, though that might prove problematic if they put out a Volume V next year.
Each volume contains the original interviews published in The Paris Reviewof 16 luminaries of arts and letter (the art of fiction, poetry, criticism, screenwriting, even the musical) spanning the magazine’s life. Consequently, we have special access to the minds of various literary eras, from Dorothy Parker and T.S. Eliot to Martin Amis and Peter Carey to Richard Price. There is also a variety of styles, from Ernest Hemingway to Kurt Vonnegut to Salman Rushdie to Stephen King.
But perhaps my favorite aspect of these interviews (besides the opportunity to hear the voices behind the works) is to see where the artist stood when the interview was given. We get Hemingway nearing the end of his career in 1958, Eliot in 1959, Waugh in 1963, Wodehouse in 1975, Baldwin in 1984, Wilder in 1996. Others we get around their prime: Greene in 1953, Bellow in 1966, Morrison in 1993. There are even a few at their relative beginning, when so much more was to come (or not, as is the case in one of these): Ellison in 1955, Capote in 1957, Pinter in 1966. Hearing their thoughts from that moment in time, let alone being privy to their writing philosophies and idiosyncrasies, makes these fascinating reading. I list below the volumes, the interviewees, and the years in which each interview was taken.
- Dorothy Parker — 1956
- Truman Capote – 1957
- Ernest Hemingway — 1958
- T.S. Eliot — 1959
- Saul Bellow — 1966
- Jorge Luis Borges — 1967
- Kurt Vonnegut — 1977
- James M. Cain — 1978
- Rebecca West — 1981
- Elizabeth Bishop — 1981
- Robert Stone — 1985
- Richard Price — 1996
- Billy Wilder — 1996
- Jack Gilbert — 2005
- Joan Didion — 2006
- Graham Greene — 1953
- James Thurber — 1955
- William Faulkner — 1956
- Gabriel García Márquez — 1981
- Isaac Bashevis Singer — 1968
- Robert Lowell — 1961
- Eudora Welty — 1972
- Philip Larkin — 1982
- James Baldwin — 1984
- William Gaddis — 1987
- Harold Bloom — 1991
- Toni Morrison — 1993
- Alice Munro — 1994
- Peter Carey — 2006
- Stephen King — 2006
- Ralph Ellison — 1955
- Georges Simenon — 1955
- Isak Dinesen — 1956
- Evelyn Waugh — 1963
- William Carlos Williams — 1964
- Harold Pinter — 1966
- John Cheever – 1976
- Joyce Carol Oates — 1978
- Jean Rhys — 1979
- Raymond Carver — 1983
- Chinua Achebe — 1994
- Ted Hughes — 1995
- Martin Amis — 1998
- Salman Rushdie — 2005
- Norman Mailer — 2007 (though he was also interviewed in 1964)
- William Styron — 1954 (also interviewed in 1999)
- Marianne Moore — 1961
- Ezra Pound — 1962
- Jack Kerouac — 1968
- E.B. White — 1969
- P.G. Wodehouse — 1975
- John Ashbery — 1983
- Philip Roth — 1984
- Maya Angelou — 1990
- Stephen Sondheim — 1997
- V.S. Naipaul — 1998
- Paul Auster — 2003
- Haruki Murakami — 2004
- Orhan Pamuk — 2005
- David Grossman — 2007
- Marilynne Robinson — 2008
Another great thing about these interviews is the process in which they are taken. Contrary to what is common in interviewing today, the interviewers are not trying to trap the interviewees for our entertainment. They work closely with the interviewees, sometimes taking the interview over the course of days, then editing and then allowing the interviewees to edit! It’s that last bit that might have some people questioning the technique. Won’t they take out all of the good stuff? Not necessarily. These are artists, after all, and the interviewers want them to be able to express their most articulate response to the questions. That is to our benefit, especially when the interviewee is allowed to revise for style, clipping out awkward phraseology or vague generalities. These interviews are primarily about the artistic process and the artistic philosophies espoused by these artists, and it’s great to have these clear voices come through. Plus, it’s the rare interview that doesn’t give some perspective on the subject. Who knew that Capote was as self-satisfied and verbose as he’s been portrayed? His long answers give us some light.
Interviewer: Were you sure then that you wanted to be a writer?
Capote: I realized that I wanted to be a writer. But I wasn’t sure I would be until I was fifteen or so. At that time I had immodestly started sending stories to magazines and literary quarterlies. Of course no writer ever forgets his first acceptance; but one fine day when I was seventeen, I had my first, second, and third, all in the same morning’s mail. Oh, I’m here to tell you, dizzy with excitement is no mere phrase!
Then we have this:
Interviewer: Did you have much encouragement in those early days, and if so, by whom?
Capote: Good Lord! I’m afraid you’ve let yourself in for quite a saga. The answer is a snake’s nest of No’s and a few Yes’s. You see, not altogether but by and large, my childhood was spent in parts of the country and among people unprovided with any semblance of a cultural attitude. Which was probably not a bad thing, in the long view. It toughened me rather too soon to swim against the current — indeed, in some areas I developed the muscles of a veritable barracuda, especially in the art of dealing with one’s enemies, an art no less necessary than knowing how to appreciate one’s friends. But to go back. Naturally, in the milieu aforesaid, I was thought somewhat eccentric, which was fair enough, and stupid, which I suitably resented.
That is only a quarter of the answer to the question, but it’s such a wonderful look at the man excited to be recounting his rise. I love it.
And Hemingway was just as abbreviated in his answers as he was in his fiction.
Interviewer: Do you think the intellectual stimulus of the company of other writers is of any value to an author?
Interviewer: How do you name your characters?
Hemingway: The best I can.
And as forthrightly crotchety.
Interviewer: Do you find it easy to shift from one literary project to another or do you continue through to finish what you start?
Hemingway: The fact that I am interrupting serious work to answer these questions proves that I am so stupid that I should be penalized severely. I will be. Don’t worry.
Thank goodness his serious work, and the serious work of many others, has been interrupted by this serious work.
To continue this month’s look at beautiful books you might want to give for the holidays, I am excited to showcase this beautiful hardcover, just released. As a collector’s item, I don’t think one can go wrong investing in this and in the hardcover War and Peace Knopf released a few years ago. They look great on a shelf, especially next to each other.
Review copy courtesy of Knopf.
This new collection of Tolstoy’s stories contains the following eleven works:
- The Prisoner of the Caucasus
- The Diary of a Madman
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich
- The Kreutzer Sonata
- The Devil
- Master and Man
- Father Sergius
- After the Ball
- The Forged Coupon
- Alyosha the Pot
- Hadji Murat
And what’s even better? It’s a new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Pevear and Volokhonsky certainly don’t need me to introduce them. Since they entered the world of translating together twenty years ago, their important work has been widely and rightly praised. Over the past decade (I first got to know their work through their translation of Anna Karenina), I do my best to make sure friends don’t read anything less. When I see someone who downloaded Crime and Punishment from some free online translation (valuable as that service is), I intervene. In fact, I’ve even held off reading War and Peace because I had faith that they’d translate it eventually. When that translation was finally released a couple of years ago, I bought it the day it was out.
Unfortunately, I still haven’t read it. However, I’ve read enough of the discussion flowing from that translation to know that people were a bit befuddled by some of Pevear and Volokhonsky’s choices. I’d like to spend a second defending one of the most derided choices of them all: the choice to say, when the characters are looking at the dead prince, ”what had been he” rather than something along the lines of “what was left of the prince,” used in another translation. I’m being completely honest when I say I support Pevear and Volokhonsky’s less colloquial “what had been he.” The negative presence in “what had been” is much more profound than the positive presence of “what was left.” Furthermore, “he,” that wonderful subjective pronoun, is much more universal and human and sobering (and potentially more noble, even) than “the prince.” I appreciate their attention to the inherent, often subversive, meanings of syntax and grammar, and their courage to take their knowledge to the printer.
But, if that scares you, don’t let it! These aren’t convoluted translations, obfuscated unless you try to decypher the rules of grammar. No! — they are flowing, at once precise and impressionistic. I first read Anna Karenina in Constance Garnett’s translation. Ms. Garnett did wonderful work – she did – but it is well known that her Russian wasn’t solid and that when she encountered difficult passages she’d simply skip them or improvise. Still, very very important work from Ms. Garnett, who is a great stylist in her own right. But when I read the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation I was shocked at the unveiling of multiple layers I think were compressed in the old translation. To their credit, Pevear and Volokhonsky are adamant that they are merely — through a wonderfully rich and thorough collaborative process — being faithful to the original.
Through their unique husband-wife translation process, they have produced what many consider to be the “definitive” translations of the Russian masters Fyodor Dostoevsky (The Brothers Karamazov (1990), Crime and Punishment (1992), Notes from Underground (1993), Demons (1994), The Eternal Husband and Other Stories (1997), The Idiot (2002), The Adolescent (2003), and The Double and The Gambler(2005)), Mikhail Bulgakov (Master and Margarita (1997)), Anton Chekhov (Stories (2002), The Complete Short Novels (2000)), Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls (1996), The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol (1998)), and Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina (2000), War and Peace (2007), and most recently The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (2009)). They are currently working on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, so there’s another book I’ve meant to read and finally will thanks to their services.
For people who haven’t read Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich might be a less intimidating place to start than, say, Anna Karenina or War and Peace (someday!). One can witness how well he manages narrative without having to see how well he meshes narrative on top of narrative on top of narrative. Not that this short novella is simple.
You can also read the novella translated by Ian Dreiblatt for Melville House's excellent Art of the Novella series.
At the beginning, we attend the relatively young (45) Ivan Ilyich’s funeral with his friends and family. Tolstoy, showing why he is a master, creates deep characters in a sentence, showing us their internal thoughts, which are far from Ilyich himself. Those short passages create real personalities with motives that spring from undisclosed events we are nevertheless able to imagine fully. Then the story shifts back in time. The first part recounts the life of Ivan Ilyich before he got sick. We meet him as an ambitious professional, working to claw his way up the hierarchy until he finally became a high judge. We see his marriage to the beautiful Praskovya Fyodorovna, whom we met at the funeral and who didn’t seem to be offering the right kind of mourning for someone who just lost her husband, at least, not entirely. Their unfortunate marriage showcases Tolstoy’s masterful use of inconsistency to create an entirely realistic feel. For example, at the the end of one page we read about a fight they had: “The quarrel was big and unpleasant, and Praskovya Fyodorovna called him ‘fool’ and ‘slouch.’ And he clutched his head and angrily said something about divorce.” Near the beginning of the next page we read this seemingly inconsistent passage: ”So they lived. And it all went on like this without change, and it was all very well.” As as a narrator, Tolstoy has the ability to enrich his own voice through this type of irony that is, nevertheless, entirely realistic in the context.
That “all was very well” is soon shown to be more the result of complacency and evasion than the result of anything actaully being well. And look at how well Tolstoy takes these characters apart to show just how their unhappiness feeds on itself:
And now Praskovya Fyodorovna could say, not without grounds, that her husband had a difficult character. With the habit of exaggeration typical of her, she said that he had always had a terrible character, and it had needed all her goodness to put up with it for twenty years. It was true that the quarrels now began with him. His carping always began just before dinner and often precisely as he was beginning to eat, over the soup. He would point out that something was wrong with one of the plates, or that the food was not right, or that his son had his elbow on the table, or it was his daughter’s hairstyle. And he blamed Praskovya Fyodorovna for it all. At first Praskovya Fyodorovna protested and said unpleasant things to him, but twice at the start of dinner he flew into such a rage that she realized it was a morbid condition provoked in him by the tasting of food, and she restrained herself; she no longer protested, but only hurried with dinner. Her restraint Praskovya Fyodorovna set down to her own great credit. Having decided that he husband had a terrible character and made her life miserable, she began to pity herself. And the more she pitied herself, the more she hated her husband. She began to wish for his death, yet she could not wish for it, because then there would be no salary. And that irritated her against him still more. She considered herself dreadfully wretched precisely in that even his death could not save her, and she became irritated, concealed it, and this concealed irritation of hers increased his irritation.
The second half of the novel is bleak for Ilyich. He finds out that he has some ailment, perhaps nothing, perhaps something terrible, the doctors don’t know. Again, we get to see just how well Tolstoy knows this character — and human motivation in general:
Ivan Ilyich’s main occupation since the time of his visit to the doctor became the precise following of the doctor’s prescriptions concerning hygiene and the taking of medicines, and paying heed to his pain and to all the functions of his organism. People’s illness and people’s health became Ivan Ilyich’s main interests. When there was talk in his presence of someone being ill, or dying, or recovering, especially of an illness similar to his own, he listened, trying to conceal his excitement, asked questions, and made applications to his illness.
He obsesses over his sickness and becomes quite superstitious in his attempts to evade death, his own death being absolutely unfathomable to him. This sickness affects his persistently horrible relationship with his wife and his family. For them, there is nothing to be done, so his continual bad spirit is something they seek to escape. This causes his spirit to become worse. What a tragic spiral we see as Ivan Ilyich comes to realize just how profound this development is:
It was impossible to deceive himself: something dreadful, new, and so significant that nothing more significant had ever happened in his life, was being accomplished in Ivan Ilyich. And he alone knew of it. Everyone around him either did not understand or did not want to understand and thought that everything in the world was going on as before.
We already know that Ivan Ilyich will die. We have a good idea at how his family and friends will greet his death. However, though we watch Ilyich’s fear steadily rise as his death approaches, we are not certain how he will greet his death. To be honest, for a while I didn’t like this story because I thought the ending was facile, a bit of annoying morality at the end of a great narrative. But rereading the novella, I can see how wrong I was. Sure, the morality is there (this was written shortly after Tolstoy converted to Christianity), and it is meant to teach us a lesson on how to live; however, the complexity doesn’t go away, not when we remember the funeral and see that what Ilyich thinks upon his death does not actually happen. Then we can recall the complex spirals in the tale and see that while Tolstoy is teaching us a lesson, he’s not suggesting it is easy to live it.
The past couple of weeks have been incredibly busy for me. Consequently, I didn’t have a chance to write up a detailed review. (I have been reading as much — well, almost — as ever, so reviews will be coming). But it’s just as well I put a filler in here because I wanted to find a way to highlight some of the great books I’ve acquired over this past year but haven’t figured out how to properly review. Those of you looking for some holiday gifts for others (or yourself) might find some of the book sets I’ll be highlighting of interest. First up, these great and inexpensive Faber & Faber 80thAnniversary poetry books featuring poetry from T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, W.H. Auden, W.B. Yeats, Ted Hughes, and John Betjeman. I was fortunate enough (that is — highly fortunate!) to win these in a drawing on Nonsuch Book earlier this year. I’ve had a great time simply looking at them, let alone revisiting some of my favorite poetry (Eliot, Yeats, Auden), finally getting a handle on others (Plath and Hughes) and coming to know for the first time others (the Betjeman). These are lovely paper-on-board hardbacks, all featuring excellent cover designs that also feature on the inside cover.
I’m sure this isn’t unique, but it was Eliot as much as any one author who got me into literature. When I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” I had no idea what it was talking about, but there was something . . . something. I have since read it hundreds of times. I chose to write part of my thesis on “The Waste Land.” Cats is only a pleasure to me because of the parts that touch upon some of Eliot’s more serious poems, like “Rhapsody on a Windy Night.” These three poems, and several others, make this one of my favorite books of poetry in my collection. My only problem? It doesn’t have any of the Four Quartets. Not that it should, though. Plus, I already have those in a beautiful edition!
If you read my post on The Bell Jar a few weeks ago, you’ll remember that I didn’t get along with Plath’s poetry because of a particularly bad reading of “Daddy.” This collection of 46 of her poems, much from Ariel, was neglected when it arrived, even though I felt I should give it a shot. But since I enjoyed The Bell Jar so much, I’m determined to make it through these. A place to start? “Daddy.” Which is brilliant to me now.
This Auden collection is a great survey of his poems in some bit of chronological order, starting with “The Watershed” in 1927 and ending with “No, Plato, No” from 1973. In the middle are some well known anthologized classics, like “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” and “Et in Arcadia Ego.” There are dozens of other treasures here. There is a reason Auden is venerated so.
Even though I made Eliot a subject of my study, I’ve read much much much more Yeats. I picked up Oxford’s Complete Yeats in college and read it cover to cover, including his plays and his bizarre theories on the gyres and the moon and history — a strange trip, but truly necessary to understand “Sailing to Byzantium” and “The Second Coming” — not that these poems suffer much without such knowledge. I love Yeats, and besides my Oxford Complete, this is a great collection even taking away its cover.
Ted Hughes. One of those poets I managed to never read in college and graduate school. I admit I haven’t made it through this collection yet, but I’m now so intrigued — again, Plath did this to me. His poems are tight and melancholic, reminding me of some of my favorite contemporary poets, like Stephen Dunn. I’ll have to do more reading here before I offer more comments, but that certainly doesn’t sound unappealing.
Not only did I manage to finish my academic studies without reading any Betjeman, I never even heard of him until I got this book. He’s one of those who came from Oxford in the 1920s, but his poetry hearkens back to an older form that what I’d expect from that pedigree. Just check out this first stanza from “Death in Leamington”:
She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shown through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa.
Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work’d it
Were dead as the spoken word.
Why, this sounds Victorian to me. Or even the beginning of a Romantic narrative. Again, I haven’t made it through this book, and again, going through it is something I’m looking forward to.
I’m not sure how long these book will be available — as I said, they make up a special collection celebrating Faber & Faber’s 80th birthday. The good news is that they are marked at UK £8. Those of you in the U.S., I’m not sure if they’re even available here — but don’t let that stop you from enjoying them. Go to the Book Depository and take advantage of their free international shipping. And even if the physical aesthetics of these books don’t appeal, I highly recommend getting to know the poets.