“In Sight of the Lake” is the ninth story in Alice Munro’s new short story collection, Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
This story first appeared in Granta 118: Exit Strategies. I found it to be quite unlike what we’re used to seeing in Alice Munro. In fact, more than reminding me of an Alice Munro story, it reminded me, in some small ways, of John Cheever’s “The Swimmer.” Let’s see if I can articulate why.
“In Sight of the Lake” begins when an elderly woman — called at first, simply, “a woman” — goes to the doctor to get her prescription renewed, only to find that the doctor is not there. More distressing, it’s the doctor’s day off: “In fact the woman has got the day wrong, she has mixed up Monday and Tuesday.” Besides renewing her prescription, it’s this lapse in memory, this mixing up things, that she wants to talk to the doctor about. Only when the doctor’s office calls do we learn the woman’s name:
Instead, the doctor’s assistant phones a day later to say that the prescription is ready and that an appointment has been made for the woman — her name is Nancy — to be examined by a specialist about this mind problem.
It may seem strange that Munro introduces the woman’s name in this way, almost as if it’s an afterthought. In fact, this story is filled with small tangents and observations that seem like afterthoughts, or, rather, that seem like clarifications of thought that arrive just a tad too late.
This specialist is located in another town (as are all specialists, and none of them in the same town, Nancy laments). Rather than arrive flustered and, maybe, late, the woman decides to go to the town the day before her appointment to find the doctor’s office.
When she arrives at the town, called Highman (a play on words that does not go unnoticed by Nancy), Nancy goes through her “habit of checking out small places just for fun, to see if she could live there. This one seems to fit the bill.” Highman is a small town, and “[t]here are signs of course that the place has seen better days.”
She parks her car and goes to seek the doctor’s office on foot, presently finding that she failed to grab the piece of paper with the directions and with the doctor’s name. Not to worry, she thinks, surely when she sees it she will recognize, and maybe people will be able to help her.
The story turns a bit cold and menacing at about this point. The town seems to be from the past, only modern conveniences like televisions and air conditioners keep people off their porches where once they might have spent then evening, leaving the town empty and haunting. When she finally does meet some people to ask for help, even that encounter is almost ghostly as Munro tells it:
Here there are people. They haven’t all managed to shut themselves up with the air-conditioning. A boy is riding a bicycle, taking diagonal routes across the pavement. Something about his riding is odd, and she cannot figure it out at first.
He is riding backward. That’s what it is. A jacket flung in such a way that you could not see — or she cannot see — what is wrong.
A woman who might be too old to be his mother — but who is very trim and lively looking all the same — is standing out in the street watching him. She is holding on to a skipping rope and talking to a man who could not be her husband — both of them are being too cordial.
The street is a curved dead end. No going further.
Interrupting the adults, Nancy excuses herself. She says that she is looking for a doctor.
“No, no,” she says. “Don’t be alarmed. Just his address. I thought you might know.”
Then comes the problem of realizing that she is still not sure of the name. They are too polite to show any surprise at this but they cannot help her.
The boy on one of his perverse sallies comes swinging around, barely missing all three.
Laughter. No reprimand. A perfect young savage and they seem to positively admire him. They all remark on the beauty of the evening, and Nancy turns to go back the way that she has come.
Please forgive the length of that excerpt. A lot of the joy of this story, though, comes from the disjointed style, the almost hallucinatory encounters as Nancy wanders the streets and yards of this town, looking for that cursed doctor’s office, and the strange details (riding backwards? the jumping rope? the cordial couple? the beauty of the evening?).
This isn’t a story about the swift passage of time coupled with regret, but the feel of the story — not to mention the town and the encounters where someone, either the people or the narrator, seems to not quite be on the same plane of time — reminded me of “The Swimmer,” another stylized piece of writing that nevertheless comes off feeling almost too true to life.
“In Sight of the Lake” is actually one of the only Alice Munro stories where I have the basic thrust of the story’s narrative figured out before we get to the end. In fact, I can’t remember another Alice Munro story where I knew how it was going to end before we got there. At any rate, this didn’t diminish the story for me because, as is often the case with Murno, it isn’t what happens that’s important. Rather, it’s the tone, the textures, the images.
As much as I enjoyed this story, I do think it is one of the weaker ones in this collection. That’s hardly harsh condemnation, though, when the collection contains masterpieces like “Amundsen,” “Gravel,” and ”Haven.” And of course, the more I think about “In Sight of the Lake,” the more I admire it, the less I’m able to shake its ramifications. This collection continues to be one of the must-reads of the year.
Miguel Del Castillo’s “Violeta” (tr. from the Portuguese by Amanda Hopkinson) is the second story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
“Violeta,” like “Animals,” appears to be another story that takes the author’s biography as its foundation, though I found “Violeta” much less conventional than “Animals.” Here we meet another child of immigrant parents. In this case, the parents fled to Brazil from Uruguay, seemingly wanting to leave it all behind. Miguel, the narrator, learned Spanish on his own and was basically unaware of his family’s history until later in life.
As it turns out, he was named after one of his father’s cousins, Miguel Angel, “a Tupamaro who disappeared during the military dictatorship in Uruguay.” He has an aunt, Violeta. Here’s how we are introduced to her:
Violeta, Miguel Angel’s mother, was taken prisoner more than once because of her son’s subversive activities, her head inside water barrels, the soldiers provoking while undressing her
– She doesn’t look all that old after all
gripping her tightly, telling her that her son had been captured, that they were torturing him nearly to death but still he wouldn’t reveal anything, so she’d better spill the beans.
That type of interjection is common, though not overused, in this short story, as the past and present, the safe distance of telling the story and the deadly fact that this really happened, collide and interplay in terrible ways.
Miguel comes to know Violeta — she calls him “Miguelito” — before she descends into Alzheimer’s and eventually dies, and throughout it all he asks, “Who was Violeta?”
This story is very short, which makes it all the more remarkable that it fits so much into its various layers. Here’s hoping more of Miguel Del Castillo’s work finds its way to us in English.
In the summer of 1959, Milton Rokeach, a social psychologist at Ypsilanti State Hospital in Michigan, brought together three patients: Clyde Benson, Joseph Cassel, and Leon Gabor, each of whom believed himself to be Jesus Christ. Rokeach hoped that spending time with others claiming the same identity would shake each man of his delusion, or, as he put it, “my main purpose in bringing them together was to explore the processes by which their delusional systems of belief and their behavior might change if they were confronted with the ultimate contradiction conceivable for human beings: more than one person claiming the same identity.” Rokeach observed them for two years, examining the nature of identity. It didn’t seem to help his patients, but it certainly affected them. Originally published in 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti is a fascinating, sad, and disturbing psychological case study that most likely could not be repeated today.
NYRB Classics published their edition of The Three Christs of Ypsilanti in April of 2011, and it is the book we will be discussing in Episode 3 of The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast.
In Episode 4 we will be discussing Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future.
Podcast: Play in new window
Show Notes (1:10:08)
- Brief Milton Rokeach Bio: 2:29
- Spoiler-Free, General Discussion: 4:50
- Spoiler/Specifics Discussion: 31:25
- Co-Host Trevor Berrett
- Co-Host Brian Berrett
- Introduction Music — “Where We Fall We’ll Lie” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
- Outro Music — “If This Is to Be Goodbye” by Jeff Zentner, from his album The Dying Days of Summer (used with permission)
Podcast: Play in new window
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Antonya Nelson’s “Literally” was originally published in the December 3, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
I am hit-and-miss with Antonya Nelson. On the one hand, from her various successes, I recognize that she is an exceptional short story writer, skilled in structure and tone, and I respect her and am always interested in her next short story; on the other hand, a good portion of her stories — this one included — leave me scratching my head, a bit disappointed but, knowing she’s good, unsure whether it’s just me. Often, after thinking about them for a while, rereading them, and finally writing about them, something comes out of it all and I’m impressed. That also happened with this story, though I’m not quite all the way there yet.
This story revolves around one day in the life of a family of three, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s son. Richard is the father, and throughout the day he’ll compare his failures to his deceased wife’s knack for following through with everything, for getting everything right in a world that can go so wrong. His daughter, Suzanne, is a high-strung perfectionist like her mother; she gets the opening line in the story: “‘She’s always late!’ the sixteen-year-old sobbed.” His son, Danny, is eleven and is best friends with the housekeeper’s son, Isaac. Bonita is the housekeeper who, despite three decades in Houston, does not communicate well in English. No one knows if she arrived legally, but all of her children were born in the United States.
The day is a terrible day, “[e]ven though nothing exactly bad happened,” as Danny says at the end. It starts out with Suzanne stressed about getting to her private school, which she helps pay for, on time. Bonita finally arrives, and it’s obvious it’s been a stressful morning for her as well. Isaac will not be going to school that day because he’s having what may be an anxiety attack. Isaac’s father was abusive, and Richard’s wife had helped Bonita change the locks, get a divorce, and secure a restraining order, but all of this doesn’t stop the terror. Furthermore, that may only be a fraction of any reason Isaac suffers some days. Richard allows Danny to stay home with Isaac, and then he himself goes off to work.
He’s not there for long before there’s a “credible” bomb threat, though it turns out there is no bomb. Soon after this is over, he receives a frantic call from Bonita saying that Danny and Isaac have gone. He quickly leaves work and they go to search for the boys.
As was stated above, nothing particularly terrible happens on this day, but the potential is constantly present, like the ghost of Richard’s wife who, after her car wreck, seems to have left them all deficient and searching. It’s almost a wasted day, in some sense: Richard goes to work but gets nothing done due to the bomb threat and the fact his child has left home. It’s doubtful in any of that time that Bonita got anything done, and when they finally find the boys she doesn’t come back to work. Suzanne herself leaves her after-school job after “an anxious hour at the Dairy Queen counter” when she cannot find her cell phone.
It’s a terrible day, but nothing terrible happens. We get the sense that most days are terrible days now that the wife, mother, and compassionate employer has left the family — and in the end we’re left wondering if she left them on a silly whim. It’s an excellent ending because we also get the sense that all of the terrible things we’re expected to happen are still right on the horizon.
On my first read through, I didn’t particularly care for the story. I didn’t mind that nothing particularly happened, but I also was not confident it would add up to anything. After reflection and another skim, it’s growing on me. I’m interested to see how others feel and whether in time this story will continue to grow on me or move into the background.
Michel Laub’s ”Animals” (“Animais”; tr. from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa) is the first story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
Divided into twenty-four short, single-paragraphed segments, “Animals” might be drawn, at least somewhat, from the author’s own biography and it certainly reads like a reflective essay on family, friends, and loss, beginning in the first segment: “When I was eleven years old and living in Porto Alegre, my dog Champion was killed by our neighbour’s Doberman.”
It was his father who cracked the news and did what he could to comfort his son. This wouldn’t be the first time. Over their younger years, three of the narrator’s friends die suddenly, two of them violently, and we know that his father has also recently died. Strangely, it all goes back to that dog, and the narrator hasn’t cried about any of the losses since, as if loss has become routine in some way, though of course it hasn’t.
Another interesting piece of the story is the father’s history, which as a child the narrator barely knew anything about. In fact, even as an adult there are surprising gaps in what our narrator knows about his father:
In 1937, when my father was six, he and his mother had to leave Germany because of the Nazis. His father — my grandfather — emigrated to Israel with the older daughter. My father only saw his sister again in 1970 when he went to visit my grandfather. Despite being in the hospital with terminal cancer, my grandfather refused to see someone who he considered a turned page. All because my father, when still a child, had failed to reply to letters sent to him in Brazil. My father only told me this in 2007 when I was already living in São Paulo, during a brief conversation we had while waiting for a taxi on Alameda Itu.
“Animals” is a nice way to enter into this collection. On the surface, it felt a bit conventional, but rereading it I realized just how seemingly haphazard the twenty-four segments appear to be organized – one going here, the next going there, all jumping back and forth in time – but all coming together nicely to show the inevitability of loss. Already, a young Brazilian author to look for.
I returned from Brazil a little over twelve years ago. I lived up north in the cities on the Amazon, learned the language (which is gorgeous), and loved the climate, the people, and the culture, obviously so different from the western United States where I’d grown up. When I returned I wanted to start reading Brazilian literature. I didn’t really succeed, in part because I went other directions but also in part because Brazilian literature is not that common here in the United States and I had no idea where to start if I were to just pick up some books in portuguese. I’m hoping this new issue of Granta will open a few doors and begin to change that.
Review copy courtesy of Granta and Grove Press.
Brazil is a vast country; in the words of Jorge Amado, it is not a country but a continent. I lived most of the time in the hot, flat north: in the coastal city of Belém, where many people lived in small mud huts with roads that are nothing more than planks suspended five feet above the jungle swamp; deeper in the Amazon in Santarém, where the blue Tapajós and brown Amazon rivers meet but do not mix; in São Luís, an island city that looked slightly European and had wonderful beaches and, thankfully, a breeze. I also spent time in the very different south, in the giant city of São Paulo and the wonderfully chilly (at that time of year) beautiful region surrounding Foz do Iguaçu. Each place was extremely different from the last. I’ve never been able to put into words a lot of what I felt and experienced in Brazil, which had a strange and often unsettling mixture of beauty and violence, of spiritual and physical ecstasy. I’m excited to reenter, in some way, that world and many other worlds I didn’t see by way of its young writers.
Before skimming through the table of contents, I hadn’t heard of a single one of these authors, which isn’t surprising since most have not been translated into English before. They are young, the oldest born in 1973 and the youngest as recently as 1991, putting them almost a generation past some of the recent turbulence in Brazil and squarely in the generation that is experiencing its rise as an economic and cultural power in the world. I’m a bit sad that none of them are from writers in the northern states where I lived (though two come close, growing up in Paraíba and Bahia); nearly all come to us by way of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Rio Grande do Sul. It’s not surprising, but it means there is much much more that is completely untapped. That said, they come from a wide variety of backgrounds; there are some first generation Brazilians and several second generation Brazilians whose parents immigrated to Brazil to escape dictatorships from various other regions of the world.
As I recently did with Alice Munro’s Dear Life, I’m going to make this an anchor post as I go through these stories one by one. As I post reviews, I will update the list of stories below with links. In the end, further below, I will post my thoughts on the issue as a whole.
- “Animals,” by Michel Laub (reviewed November 20, 2012)
- “Violeta,” by Miguel Del Castillo (reviewed November 28, 2012)
- “Blazing Sun,” by Tatiana Salem Levy (reviewed December 12, 2012)
- “Evo Morales,” by Ricardo Lísias (reviewed January 18, 2013)
- “Every Tuesday,” by Carola Saavedra (reviewed April 19, 2013)
- “Lettuce Nights,” by Vanessa Barbara (reviewed April 25, 2013)
- “Teresa,” by Cristhiano Aguiar (reviewed May 10, 2013)
- “That Wind Blowing Through the Plaza,” by Laura Erber (reviewed May 19, 2013)
- “The Count,” by Leandro Sarmatz
- “The Dinner,” by Julián Fuks
- “A Temporary Stay,” by Emilio Fraia
- “Valdir Peres, Juanito and Poloskei,” by Antonio Prata
- “Tomorrow, upon Awakening,” by Antônio Xerxenesky
- “Rat Fever,” by Javier Aranciba Contreras
- “Far from Ramiro,” by Chico Mattoso
- “Sparks,” by Carol Bensimon
- “Lion,” by Luisa Geisler
- “Before the Fall,” by J.P. Cuenca
- “Still Life,” by Vinicius Jatobá
- “Apnoea,” by Daniel Galera
“Train” is the eighth story in Alice Munro’s new short story collection, Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
“Train,” first published in the April 2012 issue of Haper’s magazine, is one of the longer pieces in this new collection. Like “Pride” this story closely follows a man, only here the man remains the focus throughout the entire story.
We first meet Jackson when he jumps off a train going through the Ontario countryside. It turns out he’s approaching his home town after serving in World War II. At first he can tell himself he just needs a bit more time; he’ll just walk the rest of the way. He can come up with excuses for his tardiness, and he will be believed. “But all the time he’s thinking this, he’s walking in the opposite direction.”
It will be some time before we know what he’s avoiding, but quickly Munro lets us know that, whatever it is, even if he’s successful, life will bring new things you’ll want to avoid:
Jumping off the train was supposed to be a cancellation. You roused your body, readied your knees, to enter a different block of air. You looked forward to emptiness. And instead, what did you get? An immediate flock of new surroundings, asking for your attention in a way they never did when you were sitting on the train and just looking out the window. What are you doing here? Where are you going? A sense of being watched by things you didn’t know about. Of being a disturbance. Life around coming to some conclusions about you from vantage points you couldn’t see.
He ends up walking to a small farm just off the tracks where he meets Belle, a woman ten or fifteen years older than he. Belle is friendly and a little child-like. Recently her mother, who required constant care and who couldn’t talk, died, leaving Belle compeltely alone in the world. Her father had been hit by a train many years earlier. When Jackson arrives the farm is in decline. In exchange for some food, he promises to complete some repairs and then be on his way.
The years pass, suddenly, without license, as they often do in Munro’s stories. People just assume Jackson and Belle are brother and sister. In all that time, Jackson never goes back home. Any fear he once harbored that someone from his old town would run into him in his new town are dispelled when he remembers that that just isn’t the way small towns work.
The years continue to pass until Belle gets sick. He convinces her it’s time to go to Toronto for medical treatment. Under medication, Belle shares some secrets about her past that Jackson wishes he’d never heard. He can’t handle the intimacy and abandons the farm with just as little fanfare as he joined it.
We’d think the story would stop sometime around there, but it doesn’t. If Jackson again wished for cancellation, what he’s found are new surroundings, and it’s here his past rears up.
While it may feel I’ve given away quite a bit of this story, I don’t believe that is true. I’ve gone only about halfway, and there are quite a few surprises in the first half. And, of course, this being Munro, much of the pleasure doesn’t come from what happens but from the texture and the thematic structure, that wish for cancellation, that sudden and easy realization “that a person could just not be there.”
It’s not my favorite of her stories, although, as usual, the more I think about it, the more I revisit it, the more it reveals and the more clearly I can see just how involved I’ve become in these lives. I’m not looking forward to the end of this book.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Mo Yan’s “Bull” (tr. from the Chinese by Howard Goldblatt) was originally published in the November 26, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.
Click for a larger image.
This week’s story is an excerpt from Pow!, the forthcoming books from this year’s Nobel Prize winner, Mo Yan. I have not read anything by Mo Yan, but over the past month I’ve read a lot about him and am anxious to see what this excerpt holds. I’ll post my thoughts here when I’m finished reading “Bull,” but in the meantime feel free to leave your comments below.
“Pride” is the sixth story in Alice Munro’s new short story collection, Dear Life. For an overview of the book and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
The narrator of “Pride” is a man with a hare-lip, making this one of only a few Munro stories that I know of to be narrated by a man. Of course, and this is no fault, the story is still centered on a woman.
Oneida Jantzen was born into a wealthy family, so wealthy that they weren’t in a category with anybody else in town, even the well-to-do ones.” She grew up separate from everyone else, attending a private girls’ school and spending the summers in the family’s vacation home. In the 1930s, the family had a reversal of fortune when her father, a bank manager, used bank funds to invest in an ill-fated dream to bring back the steam-driven car. The narrator notes that had it been anyone else, the manager would have been sacked, but Horace Jantzen was someone special, so he was treated differently, though perhaps not kindly. He was made bank manager in a tiny village that didn’t need a bank manager. Here is the first iteration of pride:
Surely he could have refused, but pride, as it was thought, chose otherwise. Pride chose that he be driven every morning those six miles to sit behind a partial wall of cheap varnished boards, no proper office at all. There he sat and did nothing until it came time for him to be driven home.
Oneida is his driver, and due to this and the reversal of fortunes, she’s around town a lot more. Still, she’s out of place, a misfit.
When she went into a store or even walked on the street, there seemed to be a little space cleared around her, made ready for whatever she might want or greetings she might spread. She seemed then a bit flustered but gracious, ready to laugh a little at herself or the situation. Of course she had her good bones and bright looks, all that fair dazzle of skin and hair. So it might seem strange that I could feel sorry for her, the way she was all on the surface of things, trusting.
Imagine me, sorry.
That last sentence is the beginning of our relationship with our narrator. At this time in the 1930s, he’s finished high school and has gone on to become a bookkeeper, a job that doesn’t involve a lot of talking. Despite his deformity, he is able to make a place for himself in this town. So what does he mean when he says, “Imagine me, sorry.” Is it the simple irony that someone like him should be sorry for anyone else? Is it specifically directed to Oneida? Is there bitterness in that sentence? At any rate, though his deformity — in fact, much of his whole personality — has been pushed aside to focus on Oneida.
We don’t know much about him yet, but we begin to get glimpses into how he sees himself. The story actually begins with a small introduction about town life. Some people make mistakes but still manage to settle in and become part of the community. “With other people, it’s different. They don’t get away but you wish they had.” Our narrator sees himself as the former; he has worked hard to become self-sufficient and find his place in this community.
All my school years had been spent, as I saw it, in getting used to what I was like — what my face was like — and what other people were like in regard to it. I suppose it was a triumph of a minor sort to have managed that, to know I could survive here and make my living and not continually be having to break new people in.
He sees Oneida as the latter because, despite everything, she simply cannot fit.
But it isn’t as if our narrator has settled in, not really; perhaps it’s just something he tells himself. Soon the war is on, and he’s exempted from service. They don’t live a great life, but he explicitly notes that he never felt sorry for them, but we cannot trust this fully. He and his mother go out to watch movies and experience the drama of war on film and in the news. One evening in particular, after they hear the tragic news that a civilian ferry was sunk between Canada and Newfoundland, our narrator cannot sleep and goes for a walk:
I had to think of the people gone to the bottom of the sea. Old women, nearly old women like my mother, hanging on to their knitting. Some kid bothered by a toothache. Other people who had spent their last half hour before drowning complaining of seasickness. I had a very strange feeling that was part horror and part — as near as I can describe it — a kind of chilly exhilaration. The blowing away of everything, the equality — I have to say it — the equality, all of a sudden, of people like me and worse than me and people like them.
Time keeps clipping by in this story, as happens in most of Alice Munro’s stories. Soon, Oneida’s father and the narrator’s mother are dead, and Oneida comes to him to ask for advice selling her home. She trusts him, and none of us knows why. This is the beginning of a strange relationship. Despite the narrator’s advice, Oneida sells the home for a song and is soon disappointed when the swindler tears it down to build an apartment complex. Soon she’s saying she forgives him — “‘After all, it’s people like him who make the world go round,’ she said of her shyster” — and even moves into an apartment on the top floor. But she also begins spending her evenings with the narrator. The two of them eat dinner and watch television — for years! We soon find ourselves in the late 1990s, the narrator is sick, and Oneida is taking care of him, moving into his mother’s bedroom. He simply cannot stand it, bringing on a surprising and yet fitting conclusion to this story.
I read this story three times. The first time, I was enthralled but mostly just trying to understand what was going on, where we were, etc. The second time, the themes began to cohere, and the tragedy under the surface of these lives came to the foreground, as did the narrator’s motives in telling this story at all. After the second time, I turned right back and read it again, out of genuine awe. I doesn’t matter that I’ve had similar reactions to most other Alice Munro stories; she still surprises me. How anyone can pack and texture a short story so well, especially since so much is below the seemingly mundane surface, is a mystery to me.
Not everyone shares my view of this story. Published in Harper’s in April 2011, there are already several responses to it online. Of course, it’s a given there will be many who read the story once and wonder what the big deal is. So many of the “big” events are elided, so many of the emotions barely hinted at, does anything actually happen? That’s a typical response to Alice Munro, and I hope many of these readers give her the time and attention she requires and deserves. I think they’ll find a lot there. I was flabbergasted by this response, though: “Munro gets almost everything wrong” (here). Yes, I completely disagree with that review, but I link to it here to show what must be the direct opposite of my own, in case there is any need for balance.
Andrey Platonov has been called the greatest Russian prose stylist of the twentieth century (see here). I had never read anything by him, though I’ve looked longingly at the NYRB Classics editions of Soul, a collection of various works (one of which Penelope Fitzgerald called one of the “three great works of Russian literature of the millennium”) and The Foundation Pit, a novel often considered to be his masterpiece. I have been so enamored with Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, another Soviet writer who suffered from censorship during his life (both died in relative obscurity, in 1950 and 1951), that I am thrilled to get to know another contender for the crown. My first foray into Platonov is Happy Moscow (written between 1933 and 1936, published posthumously in 1991; tr. from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, 2012).
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
Evidently, Happy Moscow is unfinished, though it didn’t feel that way to me. This short novel (117 pages in this edition) is a remarkable allegory of Moscow during the early years of the Soviet Union, when idealism was still clinging on. Platonov, though supportive of Communism, was not supportive of Stalin. This book takes us slowly through the transition from idealism to a stark image of the crippled city — which is why the book remained unpublished until 1991.
Because this is an allegory and political, I was a bit wary. I hoped such features wouldn’t stamp the life out of the characters and that the emotions would stay true. After the first paragraph, I knew I was in good hands:
A dark man with a burning torch was running down the street into a boring night of late autumn. The little girl saw him through the window of her home as she woke from a boring dream. Then she heard the powerful shot of a rifle and a poor, sad cry — the man running with the torch had probably been killed. Soon after this came many distant shots and a din of people in the neighboring prison . . . The little girl went to sleep and forgot everything she saw later in other days: she was too small, and the memory and mind of early childhood were overgrown in her body forever by subsequent life. But until her late years a nameless man would unexpectedly and sadly rise up in her and run — in the pale light of memory — and perish once again in the dark of the past, in the heard of a grown-up child.
This child (who grows up to become that “grown-up child”) is our central character, Moscow Ivanovna Chestnova. That “boring” night was the start of the October Revolution in 1917. Her birth name was not actually Moscow. Quickly orphaned, she wanders for several years, “[r]emembering neither people nor space, her soul gone to sleep.” Eventually, she is taken into a children’s home and school, and there given a name in honor of the city. But she is destined to wander and doesn’t last many years at the school. She marries, but she abandons her husband to wander more (all this in just the first couple of pages).
She is found by Bozhko, a thirty-year-old idealist who has devoted his life to “universal joy.” He loves Moscow deeply and lusts for her body, but love is not the way to universal joy. Instead he supports her, paying for her food and eventually for her parachutist training. She’s a success story, and he’s proud of what he did, even if “[a]fter her visits Bozhko usually lay facedown on the bed and yearned from sorrow, even though universal joy alone was the reason of his life.”
As I said above, the book starts out idealistic, with everyone excited about the promise of the new system, but this doesn’t stick. Tragedy begins when Moscow Chestnova streaks across the sky on fire, losing her fame and settling with the masses, breaking the heart of one man after another. Each loves Moscow Chestnova, but she cannot stay in one place: “And anyway Chestnova would not be faithful to him; never could she exchange all the noise of life for the whisper of a single human being.”
These men — doctors, engineers, students — are important to the narrative as Moscow’s body is more and more clearly representative of Moscow the city. Indeed, more and more of the narrative is focused on them and how they deal with their lust and her absence in a city that is getting increasingly alienating as technology overtakes Moscow.
It isn’t a spoiler to share the final paragraph in the novel. Here, one of the men who has loved Moscow has married and sits at night:
At night, after his wife and son had gone to sleep, Semyon Ivanovich would stand there, above Matryona Filippovna’s face, and observe how entirely helplessly she was, how pathetically her face had clenched in miserable exhaustion, while her eyes were closed like kind eyes, as if, while she lay unconscious, some ancient angel were resting in her. If all of humanity were lying still and sleeping, it would be impossible to judge its real character from its face and one could be deceived.
The extensive notes included in this edition say that this is where the novel ends, yet in the coming years Platonov continued to make notes about the characters and further scenes. Some of those characters do reappear in the handful of additional works included in this edition of Happy Moscow. While it was nice to see these pieces and they show just how much work NYRB Classics does to give us readers everything we could ask for, I was happiest with the self-contained world of Happy Moscow, an overt political allegory, to be sure, but one filled with emotion and beautiful prose, a good start for me as I get to know Platonov.