One well-respected writer said to another, “Dostoevsky is amazing because I can so clearly remember when I first read his writing.” The other writer nodded seriously, and the moderator of the panel on The Russian Ghosts pursed his lips. ”I mean I can go straight back to that moment, you know?”
This remarked the moment when I realized the panel was drifting lazily into less interesting territory. It’s always a disappointment when someone who’s sitting on a raised platform says something boring. A statement any consumer of art could say about any artist - “I remember what I was doing when I read that.” I too believe art is valuable because we can distill our own experiences through our enjoyment and parsing of it, but I was hoping to hear something more scholarly and literary from a panel of incredibly educated men. One of the men had studied Russian literature, reading the great literary works in the original, and the other two had published their own novels to critical acclaim. I thought it was interesting that by the nature of their being novelists, they and their work could be compared to who and what came before, The Russians even.
When one American male writer says to another that the value in brilliant Russian writing is in the memory of reading their books, and the other American male writer nods seriously, we’re missing out on some valuable literary analysis. But, when in the same conversation, the same American male writers claim that there is no serious American writing of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, we are seeing something else altogether. I found this opinion ludicrous of course; an only cursory look at American literary history would prove them wrong instantly. It’s almost not worth mentioning some of the many great American novels and writers I think would fall into the category of “writing about ideas,” (Wallace, Pynchon, Melville, Robinson, McCarthy, Bellow, Morrison etc.), all of whom these two men largely ignored. One of them mentioned Melville passingly. These men didn’t talk about writing about class struggles, as so many Americans have done, or about oppression from any point of view, Russian or American. They didn’t mention a single woman writer in the entire discussion about Russian or American writing of ideas. All three men seemed oblivious to these gaping holes in their conversation, favoring the literary value of loftier and less practical subject matter.
Both of the writers admitted to only reading translations of Russian novels and admitted that their inadequacy reading in other languages causes them to steer clear of reading work in translation in general. This led me to believe that they’re reading a small subset of translated writers, in English, through an American critical lens. In effect, they’re kind of reading these books as though they are written by Americans, which is detrimental to talking about why there are Russian ghosts, why Russian books haunt us, why Russian writing is so wonderful beyond aesthetic appreciation. A literary perspective that overlooks oppression, suffering, and the importance of the quotidienne would make it hard to recognize that there are plenty of American big idea novels, and it would make you wrong about why Russian novels are so powerful.
Perhaps it is my own immigrant upbringing that makes me assume these American male writers were struggling to bring The Russians into relatability, and that their only associating Anna Karenina with the place and time they first cracked its spine is narrow-minded. I’ve found that some Americans think that “other” experience is more special than theirs. For example, the historic Russian life of starvation, imprisonment, despotic history, and complication is more interesting, and more worthy of literary exploration, than an average American’s. So even if they can’t read the actual language, a translation is like a window into another, more exotic world. A writer or reader might naturally be fascinated by this kind of glamorization of the foreign, but still favor the English language, avoiding translations except in the cases of classics like Crime and Punishment. Does this simultaneous fetishization of Russian writing and experience, but English linguistic limitation, prejudice us towards these classic translations?
I recently read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s an incredible novella that describes one day in a labor camp in Siberia in Stalinist Russia. I huddled under the covers during the Polar Vortex unable to warm myself while reading of men working building factories and struggling to game the system of the camps in -41 weather. I will always remember piling on the blankets that day. I will remember looking up more information on the status of Pussy Riot members and the political prisoners in North Korea when I finished reading Solzhenitsyn’s incredibly realistic novella. But to me, that day is not the value of this particular Russian’s writing. The value in it was, and what I believe the value in most perfect writing is, the distillation of a human’s experience. I will never be in a Siberian labor camp. But Solzhenitsyn can show it to me, and if he writes well enough for me to believe him, he has written a truthful existence that anyone can wear. And readers need to look inside other human lives, even if that life is just another Brooklyn writer’s. Doing so makes us able to empathize, able to care about the larger context of the world around us.
So as these two American male writers and their moderator kept talking about what makes Russian writing haunt us, I couldn’t help but think that they were missing something really important. They were missing the misery of existence, a misery that is a universal human trait, but which certain Russians were able to convey so masterfully because of the combination of their intellect and the times they lived in. Reading about misery is sure to haunt one, especially one who will never see the inside of a Siberian labor camp.
The Master and Margarita, Notes from the Underground, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Crime and Punishment, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. These are all Russian masterpieces centered on misery, inflicted by the outer forces of Russia and what it means to live there, or inflicted from within by the madness we are driven to by guilt, death, love, and ambition.
Of course, the writer to bridge this gap is Vladmir Nabokov. A Russian whose protagonists are famously miserable, some in traditionally American ways. The panelists were careful not to claim him, careful to ascribe him to the host of Russian wonderfulness, Russian mastery. But Nabokov lived in the US for a long time and wrote his best work (arguably) in English. As Americans watched the spectacle of the Russia-hosted winter Olympics, I wondered if their ability to keep a distance between their consciences and their enjoyment of the games was similar to these authors’ inability to see Nabokov as a partially American writer. Are we comforted or intrigued that he was from Russia, where we’re not surprised by anything that might happen? Where Americans enjoy watching things go wrong, criticizing authoritarianism, supporting the activism of young, attractive women. By maintaining an interested distance, Americans can enjoy the moral and literary back-bending of Nabokov and the Olympics from a distance, without taking any blame or pleasure in having shaped them.
I started getting more interested in my own thoughts and texting myself quotes from the panel and phrases that would become the notes and inspiration for this essay. And I also texted myself “Andrei Russian writer” during the panel, because like Solzhenitsyn, I couldn’t spell or pronounce this recommended “Andrei’s” last name. And something about the way the panelists described him intrigued me, made be believe he had something to teach me about Russian existence. Now I google ”Andrei Russian writer” trying to figure out what prompted me to try and remember him, a particular writer, what it was about the way they discussed his work that interested me. But I haven’t bee able to figure out which Russian Andrei writer it was yet.
Because we’re cool like that…books and baseball caps. ‘Nuff said.
#inkwellmgmt #books #baseball #givemeattitude
I love my job!
ENON, by Paul Harding
I loved TINKERS so much, and I greatly anticipated the publication of Paul Harding’s ENON, which takes up TINKERS’ mantle and continues its saga. When I finally opened ENON, it seemed beautiful. The cover is haunting and lonely and lovely, and the first line is one of the single best opening lines, even sentences, I’ve ever read:
“Most men in my family make widows of their wives and orphans of their children. I am the exception.”
This sentence alone is a magical feat of writing, and I think Harding should be remembered for it forever. I think this sentence is better than any in TINKERS. There’s a purity to it, an exposing element, that is simple and perfect, and I think, rarely achieved in literature. The reader knows where this book is going, knows what came before it. In a single stroke, Harding has established his main character’s genesis.
I wish ENON was this sentence. The purity and simplicity of it, extrapolated. When Harding’s Charlie looks back on happier times, there is something compelling about his blundering love, his force and his effort to keep his family happy. Every element of his family’s life, in good times, is imbued with his hope and his love, his always trying to be the best he can. But ENON isn’t about good times, and times get so tough that looking back becomes too painful, both for Charlie and his reader. The solipsism that one can find in tragedy exists here too starkly, without adornment. I think Charlie and Harding lost themselves inside it. Charlie’s inability to care about anyone but himself, his justified self-absorption, became horrifying in and of itself, but there was a lack of tension outside of my realization that Charlie might never be OK again.
There is an element of Greek tragedy to ENON that is very romantic, classic, and charming. But my compounding horror at watching Charlie subsist and self-destruct couldn’t balance against the simple beauty of that first sentence.
I was in a reading rut when someone told me about Reconstructing Amelia. ”You’ll love it,” they said, “It’s about a single mom in Park Slope and her daughter is killed.” Sold. Reconstructing Amelia, while not the most earth-shattering writing-wise, was a fun page-turner that I read in a day despite it’s high page count. I was involved in the intrigue, and I really wanted to know what happened next. I thought the writer’s decision to show us Amelia and her mom in alternating points of view made a great decision— with Amelia out of the immediate action, flashbacks were the only way we’d get to know her and care about how she died.
This book stands alongside The Silent Wife in a genre I’m appreciating more and more lately, domestic suspense.
A Naked Singularity was tough to get into and at first I was baffled by it. 40 pages in, I started googling other peoples’ reactions- I was actually thinking about putting it down and giving up, which is very unlike me. I was greeted with numerous people raving about De La Pava’s epic long novel, and thought I should stick with it. No more then ten pages later, I saw what the fuss was about. All of sudden, instead of my disbelief and wonder at its reception of the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, I was enthralled and addicted.
Don’t be fooled by the commercial plot - a young un-beaten district attorney becomes embroiled in a drug money heist - because the writing is sharp and new. De La Pava, whether by fluke, close observation, or innate talent, has written about coarseness, philosophizing, and the law with fine strokes. He’s created the interior and exterior world of Casi, and it is a huge one. Huge in intelligence, scope, experience, curiosity, and appreciation. Casi even eats meals with uncommon intelligence, and his mental exclamations about delicious calamari are voiced as perfectly as the ear that overhears and participates in the cacophony of New York City dialogue.
A Naked Singularity captures something very specific about a lot of the art and entertainment I enjoy. I realized the book is a cross-section of everything I like. There’s New York City, an immigrant story, a young genius, digressions about athletes fighting against the odds, phantasmagoric characters, and underpinning it all is a legal/crime thriller. These are basically all of my favorite things. A Naked Singularity seems like the kind of book that can mean different things to different people because it’s just got so much to give, so much inside it. To me, it became a sort of Law & Order episode written by Bruno Schulz and directed by Michael Bay. Starring a young, lither Javier Bardem. The book is intrinsically fun to read, and I found myself waiting for the moments each day I could return to it.
LEAN IN was fun to read, the kind of book that speaks broadly, consistently, and intelligently about a topic that has a lot of room for opinion and advice. My favorite thing about Lean In though, honestly, is the way Sheryl Sandberg speaks with such reason and calm about things that should be unprovocative, common knowledge. She doesn’t sensationalize.
The main passage that embodied this was about partnership. Sandberg makes the claim that the most important thing a woman can do (if she’s wants a partner at all) is to choose one who will support her. While this idea isn’t shocking, it is shocking to me that she spells it out. But linking romance, love, and a life together with someone to an individual’s professional life made sense to me when I thought about it. Everyone needs someone to help you take risks, feel empowered, and confident.
This book is filled with things that sound obvious, but aren’t, or are presented in a way that opens your perspective.
Necessary Errors, by Caleb Crain, captures something special, something essential and good about life and youth and experience despite its single-mindedness. Like Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Necessary Errors is about expatriation, isolation, and male insecurity. Crain’s protagonist doesn’t seem as much of an archetypal figure as Lerner’s Adam, whom I swear I’ve met dozens of times. Instead of delving into an already familiar type, exposing us to the depths we didn’t think a pretentious twenty-something male could have, Crain shows us someone different.
Crain’s Jacob isn’t someone I’ve met. Is he unknown to me because he lived his twenties in the 90s, when I was in elementary school? Is it because he is sweet and idealistic, unlike my irony-fed compatriots? Is it because he’s a closeted gay man, whom, by nature, I can never know? I’m not sure what it is about Jacob, but reading about his struggles and triumphs and daily life in Czechoslovakia made me feel like I was looking into someone’s window in the best way possible.
Necessary Errors is slow and big and there’s no huge plot payoffs to be had. The novel unfurls like life, and despite the exoticism of post Communist Czechoslovakia, not like the life of an adventurer, strewn with pitfalls and adrenaline. Jacob’s life is about bread and jam, friends he’s made, renting a canoe, and bus rides, and so is this book.
The beauty in Necessary Errors is its microcosmicness. Even though Jacob is new and foreign and mysterious at first— his genuine nature is a bit difficult to discern for those of us not acclimated to sincerity — by the end of Necessary Errors we truly know him. We understand the motivation for his decisions, our eyes wander down roads with him, we help him clean up his apartment, we learn with him about life’s tricks and payoffs. And it’s perfect and simple. He is a whole person and a whole experience.
The fury of Tampa’s first half on its own makes Tampa a great book. The memory of its intensity and surprising force carried me through the second half of the book, which was a bit lackluster for me.
Alissa Nutting does set herself up impossibly- she flawlessly establishes the portrait of an iridescently unusual and unexpected character, a female pedophile whose entire life is built up towards preying on little boys. It’s almost unfair. Nutting probes her character’s psyche and illness in a frank and irresistible way, and when her characterization inevitably builds into plot, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. The clearest comparison to this book is obviously going to be Lolita, and in contrast, Nabokov was able to ineluctably intertwine the plot of his fearsome masterpiece with the characterization of Humbert Humbert. Nutting wasn’t able to quite do the same; I was much more interested in Celeste herself and her sickness, I didn’t much care what happened next. And Nutting did care, what happened to Celeste next is what the book becomes.
A character portrait might be a boring book, some would say, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. But with Nutting’s bright, startling, clear writing paired with such a starkly unique character, I thought that plot and events got in the way of TAMPA. As Celeste becomes bogged down, encumbered by worldly things and obstacles, I couldn’t help but yearn for the energy of Nutting’s prose when describing her roving brand of freedom, her stalking and predation.
Perhaps I became so enchanted with the story of Celeste’s determined search because it consumed her so fully, drove her so forcefully. It was impossible not to be drawn in to her obsession and the mania that compels her to seduce young boys. She’s so thorough. When Celeste prowls, circling her prey so voraciously, we pity the object of her violence. At the same time, to be the object of such need, human greed, devotion, and focus seems enviable.
Nutting’s writing, her hunting is that slick.
I loved the mystery behind The Maid’s Version. Daniel Woodrell’s writing can be by turns gritty, lyrical, and the elevation of pure description. In The Maid’s Version, though, Woodrell turns his gifts to suspense and mystery. He builds up families of fortune and misfortune and plays them off each other as he builds up the legend of a town and a tragedy that befell its folks.
I prefer the Woodrell of The Death of Sweet Mister though. His writing is subtler in The Maid’s Version, and so is the evil that he exposes. I think Woodrell is at his best when he is exposing the dark side of human nature, the carnal and evil things we do. In The Maid’s Version people are bewildered and lost, reminiscing, and only peripherally discovering the meanness that people are capable of— even when they’re falling in love. I think, as a reader, I am more interested in darknesses, and Woodrell’s explorations of kin, betrayal, and greed ignite the deepest reaction in me when I read them.
That’s why I wished that The Maid’s Version’s perspective was flipped from the discovery of the crime, the years intervening between an arson and the discovery of who lit the fire and why, to the inner workings of the man that blew up the town dance hall. Interestingly, in The Maid’s Version, he explores more closely and personally the disappointment of a life filled with loss and missed opportunities. He beautifully renders two sisters, but instead of following the headstrong one, as he is so wont to do in his books, he teases at the makeup of a woman who loses everything and buckles under the force of her personal tragedies.
The Silent Wife -
The Silent Wife is one of the more psychologically interesting novels I’ve read in a while, exploring the mindset of a woman who’s the victim of a cheating partner, and suffering through the inexorable failure of her long-term relationship.
Jodi, a psychologist, has devoted her adult life to her partner Todd. Though they’re not married, which was her choice, she assumes they basically are. When Todd philandering finally ends things for good, Jodi unhinges. And this is when the interesting parts start. A.S.A Harrison has delved into the mind of the spurned, the aggrieved. Jodi is intelligent, but in misery her wants and needs become utterly basic. Jodi begins to live at the bottom, and casual evil beings to infiltrate her motivations.