Monthly Archives: March 2013

72% done with Fathers and Sons

The scene where Vassily and Arina sit on the steps and watch their son, Bazarov, ride off is one of the most beautiful, sad, and touching scenes I’ve ever read.

She rests her gray head against his gray head, she compares her beloved son to a falcon that swoops in then away for good, and compares them as two old mushrooms in the hollow of a tree who live for each other.

I hope to be that in love one day too.

75% done with The Cossacks

I wonder if after Tolstoy was done with this book someone told him, “Listen, Lev, you write well but you either need to slow down and take your time with each character or learn brevity,”.

I keep wondering what this novel would have been like had Steinbeck written it; there wouldn’t be the Olenin character, rather everything would be from the POV of a real Cossack.

25% done with Joe the Barbarian

Morrison and Murphy pull off a neat trick in that Joe, our hero, when he gets home in the storm and away from the bullies, he forgets to close the front door. A storm is raging as he takes refuge in the attic but all the while something bad could be letting itself in.

They use this open door image a few times and it’s effective in that Joe is vulnerable and that another world lies on the other side.

Great fun!

35% done with Fathers and Sons

This is the first time I’ve read a novel where the age of one of the main characters was not only the same as mine, but was a matter of importance to the story.

Nikolai worries that he is no longer part of the current generation. He tries to keep up with the times, attempts to be modern, yet his son and his son’s friend, nihilist Bazarov, make him feel left behind.

It’s a strange feeling; I can relate.

25% done with Fathers and Sons

The little scene where Pavel examines the bad photographs of Fenitchka and and Nikolai has a very ‘modern’ feel to it; it’s very unlike anything I read so far from Tolstoy, Gogol, or Dostoyevsky.

There’s no explanation given to us what these photos ‘mean’ of ‘an eyeless face wearing a forced smile, in a dingy frame’. We will have to make it out ourselves, we’ll have to see better, see everyone better; like Pavel.

16% done with Fathers and Sons

You can almost feel the slow embrace of spring warmth slipping over you as you ride along in the carriage at the beginning of this novel. Beautifully written.

The set up is quite good and I’m already itching to find out when it will come to an argument between grubby, nihilistic Bazarov and dandy, dapper, old-guard Pavel.

I’m always fascinated how an author can create real characters so alive so quickly.

Dead Souls: Read from March 12 to 25, 2013

Ever since I was a kid I always loved astronomy. I remember when Haley’s Comet flew by (very disappointing), I remember watching another comet hit Jupiter (much cooler), I will always remember where I was when the Challenger exploded and when the Columbia disintegrated. For a number of years I ever worked with a man who designed, built, and sold telescopes; an eccentric who lived with his wife and 6 kids in a bus on the side of the mountain. When we weren’t installing personal 8″ mirrors ground by a friend who eventually moved onto to making the mirror for the Next Generation Hubble Space Telescope down in Arizona, he was smoking 2 packs a day, endlessly delaying creditors, yelling at his wife, talking endlessly about how we were all on the cusp of becoming extremely wealthy (something he also told the creditors), and praising Jesus with the local pastor who, I kid you not, believed the angels in the Bible were aliens; he too owned a telescope – a nice $10,000 affair because his church had over 5000 members and so he could afford it.

And what the hell does that have to do with Dead Souls?

Two things: 1) People are not as crazy once you get to know them and 2) There’s a visual phenomena that happens because of the cones in your eye where if you look directly at a faint star it seems to disappear but if you look slightly away from it it snaps into focus nice and clear.

Let’s start with point #2 first. The dead souls in Dead Souls are mostly invisible, they can’t be seen because they are, well, dead. There are no dead peasants walking around and taking up space (unlike the land owners who do little more). No, the dead souls can only be seen by looking off to the side a little, to the census, to the graveyard, to people’s memories. They exist just out of sight. Yet they are there and they can be quite useful to someone willing to take advantage of them, to ‘put them back to work’, if you will.

Of course, as we know, it’s all very morbid and immoral and our hero eventually pays the price for dealing in such a corruption. Yet that’s what someone who is good at corruption relies on – of remaining hidden in plain sight, to deal with everything just off to the side, to be clever to game the system to their advantage and, if one is really talented, make it seem as if you are doing the other person the real favor.

This is one of the points Gogol was trying to make.

Now let’s get back to point #1 – the eccentric people and characters.

The funny thing about trying to describe something that is real is that it requires you do so with something that isn’t in its place. For example, the ‘poshlust’ (bad taste) Gogol goes on about in Dead Souls (and whom Nabokov famously infused into his interpretation of the novel) is an untranslatable word in English but well understood in Russian, yet even Russians, when confronted with ‘poshlust’, would on the one hand recognize it in someone else but probably not in themselves. “Surly I have better taste that that, right?” They would say. In essence it’s not even translatable to oneself no matter what language.

So Gogol invented satiric characters to inhabit ‘poshlust’. Had he created realistic characters he’d also have to give a sympathetic reason for them engaging in such kitsch. In short, once you actually get to know someone, their bad taste isn’t really bad taste anymore, it’s their own unique taste. Yet bad taste still exists just like a star you can only see at night by not looking directly at it. The only way to see it clearly is to look off to the side a bit – in this case by looking at a wildly exaggerated character- to see it.

And what if everyone has bad taste? A universal ‘poshlust’? Well, it’s like trying to define ‘art’, it’s different for everyone and doesn’t really have a solid definitive. An elitist would say it’s ‘the fine arts’, the junkyard welder would say something more urban. And they’d both be right because they will only see the bad, the ‘poshlust’, the corruption, in someone else and not once in themselves.

That’s probably why because the way the books ends in the middle of a passionate appeal to morality, the pages are lost and it just ends. There’s such futility going on because everyone is corrupt in one way or another, that you might as well buy and sell dead souls to make a living than try and get everyone to do the right thing.

Anyway, the novel is brilliant and is just as relevant today than when it was written over 150 years ago in Russian by someone who didn’t even spend that much time living in Russia.

92% done with Dead Souls

This part of the book is where most of the missing pieces would have gone. The overall gist of the story is, luckily, not changed much, the gaps make it hard to find your way back into the story.

Such it is of a book with not much plot.

I’m a little confused at the moment: is Chichikov about to lose his newly acquired and legitimate estate? Are they onto him? This would be interesting since he’s worked so hard.

52% done with The Cossacks

So there is the scene in the glade where he hunts the stag and there is a very womb line quality to it and even a birth where he wanders along the ditch. All the while he’s had a revelation about living for the good of others but while the scene is beautiful it’s also a little forced. He should have spent more time with our hero to really make the point artfully.

84% done with Dead Souls

It’s funny how the one thing nearly all the world’s great writers agree on is that instead of being a writer or a learned person it is better to be a serf, a peasant, one with nature, indentured to a master or some god or other.

Nobility in poverty is the term that must get bandied about literary circles, yet let’s see one of them go to poverty and willingly stay there!

Greener is the grass of another fool.

71% done with Dead Souls

So at the halfway point of the novel we are introduced to a new character, Tentetnikov, a man exactly opposite in motivation to ‘our hero’ Chichikov.

This also provides some great inner monologues between the two constantly thinking to themselves at the exact same moments “What a curious fellow, this Chichikov / Tentetnikov.”

Tentetnikov is also like a failed Levin, and is quite funny where Tolstoy was serious

65% done with Dead Souls

I keep having to remind myself that Gogol wrote this book decades before Tolstoy. It’s almost as if Gogol foresaw the grand Russian epics with noble characters and their treatises of philosophical and historical concerns towards the Russian character.

Or Tolstoy took up Gogol’s dare as a challenge.

I also love how characters lament the state of corruption by saying the art was better played in older days.

59% done with Dead Souls

I keep having to remind myself that Gogol wrote this book decades before Tolstoy. It’s almost as if Gogol foresaw the grand Russian epics with noble characters and their treatises of philosophical and historical concerns towards the Russian character.

Or Tolstoy took up Gogol’s dare as a challenge.

I also love how characters lament the state of corruption by saying the art was better played in older days.

59% done with Dead Souls

Chichikov’s description of travelling through Russia along a highway are wonderful.

So far Gogol has made fun of everything in Russia, but he’s not wholly critical. In the night when everyone sleeps, or out on the flat expanse of Russia along the roads, Gogol imagines the possibilities of life, the opportunities that exist. It’s only during the day and in the towns were we see failed possibility and things fake.

52% done with Dead Souls

I just realized that I’m reading the literary equivalent of a sit-com.

I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun reading a book. And not because it’s the ‘greatest’ book ever written, it’s just so … me. I love this style of quirky, random humor. I love the macabre of the plot mixed with the bumbling humor of how it plays out.

I bet Tim Burton read this book when he was younger. I bet he loved it too.

46% done with Dead Souls

“Never did a lady say, ‘I blew my nose,’ … No, it had to be, ‘I relieved my nose through the expedient of wiping it with my handkerchief,’ and so forth.

This is great not only to reveal what blowhards everyone is, but what inelegant blowhards they are – they aren’t even good at it!

And when Chichikov imagines the lives of the peasants, it’s both touching and sadly naive.

39% done with Dead Souls

Here’s another thing I love about Gogol: in the scene with the dirty, miserly old man, Gogol compares a glimmer of hope on the man’s face with that of a drowning man. Gogol then describes how it is with a person who is drowning when they come up for what will be their final breath before that pair of hands go under the waves.

That’s how Gogol handles the comparison and it’s brilliant. Morbid? Yes. But brilliant.

35% done with Dead Souls

The trick to good satire is to never be cruel to the characters you’re poking fun at and to always be a little cruel to yourself for making fun of them. This keeps everything from becoming bitter and cynical.

Gogol has a good feel for how far he can take his satire and though at this point I’m beginning to want to know what Chichikov plans to do with the souls, he’s at least cowardly and terrible negotiator too.

29% done with Dead Souls

Gogol is what you would get if Mark Twain and Kafka raised a child together.

I actually have to force myself to stop reading so that I don’t tear through this too fast.

I love that there is a quality similar to The Canterbury Tales here – it’s episodic and all the characters are flawed, caricatures of the Russian middle class.

It’s great how relevant many of the observations are after nearly 2 centuries.

20% done with Dead Souls

You wouldn’t think a Russian novel titled ‘Dead Souls’ would be drop-the-book, laugh-out-loud funny, but it is.

The conversation where Chichikov tries to buy the souls of the lady’s dead peasants is so perfect that it transcends the 160 years and Russian culture without effort.

This is a much welcome follow-up to super-sober Dostoyevsky.

42% done with The Cossacks

It’s not hard to imagine what sort of character someone is when they have lines such as “… that’s what one steals for, so as not to be stingy!”

However, besides characters, the book doesn’t really feel like it’s ‘going’ anywhere. Rather, it just luxuriates in the setting.

I always compare Tolstoy’s works to paintings and this one feels like a pleasant landscape of not major importance.

6% done with Dead Souls

I’ve been wanting to read Dead Souls for quite some time but have been building up to it because I don’t think I knew enough about Russia or Russian literature to really appreciate Gogol.

I’ve read The Overcoat and loved it, especially the humor, and so for Dead Souls is shaping up to be even better.

Crime and Punishment: Read from February 26 to March 12, 2013

Never have I had such a love / hate relationship with a novel.

To be fair, there wasn’t anything I necessarily hated about Crime and Punishment, rather, there were just so many times I was frustrated with it. In an earlier update I made as I was reading this I compared the book to jazz and as a precursor to novels such as ‘Manhattan Transfer’ and the modern art movement. I still stand by that statement but I feel Dostoyevsky’s novel was more of a fitful start to the ‘modern’ movement and that it would take a much more conscience effort by later writers to really improve this style of novel writing.

Of course, Dostoyevsky didn’t set out to write the first ‘modern’ novel, but he was reacting to modern life and the freedoms that come with it. And that’s the odd thing about this book – the freedom that suffocates our characters. True, most everyone in the book is wretchedly poor and thus shackled by poverty or alcoholism or pride or some other wicked vice, but they’re free to decide how to behave in such a setting. Everyone is bothered by regrets; except Sofia (the hooker we never see turn a trick and who has the now over-done ‘heart of gold’ trope) but they’re all regrets that were of their own conscience making. They chose to kill, or be lecherous, or terrible in some other way and they knew it and they all regretted it. There was no one to guide them – everyone in authority was either non existent or corrupt in some way – and so this ‘modern’ world has to be navigated blind.

And that’s the problem. All this freedom is stifling. Nobody knows what to do. Nobody knows if they even have free-will. Nobody has an identity – except, of course, Sofia. Raskolnikov kills two people just to feel something, anything, to see what he’s ‘made of’, what his place in society is and when he gets to Siberia he finally feels free because he now knows his place. And he resents it, which is pretty funny and probably this joked is missed because the rest of the book is so damn depressing, but it’s funny that he hates it all but at least he knows what to hate. It’s a wonderful joke Dostoyevsky tells here and makes the rest of the book worth it.

So I’m not sure the book could have been written any different, but the claustrophobia of it all, the long soliloquy’s that, while fascinating, really go on and on and on and never really resolve anything – which is why it’s funny when Razumikhin says we’ll talk our way to the truth.

The fact Dostoyevsky was able to pull this novel off is a feat and makes the book earn its place as a true masterpiece. I personally don’t think I ever want to revisit it and I’m wary of reading more Dostoyevsky, but I loved that the book challenged me so much and it did have some wonderful moments that are truly unforgettable – the horse beating, the murders, anything concerning Svidrigailov.

As a student of human behavior (and I use the term cautiously after reading this book), Crime and Punishment is a must read for its psychology and for its art.

I loved it and I hated it; which is why it was almost perfect.

95% done with Crime and Punishment

I’m interested to know if this novel is the precursor to genre books, specifically crime and noir novels. There are a lot of tropes here: hooker with the heart of gold, damsels pulling guns, dark and stormy nights, crime (obviously), and a sly and perhaps corrupt detective.

At least the style of pages and pages and full chapters of monologues never really caught on. While fascinating, it can be tedious to.

89% done with Crime and Punishment

I love how even in 1866 everyone knew tobacco was bad for you and made you sick. Even in Tolstoy’s ‘The Cossacks’, the Cossacks themselves hated smoking and wouldn’t allow it in their huts and they complained about Russian officers who all stank up the place.

I’m glad I don’t smoke anymore but if I were Raskolnikov, I’d start. Everyone knows his secret. He will unravel and everyone knows it.

36% done with The Cossacks

Tolstoy is obsessed with the simple, peasant life. He really romanticizes hard labor, poverty, and forced servitude.

Only a wealthy, religious person would ever have such thoughts.

Not that Tolstoy was a bad guy or a fool – a simple life is perfectly honorable – but the grass is always greener, even in 19th century Russia.

81% done with Crime and Punishment

Dostoyevsky must have had intimate knowledge with death because the way he can kill off a character is almost a little too real.

This far in and I’m still struggling with exactly what I should wrap my brain around. The novel is far too literary to be taking literal, so what specific themes should I be focusing on? Damnation? Guilt? Suspicion and paranoia? Crime and/or punishment?

10% done with The Cossacks

The greatest joy of reading Tolstoy isn’t the insight into the human spirit or is discourse on Russian society or even his plots; his descriptions are what really do it for me.

I feel like I’m living inside a massive painting when reading Tolstoy. Women carrying thorny bundles of reeds in their calloused hands and folded skirts, men in red caps carrying wet nets of still wriggling silver glistening fish. Perfect.

77% done with Crime and Punishment

“… they can’t convict a man on what they have against me.”

I wonder how many soviets read this without any irony?

The funeral dinner and the 100 Ruble note was a comedy and tragedy all rolled into one without ever once being funny or sad. Dostoyevsky would have been onto something truly great had he given his characters more dimension. The allegation of theft for the 100 rubles was quite wonderful, however.

69% done with Crime and Punishment

Dostoyevsky is at his best when he sets his characters to oppose each other in a cat and mouse game. The interrogation, for example, was actually fun to read.

But when he sets out to moralize and preach, when he’s not being suspicious but rather ‘in control’, he becomes rather dull.

Then again, perhaps that is the entire point. Madness is more fun than the social norms, at least for the madman anyway.

61% done with Crime and Punishment

What sets Tolstoy apart from Dostoyevsky is that Tolstoy didn’t ever have to force his stories to go in the direction he wanted. Intellectual, philosophical, historical and social discussions arose naturally and as part of the narrative (except during the narration of War and Peace).

Here, however, we have a very ‘modern’ novel with lots to say and not enough art to always say it. It’s not bad, but it’s unnatural

54% done with Crime and Punishment

What if the after-life is nothing more than a single, cramped, dirty room filled with spiders?

Raskolnikov has got to be dead and he’s reliving his life as a hell, right?

I mean, who else has all these people just walking into his room cramped, dirty room and telling them about the after-life?

St. Petersburg must have some bad parts of town, but this is just out of the question a bad part. It’s Dante bad.

46% done with Crime and Punishment

I’m probably wrong, but there is a sense I keep getting that none of the characters in the book (other than Raskolnikov) are real. It feels like all these people inhabit his deranged mind somehow.

And there’s something about the landlord, like she’s a demon that’s always watching him but just out of sight. It’s creepy.

At times it’s downright uncomfortable to read this book. It’s amazing like that.

38% done with Crime and Punishment

It’s unsettling to think that a person who does us a good deed could also be someone who recently split open the skull of an old Jewish pawnbroker with an ax.

Worse still, how would we know if we are mad enough to do it ourselves? Could at any moment we become obsessed with the thought of a terrible crime and then do it?

I wonder if this is what death row inmates think about?

33% done with Crime and Punishment

There’s a great expressionist painting from 1912 by the German Erich Heckel called ‘Two Men At A Table’. While the painting has nothing to do with the events of the novel, it does capture the claustrophobia of delusion that’s the theme of the novel.

Everything is in disorientation. The city is hot and stinking even at night. Every room is cramped and workmen clean blood stains from the floor.