ATTN: Lieutenant Colonel John L. Steele
7103rd Disciplinary Training Company
United States Army, Metato, Italy
June 15, 1945
Re: Ezra Weston Loomis Pound
After a thorough examination of Ezra Weston Loomis Pound’s mental state, it is my professional opinion that while the patient displays “no paranoia, delusions nor hallucinations” and there is “no evidence of psychosis, neurosis or psychopathy,” his “prolonged exposure in present environment may precipitate a mental breakdown, of which premonitory symptoms are discernible” (XIV). It is my recommendation that the prisoner be moved immediately to more suitable quarters and a “transfer to the United States or to an institution in this theatre with more adequate facilities for care” (XIV) be considered. I am basing my conclusion of the patient’s current mental state on several complicated factors that I ask you to consider.
First, the patient is highly intelligent and imaginative. The patient has granted me access to his journal which, though at first I found to be nearly incomprehensible, has provided valuable insight into his mind after a close and careful reading. For example, the patient is fluent in numerous languages, including ancient Greek, has a strong grasp of Chinese ideograms, and is able to maintain coherence of thought while abruptly switching from one language to the next. In one section of his Cantos, as he calls this journal, he writes of “a sort of dwarf morning-glory / that knots in the grass,” which he follows with the medical term for psychological injury, “sequelae” (37-38). The patient believes he has suffered great psychological trauma and is thus using this passage to express his pain through the image of a small, beautiful flower, which may represent himself, being tangled in a field of grass, which may be significant as he has been detained in cramped, exposed conditions. He goes on to write, in French, “Le paradis n’est pas artificiel” (paradise is not artificial) (38) which in my opinion is his way of expressing that he still has a hope for the future and that his happiness is attainable. He also seems to recognize that he is suffering tremendous psychological stress when he writes “States of mind are inexplicable to us” (38) but then follows, in ancient Greek, with “dakruon” (tears, or weeping) repeated three times as if he is painfully aware how his present psychological state is affecting him emotionally.
Second, the patient is a highly empathetic individual as evidenced in these Cantos with astute observations of idiomatic speech, such as his mimicry of the black prisoners, one of which he transcribes as saying “Hey Snag, what’s in the bibl’ ? / what are the books of the bibl’ ? / Name ‘em! Don’t bullshit me!” (51), but also of his more obscure observations of birds sitting on electrical wires which he interprets and transcribes as musical notation, “with 8 birds on a wire / or rather on 3 wires” (63). Far from turning inward and morose, the patient is keenly aware of every sensation and stimulation around him, but like a SCR-300 used by our Signal Corps which is somehow tuned to every open channel, the patient’s mind seems to be like a new Signal Corps Private who is frantically trying to transpose everything coming in over that SCR-300 receiver faithfully but due to the sheer volume of information is experiencing enormous stress in trying to keep up. If I may be as bold as to sound poetic, it is as if the patient were tuned into the radio broadcast of all human civilization across all time and space and wants to make sense of it all not only for himself, but for everyone alive.
Lastly, the patient retains a firm sense of self in that he expresses very strong opinions about Jews, the economy, and has even requested a meeting with President Truman concerning the state of the Japanese campaign. While this may sound alarming and does seem to reek of arrogance and the grandiose, his opinions remain consistent, strangely coherent, and while often reprehensible and perhaps even treasonous, do not seem to, so far, present an imminent threat to himself or others. Therefore, it is my professional opinion that Ezra Weston Loomis Pound is not insane, he is just an incredibly talented poet. These two conditions are easily confused.
I have been reading this as part of a course on Chaucer as we explore his inspirations and attempt to gain some insight into why Chaucer wrote what he did. This book in particular was a huge influence on Chaucer, as well as medieval thinking in general, but it’s remarkable in just how modern and personal it still feels.
At the heart of any great work of prison literature is the observation of how humanity behaves (wickedly) while the prisoner (innocent) suffers. Boethius’ motivation is even stronger because he knows he will be executed and so we’re witnessing a person come to terms with their life in an attempt to find some sort of meaning to their own existence. In some ways he’s lucky because how many hundreds of millions of people never got the chance to assess their lives before meeting a tragic end, but he has left behind a document that can do some of the heavy lifting for us.
As with most cases of a person being accused he begins his story at the mercy of the emotional muses. How many people have been convicted – even just by a court of public opinion – because of public emotion rather than sound logic? Philosophy then appears to drive those “sluts” away and attempts to use the gift of humanity, reason, to help him make sense of life, specifically why the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper.
The most compelling argument I found in the entire book was Philosophy’s explanation about punishment. Philosophy tells Boethius that punishment is actually a form of goodness and so when a wicked person is not punished then they are not open to the goodness that punishment offers. This reminded me of the argument about hell and how eternal damnation is actually a form of mercy since to cease to exist would be the ultimate act of indifference. Even in hell the sinners are at least able to be punished for their crimes and sins.
However, Boethius is also concerned about what he believes to be false punishment. He believes he is innocent and that any punishment he is currently enduring is unjust, but this brought up an interesting point in that Philosophy tells him that we can never really know who is innocent or not. We may see someone who we think absolutely deserves to be punished for being wicked, but are we the ultimate arbitrators of justice? Do we know what really rests in the hearts and souls of every person?
Philosophy reminds Boethius about Providence and that while it may seem random and that there might not even be free will, it is only because he lacks the intelligence of the ultimate good (God) that he assumes what happens to him and to wicked men is random, but when in fact it is not. Ultimately the whole discussion boils down to faith, and while this final section of the book makes the most obtuse and obscure argument in the book, perhaps because Boethius was quite soon to be executed, it does reflect the difficulty of having faith, truly having faith, in something greater than ourselves.
We so want for our lives to have meaning and yet so often we feel as if life, the universe, and everything is totally random and indifferent, and perhaps it even is, yet what is remarkable is that this document exists, that a man on the eve of his execution was able to meet the end of his life with dignity and lay out a reasonable argument that could perhaps give comfort to even the most slandered innocent person. And he does so without growing overly religious because he constantly frames his arguments by talking about the good – the ultimate goodness of life, that form we all strive for no matter what we might call us. He is, in effect, showing us how there is goodness even in the darkest of places.
Reading you made me nervous. My professor assigned your book, Tender Buttons, as an introduction to modernist poetry and though I knew your poetry can be challenging I was eager to read you for the first time. Yet immediately I realized I was in trouble. I kept turning the pages hoping I would find a poem that resembled something I was familiar with: a narrative thread, a story, anything to wrap my mind around. Failing that I turned to my journal and for each of the 58 poems in Objects I kept detailed notes hoping I would find something that made sense.
Then I began to panic. I wanted so much to contribute to a conversation about you that I found myself getting angry that my fellow classmates would be the ones who would share insight while I who had spent hours and hours with you would only be able to sit mute and perhaps receive a failing participation grade for the day’s class.
But I need to apologize to you for getting our relationship off on the wrong foot. As I was waiting for class to begin my friend and I were discussing our opinions of your poetry. I lied and said I enjoyed your work, but I was angry with you. My friend, however, told me how much he loved your poem Careless Water because he understood you were talking about the art of kintsugi. Once he realized what you meant by your reference to the Japanese the world of your poetry opened up to him. And it opened up for me as well.
As class went along and I listened to my classmates discuss your poems I realized how wrong I was to think that I alone had the ability or even the right to understand your poetry in isolation. I realized that to understand you it took all of us working as a group to piece you together. Each of us were like a jagged and broken piece of pottery that wanted to be fitted back into place. As each person offered their unique observations about your poems I also realized that what we were piecing back together might not exactly match the original, that the shape might be a little distorted and that the repair seams would be visible, but that we were making your poems anew and we were adding to your story.
And then I realized how incredibly brave each of us are when we read your poetry because we are bringing a piece of ourselves to your art. True, we might be a little jagged and sharp at the corners and we might not fit exactly, but you are allowing us to participate in your poetry by giving us the freedom to see your poems through our own eyes and with our own experiences. And as I revisited each of your poems I was liberated because I now had permission to work with you, and my classmates, and my professor to make a new meaning for your poems and to not be afraid that I might be “wrong” about what you meant.
Gertrude Stein, I apologize for being selfish and assuming you came in only one shape and with a set of instructions that would allow me to piece you back together again. You wanted to bring us together, to share your art with, and my first reaction was to hate you for it. I am sorry.
The Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge says of Frankenstein: “You are probably looking for Frankenstein’s monster, you idiot.” While this is always a “fun fact” for that know-it-all friend we all have (certainly that’s not us, right) to trot out in an effort to make everyone around them feel inferior for not having actually read the book, I think there is something deeper going on here than just confusing the monster for its maker. The fact that even after having read the book – and I’m only discussing the original 1818 version, not the later revised edition – I still want to call the monster Frankenstein speaks to what I think Shelley was really going for at the heart of this novel.
A common misconception about this novel is the idea that she was writing about science gone amok. True, her revised edition 1831 edition contains far more musings that touch on this point, but her original intention, her original creation was about something far more interesting: relationships. When we first open the book we a reading the letters of Walton, a captain of an Arctic Research vessel who laments that he does not have a friend in which he can share ideas with and help him be a better man. Walton is smart enough to know that even at our best, we are always better when a friend can challenge us, bounce ideas off of us, and flat-out remind us when we’re being foolish. And so enters Victor Frankenstein and by the end of the novel when Walton’s crew seems near the verge of mutiny, Walton decides against pressing the adventure on and bravely turns the ship around. Walton, unlike Victor literally changes course rather than pursuing a course that could kill his crew and himself.
And this is what I believe is at the core of what Shelley wanted to explore: isolation breeds inhumanity. Think about how when Victor creates the monster he does so all alone and at the expense of all his relations. Later, when he first submits to create the monster a mate, he does so on an isolated island while his vacation partner and best friend, Clerval, is left behind. Or from the monster’s point of view, he is at his most humane when he is surrounded by the family he spends a year observing in secret. The monster gains insight into the best traits of humanity, but once he is shunned, he reverts into an actual monster that places no value on human life.
Shelley is not so much interested in “the dangers of science”, she’s interested in the dangers of isolation from humanity. She is telling a story about how we are at our best when we have companionship, when we have people around us who challenge and love us but when we turn from humanity, for whatever reason, we lose our humanity because our humanity is defined by the people around us.
Shelley spends a lot of ink in the novel describing how beautiful the landscapes are and how when Victor experiences nature with his friends and family he’s at his best, or at least not nearly as depressed, yet when he confronts the monster and then later chases after him the scenery is a blank ice sheet, a wasted void of nothing and devoid of all life and humanity. Victor keeps turning away from companionship and instead chases after his inner obsession. And by inner obsession I mean that the idea of the monster started out as just an idea that he was able to actually manifest physically – his inner thought literally were made manifest and were given their own agency. The monster is an avatar of his obsession to plumb the absolute depths of his intellectual abilities by isolating himself from all distractions until he was successful.
And perhaps this is why upon seeing the monster come to life he immediately turned away from it because what had been a beautiful idea in his mind (and he had thought he was creating something beautiful) he saw just how ugly the inside of his own mind was, just how ugly that absolute obsession turned out to be. The monster was a product of Victor’s sick, isolated mind and, like Gogol’s Nose, the two had to reunited, only here it wound up being tragic.
And so when we think of the monster as an unnatural abomination, what we are really reacting to is that the monster represents the inhumanity of isolation from humanity. It represents the dangers of shunning humanity while we pursue our obsessions. The monster does not, however represent the dangers of pursing forbidden knowledge since what Victor was initially attempting to do was not at all against nature. Victor wanted to cure death, Victor wanted to understand how life worked which are not unreasonable goals. Victor was applying good scientific principles to his pursuit by taking what he knew and actually applying it via real demonstration.
This is how science has always worked and the fact that what Victor created turned out horribly isn’t an indictment of science, it’s an indictment of pursuing something to such an isolated extreme that the result is perverted because the process didn’t take place as part of a community. Scientists work together when exploring the secrets of nature and the universe, they bounce ideas off of each other, they learn from scientists who came before them, and they allow independent scientists to verify (or falsify) their findings. The process does not happen in isolation and the results are always tempered with collaboration.
Victor’s failing was to think he could do this all on his own, that creating a human could be done without the help of other humans. When humans have children (biologically) it takes at least two people to create a child, and even in cases where someone can’t have children then there are doctors and adoption specialists and surrogates who make up the community of parenting. Victor failed to take into account the neighborhood of man, a line Shelley uses again and again in the novel, and when he tried to create a human being like himself, all he did was create a manifestation of his ugly obsession.
Oh my this was dull. Pointless, too. Also it seemed as if someone who didn’t know anything about a gay person was writing a stereotypical story about a gay person. And not only was this dull and pointless, but it seemed dishonest, too, like bad fan-fiction for an extra in an especially terrible episode of the dreadful series Sex and the City.
It’s been awhile since I’ve done my weekly New Yorker readings because I’ve been back in college working on my English degree (I mean, what ELSE would I be doing), but I also stopped because too many of the New Yorker stories are tepid and filled with overly self-conscious and self-absorbed idiots, like in this story. Nowhere is there any exploration of empathy for another human being, unless we’re supposed to feel something for our narrator here – which we don’t (even the dog just needs the narrator for a floor to sleep on). We even have to deal with the pretentious naming conventions here of N. and Z. By not giving them real names they are just turned into objects, which might be in keeping with how the narrator feels about them, but it does nothing for the reader. Why do we learn next to nothing about N. and Z.?
Give me a story about the disappointed mother who shows up twice, once as the mother, and again as the dog, though I highly doubt the author realized this and it’s a coincidence we have two mothers here. I’m so tired of self-absorbed idiots who have nothing useful tell us about anything except that they were turned on by someone’s uncircumcised dick in an overly bright and dirty club restroom. Who gives a shit? Are we supposed to be impressed that the characters are gay? I’m not. Gay people are human beings and I’m interested in human beings, not stereotypical cardboard cutouts pretending to be gay. How about some real emotion? How about a real, hard look into loss and desire, and passing up an opportunity for fleeting happiness instead of an alcohol fueled journey into Club Banality.
This story is all surface with an ocean of nothingness 1 millimeter below each word. I’d go as far as to say it’s total trash, but not the sort of trash that lingers because it stunk your house up and at least will stick in your memory, but the sort of trash you throw out having never even remembered what it was to begin with. That’s the worst kind because it means absolutely nothing to anybody.
Disclaimer: I never look at the name of the author before reading a story in the New Yorker, I cover it up with my hand so as not to be influenced by gender, race, or if they’re famous already. I take each story as it is with no preconceived notions.
This was a lot of fun, evil fun, but the sort of fun you’d like to have to get back at people who have been making you miserable.
Basically this is all a set up for our narrator to get back at their family. We learn everyone else is a gossip and a backbiter and generally miserable, but we never learn why the narrator is – until the end. Once we learn the narrator’s secret everyone in the family who had been maybe not quite a real character, or a bit of a generic blob, snap into focus. And the narrator isn’t exempt, either. They are just as guilty of being a bastard (pun intended, I suppose) as everyone else.
I find this to be a strange story because a lot of it is pretty generic, though with some very clever writing in it: “We had betrayed one another too many times to be able to sit comfortably around the same table together.”, and “Every visit to an aged parent is in the nature of a farewell.” In fact I was starting to think this was going to be yet another New Yorker dud that paints broad strokes about people who the author stereotypes and speaks in cliches – that’s a popular genre in this magazine, unfortunately.
Yet I think the author senses how dull a lot of these stories are and plays us for fools. He gives us a generic set up full of Roz Chast cut-outs (except for Floyd and Granma) and then turns it on its head. When we learn who the couple are that arrives late to the party and we see how the narrator was testing everyone there to see if they’d give the newcomers a chance, we learn to not take everything at face value, to look a little deeper under the surface.
Don’t judge. That’s a simple moral lesson, but we never learn it.
All I could think of was Tom Petty’s famous video where he dances with a dead Kim Basinger to his song “Last Dance With Mary Jane”. Also, Weekend At Bernie’s.
This story is really uneven. On the one hand it’s (maybe?) about how we fall in love with the idea of a person but then as we get to know them discover either we love them more or they horrify us and we dump them. On the other it’s comical and not very serious. And I’m not even sure what the story is really trying to tell us about anything.
I found the humor too detached and that didn’t jive well with other parts of the story that are really well written and (seemingly) headed somewhere interesting. But like the Bog Girl herself the story is impossible to really understand and in the end we have to toss it back into the bog.
There are also some editing choices that are poorly thought out. I’m guessing the New Yorker doesn’t suggest changes to a story but this could have benefited from some editing (rearranging sections and dropping unnecessary words) and someone should have challenged the author more to make a stronger point. What exactly are we supposed to take away from this tale? Just being strange is not enough to make it worthwhile.
I do feel that there is the possibility of a great story in here, I just don’t think the story is there yet – it’s sort of like Tim Burton’s later work that didn’t seem to have a strong theme. The characters are not very well fleshed out except for the mother but we don’t get enough of her to really know her.
Maybe if the author had given us a better narrator – maybe the mother? – then we would have a stronger story, something about a mother’s fear of another woman taking her son away. To me that seems to be the solution here if I were adapting this to a screenplay.
I did like this story, however, despite it’s weaknesses. There is some very good imagery and I feel as if a stronger story were floating somewhere just below the surface of another bog.
A writer has to have a certain confidence to be able to tell a story about how everything was lost: a love, a friend, a life, and a battle. Yet in losing we get a glimpse at how Galdos perceived the Spanish character in all its forms. We have characters who are tremendous braggarts, old men still filled with the passions of youth, society women so wrapped up in fashion and gossip as to be beyond clowns. Galdos paints with a broad brush and though we never dig very deep into these characters, he, unlike any other writer I can think of, is both satirical and empathetic at the same time to everyone on the page.
The story is straightforward: our young hero is plucked from the streets and made a servant in a good home, falls in love with the lady of the hours, goes off with the master of the house to a glorious yet disastrous naval battle, comes home and decides to leave his adopted family and live a life of adventure at sea. The writing too is straightforward, Galdos had been a journalist and uses simple language to tell his story and sticks to the facts but never leaves out the appropriate time to add some color.
This is an adventure tale, the first of many in a series of “National Episodes” (a serial) and it sets the stage for what Spain had become. No longer was she the glory of Europe, she had become a relic, her court was not to be taken serious, her Navy lumbering and ill managed, her men full of false ideas of glory too late in life, and her women fed up with the men. A strange setting then to set an adventure story of a young man to learn about life, yet what Galdos does so well is to show us how people behave, for good or for bad. He wants the reader to take his Spain seriously, though he’s just as able to laugh at his country too.
At the heart of the tale is a caution against allowing someone else to rule over us. Here the French tell the Spanish how to fight the battle, and lose (Napoleon says “I can’t be everywhere”), and our narrator too walks away from a life of service even though that means leaving the woman he loves and can never, ever have. He has to find his own way, a new way, even if that leads to disaster, as it did for his master.
And deeper still is Galdos showing us how important it is to know whom to believe about anything. On every page there are people telling him this or that, some of it true, some not, and it’s up to him (and us, ultimately) to learn to be discerning. Because to just rush off and act on emotion can lead to ruin just as bad information can ruin us, but there is also truth to be found between lies and being able to see that is a life-long lesson.
I believe Galdos was fascinated by what contradicts people. In one breath a character can be a buffoon and also wise. And as he ends the novel on a clear winter’s day, our narrator instead of seeing the world as it is, sees it as a summer day with the warm breezes, the orange trees, the roses in bloom: he sees the potential but also the contradictions between winter and summer, the contradictions that live inside each of us.
My new bumper-sticker: “I’d rather be kissing Brezhnev (than reading this story)”
* Know that the majority of this review is me being about as cruel as possible to this pile of garbage and I also swear a lot.
Normally when I have an extreme reaction to art, good or bad but especially bad, I consider my anger and vehemence to be a good sign, a sign that the art did a job in eliciting a response from me. The worst response is none at all, and while I definitely had a reaction to this story, I can’t honestly take it seriously as a piece of art.
Had the point been for me to hate everyone here, say like Rob Zombie’s ‘The Devil’s Rejects’ then it would have been worth it. Sadly this is just another New Yorker cliche with cliche characters and luke-warm, half baked ideas about “modern life”. This is the sort of thing Donald Trump uses to make fun of those of us who read this magazine.
Everything about this story is pretentious and dumb. The author, with a straight face I’m sure, expects us to accept the juxtaposition of Uber as some modular metaphor for the modern capitalist world against the solid, but corrupt world of the police and taxi services. And I’m sure the author and the author’s teddy bear think this is all quite clever.
As Zoidberg once said, “Your [the author’s] metaphors are bad and you should feel bad!”
These are characters, and an author I assume, who is more interested in things than people. More interested in talking about the surface meaning of things than what the elicit deep down in our emotions. People who name drop without ever having experienced real art. Lazy assholes, in other words. This is like reading the transcript of a party from a college sophmore majoring in English where everything is spelled out for us, where the names of the actors in the TV show Taxi are literally spelled out for us.
This story is so bad I wanted to die. I wanted an Uber to crash into my apartment and flatten me in my reading chair before it got any worse. I longed for the days of the Soviet Union and Samizdat (the books copied on cheap paper) because at least someone was editing and something like this garbage would never have got in except maybe to hide the real art, a sort of literary birdcage lining.
And what is the author having a reaction to? Uber? Capitalism? Art? It’s a total jumbled and disorganized mess where on one page a character barely has condiments in their refrigerator and on the next a sleek espresso machine ready to dispense Bustelo. Where we’re told, for no apparent reason that a character has read Balzac in French.
Well these characters can fuck right off with their reading Balzac in French. They can jump right into the Seine and wash up along the banks of the Tiber where some Kafkaesque Uber driver can paint their bloated, espresso leaking bodies.
This story was torture. They should make ISIS read it. It’s fucking brutal nonsense from a psuedo-intellectual feather weight.
In the documentary “The Act of Killing” there is a scene where the men whom had torutured and killed their fellow Cambodian’s returned to a village and re-enacted their crimes. All around them were people – and I remember most of them being women – who had been old enough to remember the killings first hand, had probably never spent a night since without thinking about those horros and were now fafe to face with their tormentors.
Yet the look on their faces is what I remember the most because I don’t think there is a word to describe the emotion they were feeling. These men, the killers, we re-enacting their crimes for fun and were not there to kill anyone but these women wore a mask of entertainment for their “guests” but you could see the confusion, horror, and doubt in their eyes.
For me that was one of the most horrifying things I’ve ever seen.
This story captures a part of what those women felt, that fear but also that unity, even if they will come to a tragic end no matter how proud they stand.
At the end of the story we get images of the wind, and that’s how I imagine evil (the Devil here) works – the Devil all of a sudden appears and there is nothing we can do to stop him till he leaves. Even Bela Tarr used wind imagery in Satantango when we meet the Devil character, similar here as good looking with his impish friend. And that’s probably why the chief’s wife leaves the room before the name is spoken because to hear the name, even of a friend of the Devil is to invite him back.
But that last image of the small man who sort of confesses to the girl he just raped strips away the excuse that a Devil did something evil and places it squarely where the responsibility lay: with humanity. Monsters do not commit these terrible crimes, men (people, though usually men) do. To dehumanize these terrible acts is to look away and let the Devil get away with it, but to know that men do these terrible things means that they can be stopped because men are weak (the image of the men who only drink shows weakness and cowards).
What is the point of art? What purpose does it really serve? Can it build a bridge, feed the hungry, or put a telescope into orbit? As someone who, sadly, lacks any real STEM ability (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) I’ve always felt a little insecure about my passion for art, specifically literature. Aren’t I just wasting my time in imaginary worlds, dealing with problems only a person with a lot of free time, abundant food, and stable employment can feel free to worry about?
I’ve read many apologists on this subject, but nobody has offered me a satisfactory resolution between the world of STEM and the world of art. And when I look around at the state of the world – climate change, hunger, economic collapse – I sometimes feel my passion, my love of art, is an evolutionary dead-end, destined to secure me a job in retail for the rest of my life.
However, I’ve never honestly believed what I love is useless, but that I’ve only ever lacked the ability to span the distance between what people used to believe were the two sides of the brain: the creative and the logical.
In this book we are shown how Einstein bridged an even wider gulf: the relationship between matter and energy. It had never occurred to anyone that matter and energy were even related, that energy, and vast amounts of it, could be hidden deep within all the matter around us. Yet his genius was his ability to see relationships between two things nobody had bothered to put together previously. His genius too was in his ability to think about very complicated forces, in this case light, in a way that allowed him to see how strange the universe was, but also how much of the universe really worked.
The book then goes into great historical detail about all the people who came before Einstein whom had contributed to the main elements of his famous E=MC2 formula. We get a very diverse cast of characters, and not all of them men, and later, not all of them white, either. We see how the very fundamental workings of the universe allow everyone in it to contribute to discovering its secrets.
What I’ve read in criticism to this book is that the author, David Bodanis, is not very fair to some of the historical figures who played a part in this story. Some people are made out to be far more nefarious than they really were, but while this is unfortunate, and also a great opportunity for a reader to learn more on their own, my interest in this book has only a little to do with the science or the biographies of the people.
My interest lay in thinking about how people think, specifically what was it that allowed all these brilliant minds to be able to make leaps of logic that would advance our species understanding of the universe. Why are some people, such as Einstein, able to look at light and imagine what would happen if we were to hop a ride on a photon, whereas the rest of us would never even think to even think about light? Why would another person question if a bar of iron weighs differently once it has begun to rust? What is it that separates those people from people like you and me.
But when we think about art, aren’t we doing similar work? When we read, say The Wind and the Willows and we understand it to be not a story about cute animals, but rather about what it means to be a child, aren’t we making a similar, if smaller, leap of thinking? Can there be something in the way we think about art that trains us to be not only more critical, but also more aware of possibilities?
In this book Bodanis shows how if a person is raised to believe the Bible is the only and literal truth, but then when they go to school are then taught that science is the real truth, that some students will then learn to be skeptical of everything going forward? That having been burned once (and I’m not making a judgment on religion here, I’m only showing an extreme example), that the person will be more likely to not accept anything just on faith or authority, but to find out for themselves.
But how do you do that? Are some just born with the gift of better thinking? Are most of us then doomed to always take everything at face value and never consider how, for example sound works, or what happens when you ride on a sun beam?
My proposition then is simply that art is, in a way, the training we give ourselves to improve our thinking. That in order to be able to build a clever bridge, or solve an issue of feeding people in a desert, or putting a telescope into orbit, we have to be able to think differently than the next person.
STEM is great at teaching us that, say, 2 and 2 is 4, but just knowing that fact does not do you much good. Yet someone who is willing to think just a little differently will see that while 2 and 2 is 4, that 4 and 4 does not equal 8, but rather 16.
I believe that through art, all art including the art dating back to the very darkest caves in neolithic France, has been a way for people to work out the process of thinking about practical issues in ways that at first might seem to serve no real practical purpose, but that are really doing the work of training our minds to think better.
And I further believe that through studying art we actually improve the quality of practical fields. Instead of making incremental improvements to some device – say a battery that lasts 1 hour longer for our tablets – that perhaps a more well trained thought process could do away with batteries altogether in favor of a radically new technology?
Now I don’t want to get too pie-in-the-sky here, but I do believe that what makes a person a genius is not necessarily that they were just born that way, but that they just knew how to think better. They weren’t content to just know that 2 and 2 is 4, but that they wanted to know what does that really mean? What relationship is there between that simple equation to, say, the exponential increase of a nuclear chain reaction?
To just know facts does not do us any good, but to know how to use those facts is useful, and learning how to think about the facts we know in unique ways can be learned through studying art. A great novel or painting is like a gym in which we can work-out our critical thinking skills which can then be applied to other fields.
However, I don’t want to carry that analogy too far. Art is not just a means to a more practical end. Art does serve an aesthetic purpose and should not be looked at as just a tool that can be swept aside when it no longer serves a practical purpose. We are emotional beings too as well as being logical creatures and so having an outlet for our emotional selves is vital. Art also informs us on matters that are difficult to deal with, such as what Einstein thought about when he understood his great insight, E=MC2, lead to nuclear weapons. Art serves to explore the emotional, moral, and ethical aspects of our lives as much as it can help us think uniquely about practical concerns.
And so this book which explores what E=MC2 means, what led up to it, and where it led to, served for me as a book which helped me think more deeply about the relationship between Art and Science just as Einstein (well, not just as he did, but to a much smaller degree) thought about the relationship between Energy and Matter.
Though I’m not sure what our main character actually learns or if she changes at all (though maybe she actually dies?), I do love how we spend this concussed night with her as she drifts out of life and time, her children asleep around her.
We begin the story with some imagery that will come into play later in the story. First is the panther which represents stalking death. Later when she’s trying to stay awake the thought of that invisible predator is ever present at the edges of her life. And like the Alice in Wonderland reference, though it’s all a bit on-the-nose, it works to serve the story of someone who seems to be slowly disappearing.
The disappearing is important because we learn at the beginning she’s lost a lot of weight: “I loved eating, but I’d lost so much weight by then that I carried myself delicately, as if I’d gone transparent.” And the word ‘transparent’ is important here because that is what she becomes as the story goes on and she falls off the stool. Even the word itself is a sort of pun, trans (changing) and parent (as in literally a parent).
When I first put this down I assumed our narrator lived through the night, but the more I think about it I’m not quite sure. At the start her husband leaves to take care of a suicide and so at the end it’s possible we have another death, one he could have prevented had he been there. Then again, I feel it’s at most ambiguous as to what is going on at the end. We are told she opens her eyes, but we were told earlier about her floating about outside – what’s to say her spirit isn’t still aware though her body is dead?
And it’s the last line of the story that gives me pause: “… like the wind itself, like the cold sun I would soon feel on the silk of my pelt.” What does this mean, the “silk of my pelt?” For me I get a cold, deathly image, a pelt of fur, cold, mouring (it’s morning, too), black, the panther’s fur. Everything is transitory, fleeting, but ominous, too: her husband fills the door, and earlier her mother was “a person who had blocked out the sun.”
We also get a Blake reference (actually many poets are mentioned, though I’m most familiar with Blake so I’ll stick to him) and it reminded me of “The Tyger” (the panther here stands in for a tiger). With all the darkness of her world (the night blocked doors, the sun blocked) juxtaposed with the “burning bright” of the predator outside (the panther = the tyger), I feel a strong correlation between the images of life and death, the fear and wonder our narrator feels.
I don’t feel we learn anything profound, however and that is this story’s weakness. We have some very beautiful language and wonderful images to unravel, but it amounts to very little. It is sad and beautiful, but I don’t feel I learned anything very interesting about her situation, I don’t feel the narrator taught us something unique about her life and dying. I ask why are we told this story? Just so we can read this very beautiful scene where she slips around consciousness and are left with an ambiguous ending? Will she be a better, more substantial (not transparent) parent? We never know.
Still I did enjoy the beautiful moments of this story even if they don’t add up to a lot.
“There is no human being, no matter how despicable he may seem, who cannot stand out in something.”
This line from early in the novel is spoken in relation to the character Izquierdo, a useless man (up to that point), who is a braggart but also surrogate father to a little boy, the near feral Pitsuo. The line is interesting because while at first glance it might seem a positive statement – it could be an internet platitude – Galdós does not actually say that the something anyone can stand out in would be a good something. There is no judgment made here at all, in fact. And it is this lack of judgment which raises this novel from mere ordinary masterpiece to one of the 10 greatest novels ever written.
For a novel this long and with so many characters, summing it up is a challenge, however I think it would be fair to compare it to Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. In Tolstoy’s novel Anna is a woman who wants to live life the way she chooses but continually is pushed back down by a society that refuses to accept her ideas. She is judged by society and family, and her fate is unfortunate. The same is true with Fortunata. Though unlike Anna she is not of the upper-class (in fact she is from the lowest class), her pride and stubbornness cause her an endless series of trials and devastations. She is a woman who wants to live how she sees fit to do so, but cannot and she pays dearly.
Another parallel between the novels is through the Tolstoy’s Levin and Galdós Guillermina. Both are held up as examples of the ideal life (as imagined by the author). Levin tries to be a peasant and Guillermina does the work of a saint through her orphanage. Both characters have their flaws (though Guillermina’s are more subtle and only once does she really stumble in the novel), and both characters act to balance the tide of the other major character (Levin : Anna, and Guillermina : Fortunata).
To continue the comparison, both novels invest the reader deeply into their respective cultures of the novelist. Tolstoy drops us headlong into upper-class Russian society of the mid to late 19th century, and Galdós recreates nearly every avenue, shop, and slum of Madrid around the same time period. We inhabit vibrant, breathing worlds full of color, noise, pettiness, sadness, and beauty as written only by authors intimately familiar with them in real life. Future archaeologists, armed with little more than these two novels could recreate a convincing simulation of Russia and Spain of the 19th century.
But we must leave Tolstoy and Anna at their train station in St Petersburg because while there are many parallels between the two novels, Galdós turns his attention not to how society affects the individual, but how individuals affect the society they live in. Galdós is interested in the worlds we create, either in our own minds (madness and fixation are key themes in this novel), but also in reality with the ever changing of the Spanish government of the time and the formation and dissolution of the various tertulia (gossip and discussion groups).
“Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women” has been called the second greatest Spanish novel – Don Quixote being the first. And both novels are interested in similar ideas: what is real? Don Quixote is, obviously, mistaken in his observations (we all know of his famous windmills), but Galdós is more realistic. He forces us to ask ourselves why Fortunata can’t, in fact, find happiness with Juanito. Yes, we know society would never permit such a thing since Juanito is married in the eyes of God and society to Jacinta, but that’s a much different construct than believing a windmill is really a monster. Galdós is asking us to question why we accept society as it is, he just does it more subtly than Miguel de Cervantes did. There no real reason why Juanito can’t just leave his wife for someone he might love more, it’s just a construct of society that prevent him (as well as the fact that he’s a “player” and doesn’t really love anyone anyway).
Guillermina, this novel’s Saint, is also asking these same questions, but in a much different way and does so much more proactively. Instead of sulking around wishing reality were better, she actually does something about it – she’s harasses anyone and everyone to give money, bricks, timber, fuel, even a hat or a pair of pants for her orphanage. Businessmen, clergy, the wealthy and even the poor with something to give are not safe from her alms requests, and if you don’t have something to give, she’ll put you to work. She shakes up the dusty, lazy masses and gets them onto something more productive.
And all the characters engage in their own world building, no matter how small (Dona Lupa’s fake, cotton breast), to Maximiliano’s lunacy, to Feijoo’s pragmatic (and very modern) world view and advice for Fortunata, and even poor Mauricia (who looks just like Napoleon) and her drunken delirium. One character, the above mentioned Izquierdo, finds work as an artist’s model posing as famous historical figures, and another, Ballester, sees himself as capable of truly loving Fortunata. Everyone here is possessed by their own demons and delusions, hopes and fears, and it all mixes up to create fabric of life where everyone is interconnected – a theme Tolstoy explores in War and Peace where every person contributes to and is affected by the tides of history.
As I read over my notes for this novel I realize I’m only touching the very surface here. This is a massive novel, not just in size (over 800 pages in my hardcover edition), but massive in its beauty, too. Though Galdós is not given to long, overly poetic descriptions of nature, there is still an enormous amount of beauty here, but it’s always countered by the reality of whatever given situation the characters find themselves. We may see a beautiful countryside one day, and over the next few weeks have that view blocked by a church being built. No image serves one purpose, everything here is working overtime to show us life in all its complexity and frustration.
On a personal note I was greatly moved by this novel. I feel as if I were to one day walk down to my mailbox only to discover the world’s largest and most perfectly cut diamond just laying right there on the sidewalk in broad daylight with everyone walking right past it and not seeing it. In fact I’m actually mad that this novel is not spoken in the same breath as Anna Karenina, or Don Quixote, or Ulysses, or Middlemarch, or Moby Dick. This is a novel of the same quality and greatness as the greatest of the masterpieces ever published, yet it is almost nearly forgotten – and is, currently as I write this, out of print in English. Madness.
And so now, like one of the characters in the novel, I feel as if I should become obsessed with the idea of telling the world about Galdós and his nearly forgotten masterpiece. I want to read everything the man ever wrote, then re-read it, and spend my life writing about what I’ve read, and go digging through academic journals for the handful of people who have written scholarly work on him so I can look them up, correspond with them, and start book groups devoted to nothing but Galdós! Perhaps this could be my new reality, like a character in the novel who chooses for whatever stubborn, mad, or illogical reason to do what he wants for reasons he’s not quite sure of.
And maybe I’ll wind up like Maximiliano who stands before his future where on one hand he’s entering a monastery because he’s seen the light or on the other he’s being committed to an insane asylum because the light he sees is only corrupting him.
There’s a scene in this story that could have been the entire story: in the new Indian restaurant where the owner is telling his patrons to pay what they think is fair but is worried about the Indian customers paying nothing. The tension between Nirmala and Gautama about if he’d pay or not and if he’d disappoint her could carry an entire story and have wound up exploring a lot more about these characters.
However, we have to consider the story we’re given and not the story we wish it to be.
As for what we have, I’m not sure what I think about it. On the one hand there is an awful lot of telling and very little showing. I know that sounds like something you’re taught in a first year creative-writing class, but good writing comes from including the reader and allowing the reader to contribute, not forcing the reader to just accept what we’re told. In this way the story is poorly crafted. Just saying Nirmala is a good person doesn’t make it true, it just means the author isn’t working hard enough to let us come to that conclusion ourselves.
Also, why do “… many foreign students who are living away from home for the first time” loiter on Craigslist and Backpage? This is never explained. We’re just told this and it’s dropped as if we who aren’t foreigners are intuitively going to know the reason why. Yes I get it that a lot of foreigners might be trying to meet people from their own country, but this is not a problem for our main character, so it doesn’t fit here.
Yet this is not necessarily a bad story, either. There are some interesting ideas floating around, but, unfortunately, we never get to explore them deeply. The most obvious theme is that of value and acceptance. We’re told about how the dowry is still a thing in India, how Gautama pays for sex (and haggles with the girls), how the restaurant owner leaves it up to his guests to figure out what the worth of his services are. Freedom is another theme explored, first with his being taken away when he’s arrested, and later when the prostitute at the end is both free and enslaved (her jumping up and down naked while he holds her breasts is both liberating and shameful somehow).
My biggest gripe is that we just never explore any one thing in great depth. The author wants to tell so much story that we’re actually given very little meal to eat. That’s why I wish the author had been more focused and narrowed the story down to just a scene at the restaurant. We still could have learned about his buying of prostitutes, about his epileptic sister, about his relationship with Nirmala, all while being much more immersed in Indian culture (a culture foreign to most people reading this story and whom I’m positive the author wants to educate us about).
All-in-all this is a good draft of a story, but it’s not clear what it really wants to tell us about these characters. We learn very little about Nirmala as a character other than she’s kind and normally self-conscious. And we learn even less about Gautama because even though we’re given a lot of information about him, we don’t really see him as a fully fleshed out character. Just because he likes sex and is having a hard time with his parents and girlfriend does not a unique character make – he’s like everyone else.
And in being like everyone else is where we do get this story’s only possible success. Change the race to a couple of white kids and this would literally be the most boring story on earth, but because the character’s are Indian we get to see them as being normal, as not being “Indian” but as being regular People (capital “P”) like everyone else. It shouldn’t be important that they’re Indian, it should only matter that they’re People, and in how boring these characters are the author succeeds in showing us any culture can be boring and have many of the same issues.
But that’s not enough to save this story because I never felt like the author was implicitly trying to make that point. In fact the ending could (and I say could because I just want to explore this possibility and not because I’m sure I fully believe it) be read as racist where the only happy prostitute is the black prostitute. She’s made to jump up and down like a National Geographic video with her breasts bouncing up and down as he touches them and she smiles. He’s literally bought a black person for sex and she likes it. So any ideas of racial equality are thrown right out the window. With so much of the story about the value we place on things, this could be read as a very loaded image.
I think the worst reaction you can have to someone’s art is to be bored and have no reaction to it. This story bored me. I don’t think it’s bad, but it’s not very focused and can’t seem to settle on what it wants to deal with.
We start when the narrator is in elementary school – I wasn’t sure if it was a boy or a girl narrator, though that’s my own prejudices since for some reason I thought it was a girl – and we learn a little about death through a few characters. We also learn the character likes to follow the rules and is a smarty-pants: likes to be smarter than everyone, but also wants to fit in.
I liked this first bit.
The middle part I didn’t get. Jesus showed up, offered to help him with his novel, the narrator refused help but gave Jesus $10 and then regretted not asking for help. We learn the narrator is obsessed with writing about Jesus and guilt and we’re given a few clues in the first part about this (he prays that Beverly will die, and she does), but because the story is written in these short bursts that I don’t believe the narrator has earned us believing anything about them no matter how much the author tells us we should.
The final part is a little better, but the narrator is so glib about death and paints his wife as a saint that there’s no character growth here. There’s no growth at all, really. No emotions are earned, the jokes i the hospital are bland, and I feel nothing when the narrator dies. There’s no emotional core here, no character to empathize with because the narrator is too busy being judgemental. And since we learn more about other characters (unreliability) then nothing here rings true because we’re not given enough of the narrator to really know him.
This started off well, but it falls apart pretty bad. I didn’t hate it, but I was bored to tears, too. And this story seems to follow a trend (at least as published in the New Yorker) of stories that are unfocused, with no real point, but have a few very well written lines sprinkled throughout: “Saints are not the easiest companions.”, and “I was working on my novel – don’t even ask…”
But really, “don’t even ask”. There’s nothing here.
Disclaimer: I never look at the name of the author before reading a story in the New Yorker, I cover it up with my hand so as not to be influenced by gender, race, or if they’re famous already. I take each story as it is with no preconceived notions.
This story sucks.
Look, I get it, the author wants to tell a story about the isolation of a stay-at-home mother. And that’s a great subject to write about, but there is absolutely nothing of interest going on here. Nothing. This is the most boring and pointless story I’ve ever read. And it’s not just boring, it’s badly written. Very badly written.
Here’s an actual sentence in the story: “Karen didn’t trust the people of this city, the city in which she lived.” This was actually printed in the New Yorker. An adult typed that sentence, that sentence was mailed off to a posh New York office where other adults with fancy college degrees sat around a table and allowed it to be published for millions of people (well, maybe like a few dozen of us who actually read these short stories) to read.
Here’s the deal, and I’m going to give the author some benefit of the doubt: The narrator, Karen, is an unreliable narrator. She’s lost her sense of identity after having a child, “It’s easy to lose yourself in a kid, even easier if you love it.” and so everything we get here is the product of a lonely person who has lost touch of the world, of her career (writing), and exists in such an insular world of consumer products and loneliness, that she’s almost become like her infant daughter with no conception of how the world works or any ability to express herself in it. But the story is so poorly written that the writer absolutely fails to convince me that this was the intention.
I’m not asking for James Joyce here – that would be unfair to anyone – but is this really the best someone could come up with to explore how a stay-at-home mother might feel about her isolation? There is no character here for us to hang our hat on, even in flashback Karen is so dull, has no personality (sorting pictures in the library and wetting her feet in a stream over vacation is her favorite all-time memory) that I can’t give the author credit for giving us an unreliable narrator whose loneliness and disconnectedness is being explored and that we’re actually inside her mind.
But even worse the author is just plain lazy. At one point when Karen goes back to retrieve the stroller she drags it behind her. Has the author never pushed a stroller before? Even if the front wheel were to fall off, all you would do is tilt it back and push it on it’s two remaining rear wheels. Even a martian from Plan 9 would figure this out. But here the writer is having Karen drag it behind her.
Oh, but maybe that’s intentional?
No, sorry, don’t buy it. I don’t buy it because once Karen is freed of her baby (leaving it at the cafe) she sort of comes out of her shell, starts to feel a bit more like her old (though still boring) self. Freed of that anchor she can see the world right again, like her husband did after the baby was born and he started to come into focus more. Karen would not drag a two wheeled stroller behind her because nobody is that dumb, it’s just lazy, ill-thought out writing on the part of the author.
So I can’t give the author credit for immersing us into the lonely mind of Karen.
And what about her neighbor, what was that all about? Seemed like that was going somewhere, but nope, he’s just back to stealing her mail. The once place where there might be some conflict for the story just gets pushed aside.
There is no story here. I feel no sympathy with Karen because there is no Karen. And don’t tell me that was the point either. Yeah, the line about “her only living in a world of women where she is a new, incompetent employee.” is interesting and seemed to have a lot of potential to explore how a lonely mother navigates this strange new world of women always giving advice on how to raise other people’s children. That would have been a fantastic story. But Linda, our representative for this cult is just as dull as Linda. And then she’s just gone at the end of the story anyway. So who cares?
This whole story is a tepid mess. It’s lazily written (“She felt oddly good… “), has no point or conflict, contains no characters of any interest (except the neighbor who we never explore), and whose insightful contribution to arts and letters is the line “The past was just a place where uncontrolled freaks you had never consciously decided to include in your life entered it anyway and staggered around, breaking things.”
That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. No wonder Karen’s best friend took up heroin and stopped answering her calls. I’m considering picking up the habit myself after reading this nonsense.
Usually when someone tells us there are two types of people in the world they usually paint in broad or humorous stokes, not by observing one type of person sees the world as a series of still moments independent of everything around them while the other sees the movement from one state of being to another. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s story is about this difference in how people see the world, their place in it, and how they remember it.
The main character, Vadik, is someone who believes he can change his surroundings to influence his own experiences and life. He believes living in America will change his life and he’s eager to wander New York and sit at a cafe and read something intellectual as if he’ll become the image he has in his mind of a certain type of person. Yet he’s constantly disappointed, or at least challenged by what reality presents to him. Right away, before the plane lands at JFK, he’s unable to even see the city of his dreams as it’s covered in dense clouds hiding the skyline. Everywhere he looks the world is formless, “gray jellied mass of the ocean, across a foggy Verrazano bridge”, as if it waiting for someone to interpret it.
And Lara Vapnyar does a nice job of never imposing her own beliefs on the story. Yes Vadik is continually challenged by the people he meets as to what reality is all about to them, there is never an instance where we feel Vadik (or anyone else) is wrong to believe what they believe. Vadik’s friends have their own life that they may or may not believe is happiness: is the cemetery near the playground a portent or does it mean nothing at all? We’re never told what to think, though there is a lingering sadness to everything that makes you wonder if there is really only disappointment in everything.
Everything here is open to how the characters interpret the world around them: his friend sings a Leonard Coen song badly, someone is making a Nabakov video game (and I gleefully imagined a 3rd person action/adventure of Pale Fire like EA’s 2010 game, Dante’s Inferno), one of the many salads he could have bought is expired, the cheesecake is “disgustingly sweet”. We’re told “He just wanted to lead the life of an American for a while, whatever that meant”, and later we get the Rime of the Ancient Mariner and with it the many meaning symbol of the albatross (repeated again in the scarf Rachel doesn’t take off). Everyone is making some meaning of their life as best they can.
Ultimately we wind up with Vadik and Rachel and the night they spend together, a night that, according to Vadik’s friend may even have been dreamt, but that leaves us wondering about how if we’re seeing the world in the “right” way or if there even is a “right” way. Vadik remembers this night nostalgically, but how does Rachel remember it? All she’s left with is his note (though all he’s left with is still wet socks). Through her we learn every idea can be challenged, that even the lyrics to our favorite song can be seen by someone else as offensive.
We even go as far as to explore how can we even hope to make someone else happy if we can’t interpret what it is they want. Lara Vapnyar uses The King’s Breakfast to make this point, mirrored when the kid at the beginning gets a stomache ache from the Russian breakfast, and again when Rachel offers him a drink he does like.
We do get some resolution in Vadik’s note to Rachel, “You’re beautiful”, because at least he’s made a decision. He believes she’s beautiful, though what his idea of beauty means is unanswered. He just says she’s beautiful without qualifying it. Is she beautiful because she disagreed with him about everything? Because she took him for a night? Because he liked her runny nose? We never learn, and neither does she. Is she supposed to beleive everything about her is beautiful? What is it Vadik finds beautiful about her? Is it just the idea of her? Like a dream?
There is no resolution to all this, and I doubt there could be, but I was a little disappointed that we never get any sort of change from Vadik. Lara Vapnyar doesn’t really grow her characters and everything at the end is the same as it was at the beginning, but at least we the reader have been given something to think about if we’ve never really considered other people interpret the world differently than we do.
Everything in the story exists in a sort of milky cloud, as if the plane at the beginning never landed, and everything is formless and awaiting interpretation – though the one concrete image we get is everyone on the plane applauding when it landed, itself an odd image that makes you wonder how bad the flight had been, but is the only example where everyone in the story agreed on something.
This story made me think of one of my favorite novels, Alain-Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, a story with similar ideas. Yet in that novel the characters are disillusioned where as here I’m not sure anyone is willing to even think about the possibility they may be seeing the world poorly. Everyone here very much wants to be happy and are willing to live in a house where the children swing over the gravestones because at least they are working towards an even greater happiness.
Perhaps what Lara Vapnyar is trying to show us how is how we are constantly fooling ourselves into believing the reality we’ve constructed is going to make us happy but she’s also showing how difficult it is to change our views. Even becoming disillusioned is dangerous because it might turn out to be like a Visa that expires in three years and forces us to have to start all over again.
I loved this story for how hard it made me work, and how much I had to really think about it what it was trying to say.
This is, potentially, the worst short story ever written. It’s bad, it’s dreadful, it’s poorly written, it has no point, it’s not clever. This story is so bad it is an insult to the man who chopped down the tree that was turned into the paper the story was printed on. This story is so terrible the woman who drives the truck that delivers the printing ink to the New Yorker is considering holding the next shipment hostage until the editors apologize personally to her and her family for their incompetence. She works too hard, puts up with too much traffic and back pain to waste her time allowing the staff at the short story department of the New Yorker to waste all that ink on something this bad.
This story isn’t just bad, either, it’s irresponsible, too. This story gives permission to community college creative writing students everywhere to write stories with no point, no dramatic tension, that fills page after page of seedy, bleak, modern landscape descriptions which offer no insight into anything real and only serve to show how much angst the writer feels. Creative writing professors should immediately call their local union and organize a strike whose end can only come when the author, Mr. Barrett is stripped of his typewriter and is forced to go on Anderson Cooper and apologize to America for wasting our time.
Mr. Barrett should then be required to live as one of Tolstoy’s characters who must find meaning in working the land, freeing the serfs, and making some sort of amends for his sins through honest, hard work. He must swear to never looks at an urban landscape and describe how bleak everything is without having any concept of the people who actually live there. Mr. Barrett must be forced to actually meet the man who chops down the trees that are turned into books, learn how though this wage laborer never went to college spends his days off reading Joyce and hopes each tree, each branch, is put to use to bring some sort of artistic genius into the world.
Or perhaps Mr. Barrett can spend a week riding along with the ink delivery lady and learn how she put 4 daughters through college on her salary all by herself with no husband, and how they all turned out OK because they worked hard and didn’t spend all day judging people who have less or more fortune than they do.
Why writers like Barrett think stories like this interest anyone is only slightly less of a wonder than why the editors who sat around a table said to each other, “Yes, this is the perfect story to be published in our venerable publication”. The editors are also to blame for they enable this garbage. At best, they are such a timid flock of under-talented dropouts that none of them had the courage to stand up and say, “This story is not good” because they didn’t want their peers to think they weren’t “edgy” or “modern”.
Well, New Yorker editors, you know what’s “edgy” and “modern”? Good writing and characters that aren’t so thin that theoretical physicists could mine their substance to study the smallest building blocks of the universe.
But I want this story to serve as an example. I want this story to be held up as an example of how low we fell as a civilization so that we can finally begin the slow climb back up out of the refuse heap that has born authors such as Mr Barrett. I want our ancestors to look back at this piece of garbage and say, “This was a turning point in all civilization where the stupid of the world were finally stripped of their power!” And this story will be enshrined next to the law Code of Hammurabi as evidence of how we rebuilt the world into a better, more just place. A world where we don’t write about shallow teenagers selling pot because they’re mad at their rich parents, where characters don’t have to constantly wash their hands with that stupid pink soap found in schools, where we don’t get descriptions of refuse blowing around in the breeze. In short where we don’t get the same lazy, dishonest, and idiotic ramblings of someone who has no concept of how real people actually live in the world.
Why is War and Peace the greatest novel ever written? In my heart I know it is, but to actually explain why, even after four consecutive annual readings, feels as elusive to me as understanding what lies beyond death. For every other novel I’ve read I have sat here on my computer and have been able to summarize my thoughts and ideas, even for difficult novels such as Nostromo and The Brothers Karamazov and even Tolstoy’s other masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Yet War and Peace challenges me to throw a rope around it, drag it to the ground, and wrestle one or even two “meanings” from it. Perhaps the novel is, in some way, a literary manifestation of Tolstoy himself: brilliant, and difficult.
On this most recent reading I kept a journal for each chapter, a total of a little over 360 single paragraph summaries, ideas, and observations. I had hoped this would help me grapple with my inability to explain what it is I love so much about the novel and what it is that draws me back every year to it. I had hoped I could read through my notes and discover, “Yes, here is the reason why this novel is the masterpiece.” But not only have I been unsuccessful here, I can’t really tell you what the novel is even about.
Now don’t mark me an idiot, I know what the novel is about, but to actually summarize War and peace into a few sentences is not only impossible, but it would be unfair to the novel to even attempt it. I mean, why do you think Tolstoy (and his poor wife) spent all those years and over 1200 pages if we could boil his masterpiece down to a blurb? Had he been able to make his point in a paragraph he would have.
Some people have said the novel is about life itself, and while that is quite true, it doesn’t really explain what’s going on between the pages. Another novel, Ulysses, has also been described as being about life itself, however, you can also say it’s the story of a man, Bloom, and one day in Ireland. And while that doesn’t do Joyce’s work any justice, it does at least give you a description you can tell your friends when they ask you what it’s about. Yet we can’t do this with War and Peace. We could say it’s about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, but since most of the book deals with the effects of the war, not the war itself, it would be disingenuous to describe it this way.
However, we can start by saying the novel is about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 to give us something of a starting point.
When Tolstoy began work on the novel he had envisioned writing about the Decembrist uprising in 1825, but every time he started on the subject he had to keep going back in time to find a place to even begin the telling of that story. War and Peace is the result of Tolstoy wanting to tell the story of the men who rebelled against Nicholas I and what happened to them (they were all either killed or exiled to Siberia), but to know why they rebelled against Nicholas I he realized he had to tell us about how Alexander I defeated Napoleon and what happened to Russia in the opening years of the 19th century.
We can begin to see the problem in pinning down War and Peace when even the author couldn’t figure out how to tell the story – and even wound up writing a whole other book!
And things get even more complicated because to understand the men (and women) of the Decembrist uprising, why they rebelled and why some even stayed in exile in Siberia decades after those events, we have to know about Russia herself, how Russians felt about their country, how they felt about each other, about Europe, and about life itself. To fight the Tsar knowing you could be killed or exiled, knowing if you did live you would give up everything you and your family owned, facing possible poverty, and absolutely a loss of your social standing. To understand all that we have to know about what is in the heart of men and women, and in this search for meaning is what War and Peace attempts.
For me the most interesting, and important character in the novel is Fedor Ivanovich Dolokhov. Dolokhov is a cold, calculating, tough, independent, street-smart, brave, vindictive, and passionate man. He will milk his friend out of a fortune at cards because he was spurned by love, but is the most caring and loving son and brother a mother could ask for. He will fight with the most passionate bravery for his country, but will also get drunk and tie a policeman to a bear causing Dolokhov to be reduced to Private in the army. Dolokhov is a man of extremes and he is almost impossible to understand.
Dolokhov reminds me a lot of Pavel Fyodorovich Smerdyakov in The Brothers Karamazov. Smerdyakov is described by Father Zossima (in a prediction early on) that suicides deserves the greatest pity. How is this related? Smerdyakov is shown as being a very bad person, yet we never get the novel from his point of view, we only ever see him through another character’s eyes. In the end when he does kill himself, we are left to ask why? Was he consumed by grief, remorse, or what? We never learn, though an empathetic person can assume.
And so the same is true of Dolokhov. We never get his point of view, we only see him through another character. We could say Dolokhov is a “bad man”, and he certainly does some bad things, but is he really a bad person? We know almost nothing about the man except for how his actions impacted those around him. We never learn why he really bilks Nicholas of all that money, or what he really thought of Petya, or Pierre – we only see what he does.
This, like Smerdyakov, is Tolstoy’s test to us to see if we’ve learned anything about human beings in the novel. Just as we understand why Natasha nearly threw away her life for Anatole Kuragin and why Pierre married Hélène Kuragina, we get no explanation for what was in Dolokhov’s mind, but we have to be empathetic towards him and perhaps even forgive him the way Andrei finally forgave Anatole.
And why is this important? Why should we care at all about Dolokhov, a character who only pops up every few pages here and there in a novel over a thousand pages long? Well I believe it is because Tolstoy wants us to spend our energy on being emphatic towards our fellow man while not worshipping any man. Tolstoy spends many pages (many, many pages) telling us how we should never worship any man.
He holds up Napoleon as the horrible example of hero worship – entire nations fell under his sorcery – because we learn how men like Napoleon are not great, in fact they have hardly any influence at all. “Great” men are at the mercy of everyone and everything around them, more than simple men like Dolokhov. Napoleon’s march towards Russia (and flee from Russia) was not because Napoleon was great, but because a billion circumstances and chances led to those events taking place, not because Napoleon desired it and made it happen. Napoleon made nothing happen, he was merely the face of responsibility. He was no more or less important than a cloud, “how differently do those clouds glide across that lofty infinite sky!”.
We never say Dolokhov caused anything to happen as we do Napoleon, we only see how people reacted to Dolokhov, usually for the worse. Dolokhov controlled nothing but only took advantage of whatever situation he was in. Had Nicholas chose not to play cards Dolokhov would never had won all that money. Had Anatole listened to Dolokhov Natasha never would have threw away Andrei, and had Dolokhov not been so “cool” Petya never would have been so inspired to run into battle and get himself killed.
And so why does Napoleon get all the credit for the actions leading up to 1812 but Dolokhov gets no credit for being the center of War and Peace? Because neither statement is true, Tolstoy only uses these two men as an example to prove his points: no person should be worshiped, no person can ever know what is in another man’s heart, and all people should find empathy with everyone else exactly because we can’t know their heart.
And so just as the novel is not about Dolokhov, we understand why it is so difficult to discover what War and Peace is really about exactly because it is about Dolokhov. All people are connected via an infinite number of spider web connections, invisible threads all pulling and pushing on each other from all sides like so many vibrations in a piano string, making a music we call life and history. These threads are invisible and the reasons why someone may pluck a string at any given time may be impossible to understand (and even may anger us), but it is all part of a greater symphony, a piece of music we all write, but that no person is in charge of. This is what, I believe, Andrei actually saw on his deathbed, those ephemeral and tenuous threads just barely perceptible above his head as if a marionette had suddenly became aware it was being controlled by a conductor upon whose lap he sat.
The reason why War and Peace is a masterpiece isn’t because of the beautiful writing (though it is beautiful), the realism (though it is the ultimate example of realism), or even because of the riveting story (and it is a great tale). The reason why this is the masterpiece and why I keep returning to it year after year is because we actually experience the meaning of the universe, we actually see the infinite as if we were looking through a lens that starts off narrow but gradually opens up to infinity until the entire world beyond is visible to us until the entire frame is filled with that beautiful blue sky above:
“How was it I did not see that lofty sky before? And how happy I am to have found it at last! Yes! All is vanity, all falsehood, except that infinite sky. There is nothing, nothing, but that. But even it does not exist, there is nothing but quiet and peace. Thank God!…”
Being in my 40’s the idea of leaving a decent paying job, taking out loans, and going back to college to finish my degree is, honestly, scary. The possibility I might just wind up in a lot of debt with no good chance to put my feet back under me, starting over as I near 50 feels like it could take more energy than I feel like I have in me. Yet after finishing this beautiful and sad novel, I at least have something I can look to and say, “I don’t want to be Drogo from The Tartar Steppe.”
From what I’ve read about other people’s perception of this work is that it is an anti-war novel, that it exposes the futility of military life and how such a life can lead to nothing worthwhile since all military life can rest on is the possibility of killing someone someday. Tolstoy would agree, too. He would tell us to go live on the farm, free our serfs, and harm no person. The military is a lot of hurrying up to wait for something that can never come: glory, because there is no glory in killing or dying.
However, that’s not what this novel is about. Yes there are elements that deal with how pointless the military life is, just as there are some passing similarities to Kafka’s The Castle, but what The Tartar Steppe is really about is missed opportunities.
Drogo (and doesn’t that name just sound like the work drudgery?) has done nothing but wait and expect something good to come to him. Drogo is not a hard worker, and he’s not particularly clever, either. Drogo trades in his youth for the hope it will be repaid to him at some future time when something great will happen to him, or at least he’ll be well recognized and his life put all in order. And so he waits. And he waits. And he waits.
Drogo does nothing, however, to actually live. He takes the word of the men around him, men who have their own interests and ploys, and believes that if he just does what he’s told that he’ll be rewarded. But they see he’s an easy mark, tell him stories of Tartar’s on the wild over the desert’s horizon and he buys it all. He isn’t curious to find out if any of it is true, he just accepts it.
Now we could say that this is why the military is bad – nobody questions authority and orders – but this happens all the time to most people, it’s not unique to the military. We believe if we go to school, get a certain job, buy a certain house, that life will reward us in spades. We pass the time watching TV (or reading books), we “run and we run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking, racing around to come up behind you again”. We stay at some dead-end job for too many of our best years until it’s too late to start over.
This novel is about the dangers of not doing anything, of going along with what we think other people, or even society wants from us. And then when we’re old and sick and tired, what then? What can we say we lived for? For a job? For a mortgage? Why didn’t we take those opportunities when we had them?
Halfway through the novel the POV shifts and we get the sad adventure of Angustina. This whole section takes place with not a word from Drogo. Why? Because he missed a chance to go out on patrol with them. And every other time the only time he learns about an opportunity is when someone else tells him or shows him. The General tells him the Fort will be reduced, Simeoni tells him about the road: he never discovers anything for himself. Even his one chance for love he failed at because he didn’t take any chance at all to tell her his heart, he just kept making excuses for why he shouldn’t take that chance.
Drogo was a coward. This is why he’s whisked away to the Inn at the end. He’s not a real military man, and so he won’t even get to see what he thinks he wants. Fate took it away from him because he was undeserving. And so we too would be cowardly if we chose the easy path everyday, if we didn’t go out and see where some strange road leads to.
I know this sounds a little cliche, but Dino Buzzati is telling us not to waste our lives. He may have meant don’t waste it for some Fascist regime in Italy, but this is a brilliant work of art and it transcends just one reading. He’s warning us against not standing up and taking charge of our own lives.
And so as depressing as I found this novel, it is also inspirational in it’s warning: don’t let time get away from you because nobody will help you and they might even take advantage of you to get where they’re going.
I have no idea what the author was going for here. Was this all a plan for a TV episode? Were we supposed to ponder the racial stereotyping that goes on in media? Was this an examination of shallow, suburban lives? A sci-fi yarn about time travel?
I had hoped we were at least going to get a good twist at the end, but instead we get a whole bunch of exposition about what Emmett couldn’t possibly know (we’re even told he can’t know any of it), and then he just sees the boy go away with the satchel.
This wasn’t even fun, it literally serves no purpose. And it feels more as if the whole story is an idea for a story that was never fleshed out. Maybe the writer is trying to parallel the artistic struggle of the writer character – the episodic structure of the story mirrors how TV shows today are a series of multiple story-lines edited together fast enough to make you forget there’s no substance to any of them – but there isn’t enough in the story to convince me that there is anything really all that deep going on here. There’s no character “real” enough to feel like we can identify with any real struggle, be it race, or time travel issues.
Maybe I missed something, but just because the New Yorker publishes something doesn’t mean it’s going to be good.
I did like the line, “The warm commotion of a party.”, but that’s all this story felt like: “The warm commotion of a party”, heard from far away.
There are two stories near the end of Zweig’s book that stood out in their sadness and frustration. The first involved his attending a debate between George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Zweig, who is not a native English speaker, listens in to these aging intellectuals as they debate something, the theme of which he can’t quite figure out. He knows there is something brewing between those two minds, but he’s a stranger before them. The other story is of his elderly mother and how she was no longer able to rest during her walks on the public benches in Austria because Hitler stripped Jews of this basic right.
The story of how Zweig, and all of Europe got to the point where he was no longer part of the conversation and Jews were humiliated is what this book is about. We do not get the why, however.
Zweig begins the account of his beloved Austria and Europe as a child living in the strict and ordered German society that only the old were truly allowed to master. Even someone just turned 40 was still considered, in those days, to be too young to be really trusted with important work. A person had to spend their whole life working at a set pace, each year or decade moving up the ladder as if there was a checklist. But society was secure, there was safety, reliability, predictability in everyday life. Even the unpredictable could be managed with insurance and savings.
But Zweig had an artist’s mind and an artist’s youthful enthusiasm. He longed to break through those solid walls that had been mortared up generation after stoic generation, he wanted to be free, free to study art and music and think freely. And for much of his life he did. He rubbed shoulders with nearly every influential artist and thinker of his day. The book is an encyclopedia of who’s who.
But what we don’t get, and what he never saw, was what was happening off stage. While he was reading poetry, young people in the Balkans were planning the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. Everywhere there was injustice and poverty, only a select few, like Zweig, could really enjoy the lifestyle he so loved and longed for. When WW1 breaks out it’s almost a surprise for him and he is nearly ignorant of the suffering world:
“Why should we be concerned with these constant skirmishes with Serbia which, as we all knew, arose out of some commercial treaties concerned with the export of Hungarian pigs?”
But I’m not going to be too harsh on Zweig because though he was thoughtless, he was naive in a good-natured way. His life was art, and thinking, and all that is good in the world. Were everyone only concerned with poetry and coffee shops how magical would the world be? How free of pain and suffering? Yet the real world does not take artists very seriously. Someone might make a few headlines with a propaganda poem, such as Ernst Lissauer’s “Hymn of Hate”, but then have to flee after the war because nobody wants to associate with and are ashamed of such hateful rhetoric.
Maybe this is a reason why he killed himself (his wife too, though she is barely mentioned more than four times in the book so her story is obscure)? Maybe he saw himself like the old woman who once lived above him, a woman who once knew Goethe, but the link between them is ephemeral, dry, and dying. She was an old woman dying in her room and he only saw the link between her and a great artist. What of her? What of her suffering? We learn nothing. So perhaps his blindness to the greater evils of the world was what did him in. Maybe he knew that his silence on politics was a mistake, but he might have also known it wouldn’t have mattered anyway for who could have stopped either war? Who could truly oppose Hitler and those who followed him?
And this is why I wanted to read this book now, because of the current political climate here in America, specifically with the candidacy of Donald Trump. Someone like myself who tries to stay away from politics, who sees that man as a buffoon, is reminded how Zweig saw the rise of Fascism. He saw it and was unable to do anything about it until he had to flee his country where he becomes a stranger and outsider everywhere and leaves his elderly mother behind to be humiliated by not even being allowed to sit on a park bench.
All of it is absurd, really. From him sitting in Switzerland with food but drink not 5 minutes away from Austria where everyone starves, to the Belgians using dogs to pull guns on little carts, to men drinking all the beer in one country because it was cheaper than in another and they’d become so drunk they had to practically be rolled back across the border, and where in a war economy when cakes of soap are more valuable than real estate.
And after the first World War he could see how the world had been fractured, where artists like Dali and Joyce rewrite the way we interpret the world through art, where instead of free passage between nations one needs passports and fingerprints and interrogations just to move across a line on a map.
The world went mad, and then went even madder when Hitler began his march. Zweig had become an alien, not just from his country, but from all humanity. He might have as well been from another planet considering how much the world had changed from when he was born. From beautiful, ordered Vienna, to the crazed heat of Brazil as the world tried to blow itself up once more across both oceans.
And the worst part is to be helpless. What good can art do against such forces? Where in the world is there a place for music and literature and the visual arts? How many mouths can an oil painting feed? How much clean water is a poem worth? How many books can save an infant from dying of disease?
And so now we stand on the other side of this question where engineering and practicality and a total lack of empathy for ‘those people over there’ is considered a virtue. Entertainment is ok, but not art, art is a waste of time. Artists should be put to the factories to make computers and ring cash registers.
And I can’t say I disagree with Zweig in not wanting to live in a world where function reigns over art, where a mind must conform to only one way of thinking and that energy is only directly applied to utility.
So where do we go from here, those of us who have lived on after Zweig? What is left for us? What good can art do? What use is an artist?
I hadn’t intended to grow so pessimistic by the end of my review, but it does parallel Zweig’s feelings on the state of the world. And while I have no intention of doing myself in, I do have a great sadness for his world of yesterday, too.
Aside from two images which I felt were not very strong (the laughing portraits of the President’s in his dream, and the final “shaft” and “penetrate” (we get it, just trust your reader), this is a wonderfully crafted story.
Canty uses language, not as a blunt instrument, but finds words that can take on many, confused meanings. My favorite was “Yolked” from the hymn song title: I imagined eggs, reproduction, fragility, runniness, eggs in a basket. He then repeats the egg imagery by calling the congregation “hens and chicks”. Later we get the word “stalky”: Sander “hangs around the edge of the room like a curtain, a piece of furniture…”, like a stalker with shady intentions, but also like the growing yellow flowers his mother planted: unsure, unready, green. And he later mentions planting seeds (of faith) but implying sex, too.
One line that I wasn’t able to interpret was when Sander says to his mother about Clara and her father, “But the two of them… ” What does this mean? I immediately thought incest, but it’s left unresolved.
I loved this messiness of language, of confused faith in Sander who Clara turns to for genuine help but who can’t help her. He’s helpless, as is she, but at least she can have pleasure.
And in the end I felt as if he had been cast into that oblivion his faith believes in: “Still eight weeks of summer left”, and without Clara. An eternity for a 15 year old.
This story is what the play and film Amadeus would be if, instead of composers, Mozart and Salieri were writers and all the while Salieri was stealing Mozart’s work. Or you could say he imagined John Williams (the writer, not the composer) and blended it with Gone Girl.
I’m not sure if McEwan has anything to say here about plagiarism, friendship, hard work, or where ideas come from, but he’s written a fun story about someone who is more patient than talented and uses this “gift” to take something that isn’t his: fame.
The breezy style the story is written in works well because what is popular is usually effortless but we all feel just a little guilty that we don’t take “better art” more seriously and so Mr Sparrow takes advantage of our lack of paying attention to the more “serious” arts. Nobody in this story reads anyone else’s work, it just sells a ton of copies and gets made into movies starring famous actors.
But McEwan is also satirizing the serious artists too by saying they might be a bit too stuffy to be worth reading. John Williams was forgotten until long after he died, and though he was a great artist, nobody is probably ever going to read him (thought they’ll all want to and maybe even buy the Kindle edition but never really get around to it). Nobody is paying attention to art and so Mr Sparrow, our “hero” and thief who lives the most average of middle-class lives can take full advantage of the process and launch him to a height he could never reach by talent alone.
This is why I subscribe to the New Yorker because every once in a while you come across a fun little story like this.
Over the course of three days Tolstoy shows us what life is like for him and, more importantly, the incredibly poor peasants who come to him for help. He listens to each of them, gives most of the 5 kopecks, and tries to help those whom he can.
One of the issues he addresses – though a secondary issue for him in this essay – is how these poor are perceived. Many are intelligent, some are drunks, quite a few are rough and rude. Each of them has a story that, as each one tells it, makes them the victim to circumstances they have no control over. For plenty this is actually true, and for a lot of others, however, they are themselves to blame, at least in part for their varied predicaments.
The point here, then, is that these circumstances that afflict many of these poor are, as Tolstoy sees it, immoral. He sees the majority of people working hard for the comfort of a few. And he sees how the few have arranged things so that the law is on their side and that these poor people will never be able to compete. Their sheep are taken away, the husbands are driven into the Army, and the once strong are quickly taken by Death (as evidenced by the man with the lung infection).
And at the heart of all this is what Tolstoy sees as the most immoral law there is: land slavery. He believes that land ownership is no different than the owning of human beings. He believes that if everyone had an equal share then many of the problems of the poor would be solved.
And he would get his wish soon enough because since this was written in 1910, it would only be a few years later (after the War) when Communism would take over. And we all know how that worked out, though the failing of Communism actually still proves Tolstoy’s point in how the few will always live at the expense of the poor and exploited “many” (see Animal Farm).
What I feel like us readers could still take away from this 100 year old essay on poverty in a modern society is how we see the poor. To me there seems to be a strong divide over the issue. On one side are the people who wish to help support the poor, and on the other the people who believe the poor need to lift themselves. And I don’t think either side is totally wrong or totally right.
On the helping side we believe that if we offer assistance and money and free services that the poor will utilize all these resources for their betterment. But the problem with giving too much (and Tolstoy only ever gave 5 kopecks at a time) is that it cheapens the person you’re helping. Adults are not children, adults have to help themselves. And that is the opinion of the other camp who believe hard work and effort alone can rise a person up, but this point of view fails to take into account that the world a poor person lives in can very quickly hinder any progress with even just one accident – a sheep taken for taxes or the death of a spouse can ruin an entire family and send the children to the orphanage.
And I got the feeling in the first 2 days of the essay that Tolstoy often felt overwhelmed by the whole situation. He seemed to spend all his time trying to do something but it was far more than one person could do, not to mention being exasperated by his fame as a writer which always drew attention.
So what can anyone do?
Well, I do believe we have to help each other, but I also believe we have to help ourselves. But I also believe that the “system” is rigged against us. I don’t believe that all the land should be given away free, or really anything should necessarily be free, but I think the world we live in where we have so many laws and rules designed to insulate us from the morality of our decisions, and so many more rules which allows a very few people to control so much, that we should rethink the entire game.
But above all, having empathy for people, no matter how crude they are, is the best place to start. It’s easy to say (on the left hand) “Here, let me give you a bunch of stuff”, or (o the right hand) “You’re poor because you’re lazy” is just belittling from both sides. And I think the more we feel squeezed by the very game that a lot of people are losing at, the more strongly we take a side on the debate.
But maybe not taking a side is actually the answer. Maybe just treating everyone as a human being and being empathetic to everyone, including their weaknesses, we might come up with a better way of doing some good.
Tolstoy basically ended his life by running out the front door in the middle of the Russian winter which, of course, killed the old man a few days later in a train station, probably because he had grown so frustrated with ever finding a solution that it drove him mad. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an answer.
This is an incredibly well balanced overview of the Russian peasantry, that is divided up into 10 main chapters covering each of the following headings:
Population, where we learn about death and birth rates as well as how geography plays a major role in population;
Environment, where we get a deeper look at the geography of Russia and how that played a part in migration of peasants as well as how Russia grew during this period;
Exploitation, in which Moon attempts to balance the assumption that serfs were very badly treated (something the Communists were attempting to teach) against the more complicated reality of the interplay between landowner and serf;
Production, where we learn what was grown, harvested, and sold as well as why Russian peasants never advanced beyond the technology level of 16th century peasants in the rest of Europe;
Households, where we learn about the large, multi-generational households that were common and why they persisted;
Communes, wherein we learn about how the community of peasants was a vital factor in managing the estate, keeping order, and keeping everyone alive;
Protest, where we learn about the 4 major rebellions that took place before the 19th century;
Consumption, What the peasants ate and bought, and by inference how they lived day-to-day and what their interests were;
Continuity, where we learn not what changed for the peasants but how their culture survived, thrived, and was kept intact even when families were split apart, or entire communities moved thousands of miles;
Change, where we take a closer look at the myth that peasant society was static (see Production and how the peasant farming techniques did not change much).
This is a book designed for someone who wants a good introduction to Russian peasant society, overall Russian history, and a look at how different political influences can shape how we look at the data present. Moon does an excellent job of being very fair to not only the peasants, but also to the landowners (and even the tsarist’s government itself) by presenting the complexity of the issue of serfdom. While there are a few “evil players” here and there – Darya Nikolayevna Saltykova, for example – the interplay of power between the serf and the elite was dynamic, subtle, complex, and not nearly as black and white as the American slave plantations.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about this period in history, especially if you are a lover of Russian literature and wish to gain a keener insight into the novels of the great Russian masters who so often included serfs in their stories.
I had never read this novel before and though I knew what it was about I had never even had any of it spoiled for me so the entire experience was new. In some ways the novel is what I expected: a simplistic look at how a totalitarian regime can take power, but what I hadn’t expected was how correct, and even a little frightening it was.
While there is nothing new I could hope to add to the analysis of this novel, I did walk away with some very strong feeling that I must have spent over two hours here typing out as part of my review. Yet I keep deleting everything I write about this novel because of how politically charged it is and how my political opinions are just that: political opinions. Not only can I add nothing new to the analysis of this novel, I can add nothing new to the discussion of politics.
And maybe that’s the answer to the age-old problem of political systems: stop having such strong opinions about everything. The world needs less extremism, anyway.
So I’l just say this is a great book and I really enjoyed it and otherwise I’ll keep my opinions about it to myself.
Steinbeck’s greatest achievement was to give voice to the poor. Steinbeck’s critics could say he romanticized his subjects by making them all good souls who always had the high moral ground and earthy common sense, but so many of his subjects had been marginalized their whole lives that they were nearly invisible and so, I believe, deserving of a champion.
Yet many of Steinbeck’s stories end badly for the main characters, they are almost always defeated by the forces they hoped to struggle free from. For a time each character in a Steinbeck has hope for the future only to succumb to the cold reality that the rich and the powerful will remain rich and powerful and the poor will remain poor and exploited.
Yet still he gave a voice to the poor and he showed his audience how difficult it was for the less fortunate to rise out of their situation, how desperate they could be to change their lives, and how terrible it was for them to fail. Steinbeck imparts on the reader a great empathy for his characters because it is vital for us to feel the pain of these people. This is why, I believe, Steinbeck’s characters are almost always “good, honest people” because we believe ourselves to be people like his characters. And so when we see these characters struggle and fail we also struggle and fail and for a moment we empathize with these people.
Had Steinbeck’s characters been more like Tolstoy’s, full of faults and failings and hubris, he would have been less successful to get us to actually feel the pain of poverty and hopelessness because we would have had an excuse to blame the characters for their failings. Yet when the characters are a sketch, when we see only the good and watch how the bad washes over them, we understand, if only a little, the plight of people who cannot escape from their situations.
This was Steinbeck’s greatest achievement: he got us to actually care about people we might otherwise never even notice. Steinbeck didn’t need to create realistic characters like Tolstoy’s because he knew his readers were full of faults and prejudices; his job was to get those very people to not be selfish for a few hundred pages and show them how our insensitivity to the less fortunate could be devastating.
This story, like almost all of Steinbeck’s stories be updated to our own times with very few changes. Replace the pearl of the world with a lottery ticket, move the setting to an inner city or desperate country, and the truths would still be the same: the poor will be taken advantage of by the powerful and any resistance on the part of the poor will be dealt harshly by the law, no matter the justification.
And so when we ask ourselves “Why did Steinbeck never offer any solution to these problems”, then we should look in the mirror because he was actually asking us that question, he only gave us the tools to recognize there was even a problem to begin with.
The final image of the novel, of the old lady in rags and dying on a hard floor with a sack under her head as she fights to stay alive despite a lifetime of misery gives the novel a greater perspective than just a young man sadly in love with a woman he won’t have. The novel speaks to a greater need for people to live, at all costs and at any price, no matter the amount of pain it inflicts.
I have to admit to not feeling as close to Vladimir as I would have liked. Not because I didn’t share any of his experiences – what young man hasn’t – but there was a strange formality in him that seemed at odds with his age. I understand he was well bred and that his manners contrast beautifully with the situation of his love, but even when he was most mad, in the garden at midnight, I never really felt like I was with him. Had this been a slightly more modern novel – say written in the 1910’s or 20’s – there might have been a needed sexual undercurrent that is sorely missing here. I can’t blame Turgenev since we have to consider when the novel was written, but still it’s an element of human nature that is important.
Zinaida, however, though we never get the novel from her point of view, I felt much closer to. Her character is the real strength of the novel because we learn so much about her through her actions and the actions of everyone around her. She is a flirt, she is manipulative, she is poor (having once been wealthy), but she is not a bad person. In fact I felt more empathy to her than I did towards Tolstoy’s Anna – they were similar women, but Zinaida felt more … within reach. She wanted to be in love, not just be loved. And who doesn’t want that? All her suitors were dolts, except for the one man who did have her.
I liked the image of his father’s horse, the near wild Electric. This mirrored the father quite poetically and gave substance to his feelings in a way we could understand.
All-in-all this is a very sad novel, but it does speak to how we struggle in life to live and how imperfect we are. Yes we may know the right things to do, but passion is almost always stronger than logic.
This is the third time I’ve read this novella: once when I was in the Navy and had just watched Apocalypse Now, and again in college where we discussed the racist and colonial aspect of the novel. I have to admit each time I “enjoy” the novella just a little less each time, perhaps because I know the story so well from a few different points of view. The language is still beautiful, the racism still troubling, the theme is still inscrutable, but for whatever reason I don’t feel as if the novella speaks to me as it did when I was younger.
I’m by no means old, but at 42 I am, hopefully, more mature, more settled, and more unwilling to dash off into the world and rip every treasure out of the ground I can get my hands on. I am, such as the “intended” in the novel, a bit more willing to be lied to but only because I’ve seen the truth (at least a little bit) about how the world really works and am getting weary of “the horror” of it all.
A younger me would have been glad to drop everything, rush off into the proverbial jungle and conquer as much as I could all the while looking past the pain I was inflicting on the world around me and being quite arrogant in my actions. I would have said what I was doing was for the better of the world at large. That’s probably why I joined the Navy when I was 18 because I wanted adventure and didn’t much think about who would be at the receiving end of a giant marine cannon or how my own country’s national policy might be seen as arrogant by another sovereign nation.
The older me sees it as all a terrible game that can never be stopped because you can’t impart that wisdom to a younger generation. Young men will always want to rush headlong for glory, be it for money or extremism and nobody, especially the old, will tell them otherwise.
And this is what so much of Western Civilization is based upon: brute, youthful, arrogant force imposed on the bewildered and weak. And this is what, I believe, Conrad, at least in part, was trying to tell us: that the “civilized west” is terrible. It is terrible because it is based on lies. And that lie is that we have somehow conquered something, have driven out the darkness, that we are somehow better than people who live in grass huts.
But Conrad takes pains to show us we are not better, in fact we are the oppressors who are brutish and cruel and who lie to each other at every turn. We never see the natives act this way to each other, even the cannibals seem downright civilized. The white men gossip and can’t even manage to get a parcel of needed rivets from point A to point B. The white men are mad, mad with greed, hatred, and jealousy.
This is the way of the West, this is what drove the Romans to conquer Britain, and it’s what drove the Colonial Empires to conquer Africa and South America.
But what drives this greed? Perhaps this insatiable desire to kill and conquer is because, as Kurtz recognized, the “horror” of the darkness is so close at hand, lives right along the bank of the river, that the only way to keep from reverting to an animal state is to continually fire a cannon into its depth, no matter how absurd the outcome.
And perhaps we’d be happier if we just gave up civilization, gave up the lies and the greed, took up a bow and arrow and lived off the land? Seems far fetched, but every native in the novel who gets a little too close to Western Civilization dies.
But here lies the problem: is then the novel racist because it says all the black people in it are simple savages? This has been Chinua Achebe’s (and many other’s) argument against the novel because it does not elevate the native black Africans to the level of white compassion. But why would they want to be? Look how terrible the white Westerners behave! Why is a more “primitive” way of life less dignified than the man who in the middle of a steaming jungle still keeps a starched color and a pure white petticoat? I’d argue the Westerners are the real savages.
Now this is all very extreme and I’m not advocating a return to the Savannah, but it’s important to keep in mind how silly we all are, how improbable our culture is, and how useless it really is in the end of all things. That’s why the lie at the end of the novel is so important because it speaks to how we manage to live everyday knowing we are all going to die and our cities will all crumble, that lie is the lie we have to tell ourselves to keep living otherwise we’d go mad like Kurtz.
And that’s why I didn’t quite enjoy this novella as much as I did previously because I found thinking about the futility of beating back the heart of darkness to be depressing and civilized men to be more savage than the hungriest cannibal.
There’s an old New Yorker cartoon depicting a novelist sitting down for a television interview. In the author’s lap is his latest novel, a massive 1000+ page tome. The caption reads the question by the interviewer who asks the author to sum up his novel in just a few words. The joke being that if the author could do that he wouldn’t have needed t write a 1000+ page novel. However, the joke implies the author is competent enough to actually need all those pages to tell his story.
Blood Meridian is a long fever study of violence in a sun-baked void. Death isn’t just everywhere, it is everything. Violence is inherent in every action of men, in every breath they take (their’s or another’s). The strong devouring the weak is the natural state of the universe of the novel. Yet there is a strange beauty to all this violence that even the most craven cannibal can appreciate: it is unromantic and perverted and deadly, but it has an attraction that is impossible to deny. Some men are more tempted to its beauty than others, some men actually revel in the violence while others flee or take refuge in the mud, but all men sense its power one way or another. This is what the novel, at least in my mind, is about. It is an evening – not as in the time of day but as a leveling or accounting thereof – of the violent animal nature which boils in all men and which they are to be held accountable for.
Blood Meridian is also very boring, over-written, and there is no dramatic tension what-so-ever. Plenty “happens” (at least in the parts where there is more than just page after page of simile description of staring at the sky), but there is no real danger for any of the characters, it’s just a continuing downward spiral of depraved murder headed by a character, the Judge, who I can only assume is the Devil. Whether the Judge is the Devil is hard to say since McCarthy is not one to go in for superstition and the supernatural, but I can’t describe the Judge any more than as the Devil himself. The Judge is everything violent and terrible in man (and in the universe), he is the reckoning, the evening of all men. He comes for blood and he is always just over the horizon. He probably doesn’t even actually exist in the novel but is just a placeholder for the violent tendencies of men personified as an enormous, hairless infant. He’s the imaginary friend of a psychopath.
The Kid we never get to really know because he’s at the mercy of everything going on around him – he barely seems to have any say in the events of the novel at all. The Kid is just led around for a few hundred pages while we watch. I had no sympathy for the Kid because there is nothing to be sympathetic towards. And maybe that was the point, but I can’t subscribe to a philosophy that says it’s okay to not empathize with human beings nor will I believe I have no say in who is in control of my own actions.
I will say that I’m not really sure what I was supposed to take away from the novel. I wasn’t particularly moved to reevaluate my opinions of violence or of savagery or of the cold nature of the universe, I didn’t spend my hours away from the novel contemplating the deeper meanings McCarthy thought he was expressing here, I was, much like the characters in the novel, unmoved by almost everything that wasn’t a beautiful simile of something and found most of what the Judge said to be obfuscated jibber-jabber.
Maybe McCarthy wanted the reader to feel numb and unsympathetic towards violence by the end of the novel? Maybe that’s why we shoot the dancing bear so we can feel grief for at least one dead thing? I don’t know. The book was long, but it doesn’t resonate. McCarty could have just said “The universe is beautiful with or without us”.
Maybe if I cared to I could read up on other people’s interpretations of the novel, but I think I know what I’m going to find there – a lot of hand waving and summary of the language of the novel with a few tentative stabs at what we think the novel is actually about. Maybe McCarthy really did have a point to make, but I feel like he summed his ideas up better in No Country For Old Men with the story of the father carrying the fire in the night. Blood Meridian is a cauldron of ideas McCarthy explores with more deftly (though perhaps not as beautifully) in his other novels.
Much like Eastern Europeans, the Irish seem to have an uneasy relationship with “the continent” Europe. Yes they are economically and geographically part of Europe but they always seem to be outsiders looking in. The Irish, like the Russians and the Hungarians do not have the perceived cultural heritage of, say, the Italians or Greeks with all their glorious Ancient History. That’s not to say Ireland and other nations do not have a vibrant history, but when we think of “refined Europe” we immediately think of England, or the French, or the Spanish Empire, or the German kings and their castles.
And so when reading Joyce I always get the feeling he is doing everything he can to make the case for Ireland and the Irish people to be noticed, to be taken seriously, to include the Irish as equals among states who have looked down on them for centuries. Joyce shows us a people just as deep in thought and sensitivity as any other people, but who are also afflicted by the oppression of the Church, of England, of their own poverty and shortcomings. Joyce shows us the art of his people to be just as rich as that of an English gentleman or tragic Greek hero.
This, I believe, is the aim of any artist: to be noticed. Not in necessarily for selfish vanity (though that often happens), but to force other people to take notice of what the artist is trying to teach us. Here Joyce is trying to teach us – show us – the lives of regular Irish people with all their hopes, fears, failings, humor, love, vice, and beauty. And Joyce isn’t trying to make the Irish to be better than any other people but he is trying to say “We are people, too”.
I suppose it might seem odd to think the Irish would need a cultural champion when there are peoples in other places in the world who have been prosecuted and murdered for millennium, but from another perspective that belittling attitude is eternally frustrating, it’s like being invited to the ball every year, but you’re made to sit at the kids table and wear a bib. Yes you’re “included” but its patronizing and belittling.
This is the power of any great art, to force us to empathize with someone we never would have otherwise even thought about. And this was Joyce’s gift to art in his ability to take us into the mind of so many different people in an absolutely realistic way. All his characters feel as if they could step right off the page and take up residence in our own lives and so we are forced to deal with these people. We might not like all of them, or even understand all of them, but we at least now know them and if we do a bit of work on our side and try to look at the world through their eyes then we might learn something and be just a little less selfish and self-centered.
In many ways this was the least science-fiction sci-fi novel I’ve ever read – and that made it even better.
This novel succeeds in all the ways that many of William Gibson’s later novels have fallen flat. McDonald, like Gibson, is interested in exploring the world we currently live in (and are just on the cusp of living in) but he goes much further and deeper than Gibson by creating characters who are tied emotionally to the place they live in, who inhabit a world that is believable in its backwardness, whose problems are mainly their own doing. McDonald is just a better character writer than Gibson and it improves the overall story.
All of McDonald’s characters in this novel are trapped, trapped either by greed, a rare heart condition, their past, or their religion. They are also all trapped by their geography, the great city of Istanbul that straddles the East and the West but in many ways has been corrupted by both instead of gaining the benefits of both. McDonald’s Turkey is full of racism, of religious dogma, of superstition, of old ways of thinking, and all the while strives to be more modern too. The city, of the novel and probably much like in reality, is a mess. The city is stifling hot, over-crowded, full of gossip and noise, and with very little real opportunity. Yet even among all the chaos of this city, people will still do what they can to get ahead, to make a life for themselves.
McDonald’s goal here is to show us in simplified strokes the crossroads the entire world has always seemed to be at – to either follow religious authority and the respect of one’s heritage or the road of technology and individual pursuits. And he shows us the successes and failures of each way of thinking, of how a priest can lose his way in the shaming of a poor woman who can find no other way to survive than to be a prostitute, or how a businessman can find no success without selling out his firm and his professional future. In this novel everyone is corrupted because they can’t live in both worlds at the same time. In fact one character nearly goes insane trying to see the djinn swirling around him in the city.
The novel also touches on the cruelty of how the dominant culture of a nation can impose itself on the weaker minorities either through subtle racism to outright murder. McDonald doesn’t make this a front-and-center point of the novel, but it’s always there in the background – either through how the Kurd’s are seen to how the Greeks were treated in Turkey. And it’s this never-obtainable national purity that seems to be an obsession that holds the Turkey of this novel back from being a true power, from being united through its shared culture and heritage. Turkey is like the mellified man of the novel, but one that never will turn into life giving honey, but just dust.
Everyone in the novel has a dream that is never fully obtained, they all have to settle for something less. And in this point I think McDonald makes his strongest case in how futile the effort is to try to change the world, or even to be as successful as we want in our own little lives because we’re too bust fighting prejudice, fighting greed, fighting economics, fighting superstition, and we;re all fighting it from different sides. He paints a world that is fractured not just through geography, but as a species. At one point he tells us that the body of water separating the two sides of Istanbul looks very much like any normal river, but it is in fact the sea itself flowing through the strait, not just some stream. And buried in the muck is 2000 years of forgotten human civilization.
Structurally the book is incredibly well thought out and executed. You can feel the lives of all these characters, the entire city too, folded on top of each other, breathing the same hot, dense, noisy, polluted air. Even in minor details – such as the man in red who fishes for a catch that no longer lives in the water there anymore, or the image of an unworn wedding tuxedo juxtaposed to the observation that young men will always kill young men – is much more literary than I was expecting. Though a science-fiction novel, there is very little sci-fi: this novel is more of an allegory for human civilization and how we can’t quite seem to get our act together because there are many truths, many ways of looking at the world, and many people willing to kill and die for those myriad beliefs, both the spiritual beliefs and the worldly.
This is a fascinating novel and one of the very best science-fiction novels I’ve ever read because it is so full of ideas and observations about what we are as a civilization and how primitive and advanced we are all at the same time.
When I was 10 or 11 my family became acquainted with a very old, and very wealthy lady named Mrs. Marsh. Mrs. Marsh lived in Duxbery Massachusetts all alone in a very beautiful English style home that looked out over the harbor. She had a fine garden, a library stuffed with books floor to ceiling, a large kitchen you could cook anything you wanted in for as many people as you knew (and all the people they knew, too), but she was blind and couldn’t much take care of herself anymore since her husband had died many years before. So my family helped her out with taking care of the house, the shopping, and some basic work for the house. We also read to her since she loved books but because she could no longer see, requested that she be read to.
Upstairs, through a concealed passage connecting to a room above the garage, was a room set up as an old school room. There was a chalkboard and desks, and even books for children to read. The room hadn’t been used in decades and was dusty and everything old, but it reminded me of the scene near the end of this novel where Toad sings his final song about himself to himself. One last act of selfish bravado before “growing up”.
Just a year later I would find myself having to move out of the home I grew up in, having to leave the valley and the river I had played along everyday since I had been born. I remember doing what Elspeth Huxley did in her novel, The Flame Trees of Thika, and kissed all four walls of my childhood home hoping that would mean I would one day get to come back – but I never did. My childhood stopped (a little bit) that day, and I physically left behind the first part of my life.
After that was Jr High, bad grades, worse friends, and a steady decline in any innocent childhood until I was shipped all the way out to Colorado. In fact I haven’t been back to Massachusetts except once since leaving – and that was over 20 years ago.
But this book reminded me of those days, of those comforts that you have as a child – those attachments to things, the attachments to people you cared about, the attachments to long, lazy days along a river, or laying under the sticky pines, or playing baseball in the spare lot. Days where friendships, and battles, and adventures where almost common, where everything was wondrous and sometimes even a little frighteningly mysterious.
Being a child is a lot like being one of the animal characters in this book. I think that’s why the animals seem to occupy a world with real people in the book, even interact with them, because they are living side by side, yet seeing the world so differently. This is why Toad can operate a car and not operate it well at all just as a child would crash it into a lake at high speed. This is why they can spend all day on the river or have everything seem to be provided for them – because it is being provided for – by the parents. Mole, Ratty, Badger, Otter, and Toad – along with all the other animals, are the neighborhood kids and the only time we meet a person is when they are in positions of authority or responsibility. That’s the only time we care about adults.
I think you could make a parallel between my interpretation of the animals here and how Richard Hughes creates his children characters in A High Wind in Jamaica. The kids in that book occupy their own world, and while not totally indifferent to the adults in their world, they see the adults as some distant land of foreigners, quickly forgotten and somewhat mistrusted.
And yet we do end with the growth of one of the characters, Toad, who sees that he will have to grow at least a little, become a grown up, think of others more often, and put aside his own foolishness and selfishness and pride. And it’s a sad ending too because for as much of a pain Toad is, we can’t help but not only like him, but want to BE him, too. Because we were all Toad once.
Though I’m not 90 and not blind like Mrs. Marsh, I do find myself having more in common with her than with my younger self as I think about this book. That wondrous world of willows and a magical Piper at the Gates of Dawn does not exist for me anymore, it’s nearly as dim as it is to the blind. And the old schoolroom is just as empty for me, full of dust as it had once been full of children. The desks all lined up still, but not for me.
We all have to grow up, but we can at least remember.
This book is a very dark glimpse into a dying world that once existed through all of human civilization. Fairies and giants and ghost ships are as much a part of these people’s real world as is God and the police who come onto the islands to kick people out of their homes.
I do wonder, however, what Synge’s intention was to portray these people as being so simple. He does admire their skill with the boats but he spends so much time with old men who tell tales that have no point that it’s easy to think the whole island lives and thinks as these old men do. Yet the young men, Michael in particular, leaves the islands to find work elsewhere because he knows there is no future on those grey, wet rocks. And the other danger is that we get pulled into a nostalgic portrait of the islands that never really existed outside of the imaginations of these old men.
Still, there are moments that are quite beautiful and telling as to how things really are on the Aran Islands. First is the priest, whom we never meet but are always told about braving the rough sees day after day and risking his life as he tends to his flock. Though we never meet this man, I couldn’t get the image out of my head of a man dressed in priest’s black, standing upright on a small boat tumbling upon the waves in a fierce gale. I would love to have heard his story. The other telling moment was for the funeral of the young man. This was a beautiful and very sad scene where they bury him in the same spot where his grandmother had been buried and they find her skull among the black planks on her coffin. This image, coupled with the young man having lost his head at sea, is a wonderfully confusing image where the nostalgic sensibility of the old is placed on the dead body of the young that can’t carry it to any future other than the grave.
Perhaps this is why all the stories end with absolutely no point because life is, to them, pointless. Life is hard, the women wear out in childbirth before they’re even 20, the men drink and fight and die at sea for a pittance of a catch, or the lucky ones move to America and never come back, their story unfinished.
One of the most interesting qualities of this novel is in the way it is told. I kept getting the feeling I was being told this story by a narrator who had taken me up in a hot air balloon and would describe to me everything going on below – we’d descend down and follow one person at a time, getting as close as possible to them, but never so far inside the minds of each character as to know their most personal thoughts. In this way the novel is very Norwegian in that there is a distance between people, an unspoken understanding between husbands and wives and children and neighbors, but never too much is said or revealed. For a novel that canvasses so much and can be quite intimate at times, there is a privacy, too.
Structurally the novel reminds me a lot of the book of Genesis. The novel begins with the first man in a pristine Garden of Eden who quietly and happily makes his way alone until the first woman comes along. Together the man and woman can split the labor and together they are fruitful and, of course, they multiply. And this biblical quality is not just a structural parallel, but it’s also thematic in how conservative its point of view is on what the ideal society should be and how it should be managed. Men are the unspeaking center of power and authority, women are the gossiping center of the domestic sphere, children are prodigal, foreigners are suspicious, and modernity is both a marvel and a corrupting force. The only virtue is that of hard work and extreme labor; all other thoughts are at worst sinful and at best a waste of time.
There is one part in the novel that I found to be difficult to relate to and that is when Isak physically controls Inger by picking her up and throwing her down to get her to stop (I believe) spending money. The scene is not written with anger and so there is no malice or enjoyment in what Isak does (he is not sadistic and therefore not what you’d call abusive), however, it does reflect a very uncomfortable dynamic between men and women where physical violence towards women is something that happens in the home. The novel does take the side of Isak, and this might turn many readers off.
And very often women do not come out looking all that great in the novel. Inger begins as a social outcast with a harelip, Oline is a terrible gossip and manipulator, Barbo is willful and (like Inger) a murderer, and by the end of the novel these women are all “tamed”. Not that all the men come off as saints, however, Isak and Sivert, and to a degree Geissler too are the characters of wisdom and righteousness whom should be obeyed. This male dominated society of conservative values and hard labor on the land is very much at odds with modern society and, again, many readers might find it borderline misogynistic.
Yet to dismiss the book based on what I’ve described in its philosophy would be to misunderstand the novel’s complexity and nuance. In one scene near the end there is a trial where Barbo is defending herself from the charge of having murdered her newborn. This parallels the exact same event that takes place near the beginning of the novel, yet here after so much time has passed, Barbo is defended by a woman who convinces the men in the court that they have no right to judge Barbo and her actions. She says that men could never know the struggles and the pain of a woman and to put her in jail would be cruel. There is a strong thread of social justice that is brought to the countryside, a more Christian and forgiving attitude towards one’s fellow neighbor. In fact the entire second half of the novel seems to parallel the New Testament whereas the first half parallel the Old Testament. There is even a clear dividing line between the two and this is when Isak sees a vision in the forest one night, a vision of perhaps Death, or Salvation, or God Himself. This is never explained in the novel, but the philosophy and attitude of the novel does change going forward from this scene.
The most interesting character in the novel is Geissler. I kept trying to imagine if Hamsun was using Geissler as a metaphor for God or for the Devil; he works both ways. For Isak and everyone at Sellanraa, Geissler is a God, he brings good fortune every time he shows up and seems exist solely to aid Isak and all his endeavors. Yet for the surrounding countryside Geissler is the Devil. He was driven out from his post as a public official, his involvement with the owning of property (the mine) brings near ruin to everyone in the town, he is poorly understood and even less liked by almost everyone else. I suppose the best way to describe Geissler is that of a gardener, someone who tends after the garden all day pulling weeds, favoring one plant over another for its perfection, tilling the soil when it needs work, bringing water when it’s dry (he literally teaches Isak how to do this) – he’s the Garden of Eden’s caretaker – he’s both Good and Evil, and he describes himself as “fog”: he’s everywhere all the time but he’s hard to see or understand.
But all the characters in the novel are brilliant and the entire construction of the novel is so well done, so clear, that I felt as if I too had walked with Isak out of the forest and started this small village and got to know all these people and all their troubles and successes. Very early on you inhabit the world of this novel completely to the point where you feel as if you knew where every stone lay on the ground, every tree sat in the forest, where that telegraph line was in the forest, where the huts were, what everyone looked like, what the weather was everyday – everything. And this is the novel’s greatest achievement in its slow, methodical world-building, its construction of an entire civilization, of all humanity on display in this one corner of Norway at the turn of the 20th century.
Oh how I had hoped this would be so much more than it is.
I have to admit total confusion as to what Conrad hoped to achieve with this novel. What starts off as insight into how precarious and arbitrary life in Russia under the government was at the time of the novel, ends with the (almost) humiliation of the people who sought to revolt against it. Everyone comes out as a loser in the end. Was Conrad trying to say everything in Russia is bad, even the people trying to change Russia? Was he really that cynical?
Then again, seeing as how events turned out in the years after the novel was published (the rise of Communism) then maybe Conrad really was onto something. Yet the book never really attempts to address the broader issues of Russian social and political reform because its focus is only on a few characters, nearly all of whom are either misguided, manipulative, or are outright fools. I kept getting the impression Conrad wanted to damn all of Russia, past, present, and every possible future.
What I found most interesting, however, was the character of Haldin. Here was a young man who, though a terrorist (and murderer), understood whom he was fighting so well as to ruin the life of a perfectly innocent person long after he himself had been executed. He wanted to light a fire under the ass of the comfortable middle class who had gladly allowed themselves to be ruled over for just a few pieces of silver at a time. Haldin saw how it wasn’t those in power who were the most dangerous, but those complicit in keeping them in power. The same could be said of our own times in our capitalist society that gladly allows the business class to rule over the rest of us. We just want our creature comforts and give them all the power. Never does it occur to us to start throwing bombs around to enact real change even though the situation probably calls for it at this point.
And that’s the way I thought this novel was going to go. I assumed Razumov would wind up being forced into becoming a terrorist, too, that he would be ‘woken up’ and would defect from his comforts to fight a oppressive system. I assumed we would see the development of a character whose terrorist actions (like Haldin’s) would be explored and sympathized with. Haldin was a total mystery to us and so it’s easy to denounce him as a wicked terrorist, but to have followed Razumov’s path that would lead him down the same road as Haldin’s, to end the book where it began but with another character, would have been rather thrilling.
But where this book goes is instead to neutral Switzerland where Russian expats live comfortably and foolishly as they plot against the Russian government. These people are not heroic freedom fighters, but just a bunch of fools who will never change anything. Why Razumov would even be needed to spy on them seems like a total waste of time to me. In fact as the book went on I was not surprised Razumov grew more and more to dislike these people and that he was was glad to help out the Russian officials. But then we get another shift where he changes sides (too late) and winds up a cripple. I didn’t buy any of it, to be honest.
I have to admit I was thoroughly lost by the end of all this. I have no idea what Conrad was trying to really say and can only really recommended the book on the strength of the characters and the overall story it does wind up telling. Granted, it’s a cynical and depressing affair, but it feels realistic. The only thing going against it is that only a few years after the book was published another young man, Gavrilo Princip, managed to shake the entire world up with his own actions. I don’t believe Conrad would have thought it possible that so much could actually change at the hands of just one individual and so real history seems to work against the point the novel was trying to make about everyone being ineffectual.
So I’ll have to put this one down as my least favorite Conrad novel. I found half of it thrilling and well written, and the other half to be boring and limited of insight. Overall it is well written like all of Conrad’s work and the language is always a joy to tangle with, but I just never got the feeling that this was a book with a solid foundation or plan.
One thing that struck me about this book was how structured it was. Like The Master and Margarita, no matter how outrageous the story got I never felt like it was going too far or not playing within the rules it had set up. A lot of this has to do with the magical quality of some of the characters. Ignatius’ unique world view could recreate reality anyway he saw fitting to suit himself, and more subtly but just as importantly Jones who has no actual corporeal form: he’s just a voice, a pair of sunglasses and a cloud of cigarette smoke. This magic flittering around the edges of each character played well into the theme of fortune, Fortuna, controlling all of our fate and it helped build this fictional world of New Orleans as a real place full of living, breathing characters whose fates are intertwined and dependent on each other.
Much like poor Mr. Levy, I too kept feeling depressed while reading this wonderful book. What made me sad was everyone seems to be suffering some degree or other of mental illness that hinders them from seeing the world as it really is, and also everyone’s lives were miserable because of circumstances out of their control – which led to more delusional behavior.
The most interesting theme of the book was self image and how people see themselves and each other and how they present themselves to the world. Nearly every character goes through a physical metamorphosis, Ignatius through his various jobs and hot dog vendor costumes (not to mention his weight), his mother’s bowling shoes she never takes off, Jones’ shifting cloud shapes, Miss Trixie’s new teeth and her always delusional ‘I’m a very attractive woman’, Mancuso’s forced undercover wardrobe choices, Darlene’s southern belle strippers costume, Dorian Greene’s hat (who he got from Irene at the beginning of the novel), and even Mr. Levy’s pant company which he changes to selling Bermuda shorts. Everyone is continually trying on new identities and it recalls how dangerously close to insanity some of the characters really are, Ignatius and Mrs. Levy, in particular.
Another theme is security. I realized this when Dorian Greene grows paranoid about the safety of his rental when the three lesbians are kicked out. He makes sure the gate gets is locked against intruders (no doubt because he and all his friends living there are gay), but there are other issues of security. Ignatius only wants to stay safe in either his room, or more broadly New Orleans having only left the city once in his life. Mr. Gonzalez desperately wants to keep working at Levy pants, probably because his entire identity is caught up in that wretched hovel. Jones wants the security of employment, if only to stay out of jail as a vagrant. Miss Trixie wants the security of retirement and, literally, a check from social security. Even Miss Annie wants security, this in the form of peace and quiet from her insane neighbors. This security recalls people who are living close to the edge of society and could lose everything at any time. This in turn could easily feed into any sort of vice or eccentricity.
These two themes represent how lonely and sad living in a city can be. Wanting to stand out from the crowd just to feel somewhat alive keeps the soul alive but wanting security from the teeming masses of people you don’t know, some of them dangerous, feeds your desire to hide away. These competing desires, to stand out and to hide, manifest themselves in various ways. Ignatius chooses to hide even though his personality makes him stand out, as does Mr Levy, and Jones. However, Dorian Greene, Claude Robichaux, Lana Lee, and Darlene all want to stand out – even if their actions mean they need to keep a low profile. Mancuso goes back and forth between hiding and standing out being he’s the undercover cop who sees all sides of the city, good and bad, though mostly the bad.
But even at a deeper level, the feeling of individuality and security are primal needs and are tied to the spiritual, even cosmic nature of the book through Fortuna and her wheel. We are all bound together, we are not safe from each other, but we all need each other, too. This schizophrenic view, this back and forth between needing security and wanting individuality, manifests itself in Ignatius’ world view that modern society is totally corrupt, perverted, and base. All of modern life’s pleasures are wicked and debauched, but also necessary, too. He loves his Dr. Nutt (there has to be a pun in this), he loves his doughnuts and little luxuries. And he can’t really reconcile these two competing ideologies, the battle between consumerism and survival (or at least spiritual). Other characters deal with this better – as most of us do – but even the most well adjusted of us sometimes feel that modern life is a bit silly and pointless and full of hypocrisy. We see and hate injustice, but we’re not going to personally do anything about it, unlike Ignatius who though totally out of touch with reality, at least attempts to do something for the workers of Levy Pants.
The thing about Ignatius is that while I do not like him as a person – he’s a liar, he’s manipulative, he’s selfish, he’s lazy – is that I can understand why someone like that would exist. I mean, why wouldn’t someone like that grow out of the insanity of modern life? Might as well meet insanity with more insanity! Live life on your own terms, even if it is crazy. And so I sort of forgive him a little, though I would loathe to even be in the same building as him. He’s a great literary character, but a pretty awful human being. He had everything handed to him and though he did suffer through some traumatic events in his life – his father dying, and his dog dying – he’s not suffering worse than, say, Jones who astutely shows us the people on the bus see him: as less than human and as a criminal. In fact the way people feel about Jones is how they should feel about Ignatius. Jones is a good person, he wants to work, he wants what modern life has to offer, even if it is as humble as a Buick and some air conditioning. He’s even as smart as Ignatius – not book smart, but his mind is just as sharp and would have been as book smart had he gone to school; he is street smart like no other.
And I think a lot of the book hinges on these two characters, Jones and Ignatius. Ignatius is corpulent, Jones in non-corporal. Ignatius is lazy and slothful, Jones is willing to work, though no harder than he’s being paid for; he’s no fool. But they are both outcasts in society, as a lot of the characters in the book are, and that’s what makes the New Orleans of the book a microcosm of all modern life. New Orleans here is a fishbowl where we can watch the crazy swim about and see how it acts, lives, and fights. And that makes Ignatius’ escape at the end sort of frightening because he’s now on the loose, infecting crazy wherever he goes, though his effect seemed to have a net positive impact on every single person he met. Everyone winds up the better because of him, either directly or indirectly, and whether they wanted it or not.
This was a great book and one of the funniest books I have ever read, though always with a twinge of sadness about it. And this is a completely unique book, too; I’ve never read anything like it. Like all great books it leaves you with much to think about and to unpack from each page and is a wonderful commentary on our modern age, even if it was written half a century ago.
For me this was two books, the first half about someone born into Russian higher society during the 19th century and who grew up to agitate authorities already leery or revolutionary activity, and the second half about the man in Europe watching the revolutions of other nations as an outsider. But through it all is one man, Alexander Herzen, who oddly, I never felt as if I got to know even though we read quite a few of his thoughts.
To be fair this book is an abridgment of the larger, 4 volume set that comprises the complete work, and though there were times I felt as if I was missing out on personal information, such as his wife, I am pretty sure what was cut was longer, more in depth thoughts about the state of civilization and his own personal philosophy.
The biggest problem I had with the book is that once he leaves Russia I really had no idea what was going on. Even events that take place in Russia can be obscure since most of the people are dead and are hardly known through history, but once we leave Russia for France, Italy, and England I just couldn’t keep up. And While I was at first interested as just a passive observer to go along the ride and do my best to infer the events of his day, I did find it rather tedious.
More tedious, however, were his thoughts. On some issues I agreed totally, especially his views on Russia concerning corruption, graft, and the Russian character. Less interesting were his internal philosophies on how he believed man and society should function. Add that to a cast of characters who are probably little known to most scholars but whom he assumes you’ve heard of and it’s no wonder this book never caught on in the west despite it being very, very well written.
And the sections that are well written, the sections that have a definite narrative are wonderful, in fact they are so good they could easily be appended to an additional epilogue to Tolytoy’s ‘War and Peace’ to give readers an idea of what happened to the Decembrists (the events that the novel had been leading up to and to what Tolstoy had initially set out to write). Most incisive are his observations on how the government functioned at every level, and especially in the provincial regions of Siberia that were governed by inept and corrupt exiles. These sections read like a combination of Kafka, Gogol, and Dostoyevsky; they are funny, absurd, terrifying, and offer an insight into why Russia became the nation she is now (and was, and always will be for that matter). These are a people who will put up with a great deal of insanity just to be left alone to get on with their lives.
Perhaps a better historian than I would find this book far more useful and if I were to revisit this book it would be with a few encyclopedias of Russian history at my fingertips to assist my understanding. But for as much as I love learning everything about Russian history, this book proved to be a bit beyond my ability to take in without treating it as scholarly research. Yet even with all the pieces put together, I still don’t feel Herzen would emerge from the pages as a fully formed person. The book is so far inside his mind at times that it’s impossible to really see the man (to see the forest through the trees, as it were). He is continually justifying his decisions with no thought for giving us any weakness of character. He paints a very positive image of himself for us and from that I can only gather that he was probably quite full of himself and a bit insufferable to be around.
But even with all that I didn’t enjoy about the book, it’s still a valuable insight into the Russian mind, heart, and soul of the 19th (and really beyond, too) century. And for the scholar this book would lay out an excellent road map of Russian thinking that led all the way to the revolutions of Lenin. And knowing where Russia was headed makes what Herzen went through all the sadder because by throwing of the insanity and brutality of the Tsar, they took up something even worse and quite similar.
In English, the meaning of the word disillusioned carries a subtly different meaning than it does in French. An English speaker who is disillusioned, say because of something they learned about someone they love, would at first feel disappointed but would eventually be relived to know the truth. A French speaker would also feel disappointment but instead of glad they now know the truth would wish they had never known it, they would wish to continue to be deceived and so use the word to convey that particular meaning. An English speaker, lacking a word for the feeling would say ‘ignorance is bliss’.
Yet aside from a subtlety of translation, this small novel from 100 years ago in France by a young man who died just a few months after the book was published in WW1, a war that disillusioned the entire world through its brutality, is immediately recognizable in what it is trying to say, even if our own vocabulary is limited. The story is quite simple: a young man comes to a small French village and happens upon a wedding party where he meets a young woman whom he falls in love with but because he doesn’t remember how he came to the party is not able to find his way back to her and spends years obsessed with this love.
Now it would seem at first that this is a very sentimental and nostalgic book, and in a way that’s true, but it comes at sentiment and nostalgia from the opposite direction. This novel is a book about the danger of nostalgia, of not seeing the world for what it is, for failing, like Valentine later in the book, to accept what we’ve been given without making it into something it can never be. And the real danger is hurting someone you love because they are not what you wanted them to be – it’s unfair to everyone.
The novel is quite timely too because of the onset of the war after its publication. The world very definitely changed after WW1, and all preconceptions of how Europe thought wars were fought and how governments and civilizations should behave were destroyed in the trenches along the fronts and in the meat-grinders of mechanized battle. The world grew up after WW1 and there is no going back to the simpler time of the 19th century, a scene reenacted at the wedding party as the guests all wear costumes from the early part of that long ago time.
Most striking, however, is the novel’s beauty. The novel reads like an impressionistic painting, as if Monet were a writer describing his paintings. Schoolchildren playing in the snow, the drip of rain on a mans boot, the looming church, the old farmhouse, a young man with two small children sitting on his lap before a fireplace. And this language, this beautiful imagery works to not only draw you into the story, but also to return you to your own youth, to a time when everything was new, when all life was possibility and everyone you met was a potential friend.
Remarkable that this novel was written by someone so young and it leaves you wondering what loss, what pain he may have endured to have created this work of art before being sent to die on some battlefield in France. Yet in a way we are returned to his youth through this book and so his youth is immortal, his young life is always preserved for us in a sort of soft amber.
Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes translated as ‘The Big Meaulnes’ or ‘The Great Meaulnes’ or ‘The Magnificent Meaulnes’, ‘The Wanderer’, ‘The Lost Domain’, or ‘The Lost Estate’ (my choice for best possible translation), is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. The book is sad, and sometimes even a little uneven in the middle third of the book, but across time and across language it speaks to a feeling we all have that we wish we never really grew up to learn how the world, how other people, and how we really are.
I can’t count how many times someone has told me to read The Shining because of how much better and different it is than the Stanley Kubrick film. For years I’ve wandered around with the memories of people saying how Kubrick ruined the book, how he changed everything that was important to the book to create a film that resembled the book in title only. “Oh, you’ll understand so much more”, and “the book is way scarier”, and “there is good motivation for what Jack does in the book”, people have said to me. And so I’ve been curious about this book for a long time. I’ve wondered what exactly it is about this book that causes people to, quite emphatically, state that arguably the greatest filmmaker in the history of motion pictures, not to mention one of humanity’s greatest artists had someone botched the whole thing.
Good horror is created by not knowing all of the pieces of a dangerous puzzle: “What’s around the corner?”, “Who’s screaming in that graveyard on this stormy night?”, “Is there a killer alien with acid for blood on-board this old mining ship?”. Combine not knowing important information with the chance of death (or worse) and you’ve got the basic formula for horror. And often a thing ceases to be scary when we see it, when the lights come on, or when we understand it – fear is born of the unknown.
In this novel, King attempts to create fear and terror by setting us up in a fancy hotel with a mysterious past for a few months of winter isolation; it’s basically his take on the old haunted house story. The problem, however, is that he really does wind up explaining too much or tries too hard to give us two plausible interpretations of what is going on – are they just hallucinating, is Jack just going through alcohol withdrawal, or is the hotel really haunted. And if the hotel is haunted, who is haunting it? Old Hollywood mobsters and a rich old lady who killed herself?
I can see why Stanley Kubrick was attracted to this book because there are a lot of good ideas, but Kubrick trimmed all of the fat and turned a fairly shaggy book that, frankly, isn’t that scary into one of the greatest horror films ever made. And all Kubrick did was not explain everything that King went into great detail about. Kubrick pretty much went through the book, crossed out everything that even smelt like an explanation, reconfigured a few scenes to be more efficient (having Hallorann give them the full tour instead of it being broken up into two parts like in the book).
Now I’ll admit that in a book where we are supposed to live inside the character’s heads King couldn’t just give us limited information otherwise the book would have been about 150 pages long, at best. And King is at his best when he’s creating characters and having them interact, though this book largest weakness is that there are so few characters that it sort of goes against King’s strength as a popular writer. Books like The Stand, Tommyknockers, and It work well because the characters have a lot to do and it wasn’t until later with Misery and Pet Cemetery that he could do more with fewer characters because by then he’d become a better writer.
So in a way this book really can only ever be a good template for a great film because it just doesn’t work that well as a book. The characters a thin, Wendy in particular is useless and flat – in fact she’s so bad that not even Kubrick could do anything interesting with her outside of making her life miserable in the film. Danny is pretty good, as is Hallorann, but they don’t feel very fleshed out, they exist only to keep things moving or to make things weird. I do, however, much prefer King’s Stuart Ullman to Kubrick’s. Why Kubrick made Ullman so likable was a missed opportunity because Ullman is our introduction to the hotel, it’s spokesman so-to-speak, and Kubrick should have made him more menacing.
My biggest gripe I reserve for the hedge animals. In small doses they would have been fine, but by the end I just could not take them seriously. The second you actually try to visualize a hedge animal attacking someone the image is just too comical to be scary or to even be taken seriously. Kubrick was wise to carry on with the European flavor of the hotel by using a hedge maze instead.
One thing I did find odd is that so many people have told me that the alcoholism of Jack is far more played up in the book and is a possible central cause to his insanity. Yet this is also true in the film. The scenes with Lloyd are almost identical, Kubrick changed almost nothing for those scenes and it’s quite apparent Jack has a drinking problem and that the hotel is using that against him to drive him more insane and to control him. True the film isn’t about a alcoholic losing control, Kubrick’s film is more supernatural, but the themes are still there and one could easily say that the hotel (right down to the film’s neuron receptor carpets) is a manifestation of Jack’s drinking issues and abuse. For King (and audiences who prefer King over Kubrick) to claim Kubrick messed this up is idiotic and says more about King’s (and his fan’s) inability to contextualize theme.
I also was scratching my head about the whole side-story with Jack’s drinking friend, especially the part where they thought they killed a child on a bicycle. What was that all about? That whole idea literately goes nowhere. Yes it scared them both to stop drinking, but why didn’t King tie that into the rest of the book? And speaking of missed opportunities, why didn’t King include Grady’s dead wife and, more importantly, dead little girls? Kubrick immediately took advantage of this to create what is arguably the most iconic image in the film: the Diane Arbus style twin girls holding hands. The hotel had all the other ghosts of people past, why not them, too?
I did like that Hallorann played a more important role in the book. Kubrick just kills him off the second he gets to the hotel and that was only used in that he needed a way to get Danny and Wendy out. King used Hallorann more, but that character dipped so dangerously close into a “black man” stereotype that I cringed more than once.
All in all the book isn’t bad, but the last quarter is just a lot of grunting and screaming and inane dialogue with too much pleading and yelling. The Shining is a shaggy ghost story that isn’t nearly as well crafted as King’s later, and much scarier books. I really was let down because not only because I didn’t find it all the scary, but also because the book and Kubrick’s film are far more similar than I was led to believe – I had been hoping for something much different.
Having spent years reading novels from Russia and Eastern Europe I’ve learned there is an odd, almost bi-polar lens people from this part of the world look at their own cultures through. In Miklós Bánffy’s novel ‘They Were Counted’ we get a picture of Hungarians who, though fiercely proud of their heritage, are so caught up in pettiness, corruption, and tearing each other down that it’s a wonder anything ever got done – and, in fact, nothing ever did get done. Jerzy Kosiński’s ‘The Painted Bird’ (a book I detested) portrays all the Eastern European’s as brutes and animals. In Béla Tarr’s film ‘Sátántangó’ (another Hungarian) we get a portrait of a people continually drunk, living in the mud, poor, stupid, and easily taken advantage of by even the flimsiest pretexts. And in nearly all Russian novels, both classic and contemporary, there is always the underlying psychology of a people who are uncomfortable with themselves.
Alexander Herzen in ‘My Past and Thoughts’ explains this unease in comparing Russian insecurity to the rest of Europe: “They talk in Western Europe of our duplicity and wily cunning; they mistake the desire to show off and swagger a bit for the desire to deceive”, about how the Russians feel insecure and inferior about their own peculiar culture vs Western Europe’s supposed refinement.”
In the book club which I took part in to read this book a comment was made about how someone felt the book was offensive, that people from that part of the world had too long been the butt of jokes. And while I agree continuing these stereotypes can only do harm, it is quite often the people from this part of the world who perpetuate it. Yet since I am not from Hungary or Moldova or Poland I can’t ever hope to know what this strange neurosis is people have about themselves and their fellow countrymen (and women) that would continue to make them look at themselves as ‘stupid’ or ‘lazy’ or in general insecure about their place in the world.
Perhaps geography plays a role. Perhaps being crushed between prosperous Western Europe on one side and massive Russia on the other is a determining factor in one’s cultural self-esteem. This is a part of the world that has always been used as a “buffer zone” between the West and Russia – the term “buffer zone”, to me, seems far more offensive than any stereotype. And now that communism has fallen and this “buffer” region is responsible for its own fate, the people living here are perhaps more anxious than ever. This entire region seems to have always been defined (to outsiders, anyway) by the powers that crowd around it and so being left to do what they want seems to lead to major problems. Much of the book actually deals with Moldovans wanting to attach themselves to another regime, the EU.
Since I knew nothing of Moldova before reading this book I looked up what I could online and while it’s not as bleak as Lorchenkov makes Moldova out to be, I can see why people might want to get the hell away; there are no real opportunities in Moldova. Anything that might have once existed in Moldova was dug up and carted off by the Soviets years ago leaving behind a lot of poor people and a fractured government unable to bring the people together.
For a book so funny, it’s really awfully sad. This book leaves you with the impression that the people of Moldova have given up and only look elsewhere for help (the EU). There does not seem to be a sense of history or culture or any hope to tie people to their country. We learn nothing of what makes Moldova unique or beautiful or important, we only get a series of funny but sad and ever increasing outrageous plots to escape the sinking ship that is Moldova.
But is Lorchenkov actually making fun of Moldova? Is he actually saying the people of Moldova are stupid, dirt eating, sad-sacks?
Lorchenkov explores a more subtle theme in this book; he is interested in the spin and propaganda nations use on each other and on their own people. When two of the main characters have their rusty homemade pedal powered submarine blasted out of the water by a foreign Coast Guard, the newspapers make it seem as if a massive plot of Islamic extremists was thwarted on the high seas. When a crusade is fired up by the local priest and hundreds of thousands of people attempt to march to Italy for freedom and jobs, the European newspapers claim the people of Moldova have risen up and are enacting reforms from within. When things in this fictional Moldova can’t get any worse, the government declares war on its own people because it’s too weak to go to war with anyone else yet to the outside press this might be seen as the government tamping down dangerous rebels (which, in a way, they are since all they want to do is leave).
I suppose a lot of the reason why this subtext exists in the book is due to how the Soviets were constantly putting forth their own propaganda to counter western ideals even though everyone knew the Soviet propaganda was nonsense or, at best, a fairy tale or mythology. And this fairy tale quality exists all through the book – not in that there’s a princess (well actually there sort of is) or a happy ending, but in the strange magic unrealism of the novel. Skylarks roost in people’s mouths, a dead wife hangs from a tree for months with garlic drying around her neck, an entire village exists where everyone sells their internal organs, tractors can fly, and the President fakes his death in a plane crash on northern Italy.
This magic unrealism (I call it unreal because it seems to exist as comic sadness and not as something deeper such as in One Hundred Years of Solitude) goes a long way to help explain the temptation the people of this fictional Moldova (and perhaps even the real Moldova, too) have with joining the EU or escaping to Italy where they think they can get rich cleaning bathrooms or flipping pizzas. They’ve bought into their own brand of propaganda and they’ve left reality behind, they’ve left Moldova behind to neglect. When we get a couple of characters who beg their fellow countrymen to try and better their own lives, to work hard and make Moldova a better place, these characters are, in the end, killed.
I do wish the book had been a bit more serious, however. I feel as if the author pushed the comedy too far at the expense of gaining some real insight into Moldova. I also never felt like the book was as cohesive as it could be, partly because it’s a rather short book that never spends much time exploring the many deeper issues floating just between the lines. Granted my own lack of cultural context is preventing me from understanding a lot of this book, but the author could have done more to bring me in and help me understand.
Still, I did enjoy the book for what it is and I think it helps explain some of the unease people from this part of the world tend to look at their own culture with. These are people who do want to better their lives but are prevented from doing so by their neighbors and, in the end, by themselves.
“I thought I could do it quietly without upsetting anyone.”
How much of life do you lose if you never impose on anyone else? How much selfishness should you indulge in, drag others into? Can you ever really be alive by always being polite, never being a bother, letting life carry you along like driftwood? These were some of the questions, and hard truths I had to face while reading this remarkable novel. And I use the word remarkable not because I want to toss a superlative around, but because the book is remarkable. In fact I think a case could be made for this almost forgotten novel to be considered in the conversation of Great American Novels.
Stoner is a unique literary ‘hero’. He is an American mid-western farm boy from a hardworking, moral farm family. In a Steinbeck novel the Stoner’s would be backdrop, the sort of family he’d mention in passing as being one of the unspoken for millions America is made up of: the hard working, quiet, self sufficient, good and decent Americans who are the salt of the earth. Yet William Stoner is different; he’s a man apart. Though he knows farm life, he’s not particularly attracted to or interested in it, he only does it because life has, until yet, not offered him anything else. But when he’s given the chance to go to college he discovers he has a passion you wouldn’t normally attribute to the farm: a love of literature. He discovers he is not a man meant to bend his back all day, but to use his mind instead.
This discovery occurs suddenly, without warning and from a man long dead. It is William Shakespeare who almost literally speaks to him. “Do you hear him?” Professor Sloane asks him in class. Shakespeare speaks to you across three centuries. Shakespeare has imposed himself on Stoner, has grabbed hold of him, and changed his life.
But this is not the story of a man necessarily bettered by the experience of discovering education and art. Though Stoner decides to pursue a life of education and teaching, you sometimes wonder what his life would have been like had he not made this discovery. Would he have wound up like his parents, perhaps, but when WW1 broke out he may have gone over to France and not come back, or come back a changed man. There’s a lot of potential ‘what ifs’ at the beginning of one’s life.
And this book is all about potential.
That’s why it’s so startling at the end of the novel when he realizes he’s 60 years old. Though we’ve lived his life through the course of the novel through all his failures, and modest successes, we are hit with the cold reality that there is just not anymore time left. He’s made all his choices and, as he keeps repeating “What did you expect?”
Yet this is not a cynical or angry novel. Even in moments of quiet, suffocating despair, of years of a failed marriage, failed relationships, failed career opportunities, this is not a book about a man who is just a sad case for us to pity. William Stoner is like so many very real people, he’s a person trying to get by in the world, trying to do some good, but not quite able to bridge the gap between his own internal passions and heat with other people’s heart and their warmth. He’s closed off, he lives in his own mind, and he always looks for reasons why he can’t act, why he shouldn’t say or do a thing because he doesn’t feel it’s right, or his place to do so. He is not a bold man, but rather a man who works hard, does the best he can with what he has, and then, in the end, must accept those choices.
Artistically the novel is a marvel. From the sparse and clear writing, to the near meta-fictional exploration of how literature and books can help us explore the human condition while at the same time needing to withdraw from humanity to experience these books. In the end he holds his own book in his hands and though the contents of that book might not paint a clear picture of the author, it does, as least, offer proof that he existed and contributed even just a little bit to the human species. Or in the dedication of Katherine’s book, the initials W.S. are all that is left between the two of them, a fragment, but at least something.
There is continually subtle word play, the use of a line such as “He felt a distant closeness to her”, distant closeness in opposition but right next to each other, or him describing his marriage as a stalemate, is he the mate who is stale, is she, are they both? There is the repeated imagery of masks and mask like faces, which in less talented hands would have been a bit heavy handed, but here fits the characters and the tone. Even when the novel pushes the boundaries of imagery, such as with his description of the poignancy of a lone grave enhanced by the vastness of a desert, it never feels out of place or forced. Every word is necessary.
And structurally the novel is near perfect in that this is a first person account written in the third person. We are close to Stoner but never too close, we are always kept at a distance. The narrator is most likely Stoner himself since only twice do we ever get a POV shift, both times with his wife in acts of self discovery, as if their will and imposition spills over into the narration and forces us to have to come to terms with another human being.
This is the true art of the novel, the life we live with Stoner, the slow wearing down upon him, his reasoning for acting, or more often not acting, and the understanding we get of this person who to an outsider would seem a cantankerous and impossible man to know. We learn a little about what it means to be William Stoner, and perhaps, to better see the world through the intentions of the people around us.
The novel is sad but never pessimistic – it’s realistic in the best possible use of the word. This is the sort of book a writer like Raymond Carver would immediately relate to and even write about. William Stoner is a sort of mythical American every-man, a man of the earth who is also educated, a man of many faces whose expression never changes, a man never quite sure of his place in the world but is willing to work damn hard to keep what he does have. Stoner was remarkable in that he was completely unremarkable.
We even get in the end the book’s, and perhaps our own culture’s unspoken philosophy about the meaning of life when he is with the doctor, “it was foolishness, he knew, but he did not protest, it would have been unkind for him to do so.”
Stoner is very much a book that will appeal to people who love books and love book learning, however, there is a warning here I believe, and that is the more we learn, the more we try to know, the more we will discover how little we actually known and understand and that there will never be enough time to read and to learn all we need to know because the rabbit hole never ends. Perhaps we would be better off putting the books down and going outside and imposing ourselves on the world. Perhaps Stoner could be read as the great anti-book, or, at least in a meta sense, a slight nod towards American anti-intellectualism; too much knowledge could be bad for you.
At the very least, the book is pretty clear about never being able to ever understand another human being by just reading books about them. Stoner read his whole life away and barely made an impression on any human he ever met aside from his wife, Finch, Lomax, and Katherine Driscoll. Perhaps if he’d found a place to put down his cap and gown from his college graduation he might have lived more.
Yet in the end these are the choices of his life and we are reminded of our own choices, our own mortality and our potential. It would be easy to feel a bit defeated at the end of the novel, to think life is just sort of pointless and full of misery, and in a way it is, but it isn’t, too. In the final pages we watch Stoner hearing the teenagers laughing as they walk across his lawn, barely touching the ground, and we long to be with them, not him. We long to live better, but we also understand our limitations.
“It was a strange thing, to watch these conspicuous forms toiling up the hillside, dodging this way and that way, as the bullets cut into the earth around them; but with the experience of the previous ten minutes fresh in the memory, pity was not one of the emotions it aroused.”
If I told you I was reading a book about a mountain war in the Swat Valley region of Afghanistan against religious extremists whom no matter how much talent and treasure you throw at them ever seems able to conquer or defeat them and that most of the arms given to any Afghan allies just winds up being used against you at the end of the day, you would be forgiven for thinking I was talking about a contemporary book and not one written over 100 years ago with Winston Churchill as the narrator. And this is what is so striking about the book: that the same war is still going on today.
This book is one of the ultimate examples of there being nothing new under the sun. Literally every single point Winston Churchill makes about his observations about his time in the forward push into the Afghan region at the end of the 19th century can be applied to today’s war in the region. From religious extremism that fuels an endless wave of brave young men to literally throw themselves against the bullets and steel of a vastly more powerful enemy, to the splintered alliances and feuds of the local tribes which everyone takes advantage of to keep them from uniting less they become a truly formidable foe, to the moral dilemmas of burning villages to starve out combatants, or the light years wide gulf between Western values and Eastern Islamic values.
And when I wasn’t shaking my head at the similarity to today’s conflict, I was in awe of the absolute and astounding ignorance and racism that is so idly tossed about by Churchill. Here are an entire population of human beings written off mostly as savages. He makes no bones about this, he sees all these people as less than human. Yes there are exceptions when some of the tribesmen act honorably, but he mentions this not as a matter of course, but almost as if he’s shocked to find an honest man from Afghanistan.
But I’m not going to write this book off as useless because in its ignorance we can learn quit a lot.
This is a work of nationalistic propaganda. Churchill doesn’t even try to hide this fact and he does an excellent job of turning his experiences into the fuel that fires the imaginations and romanticism of young British men to go fight for glory and honor. Everywhere in the book are the brave, stoic, and cheerful British fighting against dangerous odds, but always victorious. Yes some men die, but there is still glory in it all and no young man will be forgotten. And through this propaganda we can begin to understand the propaganda used on the tribesmen themselves. Where Churchill calls men up to the flag out of a sense of duty, the Afghan uses religion as their fire to fight.
Yet he fails to see any real similarity between the two opposing ideologies even when he clearly draws the distinctions. He explains the courage of the young British soldier is rooted in sentiment and even vanity. Yet the tribesmen find courage in religion and their conviction of eternal reward will always be stronger than the abstract constructs of race or military division. The British must invent methods to induce courage; the tribesmen are born with it.
And after all these mountains are their home, they fight and die for their own land whereas the British are, in the grand scheme of things, just trying to maintain a buffer region between British India and Russia. The British couldn’t care less about the Afghans or their history or their struggles. When he muses of the ancient history of the land he remembers Alexander the Great leveling whole great cities that are now completly forgotten. In fact he believes everything in this region, once dead, is forgotten to time. It never occurs to him that the people living her might actually have long memories.
Churchill also fails to understand why the tribesmen are so willing to stand up before all those terrible British guns time after time after time only to be mowed down instantly. He seems to think they are idiots, but what do the tribesmen think? They see a bunch of cowards with guns hiding in trenches and behind stone barriers instead of charging out gloriously onto the field of battle. Where Churchill wonders how the tribesmen could possibly be so ‘savage’ as to mutilate the body of an injured soldier, where he wonders why they only attack when the British retreat, why they only take advantage of weakness, aren’t they wondering just the opposite?
He speaks of the virtue and vitality of military camp life, of no worries for the future, of the memories and friendships formed in the British army, of the good it does the body, and then adds how much everyone wants to go home regardless of these positives. But don’t the tribesmen love the former as much as we the later?
It’s this gulf of understanding that after over 100 years has still not been crossed or even properly surveyed. He believes dealing with the tribes on an individual basis, of utilizing silver over steel (as he puts it), of playing one tribe against the other will pacify them, make them desire comfort and western values. And this has been the policy ever since and it hasn’t had any effect we were hoping for. We fundamentally misunderstand these people because we believe in order and comfort whereas they do not. They live in the most rugged spot on earth, why would they suddenly want comfort and stability? And using them as a buffer against Russia has only exacerbated the issues for us by arming these tribes who then after saying “thank you” use those weapons to fight us. They know they are being taken advantage of and they resent us for it – as they should.
And while we may scoff at the Islamic idea of religious superiority, here in this book, without any political correctness to temper what we still know to be true, is the racist attitude we still hold over these people, what he refers to as “… the prestige of the dominant race “. We may not say so in that language today, but that ancient racism, that terrible misunderstanding and division between cultures is what fuels this fight and will continue to do so for another 100 years.
For as glorious as the battle seems in this book, for all the bravery he writes here and all the moral high-ground he believes he rides his polo ponies on, this is a very sad book. It’s a sad book because it exposes how little we all understand each other, how much hatred and ignorance fuels our imagination just as much as romantic visions of glorious heroism can. There are no winners here.
One of the major undercurrents of classic Russian literature is the exploration of freedom vs. the constraint of society. While this theme is by no means unique to the Russians (or even the Western 19th century), Russia’s society at the time under Tsarists rule was far more restricted, far more smothering, routine, and conservative than most other nations. Perhaps these constraints are why Russian literature has enjoyed such success in and out of that country because the rules of society are well defined and easily learned by the reader and so all a writer must do is create a character who decides to break one (or more) of these rules and they instantly have a story with drama.
I kept thinking about constraints and restrictions during this novel whenever the rhyme scheme was particularly clever or when the main characters would attempt to remove themselves from society: either Eugene whiling away his days in isolation or Tatyana immersing herself in books. The entire structure of the novel, the AbAbCCddEffEgg scheme, never ceases or breaks form – it is, in a sense, Russian society itself: unbending and regimented, yet beautiful in its own way if you can learn to accept the structure. And of course this is where the drama for our heroes derives from, from the desire to break from that structure.
Eugene is bored with everything. Nothing in society interests him because he believes himself to be better than society. He is vain and shallow, he has only a topical knowledge of what’s going on in the world. When he’s given the chance to escape society he’s equally as bored in the country with all the provincial customs and less than cultivated neighbors. His fault is that he’s a combination of banality and self-important individuality. He knows how to play the game, he knows the rhyme scheme of society, but he’s not creative enough to break the rhyme.
Tatyana, too, is apart from society. She spends all her days reading books, but they’re all terrible romances that can teach her nothing about how the world really works. She believes she’s being cultivated by immersing her self in the books of the English at the expense of her own country – a language she can’t even read or write in. She believes she has found something superior to the Russian ways of doing things, when in reality she’s only fooling herself. She is Russian and her fate, like the rhyme scheme, is structured and preordained for her.
In fact everyone in this novel eventually has to settle for what Russian fate has in store for them. Lensky is literally killed by the rules of the game. Tatyana’s mother long ago accepted her lot, her nanny, too, had long ago at the age of 13 been married off. And while their emotions about their lack of control over their fate is complicated (we never really get her nanny’s true feelings about this though I get the suspicion Pushkin was attempting to show the perverse treatment of peasants), when it comes to Olga, we get a character who is more than happy to play within the rules. In fact Olga may be the only happy (or at least happier) character in the story. She knows the game, accepts it, and tries to make the best of it for herself.
And so Eugene and Tatyana are just as doomed as the nanny. They are both forced, one way or another, to abide by the rules, to give up and give in and play the endless game of banal society with its silly rituals and traditions and empty conversation and vapid personalities.
Perhaps this is the best insight we as foreigners can have into how Russian society really thinks. All through Russian history their society has been strongly regimented, either under the Tsars or under communism or now under Putin’s neo-authoritarian control. The Russians always seem to have to contend with the fact that Russia is too large, too powerful, too unforgiving to fight against and that all would be better if you just gave yourself up to the comfort of the controlled society and do the best for yourself within those rules, vapid and insipid as they might be.
And in some ways there is a lot of appeal for living under such structure because you can always know what to expect, there are no surprises and you do not have the stress of having to forge your own path anew as you do in other more democratic countries. The Russian society will provide the rhyme for you, whereas in the West you have to figure out a rhyme for yourself. (as an aside the documentary My Perestroika deals with this loss of comfort from the regimented rules of communism quite wonderfully).
But I don’t believe Pushkin is making the case that a strictly rhymed Russian society is the best, highest, and most noble of options. Eugene and Tatyana are quite miserable in the end for having tried to forge their own path. They both love each other but she will not break the rules anymore and he, through his own vanity and self righteous, has managed to pretty much exile himself from society. They both fought and they both lost.
Pushkin does not offer any solutions but he does clearly show us what is going on in Russia at the time, something nobody else had been capable of doing before. His genius was exposing Russian society for what it was – a regimented, stifling and controlling environment nobody can escape happily – which later writers and artists were able to use as the blueprint for affecting change. After Pushkin came Gogol who in Dead Souls was able to subvert the conception of how landowners used their serf labor, later still was Tolstoy who in Anna Karenina explored many of the same themes to show how little in Russian society had changed, especially for women, but that it was possible to escape by turning back to nature. Dostoyevsky explored how corrupt the society was, how infected man had become with sin and that the only solution was personal revolution – though what he envisioned and what really took place were the exact opposite of what he had hoped for.
Aside from Russia, however, can we learn anything about our own society in our own time – close to 200 years later – from this book? Does Pushkin speak to any universal themes larger than just Russia? While I, as an American, have a wildly different set of experiences than a Russian my same age, I too can relate to the idea of what it means to either take part in the rules of society or be pushed away by them. My culture may be very different, but I must still go along to get along, I must be able to find happiness within the rules or else be miserable because there is no escaping society, not though living in the woods or in books or by travelling abroad. None of us are special enough to not have to take part in society, none of us are better than anyone else. We must all take part in society and the harder we fight against it the more likely we will be doomed by it.
A funny saying these days is ‘Don’t be basic’ which means we acknowledge there is a lowest common denominator to our society but we should always be looking for a way to do better, too.
I wonder what inspired Dostoyevsky to write this novel? During the trial it is mentioned that there was a woman in St. Petersburg who had given birth and then killed the infant, hiding the little body and then later it was discovered she had done this numerous times. I wonder if, assuming that story is true, Dostoyevsky began to wonder about how difficult it would be to forgive someone like that, to see into their heart and find something good. This novel is, after all, about that very idea, the idea of never being able to know what goodness really lies in another persons heart and how difficult it is, or even how inappropriate it is, to judge anyone, no matter how evil they have been.
The novel ends with a promise, a promise that all the boys and Aloysha will never forget each other, never forget little Ilyusha, and never forget the goodness of their childhood memory together. Even, if later, they grow cynical or do many terrible things, Aloysha asks them to always remember this one good moment in their life because it may save them someday, just as an onion almost saved another sinner. Those small moments of goodness could, at least in the eyes of God, be the one link to salvation for even the most terrible sinner.
The novel also deals with the questions of faith and belief and it is these parts I found most fascinating because Dostoyevsky makes the strongest case I’ve yet heard that counters the scientific arguments of logic and reason. And while I think Dostoyevsky was too hard on science and too opposed to the good science can do for humanity, he does show how logic and reason can absolutely condemn an innocent person. At times I wondered if Dostoyevsky was trying to tell us it would be better just to forgive all criminals and then let God figure it all out later.
And that’s the real issue here: forgiveness. How difficult is it really to forgive someone. Not just any regular sinner either, but a person who has done something horribly terrible. And what sort of world would we live in if we did, in fact, forgive everyone easily? A world where we forgive a terrorist or the rapist of a child? Can we even imagine such things? In the character Smerdyakov we have someone who is cunning and ruthless and who takes advantage of the people around him, but we never really know why he does what he does. Smerdyakov is the closest character to the ‘main villain’, but we never get his own thoughts, we only see him through the eyes of others. He is difficult to forgive because we don’t know him, yet this is exactly they point Dostoyevsky is trying to make: we MUST forgive Smerdyakov, he is in the greatest need of it as Father Zosima alluded to earlier in the novel.
Dostoyevsky is not foolish enough to think that we can always forgive, however. He knows we will always be carried away by our emotions and passions. He knows those passions will lead us to do terrible things and to also condemn others, too. He quite clearly sees the onion layers that make up human interactions, the dual nature of all people who can be both good and bad at the same time. He knows how complicated people really are. But he also plants that seed of doubt in our mind while reading this novel as to if we really are qualified to pass judgment on any person. He wants us to know that nothing is what it seems and even when we are positive we know a person we might very well be wrong about them. He’s showing us the danger of gossip, of judgment, of not walking in another person’s shoes. And he’s also showing us how we are all conflicted, how we ebb and flow between goodness and sin and even how what we perceive in others as sin might actually be virtue as in the case of little Ilyusha and his father, Captain Snegiryov, or even the Grand Inquisitor who though his actions go against God he is actually doing so because he is for God.
Then there is the faith question, the tricky nature of how faith works. Here he shows us that if God himself showed up at our doorstep and said “I am God, here I am”, we would actually doubt the existence of God even more. But the lack of any proof of God, the absence of proof is the very thing that is needed for their to be faith. If we know for certain there is the possibility of salvation at the end of life then what point would life have since that would take away our own free will? We would already know beforehand if we are saved or doomed so why bother going through the motions?
The book even goes so far as to make me want to be a better person. I found myself questioning my own opinions and judgments of others while at work and out and about town. I started wondering what sort of life each person I saw was really living, how good or how bad, what tragedy or joy they were dealing with. I started to wonder if perhaps you could just do away with all the different religions in the world and have everyone read this novel instead.
And even as I write this it does sound rather absurd and I can imagine anyone reading this saying “Well clearly this person has a religious agenda”, but that’s not the case. In fact there is no way I could convince you that I don’t have an agenda because you can’t see into my own heart and know how I really feel about this subject. All I can say is that I was sincerely moved by this novel and that it makes me want to look at the world differently and that I had a better understanding of belief and faith than when I began the novel.
This book is not some “depressing Russian tome”, but aside from its philosophical and theological nature it is a well plotted family novel and murder mystery. Like all of Dostoyevsky’s other works it’s wordy and characters seem to speak in long speeches, but it’s never boring – even when it is. Dostoyevsky also makes a great counter to Tolstoy in that Tolstoy allowed you to see into a character’s mind where Dostoyevsky is always more interested in looking into his heart.
This is a novel of great compassion and is one of my favorite reading experiences I’ve ever had.
Not too long into this book I started to wonder if perhaps Tuchman was going to cover the life and events of every single person who was alive on this planet during the 14th century. Tuchman covers so much ground, introduces so many events, writes about so many people that by the end I felt as if the entire 14th century had fallen on top of me.
This isn’t a bad book by any means – the fault lies entirely with myself. I’m not cut out to enjoy an endless parade of peoples and events that have no clear narrative. And while Tuchman does attempt to frame the century through the life of one man, de Coucy, I never felt like had a clear enough picture of him or how all the events she talks about truly effected him. And I suppose had she drawn a clearer picture then this book would have become more speculative and less factual which would have been counter to her purpose of recounting the events of this tumultuous century.
I should have known what I was getting into because the title uses the word ‘distant’, as in remote, ‘mirror’, as in a lens, and ’14th century’, as in the entire century and every single event that took place during those 100 years. Yet what I’ve come to realize about myself as a reader is that I prefer the personal over the grand informative, the mundane over the ‘calamitous’, and the microscopic over the macro. I’m far more interested in learning about how events effected just a few people and not the broad, sweeping strokes that effected all of a society. That’s why I prefer literary fiction over this type of nonfiction.
However, Tuchman has produced a supreme work of knowledge and she is an excellent writer. She speaks with humor and wit and is ever lively – even mischievous such as when talking about the pointy shoes – so any failing to not be engaged my this tremendous work is all on me. Yet I still wish I could have gotten a more personal, more minute look at the people who were alive during this century. I felt that after awhile I was watching a parade – Danse Macabre – of tragic life after tragic life. And while it would be unreasonable for me to think many close personal accounts from the century remain (if they ever existed at all), I should look harder to find something that would engage me more than this book was able to.
I wanted to fall in love with this book, but it was far too academic for me, too distant, not nearly personal enough, and overwhelming in scope. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn about the 14th century on the grand scale, but aside from a few points she makes about how religion and death and economics played a role in how people viewed themselves, I don’t feel this book is able to (or was even attempting to) paint a clear picture of what it was to be an individual at the time.
Were someone were to write about the 20th and 21st century 600 years later and only wrote about the major headlines of those times I don’t think we would have any better idea of what it was to actually be alive at the time than what Tuchman does here. Yes we would learn all about the major historical events of the day, but for me (and this is a matter of personal taste) I’m not interested in that sort of thing, I only care about the individuals and how they lived day to day. Most people do not live their lives according to the headlines.
But the failing is all mine. This is a work of historical nonfiction and not a novel and it attempts to show us the entire century. In that regard it is brilliant, it’s just that it’s so much information that it’s hard to keep it all together. So while I can only critique the book that is and not the book as I want it to be then I have to admit this is a wonderful book and an excellent reading on a very distant time. Yet as as an engaging work that speaks to me as an individual, then I have to admit I failed this book because I’m just not cut out for it.
This is one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read and it’s also somewhat unnerving because of how often it forces you to confront your own life, your past, and your mortality. Each time the Prince recalls his past or observes the world he currently lives in, I felt myself having to take a deep breath and press on towards what I knew was going to be some vaguely uncomfortable realizations about what it means to get older.
I kept thinking about King Lear as the novel went on, however, where Lear set in motion the engine of his demise by dividing up his kingdom, the Prince here is at the mercy of the times. He lives in a world – Sicily – that instead of being divided and carved up is in the throes of consolidation. Sicily’s unique identity, and thus the Prince’s, is being taken from him and being absorbed. And he’s powerless to do anything about it.
So in a way his story hits even closer to home than Lear’s because of how little control even a powerful man like Prince Fabrizio has over the events around him. And some of this lack of control is not always external, but internal as well. Though a large, powerful man, he’s also a little lazy, and not as smart as he would like. He never seemed able to really manage his estate and solved his problems by selling off tracts of land when he got in a bind. Slowly he whittled his own life away.
Yet it’s not all sad, either. He seems like a man who, though he doesn’t believe it, really did live a full life. He may have spent most of it being indulgent and not working towards any greater good for society, but he did at least enjoy his life, unlike his daughter who realizes much to late she spent her life believing something that was not true – just like her relics.
And when the Prince dies we never get these sense he wasted his life, rather he just wasn’t able to hang onto it. And who can, really? Some families may have long branches that extend for generations, but the tree eventually dies. And what can we do when we are confronted with the fact that life will get away from us all? Well we could try to enjoy it, we could be more like the Prince’s dog, Bendicò, that mischievous doggy who even long after death manages to give one last taste of playfulness about him.
There is no optimistic or pessimistic message here. The novel has no answers, it only explores a life and what it means to confront your own life. That’s why I found it vaguely unsettling at times because these are thoughts I’m not eager to spend much (or any) time dwelling on – better to just live than think about living. Yet there will come a time where everyone has to look honestly at their own life and reckon with their own sense of worthwhile. And we shouldn’t worry so much about the past or about events around us we cannot control, the world is going to change if we like it or not no matter how much we are able to control.
Yet hopefully we’ll be remembered even just a little bit, even if it is just in a small way, the way the image of the leopard is worn by the priest at the end of the novel who carts away the useless old relics.
For someone to sit down and write a novel they have to have a reason for doing so, be it to explore something in life that has troubled them, for financial gain or political motivations, for entertainment, or any number of reasons. A book does not just happen, at least some thought and effort goes into even the most current, vapid, ghost-written celebrity expose. And so what is the purpose of The Painted Bird? Why was this book written?What is its purpose?
In the afterword, Jerzy Kosiński goes into great detail to explain the point of his book and to defend his writing of it and the contents of its pages. He believes many people have misinterpreted his intentions and his words and that people with political motives have actively tried to harm him. He goes on to say that the terrors he writes about in his book are not even a fraction of the true events that went on in Eastern Europe during WW2. He implies he could have written an even more brutal, horrific, and savage description of what people did during that conflict. He believes he held back and others believe he went to far.
In the mini-series Band Of Brothers there is an episode which focuses on the medic of Easy Company. This medic, during his trip into town for rest and supplies, meets a young nurse who is treating the wounded and with whom he immediately forms a bond. Their relationship, though brief, is obviously deeper than an – infatuation they are two common souls who we can easily believe will spend the rest of their lives together. And she dies. And in that death, amid all the other deaths we have seen, the real tragedy of war is felt, the loss of someone who we cannot replace in our hearts and our lives, the loss of a unique and beautiful and important human being. A loss that is in part noble because of the work she was doing and also part pointless because of the whole reason why she would have to be there in the first place: a war.
I bring up this scene in Band of Brothers because that one scene, I believe, does a better job of showing us the tragedy of war than all the pages of Jerzy Kosiński’s book. No amount of the brutal descriptions of torture, and rape, and cruelty going on for pages and pages and chapters and hours of reading can capture just the single image of a nurse’s headscarf amid the rubble of a bombed church.
And so I have to put this book in the same category as Bastard Out Of Carolina, a disingenuous telling of a real tragedy, a book that explores real pain with dishonesty. Yes, every event Jerzy Kosiński writes about may have actually happened to any number of people during the war – I do not dispute the brutality he writes about, especially during a conflict which ultimately saw the extermination of millions of Jews and millions of others both during and then after the war in other countries. But what is disingenuous is the way he went about telling us this story.
When the book was first published it was believed to be basically a memoir, a true account of the author’s actual experiences. Later it came out the book was a work of fiction whose goal was only to explore the brutality of the war and that the author was only writing about what he had heard or been told or, perhaps, imagined.
Does it matter if the book is true or not? Is that an important distinction?
Jerzy Kosiński goes to great lengths to show cruelty, especially the cruelty done to the main character at the hands of simple and uneducated peasants. They beat him, they torture him, they rape each other, they engage in the most incestuous and animalistic behaviors. To be blunt, he makes them all look like animals. In his afterword he’s on the record as saying it was not his intention to be racist or discriminatory towards Eastern European peasants, that he was only showing what actually happened. And there is no denying that people who are superstitious, ignorant, fearful, oppressed, and uneducated allowed (or turned their backs to) the persecution of Jews and gypsies. History has shown, time and again, people of all races and cultures are more than capable of being tremendously cruel to each other, and the Eastern European peasants are no exception and their simple ignorance does not excuse them from terrible behavior.
But the detail Jerzy Kosiński goes into, the amount of savagery he writes about is so overwhelming, so gory, so awful that after a while it loses its potency and it just turns the very real human beings who are also Eastern European peasants into the most vile, wicked, and most horrible person’s on earth. Every time we meet a new peasant for the boy to interact with we just start to wonder what sort of savagery will be unleashed on the boy and us as a reader. We are so beaten down time after time with how horrible the main character will be treated we no longer see anyone here as human.
In a way, through all this hammering of brutality, we start to understand how people can begin to look on a whole other race of people as animals, as less than humans who can be easily loaded onto trains and sent to concentration camps to be gassed. And if that was what the author was going for then I suppose he succeeded.
But he did so at the expense of turning every Eastern European peasant into the very thing he had been persecuted for. He only turned that hate and fear and ignorance back onto someone else. He solves nothing and he implies his own people have never been guilty of anything, that he belongs to a race of people who are only ever persecuted, but always righteous. Add in the line of the main character remembering his family had servants (class distinction) and it’s easy to believe the author was making a class judgment all around.
Now perhaps had the main character became a murderer, had he engaged in the most heinous evil himself, had he, unlike his fellow mute orphan friend, switched the railroad tracks and committed the crime himself, had he actually descended into the depths of cruelty, then maybe we would have been given at least a semblance of a character study of how all this hate and violence can turn a person to hate an violence.
Yet as a work of fiction (which is what Jerzy Kosiński insists this is), then we have to follow the rules of fiction and ask how much does the character change? Well, he changes very little. He’s been through a lot, but other than being withdrawn and mistrustful, he’s a paper thin character (surrounded by stereotypes) who is a victim from start to finish, a righteous whipping post at the hands of cruel, ignorant savages. His character teaches us nothing and he shows us nothing insightful.
Personally I think Jerzy Kosiński took advantage of many of the horrific true accounts from the war and thought he could turn them into a sensationalist book that would sell a lot of copies because of the sheer tremendous amount of savage brutality he could describe. I could never shake the feeling he reveled in the gory details and that he allowed his imagination to run with a morbid frenzy all the way across Eastern Europe. I never felt like I believed all this cruelty happened to just one little boy. Could it have happened to many different people cumulatively? No doubt, unfortunately. People can be awfully cruel. But for this one boy to have gone through trial after terrible trial, to have been through all he went through is just too much to accept in a work of fiction.
Had the book been true, well, then the book would have been genuine and maybe we would have learned something different because, after all, had it really happened to Jerzy Kosiński, then he would have had something different to say and think about those events because he would have lived through them. But not having lived through them means he can’t actually know how that savage cruelty can actually effect a person.
He can’t know what the real horror the real people who suffered during WW2 actually went through, and it’s those people, the Jews, and the gypsies, and all the others who he does a disservice to. He can’t know their agony and he can’t teach it to us. Only an actual survivor who actually went through those events could know that. And my instinct tells me their stories, though also cruel, would have more moments similar to the nurse in Band Of Brothers: the personal losses, than anything the author here writes about.
And let’s not let him off the hook by saying since it’s just a work of fiction that none of this matters, that he has no responsibility to the truth, that he’s all within his rights to turn an entire race and population of Eastern European peasants into the most base savages just for morbid entertainment sake. Sure, maybe in one hundred years a person could write a book like this and not have it reflect at all on the people in it, but to write this book just 20 years after the war when it is still fresh means he has to have known that even if the book had been called “The Totally Made Up Fictitious Account of Horrible Things That Did In No Way Happen To Me, The Author”, it would still have affected people’s perceptions of the people in the book because there really are Eastern European peasants. You can’t have it both ways. You just can’t write a book that claims to be a tool to show people who horrible the war was and then also say it’s all made up and the bad people in it are not actually bad people.
So, to sum up, the book is disingenuous. It teaches us nothing because it is not true and since it is a work of fiction it has to be held to the standards of fiction. And those standards show us the book is just an endless series of brutalisms over and over and with paper-thin characters who do not change and that gives us hardly any insight into the human character the author hopes to explore.
This is a bad book. The people who committed the crimes against the Jews and gypsies and all the others were human beings, not some vision of Dante’s Infernal Monsters. But the truth is human beings did this to other human beings. The actual brutality Jerzy Kosiński tells us that really happened to people during this period in history is just a set piece for paper monsters and it lets the truly awful people who committed these crimes off the moral hook, so-to-speak, by turning them into something that is not obligated to be moral. We have to accept that human beings are cruel, that the worst crimes in our society are committed by people just like us. To soften the blow, to shift the blame by saying these people are not actually human in some vapid attempt to comfort ourselves, to keep us from looking into the darkness of our hearts, means these crimes will continue to happen because they will never be addressed and understood. If we keep blaming monsters for our own actions, if we refuse to accept responsibility, then we are doomed as a species.
When the main character of a story has little to no say in the events happening to them – when they are just swept along the with the story – it makes for a boring character. And a boring book.
And this is a very boring book.
Here’s the problem: Claudius can only watch as events unfold around him, he rarely gets to participate in anything that is interesting and when he does it’s usually to beg for mercy or play the fool. The people around him are interesting – or they would be had they been written better, anyway but he is not. He can only watch (and so we too can only watch) as we are told how one thing happened and how another thing happened.
What I don’t get is Graves wanted to write a realistic story of what happened during Claudius’ lifetime, he wanted to explore what life in Rome was really like and try to figure out how events really happened, yet he gives everyone the most wooden and stilted dialogue and has everyone running around making absolute statements. Everyone is certain of their actions and nobody ever stops to think that some issues might not be black or white. Nobody struggles with morality here and how someone could write an entire novel about the beginnings of the Roman Empire without giving us at least one character who spends more than an afterthought wondering if all this is a good idea isn’t just a missed opportunity, it’s just dumb.
I’ll give Graves credit for creativity and for taking the old Roman stories and looking at them in a fresh light. He has some fun ideas here, but it’s just poorly put together.
The biggest problem is a problem almost all stories like this run into : they have the wrong main character. Claudius is unable to really influence the events happening around him and to him so he’s a terrible character to spend an entire book with. I get that he’s a historian and that he’s telling us this story, but you can’t have it both ways, you can’t update the stories of Rome to show modern audiences that people even 2000 years ago were just like us but then write the whole book as if everyone is stiff and antique and mimicking an old Roman history book. If the whole point of this book was to show us how Rome was a vibrant, modern place, then why make everything feel stuffy and have everyone act wooden? The whole purpose of this book is baffling.
Anyway, my biggest problem with stories like this, such as biopics, are that you should never make the character at the center of your interest the main character. In the film Amadeus Mozart isn’t the main character, Salieri is. Salieri is much more interesting because he’s much more like us – he’s filled with rage and jealousy and he doesn’t possess the genius that Mozart does. We can understand Mozart’s brilliance better by looking at him through the flawed Salieri. In the film The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford the main character isn’t Jesse James, it’s (the coward) Robert Ford. Ford is far more interesting and we learn about both men by following Ford around. Even The Last King of Scotland gets this right by not making Idi Amin the main character, but making the fictional Nicholas Garrigan our eyes to the brutality of that dictator.
Now to be fair, Claudius isn’t the center of Rome through most of the book; he’s telling the stories of Augustus, his wife Livia, Tiberius, and Caligula, as well as a few other historical figures because he wants us to know how he wound up finally becoming Emperor, but we have to look at the first problem I brought up and that is Claudius is just telling us things he had no control over and played almost no part in.
Maybe it really was dumb luck that Claudius became Emperor, however, that makes for boring fiction. And besides I doubt the real Claudius had no influence and I’m sure he was more political than this book makes him out to be. Nobody is just handed the absolute rule of all of Rome just because a few senators are afraid of a few more Germans. I just don’t buy any of it.
Anyway, like I said, I give Graves credit for undertaking an interesting project, and there are some interesting moments, especially anything with Livia or Caligula, but the overall book is stiff and Claudius is one of the most boring main characters I’ve ever come across. He’s like little kid Anakin Skywalker in the terrible The Phantom Menace where he has no idea what’s going on around him, and no power to do anything about what happening. He’s boring, undeveloped, and the whole thing feels like a waste of time.
Oh, and do I feel like I understand Rome better now than when I started? No. Graves gives us some possible insight into how a few well-to-do Romans lives and some insight into the crimes and lavish festivals of the times, but none of the people here jump off the page as real human beings and Rome just feels like a collection of wooden sheep whose only function is to cheer at the games.