Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Bestir yourselves, good Christian folk, in such a terrible mischance!"

She was sorry to part from the village and the peasants. She remembered how they had carried out Nikolay, and how a requiem had been ordered for him at almost every hut, and all had shed tears in sympathy with her grief. In the course of the summer and the winter there had been hours and days when it seemed as though these people lived worse than the beasts, and to live with them was terrible; they were coarse, dishonest, filthy, and drunken; they did not live in harmony, but quarrelled continually, because they distrusted and feared and did not respect one another. Who keeps the tavern and makes the people drunken? A peasant. Who wastes and spends on drink the funds of the commune, of the schools, of the church? A peasant. Who stole from his neighbours, set fire to their property, gave false witness at the court for a bottle of vodka? At the meetings of the Zemstvo and other local bodies, who was the first to fall foul of the peasants? A peasant. Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse. Hard labour that made the whole body ache at night, the cruel winters, the scanty harvests, the overcrowding; and they had no help and none to whom they could look for help. Those of them who were a little stronger and better off could be no help, as they were themselves coarse, dishonest, drunken, and abused one another just as revoltingly; the paltriest little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and considered they had a right to do so. And, indeed, can any sort of help or good example be given by mercenary, greedy, depraved, and idle persons who only visit the village in order to insult, to despoil, and to terrorize? Olga remembered the pitiful, humiliated look of the old people when in the winter Kiryak had been taken to be flogged. . . . And now she felt sorry for all these people, painfully so, and as she walked on she kept looking back at the huts.
This is from Anton Chekhov's long 1897 story "Peasants." Apparently the Tsar's censors hacked away at this tale of poverty, ignorance and local government corruption in the wake of the Great Decree. Chekhov found himself in the middle of a very public debate about the future of Russia when "Peasants" was published. The Marxists praised the story, while their opponents condemned it. It is, I think, possibly Chekhov's most overtly political story, though the censors only said that it painted peasant life in too somber a manner. What "Peasants" does is depict an entire subculture in Mother Russia populated by illiterate, impoverished, irreligious, drunken, unthinking and lazy people who have neither use nor reason for hope, and "none to whom they could look for help," which is a finger pointed directly at government, which means His Imperial Majesty the Tsar. A bold story from Dr Chekhov, then. Allegedly (though there is no evidence aside from anecdotes) Tolstoy condemned "Peasants," claiming that Chekhov had betrayed the life of the people. As if Tolstoy knew the life of the people.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In a tabernacle

Today is of course the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day which almost always reminds me that we live in a miraculous world. So bear that in mind as you go about your business.

I write today's post primarily to remind myself of a few things: first, that I am nearly finished with the first draft of the long long story "Antosha in Prague," which will be the title story, probably, of the collection I'm currently writing. "Antosha in Prague" seems like a pretty good story to me. In a day or so I'll begin working on the final pages, which comprise the "Kafka" section. I'll be interested to see how I solve the formal problems of that section.

I have also decided to drag poor Vladimir Nabokov into the book, in a story I'm calling "A White-Crowned Sparrow." Working on this new story has made me aware of Nabokov's prose in a new way, which has been an interesting experience. I am attempting, I tell myself, to in some manner invoke the style of Nabokov's later prose in a few passages of the story I'm writing:
Arrayed carefully across the small desk behind which Vladimir sat were a sheet of plain white typing paper, a sharpened pencil that terminated in a pink button of rubber crimped into a brass ferrule, a fountain pen with a fine tip and a reservoir full of dark red ink, a wooden ruler, and a pair of sharp scissors.
Things like that. The description of the pencil's eraser is Nabokovian, I think. I'll have to do some more work on the fountain pen, changing the reservoir into a belly and that sort of thing. I'm also working on the fictional Nabokov's attitude:
A hack writer, Vladimir thought, would open a story with "It all began when he turned off the radio." A pistol would doubtless be quickly introduced into the narrative, and then would appear a woman with a slightly open mouth, her lips crimson with waxen color, her golden hair in disarray. The pistol and the open mouth were always in close proximity in those sorts of tales, everything as vulgar as the mean imagination of the hack would permit. Vladimir did not trust stories that required the casting of such cheap reticulate cliches designed to catch the attention of a reader. A reader in any case, he believed, should leap bravely into a tale with a sense of wonder, prepared to encounter whatever forces the author placed before him. Else why read at all? There is an art to reading, Vladimir had relentlessly reminded his students during those long years when he'd lectured on literature. Learn to be an artist among lecteurs, he'd told them, or they could go home and learn how to read the TV Guide.
And so on in the same general style, whatever that is. The trick is to also make this story feel like a Chekhov story. I believe I've solved that problem with the ending. Don't ask; spoilers, you know.

I also write to exhort you all to go to the Melville House website where they've got a heck of a sale going on. Melville House may have passed on one of my novels, but I still think they're an admirable independent publisher. The sale to which I've linked is one in which you must appear in person, but I also believe they've got something like a 40% off thing going right now. Melville House books are cheap at full price, so you cannot lose. And now it's time for my afternoon coffee break.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The piano was still making sea noises

Last week I read Piano Stories, a collection of short fictions by Felisberto Hernandez. I first heard about the book via this post on Richard's swell Caravana de Recuerdos blog. I picked up the book a couple of months ago at Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company. End of acknowledgements.

Felisberto Hernandez (1902-1964) was a professional pianist, an Uruguayan, and a short story writer who influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino, among others. He's been compared to Proust and Kafka. He had four wives, wrote seven books and died penniless. End of biography.

Piano Stories is an uneven collection; I liked about half of it and the other half, frankly, tried very hard to put me to sleep. Hernandez' Proustian writing about the nature of memory just runs on and on without actually providing any memories, merely a lot of "memory is like a riderless horse that chews on bitter grass growing along the edge of a dry stream bed that sometimes is full of crystal water in which more memories float past which are ignored by the horse, who is blind yet seeks his rider" and stuff like that. That blind horse I just made up; it's not one of Hernandez' images. Though there is a great story in this collection called "The Woman Who Looked Like Me" about a man who remembers that he's actually a horse. All of the good stories here are really good; it's just that half of the book is full of stories that are not good.

I'll ignore that not-good half, though. The good stuff is a nice big handful of slightly surreal stories about estrangement from oneself and others, about the oddness just behind the veneer of everyday life. In many of the stories, an itinerant pianist is invited into the house of strangers, where he sees how strange people are behind closed doors. A woman is in love with a balcony, for instance. Another woman lives in a house which has been deliberately flooded, as if it's the city of Venice, and she hires men to row her around the house while she makes a confession; when the confession is complete, the rower is dismissed and a new one is found. This is all interesting stuff and Hernandez frequently brings the inanimate world to life around his characters. Tables and chairs have moods and opinions, that sort of thing. He also does interesting things with the idea of the human eye: the eye collects and carries around images within it, or light pours out from the eye rather than the other way around, etc. Have I mentioned the similarity to Borges yet?

The centerpiece to this collection is "The Daisy Dolls," a really brilliant story. In it, a wealthy industrialist has begun collecting dolls that look like women, but are slightly larger than life. He hires designers and artists to create scenes--dioramas in glass cases--using the dolls in all sorts of costumes, which he investigates after dinner while a pianist plays for him. It's all very selfish of the man, and highly sexually charged and strange. The strangest doll is Daisy, who was built to look like the industrialist's wife. Over time, the doll and the wife merge in the man's imagination, and possibly hers as well. The doll collector begins to believe that his wife is dying, and he makes a plan to live out his years as a widower taking Daisy to wife, more or less, which involves having the doll altered to be, shall we say, anatomically correct. The wife does not die, havoc is cried, the dogs of connubial war are loosed, etc. Things become stranger than they already are. Which is maybe a good way of summing up this collection: things become stranger than they already are.
"This doll has found her true story." Then he got up, opened the glass door, and slowly went over her things. He felt he was defiling something as solemn as death. He decided to concentrate on the doll and tried to find an angle from which their eyes could meet. After a moment he bent over the unhappy girl, and as he kissed her on the forehead it gave him the same cool, pleasant sensation as Mary's face. He had hardly taken his lips off her forehead when he saw her move. He was paralyzed. She started to slip to one side, losing her balance, until she fell off the edge of the chair, dragging a spoon and a fork with her. The piano was still making sea noises, and the windows were still flashing and the machines rumbling. He did not want to pick her up and he blundered out of the case and the room, through the little parlor, into the courtyard.
This post is my contribution to Spanish Literature Month. Next week I'll read some Portuguese literature, from Jose Saramago.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Be warned, Russia! Possessed and bedeviled by Dostoyevsky

I finished Dostoyevsky's The Devils/The Possessed last weekend. Many readers think of this novel as being an over-the-top madhouse of a book, and see the violent shenanigans of the radicals as a horrific portrait of the revolutionary spirit. There are murders, there is arson, there are deaths and social disruption, religious icons are defaced, blasphemies are declared, etc. On the whole, pretty tame by my standards with the exception of the child abuse (see below). Anyone who's read Shakespeare will have seen worse. So while I was disappointed that the book never broke through into the promised wild storm of madness, I still call it a fine work. I will also say in passing that in terms of form and technique, The Devils reminds me of Dickens' Bleak House more than anything else.

The Possessed/The Devils is a complex work with many (often conflicting) threads running through it, a comic novel with sections of tragedy and some brilliant set pieces. In some ways it’s like all of Dostoyevsky’s other novels (the characters tend to be frantic sorts, shouting and fighting and dashing from place to place), but in other ways it is unlike any of Dostoyevsky’s other novels (The Devils is tightly controlled and well knit together, and even at his most discursive, Dostoyevsky keeps everything moving forward and connected; hence the Bleak House comparison). The Devils is a carefully constructed novel: it’s complex, very long, and the tone—while generally comic—spans a wide emotional range, just like real life (there are the usual jokes about drunken peasants and silly aristocrats, but there is also the tale of the thirteen year old girl who is raped by a general’s son and then hangs herself in shame). So this book is many things (while remaining unified), because Dostoyevsky is many things as a novelist. I will now provide some examples.

Dostoyevsky deliberately composed a polemical novel. The Devils was written in part because Dostoyevsky had been accused of avoiding any meaningful engagement in his novels with the important social issues of the day. The inspiration for the story came in the form of a news item Dostoyevsky read (he was mad for crime stories in the papers), about a revolutionary group murdering one of its own members. The Devils is a continuation of the literary conversation begun by Turgenev in Fathers and Sons, and Dostoyevsky references that novel as well as the works of Herzen, Fourier, Chernyshevsky and (amusingly) himself (several times characters use the "two plus two is four" construction that Dostoyevsky mocked in Notes From the Underground). One character, an aging writer named Karmazinov, is a mean-spirited parody of Ivan Turgenev. Likely there are other parodied authors, but I'm not familiar enough with Russian liberal literature from 1840-60 to pick them out. ("My friend, I'm doing this all for the sake of the great idea. I've stood still for twenty-five years and now, suddenly, I'm on the move--I don't know where to, but I'm certainly on my way!") There is a lot of discussion in The Devils of politics. Dostoyevsky's Russians take politics personally:
He did not stand to lose very much by the proclamation and was perfectly capable of understanding its humanitarian aspect--and almost capable of understanding its advantages to the country's economy--but somehow he took the emancipation of the serfs as a direct, personal slight. This was something unconscious, but the less he could explain it, the more it tormented him[...]At the same time, however, he violently disapproved of Russia's past and viewed most Russian traditions as fit for a pigsty[...]The thought that in the days of the ancient Kingdom of Muscovy the tsar could, if he so decided, inflict corporal punishment upon a Russian nobleman, made him almost weep with shame.
Artemy Gaganov, weeping above with shame over Russian customs, will later become involved in a duel, which barbaric ritual he takes with all seriousness in a hysterically comic scene. There are a lot of comic scenes in this novel, because Dostoyevsky can be funny:
"You know how my kind lives: they give us either a handful of hay or a prod with the pitchfork. Last Friday I stuffed myself to the gills with meat pie, but the next day I didn't have a thing in my mouth and the day after I fasted and the one after that I skipped my meals. But I had plenty of water from the river, so maybe I'm breeding carp in my belly. So I wonder whether you wouldn't be so generous, sir. And besides, I have a lady friend waiting for me not too far from here, but she won't receive me unless I present myself with a few rubles."

***

"Last year I was almost caught handing counterfeit fifty-ruble notes made in France to Korovayev, but thank God, Korovayev drowned in a pond while he was drunk, just in time, and they couldn't pin anything on me. Then here, in Virginsky's house, I championed the freedom of the socialist wife."

***

"I propose we take a vote on whether Shigalov's despair has a bearing upon the state of our common cause and whether we should devote ten evenings listening to him or not," an officer said cheerfully.
Dostoyevsky can be serious. The character of Kirilov is possibly a version of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's Rakhmetov, a sort of socialist uberman. Kirilov, an atheist like most of the other revolutionaries, has decided that since there is no God, this absent place in the universe must be filled by himself. Kirilov, then, is God. We are all God in Kirilov's philosophy. The only way to prove that he is God is for Kirilov to demonstrate his free will. The only way for God to demonstrate free will is to destroy himself. Therefore, Kirilov has decided to shoot himself, to prove that he is God. This, I think, is the central argument of The Devils: that when a Russian turns away from the Orthodox Church, and declares that man is equivalent to God, he will only be able to destroy himself. Kirilov is presented sympathetically--as a madman, sure, but Dostoyevsky allows the madman his dignity and does not laugh at the madness, because this--to the author--is the serious business of the novel. Without her faith, Russia will only kill herself. Be warned, Russia! The suicide motif is very important in The Possessed. Pay attention, readers!

Dostoyevsky doesn't just fix his eye on the revolutionaries; he has plenty of scorn for the Russian establishment:
"I'm convinced that we shouldn't just dismiss the opinions of the young. People simply brand them as Communists, but I think we must treat them with understanding and appreciation. Lately I've been reading everything--the newspapers, all the proclamations of communes, and all about the natural sciences. I subscribe to everything. For we must understand, mustn't we, the society in which we live and with whom we have to deal. One cannot live all one's life shut up in an ivory tower of one's own fantasy. I thought a lot about it and decided to be nice to the young people and thus prevent them from going over the brink. Believe me, only we who belong to the best society can keep them from plunging into the abyss into which they are being pushed by these silly, intolerant old men.[...]I'm organizing a day-long entertainment to be paid for by subscription, the proceeds going to needy governesses from our province. They are scattered all over Russia and there are six of them in this district alone. In addition, there are two women telegraphists, two university students, and many others who would like to follow a career but can't afford the training. The lot of the Russian woman is terrible, my dear! In this strange country of ours, everything is possible and I think we can guide this great public cause along the proper path only by kindness and the direct participation of all society.[...]So let us close ranks and grow stronger. In short, I will start with a literary matinee followed by a light lunch; then there will be an intermission, and later in the evening a ball."
Mrs. von Lembke, above, is the wife of the provincial governor. Her literary ball in the name of needy governesses--the sort of political action a Mrs. von Lembke can understand--goes quite awry at the hands of these young people she means to keep from going over the brink. They are quite successful in pulling her (and the governor) over that brink.

Dostoyevsky offers a variety of life philosophies:
"After all, I say to myself, it's better to bow to a jackboot than to a peasant's clog."

***

When the party passed the inn on its way to the bridge, someone suddenly announced that the body of a man who had shot himself had been discovered that day in a room there and that the police were about to arrive to investigate the death. Immediately someone suggested that we stop and have a look at the suicide. The suggestion met with general approval--the ladies had never seen a suicide before. I remember one of them saying, "I'm so bored with everything that I can't afford to be too fussy about entertainment--anything will do as long as it's amusing."

***

Verhovensky: "Shall I tell you what Karmazinov told me? He said that, essentially, our teaching is the denial of honor and that the easiest way to attract the Russian man is to promise him the right of dishonor."

Stavrogin: "Excellent words, golden words! He hits the nail right on the head. The right of dishonor. They'll all come rushing to us and there'll be none left on the other side."
Dostoyevsky can be deeply human. He is best at this when he writes about faith. There is a long scene where one of the radical antiheroes, Nikolai Stavrogin, makes a long confession of his past crimes to a retired bishop. It's a remarkable, moving set piece that prefigures the "Grand Inquisitor" scene from The Brothers Karamazov. Is Stavrogin a demon, or has he been possessed? We don't know, but he is evil walking the face of the earth. The bishop wishes to forgive Stavrogin, but Stavrogin does not, in the end, want forgiveness. He wants to out himself, to publicly declare his sins, and then force himself upon high society and scorn them for accepting him as he is. He despises himself and everything around him, hating the world that allows him to live in it. And yet, through the eyes of the bishop--who Stavrogin mocks and disrespects--we see Stavrogin as wounded, sick and pathetic. A remarkable performance on the part of Dostoyevsky. This is some book.

I read (and quoted heavily from) Andrew R. MacAndrew's excellent 1962 translation, titled The Possessed.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

arguments against dangerous philosophies (a blog hop for Marly Youmans)

Poet/novelist Marly Youmans tagged me as part of a blog hop, a thing with which I was heretofore unfamiliar. So, being the good sport that I am, I am playing along.

What am I working on? I am drafting a novel whose working title is Antosha in Prague. It's a collection of short fictions based loosely on the stories and life of Saint Anton Chekhov. So far, this project is a lot of fun. I'm about halfway through the first draft of the title story now. I am also tidying up a couple of manuscripts and submitting a couple of other novels to publishers.

How does my work differ from others in its genre? I have no idea. I don't think in terms of genre, although if one considers "literary fiction" to be fiction about or concerned with literature, I might be inclined to notice that my novels allude to other works of fiction all the damned time. Characters in my Mona in the Desert constantly discuss literature and philosophy. The protagonist of Antosha in Prague thinks about fiction with some regularity.

Why do I create what I do? Again, I really have no idea. I suffer from the fictional impulse, which I guess means that one of my primary ways of engaging with the world is to turn it into fiction, which is also a way of abstracting the world, so go figure. If I have any moral purpose in writing, it is to correct sinners and evangelize the gospel of kindness and humility. If I have any immoral purpose in writing, it is the usual egotistic artistic wish to draw attention to my imagined cleverness. Also, writing a novel is a wonderful puzzle to solve; I try to make each puzzle harder for me by trying difficult technical tricks in each one. And I like making things by hand, as it were.

How does my creative process work? I usually have a couple of different ideas for novels stewing in my head, some of them trapped there for years until I know that I must write them now. Often "knowing that I must write them now" is the step that immediately follows my having an idea that I don't think I can actually pull off. I come equipped with a great deal of ego and sometimes believing that I have set an impossible task before myself makes that task irresistible. Anyway, I think of stories as sort of tapestries, or quite long murals, and little by little I assemble a sketch of the whole, or at least sketches of the big pieces that will hopefully lift the work above the earth. Sometimes those pieces are characters or scenes; sometimes they're ideas about life or arguments against dangerous philosophies. Usually I try to scrub out those arguments when I'm revising my work, or at least shove them into the background. Mostly, then, what I do is assemble a collage of ideas and impressions and then write a novel to dramatize that collage.

Who next? I am obligated to pick on four other creative types, I think. I am going to pick on just two: Michelle Argyle and Davin Malasarn. They are both young novelists who have been to my house and have met the cat. The cat approves of them.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

little boots (no delusions of godhood)

I was going to post a lengthy essay about The Possessed, which is a darned fine novel, but instead I give you this photo:



And also this photo, of Mt Rainier's peak as viewed from about 6800 feet up the south face:


Thursday, July 17, 2014

every Russian is inordinately delighted at any public scandal

In every period of transition this riff-raff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and merely does its utmost to give expression to uneasiness and impatience. Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of "advanced people" who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case. It is said among us now that it is all over, that Pyotr Stepanovitch was directed by the Internationale, and Yulia Mihailovna by Pyotr Stepanovitch, while she controlled, under his rule, a rabble of all sorts. The more sober minds amongst us wonder at themselves now, and can't understand how they came to be so foolish at the time.

What constituted the turbulence of our time and what transition it was we were passing through I don't know, nor I think does anyone, unless it were some of those visitors of ours. Yet the most worthless fellows suddenly gained predominant influence, began loudly criticising everything sacred, though till then they had not dared to open their mouths, while the leading people, who had till then so satisfactorily kept the upper hand, began listening to them and holding their peace, some even simpered approval in a most shameless way. People like Lyamshin and Telyatnikov, like Gogol's Tentyotnikov, drivelling home-bred editions of Radishtchev, wretched little Jews with a mournful but haughty smile, guffawing foreigners, poets of advanced tendencies from the capital, poets who made up with peasant coats and tarred boots for the lack of tendencies or talents, majors and colonels who ridiculed the senselessness of the service, and who would have been ready for an extra rouble to unbuckle their swords, and take jobs as railway clerks; generals who had abandoned their duties to become lawyers; advanced mediators, advancing merchants, innumerable divinity students, women who were the embodiment of the woman question--all these suddenly gained complete sway among us and over whom? Over the club, the venerable officials, over generals with wooden legs, over the very strict and inaccessible ladies of our local society. Since even Varvara Petrovna was almost at the beck and call of this rabble, right up to the time of the catastrophe with her son, our other local Minervas may well be pardoned for their temporary aberration. Now all this is attributed, as I have mentioned already, to the Internationale. This idea has taken such root that it is given as the explanation to visitors from other parts. Only lately councillor Kubrikov, a man of sixty-two, with the Stanislav Order on his breast, came forward uninvited and confessed in a voice full of feeling that he had beyond a shadow of doubt been for fully three months under the influence of the Internationale. When with every deference for his years and services he was invited to be more definite, he stuck firmly to his original statement, though he could produce no evidence except that "he had felt it in all his feelings," so that they cross-examined him no further.

I repeat again, there was still even among us a small group who held themselves aloof from the beginning, and even locked themselves up. But what lock can stand against a law of nature? Daughters will grow up even in the most careful families, and it is essential for grown-up daughters to dance.
That's from the third part of The Devils. What a great book this is. I keep waiting for the narrative to unravel, for the book to become a disorganized mess, but 450 pages in, it's still a well-organized novel. Dostoyevsky has managed to maintain the comic tone most of the time, though of course the serious passages are becoming more bleak (while generally becoming also more touching and beautifully written). This is some book, I say. A terrible, frightening, awfully funny damned book.

I don't know how it's escaped everyone's notice that Anton Lavrentievich Govorov is clearly working for the tsar's secret police.

The quoted passage above is from Constance Garnett's translation. I'm actually reading Andrew MacAndrew's terrific 1962 translation. I love her work with Chekhov, but Garnett was not the translator Dostoyevsky needed for this book.