Friday, May 11, 2012

The Rooshans

Last night I read the long chapter on Tsar Nicholas from Tolstoy's Hadji Murad. This chapter is worth the price of the book. It was excellent in all the right ways: witty, believable, insightful and gorgeously-written. This is the first chapter I've encountered that was truly great, that lives up to the hype. Most of the book--which is good, but not great--reads like nonfiction, like dramatized history, but the Nicholas chapter burns hot with passion and energy. I laughed out loud and made Mighty Reader listen to a few delicious passages. Clearly Tolstoy really felt something about the tsar, and that feeling comes across on the page. Which I think is a good lesson about the craft of prose fiction: that no matter how engaging your characters and your story, the narrative is going to be flat unless the author connects with the materials on an emotional level. Tolstoy is undeniably invested in his larger themes of imperialism and hypocrisy and the ugliness of warfare, but it's an intellectual engagement. When he writes about Nicholas, though, you know he's pissed off, and he grinds his axes gleefully, turning His Imperial Majesty into a sort of fat, lecherous circus clown whose capricious nature and willful ignorance are feared by all in his immense shadow. Great stuff. Again: the material will not carry itself if the author doesn't care deeply. YMMV, but that's my opinion, at least of this book.

Speaking of books, and Russians, I have sworn to take a break from reading but I keep buying books anyway. How can I help myself when there's a fine used book store in my neighborhood? Yesterday I found this little gem:



It's a tiny little volume, much smaller than you'd think from this image, with gold leaf on the spine and an embossed cloth cover in green. It's pocket-sized but possibly a bit too fragile to actually carry around in my jacket.

I also picked up a Russian-language edition of Nabokov's Lolita, which I plan to read next year. Mozhete vsegda polozhitsya na ubiyitsu v otnosheniyi prozi. The translator's name is nowhere on the book (a 1992 edition from the Soviet Union) and I am assuming it was Nabokov but who knows?

There was also, somehow, finding its way into my shopping bag, a leather-bound copy of Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust. West is one of those 20th-century guys I've circled around but never actually read. The edition I have is from the Franklin Library. It's in fine condition and I doubt it's ever been read.

12 comments:

  1. Okay, I need to come visit you and that bookstore too...!

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  2. I've been stuck on this idea that the novel and I can't get along because I can't care about my subject matter for the entire length of a book. Like what you are experiencing with HM, I feel like my own stories have sections where my heart is in it and other sections that are just intellectual, or that are just there to make the story complete. This weekend I was wondering if I should start looking into poetry.

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  3. Davin, on Saturday afternoon Mighty Reader and I were talking about Cocke & Bull versus Killing Hamlet. She considers KH to be the superior novel because, while C&B is emotionally powerful, it lacks the sort of intellectual curiosity and larger questions not directly related to the plot that KH has. So maybe it's not as simple as I thought it was. I finished Hadji Murad and it's a fine book, even the not-Nicholas sections. So I don't know. I'm actually planning to do some revisions to Cocke & Bull to add in a layer of extra material that will connect the emotional story with larger ideas about America and the idea of a "new world", all hopefully taking place in the metaphorical realm. We'll see. I'm doing some more historical research and making a lot of notes about it.

    In the end, as usual, I have no idea what I'm doing. I don't know what a "story" is, or what a "novel" is supposed to be. Moving forward, in fear and trembling, through Plato's cave etc.

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  4. For me, reading Cocke & Bull was really educational for that very reason. I admired it so much. It was powerfully emotional. But there was no handle on it--I wouldn't know how to describe it to other people in a sentence or two. I don't see that as being good or bad, but I did see how it could be a challenge. When I think about writing Everybody, it falls into that same realm. When I think about tying it to a big picture, for that particular story it feels like a compromise. Hooray for no good answers!

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  5. That's the thing, really. Cocke & Bull to me seems really pure, really distilled down to its essence. To add side-shadowing and symbolism that expands the narrative outward might be doing damage to it. So I don't know. Maybe I'll leave it as it is.

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  6. As the wise Ralph Wiggum once said: My cat's breath smells like cat food.

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  7. Hey! I have once more been misrepresented here. What I said was that KH made me think more about issues separate from the action of the book ("how much is the truth or reality of a situation dependent on perspective," for example)--thus "more thinky"-- while C&B was a much more emotional book with the author supplying the emotion and perhaps requiring less of the reader. I didn't say one was better than the other; I said that your best book--the Haydn or Antarctica one, perhaps--will be when you put both elements--the intellectual attraction and the emotional involvement--together.

    I now return to guessing where photos belong in "Everest: The West Ridge."

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  8. I often feel like writing is more of a performance art than we give it credit for. I keep trying to pull all of my strengths together with each new project. It's like trying to win the decathlon or the all around. My first book was more emotion. Cyberlama is probably more intellect.

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  9. M, I appear to have misunderstood you. I was sure you expressed a preference for KH over C&B. Color me wrong.

    I wrote more of Go Home, Miss America at lunch. I have a vague idea what this book is "about," but I only am aware of that vague idea while writing; I couldn't for the life of me tell you now what the aboutness of the book is.

    Davin, yes to the performance analogy. I keep thinking that every new book has to do something none of the previous books have done, and also a quadruple axel. Backwards, and in heels.

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  10. All of my quadruple axels have been done backwards, and in Johns.

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