Sunday miscellany, 3

It’s been, as Garrison Keillor used to say, a quiet week in Lake Wobegon. Well, actually, it hasn’t been quiet on many fronts except for the reading one, but I did only read two books this week. One was Novel Beginnings: Experiments in Eighteenth-Century English Fiction by academic Patricia Meyer Spacks (who, when she wrote this book at least, taught at the University of Virginia in my hometown)—it’s designed to be accessible to the general reader, and I actually think it admirably succeeds in not being jargon-heavy while assuming a certain level of knowledge and interest. It doesn’t have endnotes, which bothers me (how do I look up particular references?), and that lack of citation also means that there’s very little explicit engagement with other critics, so it’s not clear where Spacks positions herself in the critical conversation. The upside is that she’s very text-focused, committing both close readings and more wide-lens analysis of particular books. Her thesis is that eighteenth-century fiction was a laboratory of formal innovation, and she goes about proving her case not only by examining novels under different categories (novels of adventure, of consciousness, and of manners, for instance) but by examining, alongside the usual suspects (Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Pamela et al. do receive extended treatment), the more bizarre novels of the period, which have fewer literary descendants. (Eliza Haywood and Sarah Scott’s novels may be known to those familiar with the period, but who save the truly specialist reader has heard, for example, of the epic multi-hundred-page The Adventures of a Guinea?) It took me longer to finish than I expected, perhaps because I’m slower to read academic writing, even reasonably straightforward examples.

I also read more Turgenev. I know, he’s not really on my Russian Spring challenge after Fathers and Sons, but that was so good that I had to read more. Sketches From a Hunter’s Album is a collection of short pieces (well, some of them are probably novelette length) that were published in The Contemporary newspaper, then gathered together in book form in 1852. Most take the conceit that Turgenev, or the narrator identified with him, is out hunting and encounters a rural “character” of some sort—a peasant, a petty landowner, a bureaucrat, a group of singers at a tavern—whom he engages in conversation. The sketches are usually part pen-portrait, part social observation, and they contain some of the loveliest writing about the natural world I’ve ever read. Even when Turgenev is describing grim, muddy villages, he’s capable of being evocative, but reading his description of an after-dark camp of local boys telling each other scary stories around a fire while looking after a herd of horses, or his rhapsodic descriptions of a spring pre-dawn morning on the steppe, one’s heart just soars. I think that’s an identifiable element of why I like him so much. He also creates memorable characters, including extraordinary women—once-beautiful Lukeria, now shriveled and yellow from illness but perfectly content to lie still and be one with the nature all around her, or the gypsy Masha, who leaves her lover Chertopkhanov with no other explanation than that she’s “got bored” and remains unmoved, even amused, by his threat to shoot her—and men (singer of unearthly talents Yakov, irascible local fisherman Old Knot, a dwarf named Kasyan who is rumoured to be a healer and who reproaches the narrator for killing for sport, a recurring character named Yermolay who frequently assists the narrator on hunting trips). Most of the stories involve at least an implicit critique of serfdom, and, not unlike some of the American Southern writers I’ve read, Turgenev is very good at outlining the quotidian cruelties of not being in charge of your own life.

I read Sketches From a Hunter’s Album with several pints of cold cider in the beer garden of a sunny country pub after a long walk, and I don’t think Turgenev himself could have improved on the setting.

In other bookish news, I’ve found all the other books for my Russian Spring at Senate House Library (and checked them all out at once, because GREED), and the Rathbones Folio Prize went to Colm Toibin for The Magician, which I was intending to skip but am now wondering if I ought to read, particularly as it’s about Thomas Mann.

Sunday miscellany, 2

Another Sunday! The vernal equinox was mid-afternoon yesterday, apparently, so now we’ll have more sunlight than nighttime until mid-September. Hurrah. I bought tulips today to celebrate.

Rather a linguistic bent to my reading this week, I realize, looking at the pile above. I started the week with Harry Josephine Giles’s Deep Wheel Orcadia, which is genuinely sui generis in form if not in content: it is a science fiction novel-in-verse set on a station in deep space and written in Orcadian, the dialect of the Scottish island of Orkney. There’s a running “standard English” translation at the bottom of each page. The sci-fi element let the book down a bit, I felt, by lacking originality: the general plot setup of disadvantaged industrial workers risking hazardous galactic conditions to harvest a natural resource + mysterious megalithic structures suddenly displaying activity = not exactly new in this genre. Giles never seems that interested in their genre conceit anyway: I couldn’t help but feel that Deep Wheel Orcadia might have been better served by simply being set on Orkney. What does set the book apart is its language, and the translation choices: “birlan”, for instance, has such nuance as a word that it’s glossed into English as “whirlrushdancespinning”. This is both a good thing (the aforementioned nuance is clear) and not: translators, even those who are just glossing instead of providing a full translation, are tasked with, amongst other things, providing clarity, and that requires choice. Glossing, for instance, “tides” as “seatimetides” where, from context, it clearly means one of those things but not the others, is not helpful enough to make up for being confusing.

On to The Mabinogion, a collection of twelfth-century Welsh legends, in a delightfully sprightly and often funny translation by Sioned Davies of Cardiff Uni, published by Oxford World’s Classics. I do so love OWCs: stylish and appealing to look at, a broad selection, a reasonable price, good scholarship. Long may they reign. The Mabinogion isn’t a single story; it really is anthological, bringing together disparate tales from two sources (the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest). The first four stories are known as “the four branches of the Mabinogion”, and they’re by far my favourites: inspired more by pagan and Celtic lore, they’re where you find the enchanted ladies made of flowers, the kings of the underworld, the fairy hounds and the wizards. These are gorgeously fluent and easy of reading, as well as having a clear and comprehensible humour. The tales that follow are largely Arthurian, and not quite as enjoyable; the story of Owain (or Yvain) was all right, but “Peredur son of Efrawg” and “Geraint and Enid” are largely dull slogs. I was most disappointed by the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, which promised great things (the story of how a cursed young man wins a giant’s daughter for his bride by completing a list of impossible tasks) but was bogged down by the repetitive nature of the task-list and the peremptory way in which tasks are achieved. (I suspect this is a tale that would fare much better heard than read.) Worthwhile for the first four tales alone, though.

Then! Oh then! I started the Russian Spring Reading Challenge at the end of the week with Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, and I loved it. Apparently it sparked national controversy in Russia upon its release in 1862 (directly after the Emancipation of the Serfs), and I can see why. The story follows two young men, Arkady and Bazarov, as they visit their respective families in the countryside. Bazarov is a nihilist who disdains all manner of authority; Arkady, slightly younger, is dazzled by Bazarov’s boldness and charisma but can’t quite bring himself to repudiate such things as art, nature, and love. The writing style is limpid and engaging (assisted no doubt by the translation, by Peter Carson), and the characterization is brilliant; Turgenev spent a lot of time figuring out who his characters were before he worked on a plot, and you can tell, because even when they do peculiar, contradictory things, they feel like real people. Bazarov’s painfully earnest parents, Arkady’s pompous uncle and well-meaning father, and above all the women, including the magnificently self-possessed Anna Sergeyevna Odintsova, with whom Bazarov falls in unrequited love… and a few tiny, brilliant moments in which we see Bazarov through a peasant farmer’s eyes, and his egotism is brutally skewered. It is that rarest of things, a character-driven state-of-the-nation novel. An excellent start to my spring reading plan. I’ll leave you with this lovely example of the writing, from a scene in which Arkady’s uncle Pavel Petrovich visits his brother’s mistress, Fedechka:

The small, low-ceilinged room in which he was standing was very clean and comfortable. It smelt of new varnish on the floor, of camomile and lemon balm. Chairs with lyre-shaped backs stood along the walls; they had been bought by the late general in Poland, during the campaign against Napoleon. In one corner rose a bed under a muslin curtain, next to an iron-bound trunk with a domed lid. In the opposite corner a lamp was burning in front of a big dark icon of St Nicholas the Thaumaturge; a tiny china egg hung on the saint’s breast, attached to his halo by a red ribbon. On the window-sills stood glass jars of last year’s jam, green and translucent, and carefully sealed; Fenechka herself had written ‘goozberry’ in big letters on their paper covers; it was Nikolay Petrovich’s favourite jam.

Fathers and Sons, Ivan Turgenev, London: Penguin Classics, 2009

Reading plans: a Russian spring

I have been thinking about the shape and structure of my reading recently. As usual, I’m juggling new releases acquired gratis from publishers with the unread books in my flat. I also have access to a decently, if idiosyncratically, stocked local library system, and (for now) to the London Library’s holdings, and (for some years to come) to the holdings of Birkbeck and Senate House Libraries. So for the first time in quite a long time, reading backlist books without buying them is a fairly realistic proposition. And reading backlist books is something I would really like to do more of; contemporary releases can still be very exciting, but I don’t feel wedded to the new as much as I used to, and there’s so much already out there. Finally (as if I need another reason): I often feel as though my reading flits too much. It provides me with a helpfully broad frame of reference, but it would be nice to give myself time and permission to really read around and into a body of literature (…that isn’t my PhD corpus).

With that in mind, and given that everyone loves a reading challenge/list/plan (don’t you?!), I’ve drawn up some ideas for the next few months. This is not intended to replace my TBR and proof piles, but to supplement them. The only rule is that I can’t buy any of these new. (If I feel dead set on a title and it’s not available through any of the libraries, I have given myself permission to check Abe Books for an un-costly secondhand copy.)

To start with, I will have a Russian Spring.

I made this myself on Canva and I’m very proud of it.

I like the idea of reading Russians in the spring, and I have form for it: I read Crime and Punishment in March 2020, just before the first lockdown, and have vivid memories of finishing Anna Karenina for the first time as an adolescent just before Easter. It seems to me that they meld well with the season; the Russians I’ve read have been less dour and vodka-swilling than hopeful-against-hope. In the same way that Victorian triple-deckers feel like winter books to me, and Faulkner feels like summer, Russians feel like springtime. Chilly springtime.

It would be a mistake to aim too high, I think, given the other commitments of my existence, so to start with I’m aiming for four or five titles maximum. My preliminary list, with rationale, is as follows:

  1. Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev (Penguin Classics transl. Peter Carson; discusssed here). My mother taught this book as part of a Russian History course for the better part of two decades, so I’m already vaguely familiar with it. A story of the generation gap in mid-nineteenth-century Russia, as young nihilists challenge the comfortable assumptions of their land-owning parents.
  2. Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov (discussed here). I know he’s an honorary American, but he was born in Russia, so there. I’ve only read Lolita and that was a very long time ago, plus I wanted something twentieth-century on this list (that wasn’t a giant Vasily Grossman novel).
  3. The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya (transl. Jamey Gambrell; discussed here). Postapocalyptic satire, another twentieth-century novelist, and a woman. Two hundred years after the world ends in atomic flame, the remaining inhabitants of Moscow both eat mice and use them as currency, while all books are banned except those written by the tyrant (using, of course, scribes). I’m looking forward to this.
  4. A Hero of Our Time, by Mikhail Lermontov (Penguin Classics transl. Paul Foote; discussed here) An episodic novel about a bored, romantic young army officer posted to the middle of nowhere. Pechorin is explicitly in the Byronic mold, although this doesn’t necessarily make him happy. I know little else about it but it intrigues.
  5. Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy (Oxford World’s Classics transl. Louise Maude; discussed here). Well, War and Peace is out of the question for now, so I might as well have a look at Tolstoy’s other writing! Resurrection has a fascinating premise: a nobleman serving as juror in a murder trial is horrified to discover that the defendant is a maid he seduced and abandoned years ago, and he gives up his comfortable life to follow her into Siberian exile. (A reverse Sonya from Crime and Punishment?!) This will either be beautiful or infuriate me. Maybe both.

And two alternates, in case I can’t find or really can’t stand to finish any of the above:

6. Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. (Penguin World’s Classics transl. Robert Maguire; discussed here) The premise is an ingenious swindle: an itinerant offers to buy the names of serfs who have already died but are still on the census, thus saving their owners from being taxed on them and handily reinventing himself as an aristocrat in the process. Unbeatably awful and fascinating, no?

7. Memoirs from the House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. (Oxford World’s Classics transl. Jessie Coulson; discussed here) This is near-as-dammit a memoir about the time Dostoevsky spent in a prison camp in Siberia, and is apparently phenomenally evocative. I’ve wanted to read it since enjoying Alex Christofi’s marvelous biography Dostoevsky In Love.

I’m going to give myself til the end of May to have a go at this list. Feel free to join me in my madness if you would like. Or throw brickbats. Entirely up to you. Have you read any of the above? Is there a particularly excellent title with which to start, here?

A Sunday Miscellany

I fancy trying this, a blog post format I re-remembered when I went back and read the archives of one of my favourite book blogs (now, alas, defunct/moved to vlogging, which I cannot get into no matter how much I’d like to, and therefore more or less lost to me). It’s just a little weekly reading catch-up, not high stakes, and hopefully more tenable than long review posts.

This week’s largely been consumed with a re-read of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, which I first (and last) read back in 2015. Cryptonomicon is extremely hard to summarize but is essentially a novel in two strands: the first concerns the development of modern cryptography, cryptanalysis, and digital computing during World War II, while the second (which follows descendants of characters from the first) is set in the ’90s and concerns an attempt by a bunch of hackers-cum-entrepreneurs to create a data haven on a tiny island in Southeast Asia, during which they discover some secrets that have lain dormant since the WWII plot strand. It has been criticized for its style, which involves a considerable amount of info-dumping on subjects like modular arithmetic, Van Eck phreaking, and other such technical concerns. I’m certainly much more alive to the potential irritation of those info-dumps now than I was in 2015, although they don’t personally bother me. I think Stephenson succeeds in creating an authorial voice that, Thackeray-like, sits you down and natters knowingly in your ear, so that the info-dumps feel more like the point in that sort of conversation where the guy at the bar gets excited and starts drawing diagrams on cocktail napkins. (It’s also slightly addictive; most of this paragraph is written in a diluted version of that tone.) But the book is also 810 pages long in paperback, so I can see how this sort of thing might start to pall after a while. It’s certainly murder on the wrists, but I’ve long since given up caring much about that.

I also started Sophie Haydock’s debut novel The Flames, which gives voice to the four women who loved artist Egon Schiele: his sister, sister-in-law, wife, and model. I…did not finish it. I wanted to like it so much, I really did. It was mostly a problem with the pacing, which feels both rushed and dragged out. This is a common issue in contemporary historical novels written in the present tense. That’s a huge generalization, I know (and is not to be taken as being anti-present-tense; the problem is never tense per se, but its method of employment). Still, I have observed it repeatedly. In The Flames, the pacing in each scene, and between scenes, creates disorientation: we are dashed through moments which are clearly meant to have great emotional weight, then pivot to several months in the future for a scene which seems not to advance the plot at all. The book also suffers from a certain flatness of delivery. For instance: Ada, Schiele’s sister-in-law, believes herself to be pregnant and goes to obtain an abortion, for which Schiele (though not in the frame for paternity) pays. At the abortionist’s, her pregnancy is discovered to be illusory, but she doesn’t accept this and runs screaming through the dark and dingy house. In the hands of someone like, let’s say, Malcolm Lowry, this would have been a scene of hallucinatory power and horror; in Haydock’s, unfortunately, it feels dutiful and rote. Oh, the emotion’s all where it’s meant to be; that’s the problem. It’s all very “‘No’, she whispers”. No surprises here. It’s a perfectly readable novel, and many will enjoy it immensely, but I put it down. There are books in the world I haven’t read yet that could take the top of my head off.

I’m currently reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. I’ve avoided it til now, unsure of whether DiAngelo’s centering of white people in the antiracism struggle is useful or problematic. However, I’ve just moved to a borough that is both deep-dyed Tory and a historical bastion of British white flight, and I keep having conversations with people where the sentence “I don’t think this is about race” is uttered by the not-me party. So actually I think DiAngelo’s focus on framing racism in a way that will get past white defensiveness is going to provide me with some useful conversational tools. There’s not a lot here that I haven’t already learned some way or other, but the reinforcement is handy.*

*edited to add: 3/4 of the way through the DiAngelo, I notice that she cites a belief that one “already knows” about racism as an assumption that many white people make in order to excuse themselves from further engagement! So consider me chastened. I never get to stop learning, and trying to do better.