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.