Sunday miscellany 8

My death books kick came to an, er, natural end this week with Tender, by Penny Wincer (represented in the above stack by the backwards book, as it was due back at the library!) She’s a carer for her autistic son and writes with great compassion about the challenges and joys of providing medical, physical and emotional care for someone else, whether that relationship is parent-child, partner-partner, paid or unpaid. I appreciated particularly that for many of the people she talked to, “caring” wasn’t the right word; particularly between adults, many described relationships where an able-bodied or neurotypical partner supports a loved one, but where the loved one is far from being helpless or passive. I would certainly recommend it. It tends to foreground people who are autistic or non-verbal, since that chimes most directly with Wincer’s personal experience, but she has spoken to people with all kinds of disabilities and care needs. It’s a useful book across the board, neither sentimental nor unkind: Wincer addresses carer burnout and the need for self-compassion. It’s fading a little from memory already, but I put that down to the fact that it joined five or six other similar books.

Emily Maloney’s Cost of Living looks similar on the face of it, but is quite a different animal: it’s an essay collection based on the work Maloney did as an emergency room technician in the US, which she undertook in order to pay back monumental medical debt incurred as a result of treating her mental health crisis. It’s definitely dark. Part of that is the nature of the subject—American healthcare these days is a brutal farce that Kafka would have dismissed as unrealistic—and part of it is Maloney’s oddly disconnected authorial persona. Her home life as a teenager was clearly troubled (she describes her parents as being “like children”) but although this is repeatedly referred to, she never concludes that the answer is to cut them off or seek support or validation elsewhere. Possibly this turbulent home life is what made her vulnerable to Dr. Julie, a psychiatrist she visited for several years, to whom the essays return again and again. Dr. Julie was a big fan of prescribing medication, and it’s to Maloney’s credit as a writer that she manages to induce a creeping unease with every new mention of the doctor’s name while never quite explicitly saying how badly wrong this therapeutic relationship went. One essay is just a list of every medication she’s been on and how much each one costs, with or without insurance. In some ways this offhand style fits well with a contemporary vogue for disaffection in our (autofictional or nonfiction confessional) narrators, but in other ways it makes the essays seem purposeless; they’re memorable, but many end at a seemingly random point. A quick read and a disturbing, fascinating one, but imperfect, then.

Finally, the equally disturbing, fascinating and imperfect Dead Souls, by Nikolai Gogol. It is generally known as either the first Russian novel, or one of the first, although he himself referred to it as a long poem (it’s written in prose). It’s in two parts, the second of which was never finished. He also burned the manuscript twice. The basic premise—ambitious and seemingly heritage-less Chichikov appears in a provincial capital, ingratiates himself with everyone, and convinces many local landowners to transfer to him ownership of those peasants who’ve died since the last national census, but for whom the landowners continue to be liable for taxation until the next census resets the count—covers Part 1. The characters are more broadly drawn here: the stupid widow Madame Korobochka, the liar and bully Nozdryov, the miserly Plyushkin. Chichikov successfully acquires several hundred “souls”, but rumours begin to fly that they’re all dead, and also (perhaps more damningly) that he hopes to marry the Governor’s daughter, and he is forced to flee. In the unfinished Part 2, we learn more about him: he is from a family of no distinction, a former government official dismissed for corruption. He intends to take out a loan against the value of his (non-existent) serfs and pocket the money. In the opening chapters of Part 2, he tries to replicate his earlier tactics (winning local favour in a new neighbourhood, this time by helping a young man to marry the daughter of a General, and reconciling the General to his future son-in-law), but is entangled in a scandal about a will, briefly imprisoned, and forced to flee again. The novel ends in mid-sentence.

It’s a huge shame that it’s incomplete. There are gaps even in the text that’s available for Part 2, which makes it confusing to read. I’d have been rather happier merely with Part 1 (maybe Part 2 could have lived in an appendix or something similar). But it is particularly a shame because it’s possible to see Gogol becoming more “novelistic” in his characterization, subtler and closer to the nineteenth-century European realists, and it would have been interesting to see if he could have sustained it. Part 2 is generally considered to be not as good, and for good reason. But Chichikov himself is the real draw—we know almost nothing about him or his motives until the very end of Part 1, only that he’s suspiciously protean, able to turn himself into any kind of person in order to win approval—and any text he appeared in would be worth the reading.

Now is the time to survey the Russian Spring reading challenge thus far. I initially said I’d read a list of five, with two alternates in case any titles on the original list didn’t appeal, and I gave myself until the end of May to do so. It’s now the 1st of May, and I’ve read all of the original list bar one, plus all of the alternates (and a sneaky extra in the form of Turgenev’s Sketches from a Hunter’s Album). I’m vacillating on whether to try to fit in Pale Fire some time this month, or to start planning a new challenge. (There are several ideas on the boil, all of which are exciting!) Edition matters, as I discovered when I stalled on Dead Souls in an ugly library binding with outdated scholarship; I returned it to Senate House, found a newer Penguin paperback at my local library, and did much better. It’s possible that Pale Fire will seem less of an obstacle with the right edition. Any votes yea or nay? (I also have a copy of Pushkin’s Belkin’s Stories from my local library, which is another possibility. What do we think?)

7 thoughts on “Sunday miscellany 8

  1. Tender sounds good! I don’t think I’ve read anything non-academic on caring except re parents caring for children.

    1. Tender does have a lot of parent-child caring relationships but she’s done a thorough job of finding people in different situations, and it’s really well presented – I recommend.

  2. Firstly, we agree that Dead Souls is wonderful and it’s a tragedy Gogol died when he did and couldn’t finish it! Secondly, I say vigorous yes to both Pale Fire and Pushkin. It’s ages since I read Pale Fire, but it’s Nabokov so that’s enough. And Belkin was more recently – it’s definitely worth exploring Pushkin’s prose. But there is a caveat that you should only read them if you want to – if you don’t, then start another challenge!

    1. I read in the intro that he died of some combination of illness and “self-starvation”, which sounds just awful – if only someone had been able to convince him that a difficult second section in a book wasn’t the end of the world. The Pushkin is both right here and very short, so I’ll definitely give that a go. Will have to find the Nabokov somehow (the Senate House edition I could see wasn’t very enticing, and the Penguin edition in my local library is in some reserve stack somewhere and needs requesting). I’m encouraged by your enthusiasm!

  3. I had just read Deborah Levy’s The Cost of Living when I was assigned Cost of Living for a Shelf Awareness review. It was interesting to compare how they meant the phrase — Maloney more literally! I hoped you’d find it helpful as an example of different ways to structure a medical memoir-in-essays.

    1. It was very relevant! The structure particularly fascinated me for being roughly, but not exclusively, linear – the impressionistic aspect worked well.

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