This 300-page interview reads like a transcript of the best conversation you've ever had in your life, with the most interesting, erudite, and clevere...moreThis 300-page interview reads like a transcript of the best conversation you've ever had in your life, with the most interesting, erudite, and cleverest person you've ever known. It made me want to go back in time to my college years and seek out the people I knew then who used to set my brain on fire with our 2 a.m. debates about what it means to be alive, and how best to be an above-average human being. Above all, this book made me wish that I still had friends like that in my life and, perhaps more importantly, that I had the faculty to engage in such a deep conversation these days.
It also reminded me of one of my favorite movies, My Dinner with Andre (which Lipsky himself references in the book). It seems hanging out with David Foster Wallace might have had the capacity for altering your mindset. Though, ironically enough, as I learned in this book, I would never have had the opportunity to do so as one of his many fans, since Wallace was incredibly uncomfortable interacting with his readers on a personal level. (As, indeed, most writers probably are--they just don't admit it.)
I suppose it goes without saying that reading the book is also incredibly sad. But it's worth it, and though I wish I'd read the book with a pencil so that I could call attention to the lines that really lit up my brain like in the old days, in a way I'm happy that, to reexperience those lines I'll need to reread the book--and that's something I look forward to even one day after having finished it. (Particularly since it took only one sitting for me to plow through the first 200 pages of the interview.)
As moved as I was by the contents of this book (not to mention how choked up I got by the section in Lipsky's afterword that describes one of Wallace's final interactions with his mother), I would say it's primarily for Wallace fans, not for someone who has never read any of Wallace's work (be it fiction or nonfiction). But then again, there's no one who shouldn't be a fan of Wallace's work. If you haven't read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again you should. It's hilarious.
I hadn't set out to read this book but, after reading the first chapter of Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People...moreI hadn't set out to read this book but, after reading the first chapter of Elif Batuman's The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, in which she talks about her involvement with an Isaac Babel seminar in grad school, her recounting of Babel's tragic story grabbed hold of me and, since I already had this book sitting on my shelf, I was moved to read it before I'd even finished The Possessed.
I haven't read all 1072 pages yet, but I did read the sections that interested me most. I started with Babel's 1920 diary, then read his Red Cavalry stories, the "additional" Red Cavalry stories (which hadn't been included in the initial Russian collection), his propaganda articles for the Red Cavalrymen, and a few other miscellaneous stories (about 300 pages in all).
What these sections taught me, first and foremost, is that my knowledge of Revolutionary Russia (both pre- and post-1917) is woefully lax. Considering that I was in middle school and high school in the leadup to the end of the Cold War (graduating high school in 1991), it's actually pretty unbelievable that I don't know much about Russian (or Soviet) history--"know your enemy" and all that nonsense. What I really could've used, before reading these sections, were a few history books--particularly on the Cossacks and on Soviet Russia's failed conflict with the Republic of Poland, circa 1919-1921. (I've already tracked down a copy of Philip Longworth's The Cossacks.)
Nonetheless, Babel's diary and Red Cavalry stories provided me with a visceral, first-person look at the cruelty and hypocrisy of the war (on both sides). The people who suffered most horribly, it seems, are the civilians who lived in the villages that were occupied, retreated from, and reoccupied as the battle lines shifted, first by the Russian army and then by the Polish army, perpetually throughout the war. And each time a village was reoccupied, the houses were looted, the civilians' food, equipment, and horses were confiscated, their wives and daughters were raped, and their husbands and fathers were executed as spies for the opposing army. These horrors, metaphorically typified in Babel's most famous story, "My First Goose," seem to have been omnipresent, despite the Red Cavalry's b.s. party line of how they're bringing the glories of Revolution to the oppressed Polish people.
Babel's stories tend to be pretty short, usually only two or three pages. In the Red Cavalry stories, anyway, the plots are somewhat rambling, focusing on brief, sometimes chaotic sequences of events or definitive moments in a character's life. He emphasizes the pettiness and ineptitude of the Red Cavalry's officers, the casual depravity of the mercenary Cossacks, and the dreary, oppressed lives of the villagers caught in the crossfire. Babel's Red Cavalry stories and his 1920 diary are, in other words, completely depressing, though there are moments of humor and humanity lurking within them. They had a profound effect on me and, as I mentioned, they've motivated me to learn more about this aspect of Russian history, not to mention the enigmatic Cossacks. (less)
Elif Batuman's book was an unlikely one for me to read, much less enjoy, primarily because, when I started to read it, I'd not read any Russian novels...moreElif Batuman's book was an unlikely one for me to read, much less enjoy, primarily because, when I started to read it, I'd not read any Russian novels and hardly any Russian short stories (if you don't count Nabokov, which I don't). I'm not even sure what had, well, possessed me to buy a copy of this book, except for the fact that I'd read a few of Batuman's essays in the New Yorker and n + 1 and really liked them. But anyway, there the book sat on my shelf, I'd just finished Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night, and was ready for another nonfiction book about books. Even as I began reading it I figured I'd stop after the introduction, but the introduction was so good I kept on reading despite myself.
As I mentioned in my review of Isaac Babel's 1920 diary and his Red Cavalry stories, Batuman's chapter on Babel was the impetus for that reading detour--so she inspired at least one of her readers to plunge into the work of a Russian author he had hitherto not read.
The rest of Batuman's book was equally inspiring, and I'm one important step closer to reading The Idiot, Crime and Punishment, and as many of Anton Chekov's and Nikolai Gogol's stories as I can get my hands on (preferably as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky).
Beyond providing inspiration, The Possessed is also a very funny book, as much about the trials and tribulations of being a grad student (both in a university setting and while studying abroad) as it is about Russian literature. Thanks to her three chapters on studying the Uzbek language in Samarkand (a three-month course of study that ended up providing no benefit to her formal studies, as it turns out), I feel like I've already visited Uzbekistan--and I have no desire to go back. The final chapter, which focuses on Batuman's relationships with other grad students at Stanford, particularly the Stavrogin-like Matej, a charismatic Croatian student (who also reminded me of the brooding ladykiller Jonas), is a fine culmination of the book's themes.
One thing did strike me as a bit odd: In one of Batuman's footnotes (to a paragraph in which she describes a Russian accordion concert performed by a group of adolescent boys, which she refers to as students of "the Lev Tolstoy Accordion Academy") she writes, "There really was an accordion concert, although I have been unable to confirm the existence of a Lev Tolstoy Accordion Academy." I get the joke, and it made me laugh, but it's that phrase "There really was an accordion concert" that tripped me up. When I first read the footnote I said to myself, "Of course there was a concert. Why else would she have described it?" After all, the description takes up only a short paragraph (albeit a lovely one) and doesn't have much to do with anything else in the chapter; it just adds color. And I suppose, in this case, the color is true, but to say "there really was" a concert implies that "there really weren't" some other events as she described them. From her specific choice of wording, I infer that the reader is supposed to assume she has narratively embellished other events in the book.
Which isn't a big deal, really. (I'm not a reader who insists on The Truth in my nonfiction--it's an unreasonable demand anyway.) However, in the book's introduction Batuman charged contemporary "workshop" fiction with self-sufficiency and hermeticism (among other things), and essentially made the point that contemporary fiction is a dead medium. So it's just a little funny that fictional elements apparently found their way into The Possessed--though, in Batuman's defense, one of her complaints about contemporary fiction is that it "contain[s] virtually no references to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years." Considering that The Possessed is a book that's entirely about interesting (Russian) work that was written in the past two hundred years, I'd say that gives her a free pass to add some fictional elements to her nonfiction book--at least when judging by her own criterion. (less)
This is the first full-length work of straight-up literary criticism that I've read since college. It's been sitting on my shelves for nearly that lon...moreThis is the first full-length work of straight-up literary criticism that I've read since college. It's been sitting on my shelves for nearly that long, and I got sucked into it almost without realizing it. There's a chapter called "How Are Characters Conceived?" which I read first, since I've been dipping into several of my books about writing recently, and decided to crack the cover on this book for the first time.
I fully appreciate Howe's approach to criticism (he was one of the New York Intellectuals and founded the magazine Dissent), his politics (inasmuch as one can appreciate the Democratic Socialists of America, thirty years on), and many of the authors about whom he chose to write (George Gissing, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens, Saul Bellow, etc.).
I also enjoyed several of the short subjects in this book, but I have to admit there were times when he lost me. Not because of an impenetrable prose style or a lack of interest on my part, but simply because he was writing so specifically about a piece of fiction that I haven't read. I much preferred the essays on more general subjects that occasionally used passages from stories and novels I hadn't read, because the passages served to reinforce Howe's point. Reading the essay on Rudyard Kipling's Kim, on the other hand, was like listening in on a conversation between two very interesting people who are talking about something you don't understand.
However, even some of the essays that centered on thus-far unread novels were interesting to me. In particular I enjoyed reading his thoughts on Tolstoy, even though I can announce with certainty that I'll never get around to reading War and Peace--despite the fact that, now, because of Howe's essay, I'm kind of tempted.
Overall, I liked that Howe was by no means a proponent of postmodern theory. In fact, he was quite the opposite, arguing for good, clear, and above all entertaining prose that is written as much for the "common reader" (if one can use that phrase without a disparaging connotation) as for the English lit grad. My kind of guy, in other words.
This was an enlightening book on many subjects of literature, from the use of seemingly gratuitous details in fiction to the value of so-called punitive novels, and I suspect I'll revisit several of these essays again over the years.(less)