If you've read both works, you can't talk about The Case of Comrade Tulayev without Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Both books, written by disaffected fo...moreIf you've read both works, you can't talk about The Case of Comrade Tulayev without Koestler's Darkness at Noon. Both books, written by disaffected former Communists, and published within two years of each other, deal with the process of the revolution eating its children. Both books attempt to come to grips with the motivations of old guards revolutionaries who seemingly openly acquiesced with their own murder. Of course Darkness at Noon is much more widely known and widely read. There are pretty rational reasons for this that I won't get in to, but none of those reasons have to do with literary merit. In The Case of Comrade Tulayev, Serge accomplished everything that Koestler did, and perhaps more. Upon discovering Serge's novel, it's hard for the reader to resist the urge to dismiss Koestler's. Susan Sontag, in a way, falls prey to this urge in the introduction to this introduction.
However, I'm not sure how necessary it is to emphasize the merits of one book over the other. In fact, while the books seemingly have identical premises and ambitions, further exploration reveals stark differences. I'd argue that the two books relationship is symbiotic, they serve as a exemplary companions to each other. In a way, Serge finishes the thought that Koestler started in Darkness at Noon. If I remember the details correctly, Darkness at Noon takes place at the beginning of the purges, and concerns the history and psychology of one character, Rubashov, a Bukharin stand-in. Comrade Tulayev has a much wider lens.
Serge focuses on around half a dozen characters, each with different backgrounds and different reactions. There's the state security functionary, the provincial peasant turned revolutionary leader, the old party ideologue, and the almost-forgotten political prisoner. They all have their differences, and Serge exploits these differences to meditate on the perversion of the ideal, and the loyalty men feel to old ideas even as a warped form of the same threaten oblivion. Furthermore, The Case of Comrade Tulayev takes place well into the purge of the party. These characters, in a way, are familiar with Darkness at Noon, Rubashov's death is firmly in the past at the opening of Serge's work. Most of these men know with a sense of creeping fatalism what is coming to get them.
Moreover, the novel doesn't focus on the victims of Stalinist paranoia alone. Serge bookends the novel with two chapters examining the the characters behind the titular case, the assassin of Comrade Tulayev and his neighbor, who bought the gun in order to kill Stalin, but found himself unable to act when presented with the golden opportunity. Serge writes with understanding about the cogs of oppression, the functionaries who are attempting to stage an exhibition of guilt that they know is false, but must treat as if it were of the utmost truth. Even the Stalin stand-in is depicted with some empathy. For my money, the scene where the old veteran has to dance the wire of explaining to his old comrade "the boss", the insanity of what is going on, without going too far and sealing his doom is one of the most thrilling pieces of political fiction I've ever read. The penultimate chapter even deals with the legacy of Stalinism on the future generation of young Russians.
Darkness at Noon is the tale of how one man reconciles himself with betrayal and sacrifices himself for a perverted vestige of a dream. The Case of Comrade Tulayev does something similar, but it is also concerned about a broader scope. The two years follwing the publication of Koestler's novel were when Serge did most of his work on Comrade Tulayev. Those two years were not good one's for the Soviet Union. For much of those years the effects of Stalin's paranoia must seem exponentially more cataclysmic than they even do today. Serge may have thought that he was writing Leninism obituary. The Case of Comrade Tulayev reads as a prelude to obliteration. Although Russian Marxism would survive for another half century, The Case of Comrade Tulayev remains an engaging, thoughtful, and often breathtakingly (Serge's prose!)* beautiful account of a people dealing with a reign of scientific insanity.
*Not that I have anything to compare it to, but this edition reads as an extraordinary translation. (less)
Since the summer 2005, when I read the previous three volumes of Caro's majestic Years of Lyndon Johnson series, I have periodically checked the inter...moreSince the summer 2005, when I read the previous three volumes of Caro's majestic Years of Lyndon Johnson series, I have periodically checked the internet for updates on the final volume's release. When I saw that it was available for pre-order on Amazon I loudly whooped. I kinda hope that bookstores do a midnight release so I can dress up like Sam Rayburn and stay up reading all night. I may be crazy, but doesn't that cover look pretty sexy? Yes, my name is A.J., and I'm am fully aware that I'm a dork.(less)
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this...moreWow....
I should probably just leave it at that. I know that my review of War and Peace is just about the antithesis of necessary. By raving about this book, I'm saying something equivalent to "Michael Jordan was a good basketball player" or "Richard Nixon had a decent amount of issues." This book is not only on the short list of best novels ever, it was there a century before my birth. But, hey, this thing is a beast, and it feels like a real accomplishment finishing it, so I'm going safely deposit my thoughts here rather than pestering my friends and family.
First a quick note. I never fully realized the value of a well-done translation before reading this book. So I need to add my endorsement to the cacophony of praise I've seen for Pevear and Volokhonsky. I happened to have a Barnes and Noble Edition that I purchased years ago for comparison purposes. The difference is striking. The public domain translation often appears to be a summary of Tolstoy's writing, while this edition is a translation in the truest sense. It not only translates the text, it translates the writing. Also, the old edition was abridged. Maybe this specific abridgment was particularly chopped up, but it really mangled the thing. With a lot of work that was originally serialized, you can tell that some of the material there is to provide filler for current issue. Here, even the chapters that may not be essential to the narrative or the overall thesis of the novel are essential to the feel of the work. Any abridgment of War and Peace is, nevertheless, going to leave the prospective reader with a tall stack of papers. When it comes down to it, if your going to attempt to tackle this beast, you might as well try to get your arms around this whole thing. You'll be doing yourself a favor. Tolstoy goes on tangents and diversions, but holy shit, he's Leo Fucking Tolstoy, he should have been encouraged write whatever he wants, and there isn't a thing that is not worthwhile. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation also includes the original French (with English translations in footnotes) where Tolstoy used it. While this may appear to be an unnecessary inconvenience, it serves a definite character and storytelling purpose. Again, it's Count Leo Tolstoy, his choices are somewhat credible. Finally, this edition includes extremely helpful citations to endnotes mostly dealing with historical background and also a historical index that is pretty useful.*
I've been aware of War and Peace for a long time. Maybe it's because it serves as the stereotypical overlong book. Maybe I heard a joke about reading War and Peace cover to cover three times while waiting at the DMV, but the novel has been in my conscience for a long time. And ever since I was a kid, trying to read Grisham books because I wanted to be "grownup," I knew a reckoning with this monster was bound to happen sooner or later.
Now that it's over, I think it's a real shame that War and Peace is best known for its length. The novel is a daunting, but not a difficult read. With perhaps the exception of the Second part of the Epilogue, the read is actually easy. The characters are relatable, the prose is easily enjoyable, and the pace of the plot is engaging.** Tolstoy does go on digressions, he often drops the narrative and goes into ruminations on the true nature of history, but he is able to do this in a seamless manner. It all fits together at the end, but it's not particularly jarring as you go along.
For me, the best single word modifier of War and Peace isn't long, it's full. For example, the television show The Wire***, a show that has been described as Tolstoy-ish, is nominally about the efforts of a Baltimore police unit to counter the drug trade in West Baltimore. But if you watched this show you know that this doesn't begin to adequately label what the show is about. The show was about modern American life, race relations, the failings of democracy, the incompetence of bureaucracy, the burdens of family, and more. Put simply, it's about America. Similarly, the narrative of War and Peace concerns the travails of two upper class Russian families during the Napoleonic Wars. If the novel was solely limited to this, it would be a fantastic historical novel. But Tolstoy uses this narrative to do so much more. He criticizes established theories of history and ruminates on the true force that causes events to happen. And in the midst of both of these strands, Tolstoy, through his characters and his narrative voice, ruminates on man's search for purpose, both on the individual and collective level.
The narrative thread of the book considered by itself is a supreme achievement. For all the criticisms he gives them, Tolstoy himself is an excellent historian. He's fantastic at capturing the feel of what it how the times felt. The cultural gap between an early 21st century American reader and the early 18th century Russian nobility is needless to say jarring. But Tolstoy never lets things get too uncomfortable. There are very few anecdotes or passages that are overwhelmingly foreign to the modern reader. Like I said above, the narrative is rarely, if ever, difficult or dull.
Isaak Babel spoke the truth, in his reaction to War and Peace. "If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy." Although little aspects of Tolstoy pop up every now and then, his narrative is impressive for his omnipresence. Much has been made of Tolstoy's realism, but those considerations behind the novel is the most humane piece of art I've encountered. Don't let the historical novel label or the publication date scare you off. Sure, the book was first published in the first year of the Grant administration and was about events that took place generations before publication. Notwithstanding these facts, the book is stunningly relatable. I guarantee you that there will be at least one passage that will leave you convinced that Tolstoy somehow traveled through time to plagiarize your dream journal. All the character, no matter how drastically times and customs have changed, remain at a certain level easily recognizable, familiar, and always viscerally real. Tolstoy, like no other author I've encountered, explores the parameters and comes close to nailing the essence of this state of being that we call being alive. Multiple lifetimes of wisdom and experience seep out of the pages. I know this is getting hokey, but I feel that strongly. Infinite Jest is still my favorite novel, but War and Peace has taken its place as the best novel I've ever read. It's one of those rare books that work as a (extremely long) mantra. As you contemplate and consider the novel you experience a transcendental feeling of deeper awareness. War and Peacereads like it should have been brought down from a mountaintop chiseled on stone plates****. Read it today... or whenever you have a good bit of time on your hands.
* This book is maybe the prime example of why nearly one year into my Kindle experience I'm conflicted. For fiction, I prefer the actual experience of holding a bound group of pages and miss the ability to easily flip back to prior passages. Also, I kinda regret that I won't be able to display on my bookshelf. I feel like the electronic edition should come with some plaque or certificate you can display. Also, sometimes it was a hassle to navigate considering the ubiquitous French translations and endnotes which are numbered separately. On the one hand, it was extremely nice not having to lug around a 1200+ page book and having the option of reading this book on the go. If I had to choose again, I'm not sure which one I'd go with.
** Again, please do yourself a favor and avoid public domain translations. I love raiding Project Gutenberg for free books, but this was totally worth the extra cash.
***AKA the best television show ever, and, perhaps, the best example of narrative storytelling of the best decade. I am an unrepentant whore for The Wire.
**** Except this would require a small army of stone haulers and quarry workers, and may severely reduce the world's supply of rock. (less)
Cloud Atlas has one of the most beautiful closing pages that I've encountered. In less than two pages, David Mitchell bring great coherence and added...moreCloud Atlas has one of the most beautiful closing pages that I've encountered. In less than two pages, David Mitchell bring great coherence and added clarity to the themes of his novel. These final paragraphs both moved and surprised me. Overall I would say it's one of the most effective conclusions to a book I can remember. Let me get back to this in a second.
For those who aren't aware, the novel is comprised of six stories, five interrupted one's mirrored by a sixth 'mirror.' The stories are seemingly unrelated, but share common themes and traces of a single over-arching narrative. Taken by themselves, each of the narratives represent a well-crafted, if not particularly mind-blowing, example of genre fiction. But what makes Cloud Atlas unlike anything I've ever read is how the stories are simultaneously both distinct and analogous. Mitchell doesn't merely hop between characters, or location, or time periods. A mid 18th century voyage narrative bookends pulp mystery, corporate dystopia, and more. Mitchell isn't the first person who has used such a framework, but I haven't read any other examples.* Therefore, I can't really say whether it was my inexperience or the work itself that knocked my socks off, but Cloud Atlas really floored me.
Greg's review, which really influenced my reading experience, brings up the interesting question of a book's difficulty and the work expected of the reader. Cloud Atlas isn't a slow or tough read at all. The stories themselves are relatively straightforward. You're not scurrying to a dictionary or Wikipedia to pick up on unmentioned context. But Mitchell doesn't hold your hand, in fact he blindfolds you, spins you around several times, then tells you to go whack the fucking piñata. Greg puts it better by relating how the structure "creates a Escher-like narrative that one can't successfully orientate him or herself into the story. The hole's an author normally leaves open for a reader to peer into the fictional world shift as the stories continue to unfold." It's this disorientation that makes the novel 'difficult.'
This literary Tilt-A-Whirl wouldn’t be effective if Mitchell wasn’t such a talented mimic. I don’t mean that to be derogatory at all. Each story is amazingly unique. Their not unique in terms of work in the same genre As I mentioned above, the individual stories are all enjoyable and well-written, but not particularly mind-blowing or genre defining. What I mean is their uniqueness to the author. For example, if Charles Dickens decided to write a sci-fi novel, I bet it would read like a dystopian novel written by Charles Dickens. Likewise, if Philip K. Dick wrote a Victorian novel about an orphan, I bet it would read like a Victorian novel about an orphan. This goes beyond stylistic calling cards. Even if they write in a new voice and avoid stylistic and thematic giveaways, people tend to write like they write. If I read more of his stuff I may pick up more cues, but David Mitchell is a literary chameleon. The stories are so effective in their imitations of different genres they read like they give the impression that they could be written by six different authors. In fact, I feel like I need to read something else by Mitchell to get an adequate grasp on what I think of him as a writer.
Mitchell consciously creates a sense of disorientation, and still demands two types of reader participation. The first, more conventional type, relates to the structure binding the stories together. Each of the six narratives have a direct relationship to the preceding one. I'll spare spoiling how this is done, but it is definitely thought provoking. Moreover, there are subtle hints allusions to other stories sprinkled throughout the novel. Now that I think of it, it really reminds of the first season of Lost, when it was a cross between Twins Peak and Hitchcock, before it got too metaphysical and sci-fi.**. If you watched back then, remember how the show kept slipping clues into the episodes. For instance, the cursed numbers kept on popping up, or one of the castaways would pop up in the background of another's flashback. In my recollection, this was done very subtly, a viewer may not catch it on the first viewing. These devices create the impression that there was some sort of connection behind the characters and encouraged viewers to thoroughly analyze each episode. Thousands and thousands of words were written examining the smallest details and theorizing on the implications of it all. Mitchell uses the same devices, but even in a more subtle way. I caught several hints and I'm sure I missed many more.
Trying to figure out how the narratives relate to each other in terms of the overall plot is good old-fashioned fun. Mitchell never promises, a precise flow chart detailing what's going on, but that's what makes Cloud Atlas more intellectually engaging than your standard supermarket mystery. You're left to think about answers to "what happened" on your own. This is definitely a book that you want to discuss with someone as soon as you finish.
This leaves the question of why I found the final passage so effective. When you are taught how to give a persuasive speech or write a paper you are taught to use a basic structure:
1. I’m going to tell you that my thesis is true because of supporting arguments A, B, and C. 2. supporting arguments, A, B, and C. 3. I just told you that because of supporting arguments A, B, and C , my thesis is true.
An argument is made more effective by having a wide array of examples. For a crude example, if my thesis is “Bob Dylan is the best songwriter of all time,” my argument would be weakened if all of my supporting arguments were about how great Highway 61 Revisited is. If I mentioned the early protest folk of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, the country throwbacks of Nashville Skylines and the mature introspection of Blood on the Tracks, my argument would be strengthened.
This structure is akin to what Mitchell does in Cloud Atlas, except, he doesn’t give you the opening paragraph. He just launches you into the supporting arguments and leaves the reader to figure out exactly what he’s trying to prove. This is the second aspect of reader participation required. A lot of the pleasure in the read is trying to figure out exactly what Mitchell is trying to say. And while you really don't get a flow chart for the interconnections between the plot, the final two pages provide a powerful closing of the thematic interconnections between the stories.
It would be a mistake to consider Cloud Atlas a collection of stories. Like I said before, the stories are very good, but the total is worth more than the sum of the individual parts. It's this that makes Cloud Atlas a cohesive and powerful novel.
*Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler is on my wish list.
**For the record, I like some science fiction and stuff that touches on metaphysical questions. But, much how the second Matrix movie was a flawed, but enjoyable movie that was done-in by the terrible third film, my opinion of the last several seasons of Lost fell after the final season, which I view as a failure. (less)
In 2003, I asked for Pet Sounds for Christmas. That was the year Rolling Stone issued there list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and Pet Sound...moreIn 2003, I asked for Pet Sounds for Christmas. That was the year Rolling Stone issued there list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, and Pet Sounds was ranked second behind Sgt. Peppers. At that point I was aware that the Beach Boys were more than a pop band who sang about cars, surfing, and girls. I'd heard "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B" before. I'm pretty sure "God Only Knows" was already on my pantheon of favorite pop songs.Anyways, I remember listening it to the first time and being somewhat underwhelmed. I expected every song to be "God Only Knows" which is entirely ridiculous. Although, I was underwhelmed, I can't say that I was disappointed. Because even on the first listen the album moved me in a way that art doesn't often do. My reaction to the album, to borrow from Bolaño, was viscerally real. I've listened to the album dozens and dozens of times (always in whole, in one sitting), and I've come to greatly appreciate the beauty of each song, but where I can adequately explain why I love Abbey Road or OK Computer any attempt to explain my love for Pet Sounds will undoubtedly fall short of sufficient. There are other examples. I will never be able to completely explain why I get chills every time I watch Prince's guitar solo on this video. Nor will I be able to fully fathom why the La Marseilles scene from Casablanca gets me choked up every time I see it. I think this is because there's something more than my rational judgment that is involved in each encounter. It's like something, call it my gut, or heart, or soul, or left big toe, is alerting my conscience that whatever this is, it's special.
There's something mythical about the way Rushdie writes. His writing is very modern, but there's still a sense of age to it. Throughout the novel I so...moreThere's something mythical about the way Rushdie writes. His writing is very modern, but there's still a sense of age to it. Throughout the novel I somewhat unprecedented sensation. I can't adequately put this sensation into words. There's something in the way he tells his story that reminded me of the stories of Greek mythology, or the tales of King Arthur. Perhaps it's in the way he tells his story. Rushdie simply owns the story he is telling. Rushdie writes Midnight's Children like he is retelling a story that has always existed, which in a way he is. I may be off base, let me just say that the experience of reading this book is viscerally unique.
Novels, as with any kind of art, can generate different methods of appreciation. There are books that you don't fully appreciate until the closing pages where the author brings everything together. There are albums that don't reveal themselves until you listen to it several times. There are films that don't fully crystalize until you spend some time thinking about them. For me, Midnight's Children is one of those rare works where you are engrossed and amazed from the beginning. The reader is conscious that they are encountering something special throughout the course of the novel.
One of the that makes Midnight's Children special is that it doesn't work solely as a work of literature, it could be read as a work of history.*. Rushdie writes history in a way that people haven't written history in quite some time. Midnight's Children works as a history in the way that the Old Testament, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and epic poems work as history. I've read that Biblical era societies had different historical traditions than we do today. They didn't necessarily aim for complete accuracy when writing history. They felt that the overall "moral" that they were trying to impart was more important than sticking to the events exactly as they occurred. The broad course of events usually weren't tampered with, but the details of specific incidents and conversations weren't necessarily preserved untampered.** This was mainly referring to works that were preserved by a storytelling tradition for a while before they were written down. I believe Rushdie created a modern recreation of these storytelling traditions. So, unlike in other works of historical fiction, it really doesn't matter when Saleem Sinai, narrator and protagonist, mixes up dates and events. This is history, but history told in a story telling tradition.
Saleem Sinai, Rushdie's narrator and protagonist, warns us repeatedly, "to understand me, you'll have to swallow a world." I would say this is accomplished. I can't think of another novel that gives a better sense of a place. South Asia isn't just a setting, it's a main character. He accomplishes this intellectually through his prose and descriptions, but also, I repeat myself, viscerally. Again, I may be missing my mark, but it seems where other authors write a novel that is about a country, Rushdie aims to write a novel that is India.***
However bountiful I've been in my praise, Midnight's Children isn't perfect, and it probably isn't for everybody. However, I would say that it's definitely one of those novels you should at least give a shot at if you're interested in literature. There are many things to praise in the novel. Rushdie writes beautifully, he brings locations, especially Bombay, to life, and most readers will learn a great deal about South Asian culture and history. The storytelling is what stays with me most. Rushdie writes a distinctly modern book that feels at the same time harkens back to our earliest storytelling traditions. Midnight's Children is about a specific place in a certain time, but is simultaneously timeless.
*This seems like a good place for my daily benediction to Wikipedia. It was really helpful to read articles on Indian history before the appropriate sections of the novel. It isn't necessarily essential to, Rushdie does a decent job of filling ignorant readers in on the events, but an idea of modern Indian-Pakistani history, however rudimentary, helps you better appreciate the life of Saleem. Also, there are several little jokes and asides throughout the novel that you may not catch if you don't have some understanding of specific events.
** The general rule, according to people who know more than I do argue, is the greater the separation between the time of the actual event and it's reduction to written, the less reliable it is as a record of actual events. This makes sense in a society with a respect for perserving history as it happened, so where there is inclination to embellish you have to be particularly on your toes.
***I am not claiming to be an expert, or even adequately knowledgeable, about South Asia. Rushdie's world might seem utterly alien to those who know more than me. (less)
First off, let me say I saw the film first. I can't really recommend doing so or not doing so because some of the times I was glad I did and some of...more First off, let me say I saw the film first. I can't really recommend doing so or not doing so because some of the times I was glad I did and some of the times I wish I had not. The movie adaptation is very true to the source, and while there are new scenes and minor differences, I was fully aware of all the turns McEwan takes. However, it was still a tremendous read that I flew through in a couple of days. Knowing the plot twists, and the ultimate trick McEwan plays on the reader freed me to fully realize the small things, like the beautiful prose and McEwan's skill at taking the perspective of a multitude of characters. There are also subtle hints that McEwan drops throughout the text that might not have been caught until a second reading. So, I recommend you read the book, regardless of if you've seen the movie. However, the story is best experienced as a book. While it's not rare to see several different stories in a novel, McEwan combines several different novels into a single story. I am hardly the first to point this out, but the four different parts of the novel could function as four different novellas or short stories. However, the voice is consistent. McEwan's characters grow and undergo life altering events, but McEwan's viewpoints remain consistent. You can still hear the 13 year old girl in the voice of the 77 year old novelist. For me, the best part of the novel (and the film) was the Dunkirk section. The evacuation of Dunkirk is always taught as the Allied Forces' triumph, and with the benefit of hindsight, it was. However, the tragedy of the event is rarely focused on. A scant twenty years after the War to End All Wars, the war that wiped out a generation of young Europeans, Europe was going to war again. A year later, the Allied forces were being steamrolled by the German Blitz, and it seemed like all that sacrifice had gone to waste. Atonement more than any other work, fiction or non, describes the disaster, and the sense of inevitable doom in the retreat. It's also some of the best description of the mind at war that I've read. I finished reading Roth's American Pastoral about a week ago and and I find the works oddly similar. Atonement and American Pastora are meditations on perception, memory, misunderstanding, grief, and history, both personal and in the long run. They deal with the loss of the idea, the cruelty of history, and the destruction of the family. Both feature protagonists who are haunted with regret and grow old trying to deal with previous tragedy. Both works show that the past cannot be tamed or denied.(less)
I'm not sure if this is my favorite book ever written, or the best book ever written. But I can say that there is a definite point in time where the w...moreI'm not sure if this is my favorite book ever written, or the best book ever written. But I can say that there is a definite point in time where the way I reacted to literature fundamentally and unequivocally changed. And that point coincides with reading this book. I can't remember exactly when, somewhere in the first 100 pages, but I remember thinking "holy shit, this is fucking amazing." I actually stopped reading right there, so I could order my own copy because I felt like I needed to start highlighting and making notes. What's more, I could also probably make a case that the same point in time marked a turning point in the way I thought about questions like life, the universe, and, er... everything. Yeah, I just winced a little writing that. There again after I reread it. But I'm gonna leave it there, as is, bad Douglas Adams reference and all. Because if there is any book out there that I'm comfortable writing a poorly constructed sentence delivering cheap, cliche sentimentality, its gotta be Infinite Jest. Yeah, its not perfect, it may even be quite flawed. But Goddamn it, just read the thing. It's got menacing handicapped terrorist Quebecois who are out to destroy America with a movie that the viewer enjoys so much they can't stop watching it. Come for the wheelchair assassins, stay for the musings on sincerity.(less)