Briefly: they are two short stories, after all. Well, a novella and a short story. But why quibble? My quibble is with the publisher, and this bugs the hell out of me, as prior to this one I’ve loved the New Directions Pearls series. More on that to follow.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident is a satire, and as such, perhaps, should not (cannot) be expected to attain the status of the author’s better known, canonical works.
A low-level Russian bureaucrat in the 1860s (?) visits an arcade with his wife and friend to see a travelling exhibit containing the first crocodile to be brought to Russia, whereupon he is consumed by said crocodile, and from which, he issues directives to his friend about his plans for the future, the comfort of the croc’s insides, and the ‘principles of economics’ which are at play. By the time the novella’s finished, the friend’s real affections are discovered, newspaper reports are confused, and the wife…well, I’m not one for spoilers.
Constance Garnet’s translation sounds exactly like what one might expect from someone who’d stopped translating in the 1920s: stilted, archaic. Her heart was in the right place, but her dictionaries and thesauri were someplace else. By the time story ended, I was seeing it black and white and expecting an appearance by Rod Serling. Those who think Bulgakov is funny (it has that feel) will likely appreciate this more than I did.
Felisberto Hernández’s The Crocodile was more to my liking. A traveling salesman of women’s hosiery/pianist discovers that shedding crocodile tears at the drop of a hat can lead to success. Aira-like. Nice, enough. But…
New Directions, it seems to me, blew it on this Pearls volume. A dated translation of Dostoyevsky and the lack of copy editing on the Hernández story were disappointing. It may be an inexpensive way to publish something, but really, “That year, I starting weeping in the west…” Really? Disappointing, made more so by learning that the next volume in the Pearls series is by Bulgakov. Morphine. I’ll read it, but expectations aren’t great. With some luck, they’ll use a contemporary translation and spring for an editor. We’ll see.
A mini-review not intended for the easily offended (i.e., there’s a dirty part)
But first, Constance Garnett. Is it possible that this woman was the best and worst thing to happen to all Russian public domain titles? She seems to have translated everything Russian that was in print at the time of her demise. Given that her translations are, likely, the stuff much academic criticism is based on, one has to wonder what could have been. There is a vague sort of missed opportunity that hovers over this text—something that suggests these stories have survived her translation. Just a thought.
Now, the filthy part:
But first, suppose just for a second that you could do a reading from this novella to the audience of your choice. Further suppose, given your (my) peculiar sense of humor, said audience of choice was … oh, say a bar in San Francisco … or, say a smaller audience, say, oh, I don’t know, say Rick Santorum. Now what would you glean from the text to read in the Bay City bar or to Mr. Morality? Need some prodding? (not a pun) Well, for my money, hands down, it would have to be from the scene where Ivan finds a kind of comfort in the humble, peasant servant, Gerasim:
Ivan Ilych made Gerasim sit and hold his legs, and began to talk to him. And, strange to say, he fancied he felt better while Gerasim had hold of his legs.
From that time forward Ivan Ilych would sometimes call Gerasim, and get him to hold his legs on his shoulders, and he liked talking with him.
At this point, you’d have to tell the bar full of gigglers that No, Ivan was not a bottom, and that they’d missed the point entirely. And one would have to hope that Santorum did not santorum his pants. You’d have to clear up quickly (not clean up quickly, no more bad Santorum jokes), whatever it meant to the good senator. Instead, the quote would serve best as a jumping off point for a discussion on how Ivan was f***ed (insert F-verb of your choice) by life.(less)
This is not a review. This is my reaction to reading TM&M. Nothing more, and certainly less.
From time to time, and always when I receive a Friend Request, I check other people’s Read list via the Compare Books function—constantly cringing at the five titles that always show up as huge scars—the titles on their Read list and my To Read list. The indignity. It doesn’t end. There are five, five which constantly haunt me, flood me with shame. This is (was) one of them (had I chosen to read the censored version, there would have been only 4.637 titles to haunt me—I wish I’d read the censored version.) And now the list is down to four titles—my personal List of Shame.
Not since On the Road have I been so certain that a book would, indeed, go on forever. On the plus side, it’s been two years since I’ve run into a title I’ve disliked this much. While most of my GR friends have enjoyed this and rated it highly [congratulations, good GR friends] to them I feel I should apologize, for me, this was merely a tedious, burlesque, Soviet-era fantasy and satire of life in Stalin’s shadow in general, and in the Soviet art community in particular. The interweaving of x-tian myth gives it premise, but only further contributes to its absurdity.
Does anyone remember those pictures from our youth—those ones with objects hidden within the picture—a dog composed of the leaves of a tree, a face hidden in the grain of a wooden barn, blades of grass being the whiskers of a cat which one could see clearly if the picture were turned slightly? Remember those pictures? This novel is perfect for those who loved those pictures (well, perfect for those who aren’t I). A perfect opportunity for those who love thinking, “this must be xxx” “that must mean yyy” “oooooh, they’re headed to the river [again], this MUST be a baptism”—conjuring the worst memories of Thomas C. Foster ’s simplistic approach to literature.
Apparently, this title matters. I encourage everyone to read it. With the same tongue firmly embedded in cheek that you must imagine when I tell you to read the complete works of Shakespeare [or anyone else] or that for a good time one should view the entire oeuvre of Ingmar Bergman . I was disappointed from its spoiler-filled Introduction through every single page which followed. Whenever I hear the words: Soviet Era, I immediately think, “bleak, ugly”—and this novel goes nowhere near shunting those words aside.
Some rating approaching 2 stars—I was going to give it a 1-star rating, but the ending merited another fraction of a star—not the telling of the ending, which felt very much as though the author just kept writing until he could think of one, but rather, the FACT that an ending exists, it was way too long a time in coming.
My humble apologies to those who love this book. Peace. Out.
Just a word or so on this one—then a warning of sorts. Neither will be particularly useful, and neither should be given much weight. If your Read list is lacking an adequate Nabokov presence, if it lacks gravitas, pick this up, read it, pat yourself on the back, give it the obligatory 4 stars, and try to forget, as quickly as you can, that you saw the ending coming. It’s Nabokov, it matters, probably more than you will; certainly, more than I. There are funny bits, and sinister bits, and clever bits, and the world’s a wonderfully complicated place in which to live. But, you’ll probably be able to find much more engaging reads at any corner. Grab one, enjoy it, move on. Or, read this one, enjoy it (more or less), and move on. Even with constant reference to YOU, the reader, you’ll likely remain at a remove from the narrator and his story. It’s good (enough), and funny (enough) and clever (enough), and then over (but not quite soon enough).
Now, for the advice. Be cautious, very cautious, when raiding other people’s To Read list with the silly inclination of ‘beating him (or her) to the punch,’ by snagging a short one. It could bite you in the ass. Whatever the short lived joy of said beating is, it remains complicated by the bitten ass. The ass you’ll be unable to sit on right away while trying to read something else. Isn’t that just the way things work out? My Advice Part II: read your own damn To Read list—you know, the one you have an interest in and from which you’ll likely feel greater reward. That said, next in line: The Lord Chandos Letter, from Vila-Matas’ reading list. I’ve known me too long to take my own advice.