Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Liudmila Ulitskaya, Art Garfunkel's Library, Ha Jin, and 35 Volumes of Chekhov

A few news items for a grey winter afternoon that’s turned into evening:

1. I’ve been reading and enjoying Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) for the last few days… so I wish I could have been teleported to Ulitskaya’s bilingual Daniel Stein reading last night at Stanford.
The novel’s title character is a Polish Jew who at age 19 works for the Belarusian police, interpreting for them, the German gendarme, and local citizens during World War 2. Stein saves hundreds of ghetto residents and eventually becomes a Carmelite monk in Israel. Stein’s story is based on the life of Oswald Rufeisen.
Ulitskaya reveals Stein’s story in pieces, through letters, interviews, and other documents from Stein and people connected with him. So far, the novel’s nonchronological structure fits nicely with the jumble of languages, religions, and identities in Stein’s life: Ulitskaya has taken great care to arrange the “documents” in an appropriate order. I’m looking forward to writing more about the book when I finish.
2. The Art Garfunkel Library is my new favorite site for reading ideas.
Art Garfunkel has read 1,023 books since he started keeping a list in June 1968 by noting down Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Confessions. Art Garfunkel’s page of favorite books begins with the same Rousseau and includes a couple of my all-time favorites, too: Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Dostoevskii’s Notes from the Underground.
According to The New Yorker, Art Garfunkel and I have even more in common. Nick Paumgarten’s “Talk of the Town” piece from the January 28, 2008, issue quotes Art Garfunkel saying “Tolstoy is the king of writing.” I can’t argue. Art Garfunkel and I both prefer paperbacks, too, and he and I make similar notations in our books, though I admit I’m probably far more lax than he about looking up words I don’t know. We truly diverge here: I have never read a dictionary front to back, let alone back to front.
What I like about Art Garfunkel’s Favorites page is its honesty. Art Garfunkel doesn’t just like Tolstoy and Nabokov and Rousseau, he also likes Stephen King’s The Shining and Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, books I also enjoyed. I don’t know if I’ll ever consider reaching for Henry Kissinger’s Diplomacy, but I do have a renewed interest in picking up Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Stendahl’s The Red and the Black, two books that have been yellowing on my shelves for years.
3. Anton Chekhov made the Russian news today: the publishing house Воскресенье (Sunday) is preparing a hefty 35-volume set of Chekhov’s writings.
According to this news item, the publisher claims this will become the most “fundamental” collection of Chekhov’s work, but the article notes that the publisher doesn’t specify how the new edition will differ from previous sets.
4. Our mailman just delivered a late-breaking story: Writer Ha Jin, in Newsweek’s February 4, 2008, “A Life in Books” column, lists Lev Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina as his first most important book. His second and third books are also Russia-related: Fedor Dostoevskii’s The House of the Dead and Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin. I liked all three and hope to get to Jin’s No. 4 book someday soon: V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.
I enjoyed this “New York Times Magazine” article about Ha Jin when I first read it years ago. I also enjoyed Jin's novel Waiting.


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