Sunday, October 19, 2008

Warning: “Notes from Underground” Dangerous to Kids

“Unsafe at Any Read,” Lee Siegel’s essay in today’s New York Times Book Review, includes an account of the dangers of reading Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground as a high school freshman. Indeed, hearing “2+2=5” from a “great writer” could cause trouble at a formative age.

Thank goodness I didn’t happen upon Notes until college! Rather than finding a new math paradigm or excuses for additional irrational behavior, I found a cautionary tale about spite and illogic that continues to provide a helpful framework for reading about, yes, politics. Short version: Dostoevsky has provided lots of comfort this year. And I have Myra McLarey, a writer and high school teacher, to thank for guiding my senior English class through Crime and Punishment. I have yet to read that anyone from the group has taken an axe to a elderly pawnbroker. (At least two of us, however, work as writers.)

The fun of Siegel’s piece isn’t so much in its ironies – both within the essay or surrounding it, thanks to Siegel’s public persona -- but in remembering early experiences with (Russian) literature and how books change thinking. Please feel free to add yours as comments. For my part...

My first experience with Russian reading was Baba Yaga stories in Jack and Jill, a children’s magazine I insisted on renewing only because it occasionally contained news of Baba Yaga and her spinning house on chicken legs. Several years later, in sixth grade, a kindly teacher started a short story reading group for students who’d already sped through the entire set of color-coded SRA reading materials… it was then that I first read Chekhov -- “Пари” (“The Bet”) -- and learned about various types of irony.

As for practical influences of literature, one of the reasons War and Peace is still such a personal favorite is that its messages about plans and spontaneity fit my life: living in Moscow during the ‘90s and working as a freelancer during economic freefall have meant endless evolution and adjustments to my intentions and ideas. I’m glad I got stuck on the happy chaos of War and Peace rather than, say, the sick feeling in the pit of the stomach from another unforgotten favorite I read and loved in the same era, Sartre’s Nausea.

Photo: mzacha via stock.xchng

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Happy First Birthday to My Blog!

Oof, it’s hard to believe I’ve been writing Lizok’s Bookshelf for a full year! Blogging is more fun than I’d expected, thanks to readers and subscribers who’ve written comments and e-mail. A big thanks to all of you!

Beyond finding that blogging’s a great way to organize my thoughts and save links about what I’ve read, I love looking at statistics showing which pages are most popular among readers who arrive at The Shelf via search engines. Some impressions:

“The Overcoat” and Ice. I’ve read and enjoyed Gogol’s “Overcoat” many times over the years but never would have guessed it had such a big following! Another popular page is my entry called “Vladimir Sorokin’s ‘Ice Capades,’” about Sorokin’s novel Ice. Some people arrive there by mistake, searching, it seems, for the history of the Ice Capades.

The Ice page’s popularity spiked sharply on Monday thanks to this Russian-language article about the Russian publishing industry by Aleksandr Ivanov, head of Ad Marginem, which published Ice in Russian. Ivanov linked to my piece to illustrate how American critics (why, thank you!) read Ice with perplexity, seeing it as “literary ‘неликвид,’” something literarily illiquid… whether he intended “illiquid” as a bilingual pun on water and ice or a reminder of global financial problems, I was thrilled for the link. And in good company: the piece also linked to The Complete Review.

Other Big Searches. Other popular search terms include “Dina Rubina” and anything related to Liudmila Ulitskaia (Ulitskaya), reinforcing my impression of their popularity among readers of literary fiction. Kuprin’s Garnet Bracelet is unexpectedly popular among visitors, as is Dostoevsky’s The Possessed.

Big Book Shelves. Lots of people seem to think I sell furniture, including “big book shelves.” I don’t, but writing about the Big Book Awards seems to draw people in need of places to store their home libraries. For the record, at least one of Lizok’s actual bookshelves is from Mill Stores, a New England purveyor of unfinished book cases. They’re not at all fancy, but they’re affordable, functional, and finishable, perfect for my mud room-based library.

A List of Big Books. Lots of visitors come here looking for Russian literature reading lists or suggestions of big books to read. I’m going to work on a “Greatest Hits” post but here’s a rather random list of some good thick books. Please feel free to add your contribution in a comment.

Lev Tolstoy’s War and Peace (my favorite, up for a rereading this winter)

Vasilii Grossman’s Life and Fate

Anatolii Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita

Favorite Big Books from Beyond Russia:

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles

Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

Robertson Davies’s Deptford Trilogy

Finally, a Russian Birthday Song. This episode of Чебурашка (Cheburashka) includes Crocodile Gena’s rendition of the Russian birthday song. The song gets me every time I hear it: the lyrics include “unfortunately, birthdays are only once a year,” and the music sounds decidedly minor key. (At least to my ear…) Song lyrics are available here, and there’s plenty of information about Cheburashka on Wikipedia in Russian and English.

Thank you for your visits!

Signing off to get ready for my second blogging year,


Cupcake photo: nazreth, via stock.xchng

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back to (Modern) Classics: Solzhenitsyn's "One Day"

The Writer: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Alexander Solzhenitsyn)

Work and Date: Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) (1959). The book’s Russian title would be translated literally as One Day of Ivan Denisovich.

Why it’s important: The literary journal Новый мир (Novyi mir or New World) published One Day in 1962, during the Khrushchev-era thaw, providing readers with a fictionalized account of one day in the bleak life of a political prisoner in a Soviet camp.

Online criticism, analysis, and background: Harrison Salisbury’s 1963 review from The New York Times. Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “Like a Thunderbolt” is a London Review of Books piece about Liudmila Saraskina’s Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; Fitzpatrick includes background on the publishing of One Day and the nonpublishing of other works. Michael Scammell’s “Solzhenitsyn the Stylist,” from the New York Times Book Review, is a brief but helpful piece.

IMHO: I first read One Day about 20 years ago, in English translation. Rereading it this fall in Russian was a completely different experience. I’d remembered simple language, but the original is a complicated blend that incorporates dialect and accents, curses, and camp slang.

Since I was already familiar with what happened during Ivan Denisovich Shukhov’s day and have read many other accounts of prison camps, what struck me most during my rereading was how Solzhenitsyn varied his language to create atmosphere. The central portion, for example, when Ivan Denisovich works as a member of a brigade, seems to contain many passages with choppy writing and lots of exclamation marks, highlighting the fast pace of lunch and work, both of which warm Ivan Denisovich.

Back in the barracks, when Shukhov returns from work, Solzhenitsyn’s language feels stylistically simpler, calmer. There is less dialect, sentences seem longer, and my impression is that exclamation marks become sparser. This was my favorite part of the book: the more relaxed style truly reflected the content, as the men waited in line for packages, went for their evening meal, submitted to two evening headcounts, and conversed.

Although I gained a new appreciation for how Solzhenitsyn wrote and structured One Day, I still can’t say it’s a personal favorite. It’s a very, very good book, and I have tremendous respect for Solzhenitsyn’s ability to describe so much, so humanly, so almost-perfectly, in so few words. I have occasionally heard Russians praise One Day but downplay its importance a bit because it shows a relatively easy day in a prison camp – solitary confinement cells, for example, are only mentioned, not observed. To my mind, Solzhenitsyn simply chose to focus on one side of camp life, writing a publishable book and showing, very successfully, how prisoners can maintain their dignity despite the system’s constant humiliations. 

I can’t honestly tell you why I’ve never felt enthusiastic about One Day. Perhaps it’s because I read and enjoyed Solzhenitsyn’s full-length novel, В круге первом (The First Circle), first. The First Circle and Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward) both have plenty of space for extended metaphors that specialized settings – a prison camp for scientists and a hospital, respectively – can spawn. Another thought: unless Dostoevsky is the author, I generally prefer long, messy novels to short, neat books or stories… though there are short stories, like Pushkin’s “Пиковая дама” (“The Queen of Spades”) or Gogol’s “Шинель” (“The Overcoat”), that I love every time.

I’ll leave you with two motifs from One Day that I particularly liked. Solzhenitsyn makes nice use of two recurring symbols in One Day: the sun and the moon, representing the passage of time. They also seem to refer to universality and separation since everyone, whether inside or outside the camp, sees the same sun and moon. Still, I think the saddest line in the book is when Ivan Denisovich wonders whether or not he wants to be free again.

Summary: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich focuses on a Soviet political prisoner’s workday, incorporating bits of material that tell of his life and family. The book is neatly structured and provides glimpses into the freedoms and limitations of a prison camp and Soviet life. It is an excellent introduction to fiction about Soviet prison and political “crimes,” and I particularly recommend it to readers who either don’t like long novels or have difficulty keeping track of Russian names.