Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Adele Wiseman on First Reading Dostoevsky

Adele Wiseman on first reading Dostoevsky:

Now I knew what was meant by a great novel. And there was more where it came from, a slow orgy of Dostoevsky, slow because there is something in all that passion, all that intensity, that makes one literally afraid, each book an experience, a quest that takes time to prepare for, with an awareness that the book is waiting as inevitable as the last age that you will reach before death.

From “Memoirs of a Book-Molesting Childhood” (1987).

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Back to School

A couple of days ago, in a comment on one of BikeProf’s posts, I said that I had decided just not to think about the impending school year yet. I realize now that I was deluding myself. I’ve read three academic satires in as many weeks, and it can’t be a coincidence that I’m gravitating toward this sort of book at this time of year.

I began with David Lodge’s Changing Places and followed it up immediately with the sequel, Small World.

Regular readers of this blog will know that though I’m a great fan of Lodge’s essays, I got off to a rocky start with his fiction. In response to my critique of the opening chapter of Nice Work, Jenny D. wrote that she considers Lodge’s fiction to be of a kind that dates awfully quickly. I certainly found this to be true of Nice Work. I concede that it improved after the first chapter but it never really won me over. In it, Lodge paints the excesses of 1980s academic theory and politics so broadly that the novel read to me as clumsy parody rather than effective satire. He set himself too easy a target.

While Changing Places (set in 1969) and Small World (set in the early 1980s) are both very much creatures of their times as well, I wouldn’t level the same criticism at them. The satire of each is razor sharp and perfectly aimed. Lodge captures the times without being captured by them. Decades on, from the perspective of contemporary academia, the books retain their bite.

There were moments in each when I felt that Lodge was being just a bit too clever. Not in connection with the satire—I’m not sure that one can ever be too clever in satire—but formally speaking. He employed the odd postmodern trick that I found distracting. I hasten to add that I don’t make this criticism from the perspective of one hostile to postmodernism. Quite the opposite. What I objected to was not that he used these techniques but that he didn’t sustain them; hence my use of the term “trick.” It was as if he occasionally tossed something in because it was a clever idea that he wanted to try out, not because it contributed to the book as a whole. This is a minor quibble though. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed each of these books.

Next up was Jane Smiley’s Moo. My trajectory with Smiley so far is exactly the opposite of my trajectory with Lodge. In her case, I began with Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel and found it so banal that I felt no desire to sample her fiction. This changed with Litlove’s recent enthusiastic post on Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I didn’t pick that one up because I don’t feel that I have the emotional fortitude to read a novel with incest at its centre at present. But given my current penchant for academic satire, Moo seemed just the thing. I’m only far enough along to have been introduced to Smiley’s extensive cast of characters, but I’m fascinated by each of them and very much looking forward to pursuing their individual storylines and to seeing how they intersect. I’ll report in again when I finish it.

I’ve lined up a few more to get me through the term: a couple of classics that I haven’t yet read: Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Mary McCarthy’s The Groves of Academe; and also Richard Russo’s Straight Man which I have read before, but once again an endorsement from Litlove has me hankering to reread it.

So long as I’m in the mood to make light of my chosen profession, any other recommendations of academic satires that you think I’d enjoy?

Friday, August 25, 2006

Andrew O'Hagan on Robert Burns

Andrew O’Hagan on Robert Burns:

I read a number of poems by Robert Burns and fell in love, not only with the mind-warpingly beautiful lines in those poems, but with him - his life and his voice and his spirit travelling through time. The accent in Burns's poems is the one I grew up with and heard every day, but to see it used like that, for literature, shook me very much, and made me realise that writing was a kind of morality. I copied his poems out on my typewriter - it was a way of improving my typing and entering very directly into the rhythm of those works, copying them out beat for beat.

I think it was Robert Burns who made me believe that the proper study of man is man, that nothing was beneath good writing, and that a committed writer owed everything to the page and nothing to piety or conformity or the ego or the fashion. He pricked delusion, and that is a good thing for a young man filled with delusions to see.

(Thanks to Light Reading for the link.)

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Italo Calvino on Reading the Classics

I’ve been reading Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” with great pleasure. In it, he considers what counts as a classic and ultimately arrives at a definition by reference to the sort of experience that reading such a book produces, on first reading and on rereading, in youth and in maturity. He goes on to emphasize the importance of determining not which books are the classics, but rather which books are your classics. On the latter point he writes: “Your classic author is the one you cannot feel indifferent to, who helps you to define yourself in relation to him, even in dispute with him.” And later:

There is nothing for it but for all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics. I would say that such a library ought to be composed half of books we have read and that have really counted for us, and half of books we propose to read and presume will come to count—leaving a section of empty shelves for surprises and occasional discoveries.

This is one of those essays, like Virginia Woolf’s “How Should One Read a Book”, from which I find myself wanting to quote nearly every paragraph. Of course, it makes much more sense simply to recommend that you read the whole of it for yourself, if you haven’t already done so. I will restrict myself to quoting just two more passages to convey a bit of its flavour. The first jumped out at me because, inspired by Danielle, I’ve been plotting to acquaint myself with a few classics that I feel as if I ought to have read already. According to Calvino, there should be no shame in this and, indeed, there is likely to be some advantage:

[T]o read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth. Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates (or ought to appreciate) many more details and levels and meanings.

The second passage continues on this theme and, along the way, offers up a nice definition of how the experience of reading a book can be formative. In a recent post I defined a “signpost book” by contrast to a formative book, but without saying much about what constitutes a formative book. Now I can cheerfully defer to Calvino on that point:

[R]eading a book in youth can be rather unfruitful, due to impatience, distraction, inexperience with the product’s “instructions for use,” and inexperience in life itself. Books read then can be (possibly at one and the same time) formative, in the sense that they give a form to future experiences, providing models, terms of comparison, schemes for classification, scales of value, exemplars of beauty—all things that continue to operate even if a book read in one’s youth is almost or totally forgotten. If we reread the book at a mature age, we are likely to rediscover these constants, which by this time are part of our inner mechanisms, but whose origins we have long forgotten. A literary work can succeed in making us forget it as such, but it leaves its seed in us.

Calvino’s essay is full of such vivid insights and also flashes of wit. I will be thinking on it for a while, as I consider who my classic authors are and heed his call for “all of us to invent our own ideal libraries of classics.”

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Far Too Many Books

Philip went to his study to gather together the books and papers he would need. As usual, he wasted a great deal of time wondering which books to take on his journey. He had a neurotic fear of finding himself stranded in some foreign hotel or railway station with nothing to read, and in consequence always travelled with far too many books, most of which he brought home unread. Tonight, unable to decide between two late Trollope novels, he packed both, along with some poems by Seamus Heaney, a new biography of Keats and a translation of the Divine Comedy which he had been carrying around with him on almost every trip for the last thirty years without ever having made much progress in it.

From David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance (1984).

Monday, August 21, 2006

Signpost Books

The first question in the one book meme that recently spread through the litblogosphere with extraordinary speed asked respondents to name “one book that changed your life.” I noted a distinct split among those who resisted this question. There were those who objected to restricting their answer to just one book, and those who were reluctant to accord any book such significance. (My favourite articulation of the latter position came from Mark Sarvas’s mother who said: "I don’t think there is a book that really changed my life. There were too many things happening in our lives that changed us.") Polarized though these positions seem, I think that the split has less to do with the importance that the two groups place on books and more to do with differing interpretations of the phrase “changed your life.” How dramatic an impact must a book have on a reader before it can be said to have changed that reader’s life?

I fell into the group that found it difficult to limit my answer to one title. I’m inclined to think that many of the books that I’ve read over the course of my life have changed me, some in subtle ways and others more dramatically. Perhaps I’ve revised the question though. Is it the same thing to say that a book has changed you as to say that a book has changed your life? I had an opportunity to directly consider the “what books have changed you?” question nearly a year ago in response to another meme of sorts that invited participants to list ten formative books. Compiling my list of formative books didn’t feel quite as momentous as naming just one book that changed my life. Nevertheless, I still found it to be a restrictive endeavour that required a great deal of thought. It wasn’t so much the ten-book limit that made it restrictive as the very concept of “formative.” For one thing, it seemed to me to rule out recent reads; however enthusiastic I was about them, I felt that more time had to pass before I could definitively deem them formative.

This train of thought left me wondering about how to give recent reads that have had a significant impact on me their due without resorting to clichéd hyperbole. Then I encountered the concept of “signpost films” at girish (via About Last Night):

There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as “signpost films”: they take a territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly make us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. These encounters make us exclaim, “So, that’s what this movie’s doing!” And it’s a lesson we take with us, carry over and apply, to hundreds of other films we will see in the future.

It’s been some time since I was a devoted follower of film, but it seems to me that the notion of “signpost films” translates very nicely into the world of books. There are a number of books that I have read, in recent years and stretching back through my lifetime, the reading of which I might hesitate to describe as life-changing or even formative experiences, that I have no trouble characterizing as “signpost books.”

What’s the difference between a formative book and a signpost book? A single book could certainly be both, but if I’m interpreting the definition properly, an aesthetic focus is central to the latter. Girish writes of films that are breakthroughs in that they help the viewer to better understand film as an art form and that provide lessons to take into future viewing experiences, not lessons to take into life generally. A book may be formative because of its emotional or psychological impact. But it would be a signpost book if it helps the reader to better understand what language can do, how a story or a novel or a poem works, thereby enhancing that reader’s appreciation for literature as an art form, and sending him or her off into the next reading experience equipped with a more discerning eye.

Two recent reads that qualify as signpost books for me are Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories and Ali Smith’s The Whole Story and Other Stories. I came upon Case Histories at the end of a month long novel-a-day escapist binge. By page three I had resolved to stop reading the sort of crap that had occupied me in the preceding weeks, and also to get back to my own writing. A lot of things about the novel wowed me; chief among them was its refusal to acknowledge a dividing line between literary and genre fiction. Ali Smith’s The Whole Story and Other Stories cracked open the whole idea of story for me. I read the book three times in a row, then went off and transformed a poem that I’d been trying to write for years into a very odd little story. (For my detailed review of The Whole Story in an earlier blog post, click here.) I don’t know to what extent either of these books is objectively groundbreaking but both served as exactly the right book at the right time for me. They enhanced my appreciation and understanding of literary form as a reader and inspired me to stretch my capabilities as a writer.

Would you characterize any of your recent reads as signpost books?

Friday, August 18, 2006

Resisting Temptation

I vowed to go through the month of August without buying a single book and so far I’m holding firm. The surprise arrival on my doorstep of parcels of books from friends and family certainly helps. But for me the key to resisting temptation is simply to stay out of bookstores.

Today, I weakened. It was a hot, muggy afternoon, and there was the air-conditioned bookstore offering a bit of respite halfway home. It couldn’t hurt, I thought, just to have a look, to find out what’s new, solely for future reference of course.

It was a pair of Penguin titles that nearly cracked my resolve: a lovely new hardback edition of Anne of Green Gables, and The Penguin Book of Contemporary Short Stories by Canadian Women. The former would be a ridiculous purchase given the amount of time I spent just yesterday trying to decide which of the five editions of the book that I already own that I could bear to part with. Then again, having just measured the merits of those other editions against one another, I’m all the more certain of the charms of this new one. I particularly appreciate the cover which features a representation of Anne’s bedroom window rather than Anne herself, with a blossomed bough of the Snow Queen reaching elegantly into the picture. It also includes an introduction by Lisa Moore that I would dearly love to read. Moore is part of the draw of The Penguin Book of Contemporary Short Stories by Canadian Women as well, having selected the stories and penned an introduction for it too.

I want them, I want them, I want them. But I didn’t buy them. Not yet.

Jackie Kay on the Short Story

Jackie Kay on the short story:

A short story is a small moment of belief. Hard, uncompromising, often bleak, the story does not make things easy for the reader. It is a tough form for tough times. If the novel sometimes spoon feeds the reader, the short story asks her to feed herself. A story asks the reader to continue it after it has finished or to begin it before it began. There is space for the reader to come in and imagine and create. There is space for the reader to think for ages, to mull the impact of a story over, to try and recover from it!

The Modern Conference

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.

From David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance (1984).

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Heirloom Books

Another box of books arrived on my doorstep today, this one courtesy of my dad. He decided that he was ready to let go of some of his old Scottish books but he was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be, so he boxed them up and sent them to me. My mom warned me that they were en route (“You know how you said on your blog that books find you…”) which gave me a bit of time to anticipate what treasures might fall under the rubric of “old Scottish books.”

I guessed Sir Walter Scott and was not disappointed. I’m now the proud owner of a lovely twelve-volume set of The Novels and Tales of the Author of Waverley published circa 1820. My dad bought them the year that we lived in Edinburgh, when I was ten-years-old and he was about the age that I am now. I vividly remember the glorious hunt through second-hand bookshops for matching volumes. I don’t think it’s a stretch to trace the beginning of my own book collecting habit back to that time. So this set of books brings with it the immeasurable added value of fond memories of Edinburgh and of bookish pleasures past.

The box contained some other sentimental favourites that are not Scottish in origin but were nevertheless an integral part of my parents’ respective Scottish childhoods.

The Wonder Book of Why and What was the first book that my dad owned. It was given to him by a librarian aunt when he was five-years-old. There wasn’t much enthusiasm for books or education among the rest of his family, so I accord that book a lot of significance. After all, he did end up a scientist… I’ve managed to learn only the barest of details about that great-aunt in my genealogical forays. But I’ll hold on to the book as an important legacy from her.

These nice little editions of Alexandre Dumas’ The Black Tulip and Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge are among the books that my mom won as school prizes in her youth. I don’t think I’ve ever read the Dumas but I remember being fascinated as a child by the bookplate within that proclaimed my mom the dux of her school. I aspired to follow in her footsteps but was thwarted by the fact that no one in Canada knew what a dux was. I did read the Hardy. I’m not sure that The Mayor of Casterbridge was the best place to begin with Hardy, but it did lead me to Tess of the D’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure, both of which I loved beyond measure as a teenager.

Finally, what selection of old Scottish books would be complete without Robbie Burns? This two-volume set of The Works of Robert Burns came interleaved with ancient newspaper clippings about the bard as well as recent notes in my mom’s handwriting that attest to the thoroughness of her preparation for the Burns Supper that she and my dad hosted in January. I guess next year the celebration will have to be at my house.

Now to find the shelf space for these family heirlooms…

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

L.M. Montgomery in Response to Her Critics

In a journal entry dated January 27, 1922, L.M. Montgomery wrote:

Today I had a nice letter from Sir Ernest Hodder Williams (of Hodder and Stoughton) and some English reviews of Rilla. All were kind but one which sneered at my “sentiment.” The attitude of some English critics towards anything that savors of sentiment amuses me. It is to them as the proverbial red rag to a bull. They are very silly. Can’t they see that civilization is founded on and held together by sentiment. Passion is transient and quite as often destructive as not. Sentiment remains and binds. Perhaps what they really mean is sentimentality which is an abominable thing. But my books are not sentimental. I have always tried in them to register normal and ordinary emotions—not merely passionate or unique episodes.

I had also two curious letters, one from a male prig and one from a female prig. The most humiliating thing about these letters is that the writers like my books. I wish they loathed them. The male prig says that my books have convinced him that “a real Christian can still write books” but goes on to solemnly warn me that my nefarious habit of marrying off my characters “tends to lower the conception of the holy state of matrimony.” Whew! I wonder if he thinks it would be better if I let them mate up without marrying, or sent them into convents.

The female prig thinks “Mary Vance’s” talk is “vulgar” and that it should not be found in a book “written to influence young people.” But then I don’t write books for the purpose of influencing young people and I don’t make children of the antecedents and upbringing of “Mary Vance” talk like “Elsie.”

The said prig also rebukes me gravely for letting “Susan” call the cat she “tried to kick with both feet” a darned cat. But the real old lady of the anecdote said bluntly that the animal was damned. Yet this terrible example did no harm that I know of.

I shall not bother replying to the male prig. But I intend to write a polite, carefully ironic letter to the female of the species.

From Mary Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston, eds., The Selected Journals of L.M. Montgomery Volume III: 1921-1929 (1992).

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

L.M. Montgomery on Emmeline Pankhurst

In a letter to G.B. MacMillan dated September 24, 1922, L.M. Montgomery wrote:

By the way, I had a luncheon the other day with Mrs. Pankhurst of suffragette fame—the redoubtable Emmeline in the flesh. As I looked at her I could not see the smasher of London windows and the hunger striker forcibly fed in Holloway jail. She had a sweet tired gentle face—looked like some Presbyterian elder’s wife in a country village who had had nothing more strenuous in her life than running the local Ladies Aid and putting up with the elder.

From Francis W. P. Bolger & Elizabeth Epperly, eds., My Dear Mr. M: Letters to G. B. MacMillan from L.M. Montgomery (1992).

Sunday, August 13, 2006

J.R.R. Tolkien on the Audience for Fairy Tales

J.R.R. Tolkien on the audience for fairy tales:

It is usually assumed that children are the natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy stories. In describing a fairy story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: ‘this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.’ But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: ‘this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy’; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connection between children and fairy stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios.


If fairy story as a kind is worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults. They will, of course, put more in and get more out than children can. Then, as a branch of a genuine art, children may hope to get fairy stories fit for them to read and yet within their measure; as they may hope to get suitable introductions to poetry, history, and the sciences. Though it may be better for them to read some things, especially fairy stories, that are beyond their measure rather than short of it. Their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it.

From J.R.R. Tolkien, “Children and Fairy Stories” (1964); reprinted in Sheila Egoff, G.T. Stubbs, and L.F. Ashley, eds., Only Connect: Readings on Children’s Literature (1980).

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Joyce Carol Oates on Writing and Mood

Joyce Carol Oates on writing and mood:

One must be pitiless about this matter of "mood." In a sense, the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function—a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind—then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I've found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes ... and somehow the activity of writing changes everything. Or appears to do so.

From "Joyce Carol Oates" in George Plimpton, ed., Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1989).

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Translation and Interpretation

I’ve continued to think about the question of translation in relation to Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog.” The choices that translators make are bound to make a difference in any case, but particularly so with a writer like Chekhov to whom every word meant a great deal. Remember that one of his six principles of good story writing was “extreme brevity.” It was his practice to revise so as to cut away any extraneous detail. Dana Gioia explains:

Early in his career Chekhov had to write according to strict space limits (only one hundred lines of newsprint), and he learned by constant practice to eliminate all unnecessary elements from a story. What Chekhov offered instead was the luminous detail, a few significant particulars that summon up a character or scene.

Virginia Llewellyn Smith offers a glimpse of this revision process at work:

Chekhov originally wrote in the conclusion of ‘The Lady with the Dog’ that the love of Gurov and Anna Sergeevna had ‘made them both better’. He altered this subsequently to ‘changed them both for the better’; but still dissatisfied, finally he altered this once more to ‘had changed them both’, and thus avoided any overt suggestion of pointing a moral.

So what are we to make of it when Chekhov has revised and revised so as to arrive at the one telling detail that gets to the essence of things, then three different translators render that detail in three different ways?

I thought it would be interesting to put different translations of a couple of passages from the story side by side and consider the effect of the differences on readers’ perceptions. Because much of our discussion so far has focussed on Gurov and his feelings toward and relationships with women, the two passages I selected for this exercise are 1) the initial description of his wife; and, 2) his recollection of his past conquests.

Gurov’s Wife

From Ivy Litvinov’s translation:

He was not yet forty but had a twelve-year-old daughter and two sons in high school. He had been talked into marrying in his third year at college, and his wife now looked nearly twice as old as he did. She was a tall woman with dark eyebrows, erect, dignified, imposing, and, as she said of herself, a "thinker." She was a great reader, omitted the "hard sign" at the end of words in her letters, and called her husband "Dimitry" instead of Dmitry; and though he secretly considered her shallow, narrow-minded, and dowdy, he stood in awe of her, and disliked being at home. He had first begun deceiving her long ago and he was now constantly unfaithful to her, and this was no doubt why he spoke slightingly of women, to whom he referred as the lower race.

From Constance Garnett’s translation:

He was under forty, but he had a daughter already twelve years old, and two sons at school. He had been married young, when he was a student in his second year, and by now his wife seemed half as old again as he. She was a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified, and, as she said of herself, intellectual. She read a great deal, used phonetic spelling, called her husband, not Dmitri, but Dimitri, and he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home. He had begun being unfaithful to her long ago -- had been unfaithful to her often, and, probably on that account, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were talked about in his presence, used to call them "the lower race."

From Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation:

He was not yet forty, but he had a twelve-year-old daughter and two sons in school. He had married young, while still a second-year student, and now his wife seemed half again his age. She was a tall woman with dark eyebrows, erect, imposing, dignified, and a thinking person, as she called herself. She read a great deal, used the new orthography, called her husband not Dmitri but Dimitri, but he secretly considered her none too bright, narrow-minded, graceless, was afraid of her, and disliked being at home. He had begun to be unfaithful to her long ago, was unfaithful often, and, probably for that reason, almost always spoke ill of women, and when they were discussed in his presence, he would say of them: “An inferior race!”

Gurov’s Prior Conquests

From Ivy Litvinov’s translation:

Her room was stuffy and smelt of some scent she had bought in the Japanese shop. Gurov looked at her, thinking to himself: "How full of strange encounters life is!" He could remember carefree, good-natured women who were exhilarated by love-making and grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however short-lived; and there had been others--his wife among them--whose caresses were insincere, affected, hysterical, mixed up with a great deal of quite unnecessary talk, and whose expression seemed to say that all this was not just lovemaking or passion, but something much more significant; then there had been two or three beautiful, cold women, over whose features flitted a predatory expression, betraying a determination to wring from life more than it could give, women no longer in their first youth, capricious, irrational, despotic, brainless, and when Gurov had cooled to these, their beauty aroused in him nothing but repulsion, and the lace trimming on their underclothes reminded him of fish-scales.

From Constance Garnett’s translation:

The room was close and smelt of the scent she had bought at the Japanese shop. Gurov looked at her and thought: "What different people one meets in the world!" From the past he preserved memories of careless, good-natured women, who loved cheerfully and were grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however brief it might be; and of women like his wife who loved without any genuine feeling, with superfluous phrases, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that suggested that it was not love nor passion, but something more significant; and of two or three others, very beautiful, cold women, on whose faces he had caught a glimpse of a rapacious expression -- an obstinate desire to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth, and when Gurov grew cold to them their beauty excited his hatred, and the lace on their linen seemed to him like scales.

From Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation:

Her hotel room was stuffy and smelled of the perfumes she had bought in a Japanese shop. Gurov, looking at her now, thought: “What meetings there are in life!” From the past he had kept the memory of carefree, good-natured women, cheerful with love, grateful to him for their happiness, however brief; and of women—his wife, for example—who loved without sincerity, with superfluous talk, affectedly, with hysteria, with an expression as if it were not love, not passion, but something more significant; and of those two or three very beautiful, cold ones, in whose faces a predatory expression would suddenly flash, a stubborn wish to take, to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were women not in their first youth, capricious, unreasonable, domineering, unintelligent, and when Gurov cooled towards them, their beauty aroused hatred in him, and the lace of their underwear seemed to him like scales.

Do the variations from one translation to another make any difference to your perception of Gurov, or do you experience the effect of each version as much the same?

For more discussion on Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” click over to A Curious Singularity.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

John Cheever on Anton Chekhov

John Cheever on Anton Chekhov:

Readers, upon first being introduced to Chekhov, often say: But nothing happens in the story, nothing real happens and it’s all terribly sad. We mean, of course, that nothing happens in our limited Western sense: that no one is murdered, that the plans for the nuclear submarine have not been stolen, that war has not been declared.

But one does not ask of a short story does something happen? One asks is it interesting? Chekhov is always interesting and one can’t do better.

From John Cheever, “The Melancholy of Distance” in James McConkey, ed., Chekhov and Our Age: Responses to Chekhov by American Writers and Scholars (1984).

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

More Questions than Answers

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) has been credited with “inventing a new kind of story” and ascribed the status of “the father of the modern short story.” Written in 1899, “The Lady With the Dog” is one of his mature stories, and has been deemed by many to be his best. Vladimir Nabokov pronounced it "one of the greatest stories ever written."

When I reread the story to prepare for our discussion, I wanted to experience it as a story that stands on its own. But I also wanted to think about it in connection with Chekhov’s role in the evolution of the short story form. In what way did it, at the time of writing, constitute “a new kind of story”? What does it have in common with contemporary short stories?

I remember that one of the things about this story in particular, and about Chekhov’s work in general, that struck me upon first reading was how modern it seemed. This quality makes Chekhov’s stories very accessible to contemporary readers but I think it also makes it easy to underestimate his contribution to the form. Without knowing what went before, it’s hard to appreciate how original his stories were when they were first written and published.

I confess that my own short story reading hasn’t extended much further back than Chekhov, so I’m shamelessly borrowing from Richard Pevear’s introduction to Anton Chekhov’s Stories in articulating here what was so novel about Chekhov’s approach. Pevear notes that in his own time Chekhov’s writing technique was compared to impressionist painting. He elaborates: “The most ordinary events, a few trivial details, a few words spoken, no plot, a focus on single gestures, minor features, the creation of a mood that is both precise and somehow elusive—such is Chekhov’s impressionism.” Chekhov’s writerly stance was that of a detached observer who presented characters and situations without moralising or judging. His subject matter was “the common stuff of humanity” rather than “monumental personalities dramatically portrayed.” He offered no clear conclusions. All of these factors are at play in “The Lady With the Dog” and, to my mind, these are the factors that make the story seem so modern. No doubt due to Chekhov’s influence, the contemporary reader of short stories is well accustomed to stories which offer up no clear morals, no neat conclusions.

In a letter to his publisher dated October 27, 1888, Chekhov wrote:

Anyone who says the artist’s field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing or had any dealings with imagery. The artist observes, selects, guesses, and synthesizes… You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.

In that spirit, rather than attempting a definitive analysis of “The Lady With the Dog,” I will put forward for discussion a number of questions that occurred to me while reading it:

1. Close to the end of the story, the following passage appears: “They had forgiven one another the things they were ashamed of in the past, they forgave everything in the present, and they felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.” I don’t have a strong enough sense of who Anna Sergeevna was at the beginning of the story to venture an opinion as to whether the love affair changes her. But what of Gurov? Dana Gioia writes that “Gurov undergoes a strange and winding course of emotional and moral growth that few readers would expect” and sees this transformation as central to the tale. I have my doubts. Certainly his feelings about Anna Sergeevna change over the course of the story, but has he changed by the end?

2. What is Gurov’s appeal for Anna Sergeevna or for any of his previous conquests? It’s difficult to tell from inside his head. He expresses a fair bit of hostility toward women, particularly the ones he’s close to, but he doesn’t seem very keen on himself either. Why are women drawn to him?

3. Virginia Llewellyn Smith, who wrote a whole book about “The Lady With the Dog,” described the story as “a summary of the entire topic" of "Chekhov's attitude to women and to love." I haven’t read her book and I’m not sure what to make of this quotation in isolation. Certainly we learn a great deal about Gurov’s attitude to women and to love, but is there a grander message here outside of Gurov’s point of view that can be ascribed to Chekhov? If so, what might that message be?

4. Yalta is a resort town where people go for fun and frolic. But it’s also a place where people go for their health. Chekhov himself moved there after a lung haemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. In the story, Anna Sergeevna came to Yalta after telling her husband that she was ill. We don’t know about Gurov, but surely he wouldn’t be there for weeks on end without his family unless he too had used ill health as a pretext. Stefanie’s recent post on illness in literature prompts me to ask whether that spectre of illness, however subtle, is important in this story.

5. Did anybody else read multiple translations of the story? If so, did it make any difference to your perception of it? I read two different translations and I think that I preferred that of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky to that of Ivy Litvinov. The language of the former seemed more direct and pared down. But subjective preference apart, I did wonder which translation was closest to Chekhov’s intentions. In my own stories, I can spend months just changing one word back and forth, so the difference that a translator’s choices can make to the meaning and effect of a story strikes me as a very substantial variable to consider.

I’d love to hear others’ views on these questions.

Click over to A Curious Singularity to read more posts on “The Lady With the Dog” and to join in the discussion flowing from them.

Monday, August 07, 2006

A Reminder Regarding the Short Story Discussion Group

We begin our discussion tomorrow with Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Dog”. I’ve started a group blog to serve as the site for that discussion and sent invitations to join it to all those who expressed an interest in participating. If you ought to have received an invitation but didn’t, please contact me via e-mail and I’ll make sure that you get one. If you would like to participate in the discussion without joining the group blog, you are of course welcome to do so by commenting on others’ posts.

Please click over to A Curious Singularity to join in the discussion. Posts on Chekhov’s story will begin appearing there tomorrow.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Gender and Reading Habits

In an article in today’s Globe and Mail, Kate Taylor examines at some length the question of why women read more fiction than men.

First, the figures. A recent survey of the reading habits of Canadians conducted by the federal Department of Canadian Heritage found the following:

Women accounted for 60 per cent of the daily readers and 70 per cent of the heavy readers who had read 50 or more books in the last 12 months. Women also outnumbered men two to one as regular readers of both classic and contemporary novels.

I’ve seen statistical evidence of the gender gap in reading, particularly of fiction, trotted out elsewhere with some frequency, so these numbers don’t make for a surprising revelation. Indeed, to the extent that there is a surprise here, it’s that the numbers aren’t quite as lopsided as I’d been led to believe. Nevertheless, the question of why women read more fiction than men remains.

Taylor interviews a number of authors, critics, and publishers for their views on the issue. She sums up author and critic George Fetherling’s response as follows:

Fetherling complains that men only read those novels in which they can directly identify with the protagonist, while women will read about people different than themselves. That’s the most common explanation of the phenomenon: Reading fiction involves empathizing with the characters, and thus draws on women’s traditional emotional strengths. Men, on the other hand, turn to non-fiction to learn about the world around them.

Author Russell Smith and Doubleday editorial director Martha Kanya-Forstner offer up this explanation:

Both Smith and Kanya-Forstner argue that men are drawn to books about ideas, and both think publishers have failed to recognize that in their marketing schemes for fiction. “Guys look for ideas,” says Smith. “Very intelligent men I talk to, none of them read fiction. It’s girl stuff: hundreds and hundreds of pages of feelings. To think that no one perceives fiction as being about ideas is depressing.”

The inclusion of the word “perceives” in Smith’s final sentence suggests that the problem is not that these novels of ideas that would appeal to men aren’t out there, but rather that men aren’t aware of their existence. However, earlier in the article, Taylor describes Smith as “concerned that the success of these ‘women’s novels’ is limiting the kind of fiction that gets published” in Canada. (‘Women’s novels’ are here defined as “earnest” tales that “appeal to women with a story of family, memory, and loss.” Men, Smith says, “are bored with the earnestness of contemporary fiction.”) So perhaps in his view the problem is in fact that insufficient numbers of novels of ideas that would appeal to men are available.

I don’t find these explanations satisfying. The assumptions embedded within them are shot through with gender stereotypes that I find offensive in the abstract and flatly unconvincing in this context. They don’t reflect the breadth of fiction that I read and the reasons why I read it; nor do they reflect the habits of the many avid readers of fiction, male and female, with whom I am acquainted. For example, despite my chromosomal make-up, I’m quite partial to humour and ideas in my novels. And how exactly does one so deftly separate feelings and ideas anyway? Surely most good novels are bound to contain both thoroughly intertwined?

That said, I don’t have an alternate explanation to offer. I remain puzzled by the gender gap in fiction reading. I need to think about it more deeply. In the meantime, I appeal to you for your ideas on this question. Why do you think women read more fiction than men?

Friday, August 04, 2006

A Literary Cocktail Party

By tea-time, Wilfred was behaving so tiresomely that Harriet put him away in a rage and sallied out to attend a literary cocktail party. The room in which it was held was exceedingly hot and crowded, and all the assembled authors were discussing (a) publishers (b) agents, (c) their own sales (d) other people’s sales, and (e) the extraordinary behaviour of the Book of the Moment selectors in awarding their ephemeral crown to Tasker Hepplewater’s Mock Turtle. ‘I finished this book,’ one distinguished adjudicator had said, ‘with tears running down my face.’ The author of Serpent’s Fang confided to Harriet over a petite saucisse and a glass of sherry that they must have been tears of pure boredom; but the author of Dust and Shiver said, No—they were probably tears of merriment, called forth by the unintentional humour of the book; had she ever met Hepplewater? A very angry young woman, whose book had been passed over, declared that the whole thing was a notorious farce. The Book of the Moment was selected from each publisher’s list in turn, so that her own Ariadne Adams was automatically excluded from benefit, owing to the mere fact that her publisher’s imprint had been honoured the previous January. She had, however, received private assurance that the critic of the Morning Star had sobbed like a child over the last hundred pages of Ariadne, and would probably make it his Book of the Fortnight, if only the publisher could be persuaded to take advertising space in the paper. The author of The Squeezed Lemon agreed that advertising was at the bottom of it: had they heard how the Daily Flashlight had tried to blackmail Henry Quint into advertising with them? And how, on his refusal, they had said darkly, ‘Well, you know what will happen, Mr. Quint?’ And how no single Quint book had received so much as a review from the Flashlight ever since? And how Quint had advertised that fact in the Morning Star and sent up his net sales 50 per cent in consequence? Well, by some fantastic figure anyhow. But the author of Primrose Dalliance said that with the Book of the Moment crowd, what counted was Personal Pull—surely they remembered that Hepplewater had married Walton Strawberry’s latest wife’s sister. The author of Jocund Day agreed about the Pull, but thought that in this instance it was political, because there was some powerful anti-Fascist propaganda in Mock Turtle and it was well known that you could always get old Sneep Fortescue with a good smack at the Blackshirts.

From Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night (1935).

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Saving Us the Trouble of Reading the Books

‘Well, I wouldn’t have the muck in the house,’ said the Captain, firmly. ‘I caught Hilda with it, and I said, “Now you send that book straight back to the library.” I don’t interfere, but one must draw the line somewhere.’

‘How did you know what it was like?’ asked Wimsey, innocently.

‘Why James Douglas’s article in the Express was good enough for me,’ said Captain Bates. ‘The paragraphs he quoted were filthy—positively filthy.’

‘Well, it’s a good thing we’ve all read them,’ said Wimsey. ‘Forewarned is forearmed.’

‘We owe a great debt of gratitude to the Press,’ said the Dowager Duchess; ‘so kind of them to pick out all the plums for us and save us the trouble of reading the books, don’t you think, and such a joy for the poor dear people who can’t afford seven and sixpence, or even a library subscription.’

From Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison (1930).

Writing Exercises

My friend Jennifer is collecting writing exercises at wayward armadillo blog. If you’ve got one that works that you’d like to share, head on over to her blog and post it in the comments section. I anticipate that the compendium of exercises that she’s compiling will prove most useful.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Unlikely Reads

Over at Box of Books, Ella posted recently about the process of paring down her library in preparation for a move from California to Dubai. She’s only got room to take twenty-four books with her, and she’s not sure how readily available English-language books will be when she arrives at her destination. Contemplating her situation got me thinking back to past occasions when necessity propelled me toward some rather unlikely reading material.

I’m thinking in particular of the month that I spent in Paris the summer I turned seventeen. I know now that there’s no shortage of English-language bookstores in Paris. But at seventeen, on my first visit to a place where I didn’t speak the language—indeed, on my first visit to a big city—I didn’t have the wherewithal to find them. I settled for scouring the bookstalls along the Seine looking for something, anything, in English to read. In this way, I cobbled together a small library of just three books: Nicholas and Alexandra, Robert Massie’s popular account of the lives of Russia’s last csar and his family; Center Door Fancy, Joan Blondell’s roman à clef about her life in Hollywood; and last (and certainly least), the novelization of the movie Fame. I read very quickly and so read each of these books several times over the course of my four-week stay.

I didn’t walk the streets of Paris in the company of Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir or Colette or Albert Camus, nor of Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce or Gertrude Stein or Kay Boyle or Djuna Barnes. It wasn’t until a few years later that I developed a fascination with literary Paris in the 1920s. Instead my first impressions of Paris were absurdly intertwined with visions of the Romanovs and Rasputin, of Blondell’s vaudeville stars and Hollywood starlets, and, alas, of the precocious, talented kids from Fame.

On subsequent trips, I shopped at Shakespeare and Company and sipped drinks at Les Deux Magots with a proper appreciation for the history of the place. But that weird literary entourage of my seventeenth summer still inhabits at least a corner of my memories of Paris.

What are some of your most unlikely reads and what circumstances led you to them?

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Books, Books, and more Books

I had an unusual experience at the library today. I went in to pick up the stack of books that was awaiting me on the hold shelf. The woman in front of me in the check out line eyed up my selections, noted the four Dorothy Sayers novels (which Danielle inspired me to seek out) and also the Laura Lippman novel (the latest instalment in the Tess Monaghan series which I have been eagerly anticipating), and correctly surmised that I’m a mystery fan. So is she, and it so happens that the trunk of her car was full of paperback mysteries that she was about to drop off at the Goodwill. She said that she’d feel much better passing them directly on to a keen mystery reader than dropping them into the Goodwill donation box where they might well languish unread. I was persuaded to take ten books by an array of authors whose work I’d been meaning to try but hadn’t got round to yet. I’ve been known to claim that it’s more a matter of books finding me than of me finding books. This experience would seem to prove the point! Is it any wonder that my bookshelves are overflowing?