Russian Literature and the Survival of the Human Spirit: “Anna Karenina” to “Klotsvog”

Once upon a time, I read a lot of 19th-century Russian literature. I was enraptured by the Russian greats:  Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Chekhov, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Dostoevsky.  Always a keen reader, I was awed by an exceptional professor who taught a 19th-century Russian Literature in Translation class. I considered taking Russian, but I was studying three languages, two of them seriously, and I knew I had maxed out my limits.

And so I became a compulsive rereader of Anna Karenina. Dolly, Kitty, and Anna suffered terribly in love—and Anna did not survive it.  I knew all about the morass of love.  Well, I was 20:  I knew everything!

“Be sure to read the Maude translation,” a fellow Russian lit geek told me.

“I’ve got it.” I had, in fact, read David Magarshack’s translation in high school, but I loved my Norton edition with the Maude.

Education is a transformative experience. I still marvel over the fact that I, a penniless young woman whose working-class father once beat her up for going on a 25-mile Hike for Hunger, scrabbled my way through college. Years later, when he called to express surprise that I had graduated with honors (his wife had seen it in the paper), he ended the conversation with an insult I can hardly bear to remember.

The spirit of human survival is often a theme is Russian literature.  I rarely venture into Soviet fiction, but I recently read and loved Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, translated by Lisa C. Hayden.  I admired the measured, moderate tone of the Jewish narrator, Maya Klotsvog, who at first seems like an ideal friend:   indeed, everyone knows a Maya. But she exaggerates her achievements,  claiming she is a retired mathematics teacher, though she taught only a few classes before dropping out to raise her children.

Perhaps it is the denial that keeps her going. She has a degree and certainly has the ability to teach.  She says,

I was born in 1930 and—like my whole generation—saw too much, things that weren’t pretty.

Field of work: mathematics teacher. Retired, of course. But I don’t consider myself a former teacher. Like a lot of other professions, a teacher’s profession doesn’t exist in the past tense. Acknowledging that sustains me tremendously.

With much denial of the impact of anti-Semitism, the beautiful Maya, who attracts men and has multiple affairs and marriages,  claims she had a happy childhood but reveals that her father died during the Battle of Dnieper.  One of her greatest regrets:  in the haste of evacuation during the German invasion, Maya and her mother left behind dresses made of the special fabric her father brought home after the Polish campaign. She hopes that their Jewish friends who refused to evacuate wore the dresses, but she knows that most were killed. She insists the women in her family were happy during the evacuation:  they spent “the period of the Great Patriotic War in evacuation, in the vicinity of Atbasar Station in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.”

It is clear that Maya, who thinks herself so logical, needs desperately to feel.  Everything is not fine, though she claims it is.  Sex is her addiction.  Unlike Anna Karenina, she can remarry without becoming a pariah.  Maya is always in love with someone new, and always deceives herself that the latest lover is her soulmate.  

Her first husband, Fima, who lost his family in the holocaust, marries her even though he knows she is pregnant by a married professor. He is willing to raise the child.  Her second husband adopts her son, who certainly prefers him to critical Maya, and soon forgets Fima.  When Maya moves to Moscow to marry her latest lover she arranges for her son to live most of the time with her mother.  And yet she can’t stop meddling in his life, even from afar. 

As for the daughter of her third marriage, a fat little girl with artistic talent who shrilly denies being Jewish—she is called “a fat Jew” at school—tries the patience of Maya, who blames the girl for her psychological problems.  Maya embarks on another affair, her typical response to stress. 

 Khemlin slowly reveals Maya’s psychological secrets in brilliant, crystalline prose.  And somehow we are never impatient with Maya–we pity her instead.

Power Outage!

One horrifying result of today’s storm.

Power outages are inconvenient, even scary. My husband woke me up early to say there’d been a bad storm and we had a power outage.  

The alarm clock…” I said in my sleep. Sleep-talking is one of my gifts.  The alarm clock is battery-operated, hence unaffected, but we apparently conversed about it. 

I lay there thinking about power outages:  trying to read in inadequate light, standing in line for coffee (we have an electric stove), living without fans,  air conditioning, wifi, TV, or charger for tablets and computers.  

The house was too quiet.  The electric fans were not spinning.  I had that sticky feeling, as if we’d been camping out.  I called the power company and learned that twenty-thousand people were without power.

Power outages are slow, unless you have caffeine and reading lights.  One summer we endured three days without power. At night we ended up at IHOP or Denny’s.  It was that, or go to sleep at 9.

At 8 a.m., my priority was caffeine. I dumped water over teabags in a pitcher and made sun tea.  I sat in the Adirondack chair watching the water turn into tea while I read John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider, a dystopian novel that is all too prescient of many aspects of our computer-dependent, Big Brother-monitored society. 

It was just so hot, though…. I finally went indoors and tried reading by battery-operated lantern.  But there wasn’t enough light.  

This afternoon I was going out the door in search of air-conditioning when the lights came on.  Hurrah!  I happily turned on the fans, read my book, drank coffee, and allowed the prima elder-cat to watch an episode of Modern Family.  

We only endured eight and a half hours without power.  Why is it so uncomfortable?  If anybody can recommend a non-electric coffee-making device that doesn’t involve a propane camping stove, I will be forever grateful.

Hiroshima and Madness in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle”

  • I was not a science fiction geek in the late 1960s.  None of us long-haired wire-rim-bespectacled compulsive readers were. Then a friend’s older brother introduced us not only to Procul Harum but to Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle.  After a recent rereading of Cat’s Cradle, I had to wonder: is it science fiction at all? And was this friend’s brother, whom I barely remember, a member of our karass?   But you only know what a karass is if you’ve read Cat’s Cradle.

In Vonnegut’s comical post-modern novel,  the narrator, John, aka Jonah, is worried, with good reason, about the end of the world. He is comforted by the (fictitious) religion of  Bokanism, which teaches that human beings are divided into teams (the karass) to do God’s will. 

“If you find your life tangled up with somebody else’s life for no very logical reason,” writes Bokonon, “that person may be a member of your karass.”

The karass is a mysterious force.  When John was a younger man–“two wives ago, 250,000 cigarettes ago, 3,000 quarts of booze ago”–he planned to write a book called The End of the World.   He wanted to know what prominent Americans were doing on the day the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The three adult children of the late Nobel Prize-winning Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the inventors of the atom bomb, remember little about that day but paint a frightening portrait of their father as a scientific sociopath.  Hoenikker had no conscience nor concern about how science was used:  the day he died he created another lethal substance called Ice-nine (which killed him).  It freezes liquids and everyone who touches it.  Bizarrely, his children divided the chips of Ice-nine in mason jars and thermoses after they found him frozen dead in his wicker chair.  

Vonnegut effortlessly manipulates the many threads (or should I say strings?)  of this philosophical dystopian comedy. The chapters are short, the writing witty, the sentences have a snappy rhythm, and the narrative is broken up with letters, poems, and Bokononist quotes.   On the first page, John says he has converted to Bokanism but is resigned to not knowing all the members of his karass.

Be that as it may, I intend in this book to include as many members of my karass as possible, and I mean to examine all strong hints as to what on Earth we, collectively, have been up to….

About my karass, then.

It surely includes the three children of Dr. Felix Hoenikker, one of the so-called “Fathers” of the first atom bomb.  Dr. Hoenikker himself was no doubt a member of my karass, though he was dead before my sinookas, the tendrils of my life, began to tangle with those of his children.

The End of the World turns into a different book after a magazine editor sends John to  a little-known island in the Caribbean, St. Fernando, where Bokanism is practiced.  And, coincidentally, all three of the Hoenikker children are there: Frank, a hobby shop employee on the run from the mob, is now a general and the future president of St. Fernando; Newt, a midget who dropped out of Cornell to have an affair with a Russian spy midget, paints very dark paintings; and Cordelia, an exceptionally tall women who married  a former colleague of her father’s, is thrilled to get out of Indiana.  Unfortunately, they have  ice-9 with them.  

If you wonder if human beings are stupid enough to end the world with atom bombs or other lethal substances, you might as well stop worrying and start living.   Vonnegut believes they will.  

But, fortunately, he has a wry sense of humor.  The survivors, including John, are all Hoosiers (natives of Indiana, as was Vonnegut).    

Henry James’s “The Bostonians”

If you are a fan of Henry James, you probably peruse his elegant sentences in your study or office where husband, cats, dogs, in-laws, friends, and political canvassers are unlikely to interrupt you.  While reading The Bostonians, NEVER open the door to well-meaning Democratic presidential canvassers, because they’ll talk your ear off just as verbosely as James’s political enthusiasts do in The Bostonians

The Bostonians, published in 1886,  is a strange, intricate, often playful narrative about a tussle of love and politics between the sexes, set appropriately after the Civil War.  Though this novel is not his his subtlest, it is very enjoyable.

In this partly satiric novel, an emotional tug-of-war is fought between post-Civil War progressives and conservatives. Naturally, the well-educated New Englanders are the best-organized.  The Bostonian abolitionists have triumphed, and now they are fighting for women’s suffrage.

The Bostonians is also a twisted love story,  in which two suitors contend for the affections of Verena Tarrant, a young woman who is an up-and-coming lecturer for the Women’s Movement.  Olive Chancellor, a wealthy, neurotic spinster in Boston, becomes obsessed with Verena, to the point that she pays off Verena’s unsuitable parents so she and Verena can live together undisturbed.  She insists she is training Verena—but her sexual feelings are obvious to the reader.  Whether Verena returns them is unclear—it seems unlikely—but their friendship is not only close but characterized by hysteria and sexual jealousy.   At one point, Olive tries to procure a promise that Verena will never leave her for a man.  Realizing she has gone too far, Olive does has the sense to withdraw this request.

Olive’s rival is her cousin, Basil Ransom,  who lost his estate in Mississippi during the Civil War.  He is an unsuccessful lawyer in New York City and an arch-conservative writer whose right-wing essays have  not been published.  He believes women belong in the home, that only the most intelligent should be educated, and and that masculinity is undermined by the rise of the suffrage movement.  

Some critics read this novel as a satire of the women’s movement, and it is true that Olive is not James’s cup of tea, nor anyone else’s.  On the other hand, he is sympathetic to an aged abolitionist-turned-feminist, Miss Birdseye, who has given everything she has to various causes, and to Dr. Prance, who is so absorbed by her medical studies that she ignores all politics.  In her view, there are few differences between men and women.  

Verena is the character we all love.  She is charming, kind, talented, and very smart.  She does not want to hurt Olive, who has taught her so much; the two are genuinely close friends.  But Olive’s tantrums whenever a man approaches, especially Basil, with whom Verena falls in love, are unmanageable.  Verena is willing to sacrifice everything for Olive, or thinks she is.  Fortunately, Henry James will not be cruel to Verena–but he undercuts the traditional “happy ending.”  We reluctantly realize that neither the hysterical Olive nor the domineering Basil are likely to make Verena  happy.

The unfavorable portrait of  lesbians does seem to be common in 19th- and 20th-century literature.  In D. H. Lawrence’s The Fox, two women, Banford and March, struggle to run a farm on their own, but a fox keeps stealing their chickens.  When a soldier (another fox) shows up and begins to work for them,  March, the more “masculine” woman, is threatened.  (I haven’t read this in years, so I’m not quite sure if the women are lesbians or if it’s only latent.)  I can’t think of any other anti-lesbian novels at the moment, but I’m sure I’ve read some.

The Bostonians is beautifully-written, sometimes comical, other times frustrating and horrifying.  I can’t pretend I agree with James’s politics, but then what are they?  He’s not entirely on either political side in The Bostonians.  Whatever he believed, this is a classic.

A Call to Romance? Why I’d Rather Read Than Write

Last month, I came across an Avon Books  ad in a bookish publication.  It was a call for romance manuscripts.

From now until September 15, 2019, we are accepting manuscripts of all subgenres of Adult romance fiction – HEA (happily ever after) or HFN (happy for now) required! 

 I took this as a call to arms–the arms of Love, that is.  Of course romance is an old frenemy.  Surely I could scribble one of these between episodes of Poldark. I don’t read the genre, but I can research the hell out of anything.  

The problem:  I don’t enjoy modern romance novels.   I prefer the Gothic novels of the ’50s and ’60s whose covers portray women in miniskirts or negligees fleeing along cliffs from dark mansions.  Why not start with Mary Stewart, the master, I asked.  And so I reread her 1959 novel, My Brother Michael, which  I’d been meaning to do anyway, because, if I’m not mistaken, there is a playful allusion to it in Grant Ginder’s new novel, Honestly, I Meant Well (which I wrote about here).

I have a soft spot for Stewart’s heroine Camilla Haven, a Latin teacher on vacation in Greece. She has just broken up with her fiancé, and, worse, her friend Elizabeth, who was to travel with her, broke her leg right before their trip.  It is fair to say that Camilla is feeling low as she sits alone in a cafe in Athens. “Nothing ever happens to me,” she writes.

Then a stranger approaches her, mistaking her for someone called “Simon’s Girl.” This other woman had rented a car to Delphi and said  it wasmatter of life and death. Camilla decides to take the car: she had wanted an adventure, and now she’s found one.  And she thinks it’s her duty to find this Simon.  

The only Simon in Delphi turns out to be an Englishman who teaches Greek. (Now there’s a match made in heaven!)  But he did not order a car.  He has come to honor his brother Michael, who was murdered during the war.  Soon they are embroiled in a mystery involving betrayal, art, stolen treasure, and, in a way, the gods of Delphi.  

I have tragically realized that I can’t write like Mary Stewart, whose landscape descriptions  are breathtaking, but I have devised my plot.  I have borrowed the names and professions of Stewart’s Camilla and Simon for inspiration.  

Camilla, a Latin teacher who lives in Baltimore, has just won a Teacher of the Year Award.  She is partly exultant and partly ironic—but mostly thrilled. Her boyfriend Philip receives the news in silence and then announces he is moving out.  Will she spend the summer writing in her diary and watching Meg Ryan movies?

Fortunately, she is offered a free vacation on the gorgeous Maryland shore in exchange for running her friend Elizabeth’s used bookstore.   Camilla is has settled in, and is sitting in a cozy leather chair with a glass of wine and a copy of Horace when Simon, an unshaven Greek teacher who has backpacked from God knows where, bursts in.  It turns out Elizabeth had also asked him to take over the bookstore for a few weeks…and he had mixed up the dates with Camilla’s.

Am I actually writing this?  Well…I haven’t started.

But I am reading another novel by Mary Stewart.  She is very good!

The Lonely Scene of the Subjunctive: If Only We Could Read More!

If only we could read more!

Mind you, I read a lot, but I can’t read a book a day.  And yet I am hooked on  Jo Walton’s column at Tor about her monthly reading.  Often she reads 30 books in a month, and her musings are fascinating.   In July, she read “just 14 books.”

Actually, “just 14” made her human. Much as I love her writing, it is impossible to keep up with her reading. I had read “just 13  books” in July, which I thought a respectable number, since it included a seldom-read Latin oration and a big novel by Mrs. Humphry Ward.

More and more people these days write about how many books they read and how many pages an hour. These stats became popular, as far as I can tell, in the 21st century.   In Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a bibliomemoir about reading a book a day to cope with grief, Nina Sankovitch informs us that she could accomplish this feat because she reads 75 pages an hour.  Wow, that is a lot of pages!  And then while I read her reviews I kept  calculating how many pages she read per hour, how many hours a day…  And that was not not the point.

Book challenges online are often about numbers. At Book Riot, Courtney Rodgers recently announced her “30 Books in 30 Days Challenge” for September.  She writes,

This challenge started four years ago, when I was working two jobs that required a lot of time and physical presence, but not a lot of brain power. I wasn’t reading as much as I used to.  I wanted to read, but I was just tired and overwhelmed. So, being the stubborn sort of person that I am, I decided the best way to force myself back into reading as a habit and hobby was to read 30 books in a short amount of time.

Is Courtney a superhero?  When did she shower?   But I must interject that I will never, as she suggests, add picture books to a TBR stack so I can say I have read 30 books in a month.  That way madness lies!

Katie at Books and Things on Booktube recently posted a fascinating video, “How I Read As Much as I do.”  She reads during her  commute to her publishing job in London (one hour each way), reads books for work,  and listens to audiobooks while she walks, shops, or cleans.  Sometimes she and her boyfriend listen to audiobooks together.  (Awww…   I never listen to audiobooks, but I’m relieved that I can  keep up with Katie’s reading.)

Although I’m “a big reader,” as we used to say, I am astonished by the common reader’s obsession with numbers.   Some years ago, I read an interview or article in which Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post Book World, and Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda discussed their reading habits.  Both said they read 20 to 25 pages an hour. (But where is this article?  I can’t find it.) They read, they think, they take notes…and they pay attention.

We’re so used to being tracked now–steps, calories, book challenges, clicks on the internets–that we don’t even question whether the data is meaningful.

The internet brings people together, but it adds up to a lonely scene.

Recommended Reading: “We Are All Good People Here” by Susan Rebecca White

This weekend I fell into a book.  I enjoyed it so much I did not go out of the house.  It was so humid I didn’t miss anything anyway.  On Sunday my husband insisted I accompany him to a coffeehouse, where, alas, a careless barista served me a milk latte instead of a soy latte. (The lactose-intolerant among you will sympathize.)

But that barely slowed my reading down.  In bed, drinking a 7-up (I do think that’s medicinal!), I continued to pore over Susan Rebecca White’s superb novel, We Are All Good People Here.  And I would recommend it to fans of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks, Marge Piercy’s Vida, Alice Adams’s Superior Women, and Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document.

In this engrossing novel, two friends deal with the political and social changes from the 1960s to the ’90s.  The book begins in 1962 at a small Southern women’s college, where Daniella, a professor’s daughter from Washington, D.C., falls under the spell of her charming roommate,  Eve, a wealthy girl from Atlanta whose mother and grandmother both attended Belmont College.  Daniella envies Eve’s ten cashmere twin sets (she only has three) while Eve is radicalized by Daniella’s political views.  Raised primarily by her family’s black maid, Eve begins to question the long hours and low salary of Miss Eugenia, the black maid in their dormitory, who is on call day and night except Sunday.  After Eve writes an indignant letter to the Dean about the conditions, Miss Eugenia is fired.

Daniella herself experiences discrimination  when she is blackballed by two sororities because she is half-Jewish.  It is the norm at Belmont College to”pledge” to a sorority:  she is one of two women in her dorm who are rejected.  Eve is almost more indignant than Daniella:  the girls transfer to Barnard their sophomore year.

Both are active in ’60s politics, and Eve is particularly interested in civil rights. She wants to spend a summer in Mississippi with CORE (a civil rights group) urging black people to register to vote.  The first rift in the women’s friendship occurs when CORE accepts Daniella but rejects Eve.  Eve begs her to stay, since the whole thing was Eve’s idea, but Daniella feels she must go, and records her experience powerfully in letters home.

Paradoxically, Eve becomes the more radical of the two friends, and during protests against the Vietnam War gets involved with an extreme leftist group, under the influence of her sexist, violent boyfriend Warren. She knows three of the Weathermen who blew themselves up while making a bomb intended to be detonated elsewhere.  Eventually, Eve and Warren move to Atlanta, living under false names because they are wanted on federal charges.

Nobody can keep up this level of political intensity forever.  Daniella becomes a successful lawyer in Atlanta, and Eve reinvents herself as a Republican housewife.  Their daughters are ironically raised by the maid Ada who brought up Eve–and Daniella drops off her own daughter at Eve’s house for day care.  Of course, neither daughter knows much about their mothers’ pasts.  And that becomes a problem.

White’s narrative races along, hitting the ground running, and the quality of the writing is high, after a slightly awkward beginning .  Hang on, because White can really write.  This is one of my favorite books of the year, and since it straddles the line between literary fiction and women’s fiction,  I hope White will get double the audience.