Reflections on Reviewing, Reading and Turgenev

Around fourteen years ago, I began writing in this space about what I’ve come to think of as my experience of reading. The books written about here reflect less of a personal canon than those that offered sufficient satisfaction that I read the book from cover to cover. I make this statement without being certain of who  I am, the “I” that is writing, or what I mean by satisfaction. Both are shortcuts offered to me by my language,

Writing reviews interests me because however much I attempt to avoid the personal, every review becomes, however impersonal, a reflection on what matters to the reviewer. Writing what I am calling a review, while not seeing myself as a reviewer, often helps me discover something of what matters to me. I don’t particularly like to read literary criticism, but some critics I do read with interest, for instance: Steve Mitchelmore, Merve Emre, Ryan Ruby and Dustin Illingworth. I read their reviews less for their subject matter, as intriguing as it always is,  and more for what they lay bare about themselves, however masked, in their concerns for the internal worlds of fiction. What their writing has in common with the books in which I find what I am calling satisfaction is voice. To offer a further example, one of my favourite blogs about books, an eudaemonist – the single-line reviews add up, however wrong my impression, to a particular barometer reading of the writer’s internal weather that compels me to keep reading.

Believe it or not, when I decided to use a window opened up by early morning insomnia, it was to offer a few thoughts on Ivan Turgenev’s Father and Sons and why for a while at least I intend to return to my practice of reading books with ten years or more of age, For every Septology, there are at least fifty contemporary novels I  have not read cover to cover and rather abandoned to the pile to go to the local bookshop. I feel like reading against the grain and those books that have weathered time interest me.

The satisfaction of Fathers and Sons (I read Richard Freeborn’s Oxford translation, aware that all later translators revert to Fathers and Children), is how Turgenev uses his characters to reflect on the supposed wisdom that comes with age. Maturity is more frequently a learned caution not to repeat past mistakes that have opened one up to revelation and embarrassment. The freshness of youth expressed in the younger members of Turgenev’s cast of characters comes from their willingness to expose their vulnerabilities. Staying young, if such a state is desired, is less a question of vitamins than a continual opening up to opportunities to be vulnerable.

Invoking the Sanity Clause

Fiorello: Hey, wait, wait. What does this say here, this thing here?
Driftwood: Oh, that? Oh, that’s the usual clause that’s in every contract. That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.
Fiorello: Well, I don’t know…
Driftwood: It’s all right. That’s, that’s in every contract. That’s, that’s what they call a sanity clause.
Fiorello: Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha! You can’t fool me. There ain’t no Sanity Clause!

The first film that the Marx Brothers made for MGM, A Night at the Opera is on my list of top-5 films. The scene above never fails to brighten my mood.

I am invoking the Sanity Clause on my participation in the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. Thirteen books down, I am beyond Passionate. With the last novella, I reached my delight ceiling and this challenge began to feel less like fun and more like hard slog. For the rest of the month I’ll be cheerleading Frances in her continued attempt to read all 42 novellas in the series.

The thirteen books I read for the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge were:

  1. Benito Cereno by Herman Melville
  2. First Love by Ivan Turgenev
  3. The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg by Mark Twain
  4. The Duel by Joseph Conrad
  5. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
  6. My Life by Chekhov
  7. Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia by Samuel Johnson
  8. Stempenyu: A Jewish Romance by Sholem Aleichem
  9. The Devil by Tolstoy
  10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  11. The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy
  12. The Nice Old Man and the Pretty Girl by Italo Svevo
  13. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
Two of the thirteen I disliked, and two I thought first-rate. The others brought pleasure. There are some brilliant stories in the remaining twenty-nine novellas, which I look forward to reading at a more leisurely pace. For now, having digested thirteen new stories and many more memorable characters, I have binged on fiction. It is time for a little poetry, some diaries perhaps and non-fiction.

First Love by Ivan Turgenev

For my second of the Art of the Novella series, my daughter selects Turgenev’s First Love. This is good, I am on surer ground with Turgenev than Melville. I consider the short stories in Sketches from a Hunter’s Album as among the finest and Kasyan from the Beautiful Lands the most perfect of that collection.

In First Love Turgenev writes with an artful simplicity, despite the slightly fusty Constance Garnett translation. Sixteen year old Vladimir falls hopelessly in love with twenty-one  year Zinaida, daughter of a diminished aristocratic family. With the self-possession of a twenty-one year old beauty, Zinaida, flirts effortlessly with Vladimir, playing him off against a contingent of fervent admirers. Suddenly her gaiety turns to wretchedness – as Vladimir (and the reader) decipher who has captured Zinaida’s love, Turgenev misdirects the reader and leads his story to a shocking ending. Full appreciation of the viciousness of the penultimate chapter, as so often with stories of this period, requires attentive reading. A few words conceal a lot of detail.

It is a weaker tale than those in Sketches, though just rescued from sentimentality by those last two chapters. I’ve never been able to decide whether I prefer Turgenev or Dostoyevsky, on this reading my vote is tipping in favour of the latter.

[Read as part of Frances’s and Melville House’s The Art of the Novella Reading Challenge.]

Dubliners by James Joyce

There are a few artists capable of consistently constructing powerful short stories: Chekhov, Turgenev, Hemingway; contemporaries include Julian Barnes and Julie Orringer.

My Joycean summer enables me to add another to my list, though in completing Dubliners, I have completed Joyce’s short story collection. The stories in Dubliners stand shoulder to shoulder with Chekhov’s oeuvre. Is there a weak story in the fifteen that make up Dubliners? After the Race perhaps, but it may open up on future readings. My favourite three, this time around, in ascending order would have to be: Araby, The Sisters and The Dead. There is sufficient subtlety and depth in the stories to repay many readings.

Twenty years ago I was fortunate to spend part of my education in Dublin. At that time, the city and, in many ways, the people that Joyce portrayed in Dubliners were recognisable. Given Joyce’s apparent manifesto in Dubliners, to portray the city in all it’s iniquity in order to “lead to the spiritual liberation of the city”, it is arguable whether he would feel sufficient progress has yet been made. But perhaps that edginess is what is required to make great cities.