Posts Tagged ‘Leo Tolstoy’

Are all happy marriages alike? Two poems that say they aren’t.

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016
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He is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong!

All happy marriages are alike, but each unhappy marriage is unhappy in its own way. That widely cited passage is from Leo Tolstoy. No, no! Wait! Tolstoy never said any such thing. He said all happy families are alike, et cetera. Never mind. The misquote has been cited so often that it has acquired a truth and authority of its own, separated from its putative author.

Dana Gioia doesn’t agree with it, in any case. And he says so in his poem, “Marriage of Many Years,” the final offering in his brand new collection, 99 Poems: New and Selected. (We wrote about it a few days ago here.) I love this one, for his wife Mary Gioia (who thoroughly deserves it). Here it is:

Most of what happens happens beyond words.
The lexicon of lip and fingertip
defies translation into common speech.
I recognize the musk of your dark hair.
It always thrills me, though I can’t describe it.
My finger on your thigh does not touch skin –
it touches your skin warming to my touch.
You are a language I have learned by heart.

This intimate patois will vanish with us,
its only native speakers. Does it matter?
Our tribal chants, our dances round the fire
performed the sorcery we most required.
They bound us in a spell time could not break.
Let the young vaunt their ecstasy. We keep
our tribe of two in sovereign secrecy.
What must be lost was never lost on us.

99PoemsHere’s another poem for another long and happy marriage – Richard Wilbur‘s “For C.,” for his wife Charlotte, who died a few years ago. He compares their long union to the brief encounters where “bright Perseids flash and crumble”:

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart …

Well, you can read the whole thing here.
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(By the way, poet and historian Robert Conquest told me that Dick Wilbur is his favorite American living poet. What excellent taste, as always!)

Robert Conquest remembers Solzhenitsyn: “How should one judge him?”

Saturday, May 21st, 2016
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Conquest at work in 2010 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Next month, I’ll be giving a talk about Robert Conquest – the legendary historian of Russia’s Stalinist period, and also a very fine poet. The occasion will be the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia. Tonight, I’m working and thinking about Bob, who died last year at 98. While checking dates on the internet, I found this article from him about his collaboration with the larger-than-life Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

You can read it in its entirety in the Wall Street Journal here. Or settle for a couple excerpts below:

solzhenitsyn4

He’s working too, at Hoover Institution Archives.

Those of us who had long been concerned to expose and resist Stalinism, in the West as in the USSR, learned much from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1974, soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union – the result of … The Gulag Archipelago, being published in Paris. He was personally pleasant; I have a photograph of the two of us, he holding a Russian edition of my book, The Great Terror, with evident approbation. He asked if I would translate a “little” poem of his. Of course I agreed.

The little poem, Prussian Nights, turned out to be 2,000 lines! Thankfully, he and his circle helped. It was an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times – something worth reading, and rereading, for its stunning historical background.

Solzhenitsyn was one of the most striking public figures of our time. How should one judge him? As a writer, up there with Pasternak? As a moralist, up there with Czeslaw Milosz? But he should also be judged as one who might have won two Nobel prizes – not just for Literature, but also for Peace.

In his public capacity, he felt bound to stand forward as the conscience of his people. He said, in a July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel, “My views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against it.” Yet above all, he saw himself as a writer – a Russian writer.
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For most of us, Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and ChekhovTolstoy is in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane.
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L.N.Tolstoy

“Class of his own.”

Some giants of Russian literature appear more preachy than is common in the West, a trait that brings us to what many see as weaknesses in the Russian tradition. First is the feeling, without basis, that one is somehow being cheated – as in Gogol; second is a tendency to exaggerate or invent. Yet along with these weaknesses there is also painful honesty.

I did not sense the weaknesses when I met him. He was religious and Russian, but without exhibition – though it became clear he embodied Fyodor Tyutchev‘s famous dictum that “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick – no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

He remained staunchly anticommunist, noting in the July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel that the October Revolution “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” He also hoped that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.”

Incidentally, I would never call Milosz “a moralist” – he certainly would not have considered himself as such, and was far too aware of his fallibility. Nevertheless, read the whole thing here.

Leo Tolstoy: The Movie

Friday, February 5th, 2016
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tolstoyWe are still recovering from the Werner Herzog‘s visit to Stanford, and will have more to say on this later. My mode of recovery will be to go to the home of friends and watch End of the Tour again, a film that was greatly overlooked in this year’s round of film awards, despite Jason Segels top-notch performance.

What can I offer my readers? How about this short film clip of Leo Tolstoy, taken during his last days, before his death in 1910? At the age of 82, he made the unusual decision to leave his wife. Not content with traveling 26 hours to his sister Marya’s house in Sharmardino, where he had planned to retire to a small hut for his remaining days, he pushed on to the Caucasus, where he died at a train station at Astapovo.

Elif Batuman wrote about this curious demise over at Harper’s here. The topic came about during her Stanford years:

Once, when I was a graduate student, a paper of mine was accepted at the conference. At the time, my department awarded two kinds of travel grants: $1,000 for presenting a paper at an international conference or $2,500 for international field research. My needs clearly fell into the first category, but with an extra $1,500 on the line, I decided to have a go at writing a field-research proposal. Surely there was some mystery that could only be solved at Tolstoy’s house?

I rode my bicycle through blinding summer sunshine to the library and spent several hours shut up in my refrigerated, fluorescent-lit carrel, with a copy of Henri Troyat’s 700-page biography Tolstoy. I read with particular interest the final chapters, “Last Will and Testament” and “Flight.” Then I checked out a treatise on poisonous plants and skimmed through it outside at the coffee stand. Finally, I went back inside and plugged in my laptop.

“Tolstoy died in November 1910 at the provincial train station of Astapovo, under what can only be described as strange circumstances,” I typed. “But the strangeness of these circumstances was immediately assimilated into the broader context of Tolstoy’s life and work. After all, had anyone really expected the author of The Death of Ivan Ilyich to drop dead quietly, in some dark corner? And so a death was taken for granted that in fact merited closer examination.”

Read the rest here.

Film clip from the 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark,

The Great Kvetch, or, why kids are turned off by literature

Wednesday, July 8th, 2015
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“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” Read Anna Karenina for answer.

We’ve had some tremendous defenses of literature in the Book Haven pages over the years: Susan Sontag, in an interview with James Marcus, said (here): “Reading should be an education of the heart … Literature is what keeps us from shriveling into something completely superficial. … It keeps you–well, I don’t want to say honest, but something that’s almost the equivalent. It reminds you of standards: standards of elegance, of feeling, of seriousness, of sarcasm, or whatever. It reminds you that there is more than you, better than you.”

morson

There are better photos of him online. Really.

Joseph Brodsky went even further in his Nobel lecture (here), famously saying, “There is no doubt in my mind that, had we been choosing our leaders on the basis of their reading experience and not their political programs, there would be much less grief on earth. It seems to me that a potential master of our fates should be asked, first of all, not about how he imagines the course of his foreign policy, but about his attitude toward Stendhal, Dickens, Dostoevsky. … As a form of moral insurance, at least, literature is much more dependable than a system of beliefs or a philosophical doctrine.”

Lots of selling. Buying? Not so much. I haven’t read that much about why kids don’t read, why lit classes are dwindling. By gum, this is the best thing I’ve read on the topic. Gary Saul Morson writing in Commentary calls the problem the “Great Kvetch” among university professors. Slavist Morson is something of an expert on the topic: he teaches the largest class at Northwestern University – on Russian lit, of all things – for 500 kids. Nor does he teach the easy stuff: Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are on the syllabus, and he devotes another course entirely to War and Peace, attended by 300.

Here are three reasons he gives. Reason #1 is the Wikipedia Delusion. Excerpt:

“I once delivered a paper in Norway on Anna Karenina, and a prominent scholar replied: ‘All my career I have been telling students not to do what you have done, that is, treat characters as real people with real problems and real human psychology. Characters in a novel are nothing more than words on a page. It is primitive to treat fictional people as real, as primitive as the spectator who rushed on stage to save Jesus from crucifixion.’ Here is the crux of it: Characters in a novel are neither words on a page nor real people. Characters in a novel are possible people. When we think of their ethical dilemmas, we do not need to imagine that such people actually exist, only that such people and such dilemmas could exist.”

downton2

The heartburn wasn’t just his.

Reason #2, or … why I hated Downton Abbey. Or, “Why don’t the women in Sense and Sensibility just go out and get jobs?” Excerpt:

“In this approach, the more that authors and characters shared our beliefs, the more enlightened they were. This is simply a form of ahistorical flattery; it makes us the wisest people who ever lived, much more advanced than that Shakespeare guy. Of course, numerous critical schools that judge literary works are more sophisticated than that class on Huckleberry Finn, but they all still presume the correctness of their own views and then measure others against them. That stance makes it impossible to do anything but verify what one already believes. Why not instead imagine what valid criticisms these authors would advance if they could see us?”

Reason #3, and here’s Exhibit One: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, in which the editors “paraphrase a key tenet of the dominant movement called ‘cultural studies,’ which has set the critical agenda”:

“Literary texts, like other artworks, are neither more nor less important than any other cultural artifact or practice. Keeping the emphasis on how cultural meanings are produced, circulated, and consumed, the investigator will focus on art or literature insofar as such works connect with broader social factors, not because they possess some intrinsic interest or special aesthetic values.”

austen

Why don’t they all just get jobs?

I don’t know about you, but they deserve jail time for making “artwork” plural. Morson politely overlooks that, and summarizes the argument this way: “If elements of popular entertainment illustrate social forces better than Pope or Proust do, then they should (and sometimes do) constitute the curriculum. The language of ‘production, circulation, and consumption’ is designed to remind us that art is an industrial product like any other and supports the rule of capital no less, and perhaps more insidiously, than the futures market.”

In short, “When you read a great novel, you put yourself in the place of the hero or heroine, feel her difficulties from within, regret her bad choices. Momentarily, they become your bad choices. You wince, you suffer, you have to put the book down for a while. When Anna Karenina does the wrong thing, you may see what is wrong and yet recognize that you might well have made the same mistake. And so, page by page, you constantly verify the old maxim: There but for the grace of God go I. No set of doctrines is as important for ethical behavior as that direct sensation of being in the other person’s place. … Empathy is not all of morality, but it is where it begins. … It is really quite remarkable what happens when reading a great novel: By identifying with a character, you learn from within what it feels like to be someone else.” Sounds like a recommendation for Tolstoy‘s Resurrection to me.

judelaw

Can’t wait.

Why is all it important? If you aren’t sold so far, try this:

“The more our culture presumes its own perspective, the more our academic disciplines presume their own rectitude, and the more professors restrict students to their own way of looking at things, the less students will be able to escape from habitual, self-centered, self-reinforcing judgments. We grow wiser, and we understand ourselves better, if we can put ourselves in the position of those who think differently.

Democracy depends on having a strong sense of the value of diverse opinions. If one imagines (as the Soviets did) that one already has the final truth, and that everyone who disagrees is mad, immoral, or stupid, then why allow opposing opinions to be expressed or permit another party to exist at all? The Soviets insisted they had complete freedom of speech, they just did not allow people to lie.”

Read the whole thing here. He’s currently working on a study of The Brothers Karamazov. Can’t wait.

Vasily Grossman recalls a bleak Christmas in wartime Russia

Saturday, December 13th, 2014
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nyrbSara Kramer of the NYRB Classics dropped me a line yesterday to let me know that my submission for “A Different Stripe” had worked its way to the top of the “Coffee and Classics” stack (that must be some backlog; it’s been five months); see it online here. (And send your own submissions to this address.) The book I featured is Vassily Grossman‘s Life and Fate. Helen Pinkerton sent us a mini-review here, calling it “possibly the greatest novel I have ever read”. The wartime book was judged so dangerous in the Soviet Union that not only the manuscript but the ribbons on which it had been typed were confiscated by the the state. Many readers are coming to share Helen’s opinion about its greatness. Author Martin Amis, for example, said that “Vasily Grossman is the Tolstoy of the U.S.S.R.”

Meanwhile, the submission gave Sara a chance to reread the bleak Christmas scenes from the book:

The soldiers … dragged another crate up to the stove, prised open the lid with their bayonets and began taking out tiny Christmas trees wrapped in cellophane. Each tree, only a few inches long, was decorated with gold tinsel, beads and tiny fruit-drops.

The general watched as the soldiers unwrapped the cellophane, then beckoned the lieutenant towards him and mumbled a few words in his ear. The lieutenant announced in a loud voice:

“The lieutenant-general would like you to know that this Christmas present from Germany was flown in by a pilot who was mortally wounded over Stalingrad itself. The plane landed in Pitomnik and he was found dead in the cabin.”

—Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate, translated by Robert Chandler

The last days of Tolstoy – a defense brief, a video, and a murder mystery

Sunday, September 9th, 2012
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The family circle at Yasnaya Polyana, about 1905, before the nutters took over.

We’re rather on a Leo Tolstoy kick over here, aren’t we? But how can we help ourselves? We just found these two film clips of the author’s last days.  Lots of snow and horses, as you’d expect – then Tolstoy in death, laid out on a bed with flowers, and the funeral procession, with what looks like thousands of peasants.

Sophia and daughter Alexandra in a portrait by Nikolai Gay

The first clip is taken from 1969 BBC series Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark, and the longer, Russian clip is second (it includes earlier footage from 1908).  The 82-year-old writer died at the out-of-the-way rural train station in Astapova, weakened by his sudden decision to renounce everything and hit the road.  According to Sir Kenneth Clark in the video, “He left his wife, his comfortable estate and his wealth and traveled 26 hours to Sharmardino, where Tolstoy’s sister Marya lived, and where he planned to live the remainder of his life in a small, rented hut.”  (Thanks, Open Culture, for bringing the clip to our attention.)

Comfortable?  We think not.

Of particular note is the first clip’s comments on Tolstoy’s “demented” wife Sophia.  She’s taken a lot of bad press over the years, but she finally has a champion:  Alexandra Popoff, author of 2010’s Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, writes on her Sophia Tolstoy website: “She was central to his creativity and it is impossible to imagine his life and works without her.”  According to the biographer:

Sophia was judged by her final year with Tolstoy and by people hostile to her — the great man’s disciples, particularly Vladimir Chertkov, a vain man who wanted to establish himself as the person closest to Tolstoy. He led a smear campaign against Sophia and described Tolstoy’s marriage as martyrdom.

To understand why there are still many misconceptions about Sophia and her role we need to know that for most of the twentieth century it was impossible to publish essential documents in her favor. …

The character of this remarkable woman was unlike the portrayals. She handled Tolstoy’s publishing affairs and their family’s business affairs, while also raising a large family. I was impressed with her capacity for hard work: a mother of 13, who herself nursed and educated their children, she was also a successful publisher, translator, and photographer. A lot of her labor went into Tolstoy’s novels, which she copied and produced. She also worked alongside Tolstoy during the famine relief.

The comment rather puts the lie to this one, by James Meek in a Guardian article giving Anna Karenina another reading: “I’m not sure Tolstoy ever worked out how he actually felt about love and desire, or how he should feel about it. He was torn between compassion and moral rigour, between lust and self-denial, between loving his wife and being bored by her. His uncertainty is reflected in the dual portrayal of his wife in Anna Karenina – as the virtuous, somewhat frumpy Dolly, worn out by childbearing, like the woman his wife was when he was writing the book, and as the feisty, pretty teenager Kitty, like the woman his wife was when he married her. They must have seemed to contradict each other, yet each was true to her time; and Tolstoy, for all that he was a master of time, was only a slave to truth.”

Surely if he were a slave to truth he would have noted that frumpy older wives hadn’t necessarily bargained for paunchiness, baldness, flatulence, snoring, and flourishing mid-life nose hair.

Meanwhile, way back in 2009, Elif Batuman wrote a riveting piece for Harper’s about the murder of Leo Tolstoy:

A literary Sherlock

As is often the case, Tolstoy’s enemies were no more alarming than his so-called friends, for instance, the pilgrims who swarmed Yasnaya Polyana: a shifting mass of philosophers, drifters, and desperados, collectively referred to by the domestic staff as “the Dark Ones.” These volatile characters included a morphine addict who had written a mathematical proof of Christianity; a barefoot Swedish septuagenarian who preached sartorial “simplicity” and who eventually had to be driven away “because he was beginning to be indecent”; and a blind Old Believer who pursued the sound of Tolstoy’s footsteps, shouting, “Liar! Hypocrite!”

Meanwhile, within the family circle, Tolstoy’s will was the subject of bitter contention…

“You are certainly my most entertaining student,” said my adviser when I told her my theory. “Tolstoy— murdered! Ha! Ha! Ha! The man was eighty-two years old, with a history of stroke!”

“That’s exactly what would make it the perfect crime,” I explained patiently.

Read the rest here. It’s marvelous, of course.

 

Tom Stoppard: “What Tolstoy is on about is that carnal love is not a good idea.”

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012
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Do not, repeat, do not try this at home...

The incomparable patron saint of bloggers, Dave Lull, alerted me to a Guardian interview with one of Britain’s foremost playwrights, Tom Stoppard, who created the screenplay for the latest film version of Anna Karenina, which we wrote about yesterday.

I don’t think Tom Stoppard quite gets it.  “What Tolstoy is on about is that carnal love is not a good idea,” he says, although Tolstoy seemed to have a pretty good idea what it was about in Anna Karenina and War and Peace (before marrying the vivacious Natasha off to the rather inept Pierre, with whom she’s rather happy by the end).  Stoppard seems to miss the point that almost all societies except our own regarded unregulated passion as a kind of madness, and a destructive force in society.  After all, Anna’s young son is left motherless at the end of the novel, and a good many other lives are disfigured.  Tolstoy might have argued that there is no such thing as a personal life, and personal choice.  That’s why he has the Levin chapters.

There’s the additional problem that the Levin chapters of the novel contain many long discussions about local government, and estate management. “It’s as though,” Stoppard jokes, “Tolstoy took the big essay at the end of War and Peace and said to himself, ‘I’d better spread this through the whole story next time.'”

But Levin (modelled on Tolstoy himself) is important. The parallel, shy relationship between Levin and Kitty (superbly played by Domhnall Gleeson and Alicia Vikander) is used by Tolstoy to counterpoint Anna’s affair. “For a while,” Stoppard continues, “I thought we should ignore everything and just go hell for leather, and into, and through, and out of, this relentless love affair. I was going to make it like a very fast modern movie, which was all about being in lust.” In the end, he says, “wiser counsels prevailed, including my own”.

Apparently, the proscenium arch, stage device the film uses was not Stoppard’s idea at all, but rather director Joe Wright‘s, which comes rather as a relief.

“He called me up, and said, ‘Can I see you urgently?’ He came round with a big file and exhibited his idea – essentially that the Moscow and St Petersburg scenes should take place in a 19th-century theatre – on my kitchen table.”

Was this to do with budget problems? Stoppard shakes his head. “Joe needed a concept to get excited about doing the novel as a movie. I think he talked to Keira about it – Pride and Prejudice had worked out really well for them – and this was what he came up with.”

Once again the proscenium arch is hot news.  It sounds a lot like Ingmar Bergman‘s Magic Flute of 1975.  It was hot news way back then, too, and made for a charming production of Mozart.  Since we are speaking of happy marriages … Levin’s, anyway … I include a clip below of the sweet and magical reunion of Papageno and Papagena at the end of the opera. Hard to top that one for marital bliss.  Meanwhile … Jude Law. I’m now convinced he’d be a dynamite Alyosha (moving from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky). I don’t think his Karenin is “pinched and prim” at all (according to Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian review), given the total destruction of his life Karenin is facing – see what you think in the clip below, which includes a typically Tolstovian lecture on fidelity and love, although I don’t see why cattle have to be insulted.

“Banana Karenina” (a.k.a. Elif Batuman) weighs in on new Tolstoy film

Tuesday, September 4th, 2012
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Elif's alter ego

The Telegraph seems to be going all-out for the new film of Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina, which premiered in London today. David Gritten‘s article on the film yesterday linked to a range of video clips and earlier articles.

Here’s Gritten’s verdict:

“Whatever faults Tom Stoppard may possess as a screenwriter and Joe Wright as a director, timidity cannot be counted among them. Their collaboration in bringing Tolstoy’s imposing Anna Karenina to the big screen is one of real audacity: even on the rare occasions it falters, you have to applaud the ambition.

“Between them, Wright and Stoppard have filleted and condensed this doorstep of a novel into two hours of screen time, fashioning it into a swirling, swoony, achingly romantic tragedy. Stoppard’s witty conceit is to present the story of doomed heroine Anna literally as a piece of theatre, played out beneath a proscenium arch with its own backstage, curtain and audience. But magically and playfully, Wright’s cameras open up the confines of the stage to expansive, exterior vistas. It’s dazzling to watch.”

Keira Knightley imitating Banana Karenina

A few days ago we suggested Jude Law for Alyosha Karamazov.  Apparently, he’s more of a Tolstoy man; according to Gritten:  “Jude Law pleasingly reins himself in as her husband Karenin – a dull, virtuous public man.”

After reading it, I contacted Twitter’s “Banana Karenina,” a.k.a. Elif Batuman, author of The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, who is currently a writer-in-residence in Istanbul, for her views.  She got back to us this morning.

Says the Top Banana: “I think Jude Law as Karenin is casting genius! I’m curious if they chose him for his ears, and also if they did anything special to make them stick out more. I kept trying to freeze the trailer to get a better look, but the ears always got away! Maybe I need a new video card.”

“I also appreciate how, according to the Telegraph review, Wright and Stoppard ‘filleted and condensed this doorstep of a novel into two hours of screen time.’ I think filleting a doorstep must have been an artistically exhilarating project. I hope very much that this phrase will soon be adopted into wider circulation.”

Read all about the doorstep here.

Elif Batuman: “Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.”

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012
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"Why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way."

I somehow missed the kerfuffle about Mike Daisey’s “monologue” about the terrible working conditions in Apple’s Chinese factories, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.”  Another chapter in the long history of fabricated memories, which became the subject of a painful retraction last month.

Over at The Rumpus, author Elif Batuman had a very different take on the matter.

Is the truth more compelling than any attempt to fictionalize it?  “That’s what I always tell myself when I’m being fact-checked, and some detail I was attached to turns out not to be true,” she told interviewer Sean Carman.  “I’m initially disappointed, and maybe discouraged that now there’s more work for me to do, but I know that 99.9% of the time there’s actually something there, in the truth, that’s more interesting than whatever I or anyone else can make up.

“When you invent something, you’re drawing on reservoirs of knowledge that you already have. It’s only when you’re faithful to the truth that something can come to you from the outside.  … something maybe less neat but richer and stranger.”

In general, she’s more interested in the audience for fibs, rather than the fibbers themselves, and  “figuring out why and how anyone believed it – why they needed to believe it”:

He did his homework. (Russia's first color portrait, 1908)

They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want.  The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth. But I mean, why did people ever like novels to begin with? Because they used to love lies? No way.

When you’re reading a novel, I think the reason you care about how any given plot turns out is that you take it as a data point in the big story of how the world works. Does such-and-such a kind of guy get the girl in the end? Does adultery ever bring happiness? How do winners become winners?

Just because a book is labeled as a novel, you don’t assume it happened in La La land and has nothing to do with reality. It just means that the novelist has processed, consolidated, or edited his experiences and observations, to tell a story. Which obviously happens in a memoir, too. It’s a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. That’s why I find it weird when you walk into a bookstore the most privileged distinction is between fiction and nonfiction.

When Tolstoy wrote War and Peace, he did a ton of historical research about Napoleon – he spent ages in archives, reading letters and diaries, many of them written by his wife’s relatives. In general, in his career, he borrowed a lot of plot details from the lives of his in-laws. I bet if Tolstoy was writing now in America, there would be a lot of pressure on him to do War and Peace as a nonfiction book – like, tracing the domestic and personal life of his wife’s grandmother through journals and letters, interwoven with his own philosophical musings about the Napoleonic wars. But Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.

Final excerpt:

We hear a lot these days about two opposing tendencies in literature. On the one hand, there’s a tendency away from the novel, toward nonfiction. On the other hand, there’s a tendency away from objective journalism, toward memoiristic or essayistic nonfiction. They’re opposing tendencies, but they both reflect an anxiety about how much we can trust facts. We expect facts to give us objective truth, but objective truth keeps eluding us. We move away from the novel, because the novel isn’t factual; but in our nonfiction writing, we feel constantly compelled to cast doubt on our access to objective facts. We hire teams of fact-checkers to track them down. Fact-checkers do a lot of great work, but they can’t solve the nature of reality for us.

Read the whole thing here.

 

Literary resolutions for 2012 … and a review of 2011, a “Festival of Sleaze”

Sunday, January 1st, 2012
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We all feel a little burned out after New Year’s celebrations, and I’m no exception. So here are some notable literary resolutions to fortify and inspire you for the coming year:

No commas, please

Ben Greenman, author of the short story collection What He’s Poised to Do: “I want to reread all the Emily Dickinson poems, in order, at a slow enough rate that I understand them but a fast enough rate to keep it exciting. It’s not as easy at it sounds. And I also plan to think about why, in a time of reduced attention spans, short stories aren’t getting more traction.”

Elissa Schappell, author of the short story collection Blueprints for Building Better Girls: “It’s the Russians. It’s always the Russians. Oh yes, I’ll read the Russians in the summer months. Two summers ago, I developed such a bad case of Tolstoy‘s elbow from hauling around War and Peace I could barely flip through a magazine. The summer before Crime and Punishment doubled as a drinks tray at a lawn party, and when I got spooked staying alone at a friend’s summer house, I kept it by the door as a weapon. This year, however I’m more hopeful–I’m starting, more appropriately, in winter. Beginning tomorrow I’m going to make Anna Karenina my new BFF.”

The Russians are coming

James Hannaham, author of the novel God Says No:  “This year I want to figure out why, when an author says the phrase ‘working on a story collection,’ as in ‘I’m working on a story collection,’ everyone in publishing reacts as if they have instead heard the phrase ‘molesting several children.’ And I will continue to pray for the demise of e-books, or at least the demise of the stupid fear that they will replace printed books.”

Richard Lange, author of the 2013 novel Gather Darkness (Mulholland):  “I’m going to reread Moby Dick, Crime & Punishment, and The Scarlet Letter. Every time I go back to books that I loved as a kid, I learn more about myself as a writer now.”

Marisa Silver, author of the short story collection Alone With You: “Read more poetry. Use fewer commas.”

Read the rest at the Los Angeles Times here.

Meanwhile, Dave Barry reviews 2011: “It was the kind of year that made a person look back fondly on the gulf oil spill”:

Multiple committees, strongly held views

This was a year in which journalism was pretty much completely replaced by tweeting. It was a year in which a significant earthquake struck Washington, yet failed to destroy a single federal agency. …

But all of these developments, unfortunate as they were, would not by themselves have made 2011 truly awful. What made it truly awful was the economy, which, for what felt like the 17th straight year, continued to stagger around like a zombie on crack. Nothing seemed to help. …

As the year wore on, frustration finally boiled over in the form of the Occupy Various Random Spaces movement, wherein people who were sick and tired of a lot of stuff finally got off their butts and started working for meaningful change via direct action in the form of sitting around and forming multiple committees and drumming and not directly issuing any specific demands but definitely having a lot of strongly held views for and against a wide variety of things. Incredibly, even this did not bring about meaningful change. The economy remained wretched, especially unemployment, which got so bad that many Americans gave up even trying to work. Congress, for example.

Read the rest here.