“If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.” ― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84
In January through March of 2019 (that feels like a different age) I went every Wednesday after work clear across town to a bookstore called The Wild Detectives in Oak Cliff. I had stumbled into a reading group there that tackled long, difficult books called The Difficult Reading Book Club. We finished our book, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, then had a celebration. For various reasons I skipped the next book (a set of three tomes by Virginia Woolf – though I wasn’t afraid – who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf) and then COVID hit.
For a year we didn’t do any reading, but finally momentum built and for a couple months we did a weekly Zoom meeting read of The Brother’s Karamazov. I actually liked not having to make the long trip after work and a reading group is particularly suited for remote computerized interaction.
And today we had our kickoff meeting for our latest difficult (and long) challenge – 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. I’ve been avoiding spoilers for the novel, but did learn some useful facts from this meeting.
“This sounded the death knell of small family businesses, soon to be followed by the disappearance of the individual entrepreneur, gobbled up one by one by the increasingly hungry ogre of capitalism, and drowned by the rising tide of large companies.” ― Émile Zola, Germinal
La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)
For all of 2021 I’ve been reading Germinal – reading too slow – I haven’t been reading enough. Over the last few days, however, I took a few days of vacation with the family in Hot Springs Arkansas, and that gave me the time to finish the book.
Germinal is generally considered Zola’s masterpiece and is the most popular of all the volumes in Les Rougon-Macquart cycle. It is the story of the terrible conditions in the coal mines of France during the Second Empire (set in the 1860s). It’s protagonist is Étienne Lantier, the son of Gervaise from L’Assommoir and the brother of Jacques Lantier from La Bête Humaine and Claude Lantier from L’Œuvre. Étienne suffers from the family malady of drunkenness and fits of violent madness, but balances that with a sharp mind and a truly caring spirit.
Suffering from a business slump the owners of the mines keep reducing the pay of the colliers in the pits until they can barely feed themselves. There is a strike, which does not go well for anybody.
The story is truly heartbreaking, both in the terrible conditions in the mine and associated villages – plus the inevitable doom as they all go on strike.
One overarching theme is the philosophical battle between capitalism and socialism (in several various flavors). Zola spills a lot of ink contrasting the struggles of the mine workers with the lavish lifestyle of the bourgeoisie living off their investments in the mines. It is well done and absolutely heartbreaking.
It is interesting to read a book about socialist and communist ideals written in 1885 – long before Stalin, Mao, or Castro. Despite the terrible horrors of the strike there is still a youthful optimism about the struggles that were to come.
Zola ends the novel on a note of hope:
Beneath the blazing of the sun, in that morning of new growth, the countryside rang with song, as its belly swelled with a black and avenging army of men, germinating slowly in its furrows, growing upwards in readiness for harvests to come, until one day soon their ripening would burst open the earth itself.
One other point that I have learned reading the entire Zola cycle is the importance of a good, modern translation. When I started I thought I’d read the free, Project Gutenberg ebook editions. However, those are contemporary and highly bowdlerized translations. I actually read Germinal… maybe forty years ago, in one of those versions and barely remember it. This time I bought the Oxford’s World Classic edition, translated by Peter Collier – and it is an amazing, modern, memorable translation. I highly recommend it (though there are probably other modern translations as good).
I also see that there are several film editions of Germinal. A fairly recent French version is available to stream and I’ll see if I can set aside some time in the next few days to watch it.
Otherwise, it’s on to the next book, Nana. This is about the half-sister of Étienne Lantier and her decent through the underbelly of sexual exploitation in Paris. It’s another one that I read a long, long, time ago and am looking to revisiting a better translation.
It’ll be slow, though. My Difficult Reads Book Club is about to embark on Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 – which will be a good bit of work.
“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
We finished our reading group (The Wild Detective’s DRBC [Difficult Reading Book Club]) attack on Dostoevsky Brothers Karamazov. Seven hundred thirty six-odd, dense pages. This is definitely the way to devour an elephant like that: broken up into manageable chunks and each followed by a weekly Zoom meeting to discuss and clarify the confusion.
I actually sort-of read the book in college. It was assigned on, say, Thursday and I had to write a paper on the next Wednesday. That’s not enough time. Not surprisingly, I have no real memory other than a feeling of panic and dread. And the memory of relying too much on a little yellow pamphlet.
The Brothers Karamazov is often mentioned in short lists of the greatest novels of all time. That’s a bold statement, but one I can support.
First, it is a novel of ideas. Philosophical questions are presented and then played out across the stage of the plot. The plot is complex yet melodramatic. There are many things, a whole tangled skein of threads, going on at once. Reading it like this, especially in the excellent Pevear/Volokhonsky translation, is how much humor there is in the book. The characters are deep and complex, and the novel uses a lot of literary devices that are considered “modern” (unreliable narrators, stories within stories within stories, subtle shifting points of view, ambiguous ending, unknown first person plural narrator) which helps keep the dense text fresh.
It is the story of faith against rationality. There is no doubt on which side Dostoevsky sympathies lie – but he does not give his intellectual adversaries short thrift. He has the courage to give the other argument strong, even unassailable defenses and weapons. There is no straw man here. It makes for robust conflict and gives the reader incredible insight and the opportunities for hours of thought.
Faith and Doubt, Free Will (Dostoevsky acknowledges the existence of free will and understands that it is the key to salvation, but paints it not as a blessing, but as a curse – as a terrible burden that will flatten and destroy all but the strongest of men), and the need for moral simplicity and clarity are the battlefields that the novel is fought over… and the victor is very much in doubt.
L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece/A Masterpiece/His Masterpiece)
La Bête Humaine (1890) (The Beast in the Man/The Human Beast/The Monomaniac)
La Terre (1887) (The Earth/The Soil)
La Débâcle (1892) (The Downfall/The Smash-up/The Debacle)
Le Docteur Pascal (1893) (Doctor Pascal)
Looking at this list, I realize I read L’Œuvre (1886) (The Masterpiece) this summer and never wrote a blog entry about it. Sorry. It was good, not the best of the series, but an interesting take on the artistic life and the madness behind it. I’ll write it up in the next few days, once I think about it and take a look at the text again.
I had read a paperback copy of La Bête humaine years and years ago – but I remembered very little about it other than it had trains and murders.
WOW. This is one hell of a book. One surprising thing about the 20 books in the Rougon-Marquart universe is how wildly diverse they are. They range from frilly romance to gritty poverty to hopeless alcoholism to rampant greed. And now, we have this.
La Bête humaine is a book of murder(s). By the end of the story pretty much every major character is a killer, a victim, or both. All these murders sans one stem from the same cause – jealous rage. The one other example is a chilling description of a compulsive killer, consumed by powerful, mysterious violent urges of madness, insanity, and desire. The wheels of justice don’t help much – they turn slowly, then grind to a stop. The only innocent character is eventually blamed and convicted.
It is a novel of the railroad. Specifically, the nineteenth century steam engines that ran between Paris and the coast at Le Havre. Zola’s prodigious powers of description are used to paint portraits of the stations, the line, and especially the powerful engine “La Lison” which becomes practically a living character imbued with almost sexual powers.
Finally, it is a novel of arresting and amazing set pieces. The entire chapter where a wagon containing two huge hunks of rock is pushed into the path of “La Lison” is one of the most sensational and electrifying chunks of text I have ever read. There are horrifying killings, terrifying betrayals, and moments of sexual tension surprising for a classic novel. The final scene, especially, is chilling and horrific, even though it ends before the inevitable apocalypse.
There are free public domain versions of the novel available (from Project Gutenberg and other places) but I am glad I bought the excellent Roger Pearson translation from Oxford World Classics. It is written in a modern style, which fits this story very well.
So this was an enjoyable, if horrific, read. And now, on to Germinal, arguably the best in the series. I’ve already bought a good translation and am ready to go. However, I will wait until the end of January, have to finish The Brothers Karamazov first.
“In the end they will lay their freedom at our feet and say to us, Make us your slaves, but feed us.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Grand Inquisitor
For the last month or so my Wild Detectives Difficult Reads Book Club (DRBC) has been digging through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was originally scheduled for the beginning of the year, with a weekly meeting at the book store – but was cancelled due to the quarantine. Finally, we started back up with Zoom meetings every Wednesday evening, instead of meeting in person. It actually works pretty well.
I made sure I could call into the Zoom meeting from my son’s apartment when I was on my New Orleans trip last week. He is working remotely and is something of a gamer – he had dedicated panel lights and an expensive headset with fancy microphone and the meeting worked really well from his place – I need to up my Zoom game from home now. In particular, everyone said my voice was very clear.
“You sound like a DJ, and you look like one too,” one woman said.
“Look like a DJ?” I replied, “Everyone has always said I have a face for radio.”
But before the meeting I had to get my weekly chunk of reading done (we are about a third of the way through). We had made it up to The Grand Inquisitor chapter (which sort of stands on its own) – the heart of the book and arguably is one of the most famous and influential works of literature ever written. It is also a dense and difficult read.
It was a beautiful day. I took my Kindle, walked down through the French Quarter and picked out a bench along the Mississippi to sit down and work my way through the (e-ink) pages.
The French Quarter is known for a lot of things – but it isn’t really known for a place to hang out and read Russian Literature (though a lot of literature has been written there). For me, however, it was perfect.
And I don’t care what you think… the bars are closed for Covid anyway.
“Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love.”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
My “difficult book club” read Book 4 (7 chapters) of The Brothers Karamazov this week and are meeting to discuss the section on ZOOM tonight. I am really enjoying the book – reading a long/and or difficult book in a group is definitely the way to do it. Plus the weekly schedule (not too bad – a couple hours of reading at most) breaks the chore up into palatable pieces. Looking at 800 pages is really daunting, but looking at 70 pages a week is easy peasy.
The chapter headings for this week’s section feature the word “Strain” – as in “Strain in the Drawing Room” or “Strain in the Cottage.” The word “Strain” occurs in the text a lot also. This word seemed odd in context and more than a little out of place. We are reading the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of the book. Other translations use the word “Laceration” instead of “Strain.”
Its surface meaning is “tear” or “rip” but it has a deeper significance as a strong emotional experience. Or something like that. Looking online – everyone in English is dancing around some meaning there – it obviously was very important to Dostoyevsky and critical to the meaning of this novel.
I found this little Youtube Video that seems to make the most sense.
So, at least in her interpretation Nadyr is the emotional state of intentionally inflicting pain on oneself – putatively for the purpose of being able to feel something. In the context of the events of the chapter, that makes perfect sense. Several characters make heartbreaking choices that extinguish the hope of happiness for themselves and others, for seemingly trivial reasons – pride, mostly… maybe tradition, maybe the idea of simply giving in to fate. It’s terrifying. Especially when you think about it – you realize how often people do this. The Russians are lucky I guess, they have a word.
The rest of us are still flailing around in the dark.
I read Dostoyevsky when I was young – I didn’t pay much attention and didn’t get much out of it. That was a mistake.
“The world says: “You have needs — satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don’t hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.” This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
Tonight, I had a Zoom meeting from home. I used to go to these reading group meetings at the Wild Detectives Book Store in Bishop Arts. My favorite was when I’d take the train and trolley from work every Wednesday after work for that week’s meeting on reading Gravity’s Rainbow.
It was fun.
It feels like a thousand years ago.
So now the same group is going to do another “Difficult Book.” We are reading Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov over the next few months – about a hundred pages a week. We will meet on Zoom every week to discuss what we’ve read.
Tonight was the kickoff meeting – no reading yet… only introductions and strategies. It was a little awkward – everyone seems so lonely. Hopefully, we will all get along. It should be fun.
Ok, here’s the opposite of a Russian novel – some flash fiction from The New Yorker.
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” ― C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
Is there a word for being in a constant state of angry/funk? I can’t think of one.
And here’s some for ennui (a more technical term for funk):
lack of interest
Let’s pick three of each:
And now, pick two that go together:
The Conniption Dumps – Yeah, that’s the ticket.
I suffering from serious Conniption Dumps.
One of the (though by no means the only) sources of my anger and my ennui (my Conniption Dumps) is that I am being swept under and drowned in waves of corporate bullshit. Real Office Space levels of mendacity. The Covid Lockdown has enabled the evil armies of schemers and buttkissers out there (they particularly flourish in hours-long zoom meetings) and those enemies of all that is human and good are running rampant across the land. The rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem.
Today’s Flash Fiction, Sorry Dan, But It’s No Longer Necessary for a Human to Serve as CEO of This Company by Erik Cofer is a tale of such a disaster.
Although, it is implied, in this case, that the downfall of the human is an error in a company softball game. That seems, as horrible as it seems, almost comforting to me. At least it is something real.
“Once, it was different. Once, people had homes and parents and went to schools. Cities existed within countries and those countries had leaders. Travel could be for adventure or recreation, not survival. But by the time I was grown up, the wider context was a sick joke. Incredible, how a slip could become a freefall and a freefall could become a hell where we lived on as ghosts in a haunted world.”
― Jeff VanderMeer, Borne
Chihuly Glass (click to enlarge)
I have now read all the Borne series of books and stories by Jeff VanderMeer, pretty much – as far as I know… but the thing is I read them out of order. And I think that was a good thing.
But before I finished The Dead Astronauts I stumbled across and online short story/novela written about the same world – quite a bit earlier as it turns out – The Situation. This detailed a very strange world but told the story in a familiar way – the destruction of everything told as a story of corporate back-stabbing. I really enjoyed The Situation and that led me to check out The Strange Bird from the library and devour that short novel. It too told a strange tale but was written in a familiar style – that of a quest or journey. It was set in the same world and had a few characters in common with the other two works – enough to continue to increase my interest.
So, I bought a copy of the central novel in the series Borne – and finished it late last night. It was really good, a crackerjack of a novel. The most complete of the books, it explains a lot of what what mysterious and curious in the others… explains some, maybe not a lot, really, … and definitely not everything.
At the book club discussion of The Dead Astronauts someone describe Borne as a love story. And it is the typical girl finds odd plant in fur of giant bear, girl falls in love with plant, plant turns out not to be a plant but a ruthless killer, girl loses plant/killer, and finally girl discovers her love is something else entirely type of story. Yeah, it is a love story.
Having read it last it was inevitable that I would read it trying to ferret out the connections with the other works. The three Dead Astronauts from their own epynomous novel made an appearance in Borne but they didn’t do much probably because they were dead. The story of The Strange Bird and Borne are dovetailed – the identical tale told from two different points of view and in very different styles – the same characters populate both.
The Situation is a prequel to all the others. It contains the origin of the Giant Bear, Mord, along with other clues. In Borne, it is strongly hinted that Wick is the narrator of The Situation but I wasn’t absolutely sure. In researching this, I came across a graphic version of The Situation from Tor books – where Wick is named explicitly. Now I wonder if Scarskirt is the Magician from Borne and The Strange Bird. She is described as someone who “stared at reflective surfaces all day” which is a connection. I don’t know – but it’s fun to speculate. At any rate, click that link and look at the drawings – they are very good.
So now I’m done with Borne and I can get back to reading Zola. Except… now I’m thinking about VanderMeer’s Annihilation (I liked the movie) and the rest of its Southern Reach trilogy. We’ll see. So many books, so little time.
By the way, I’ve been reading rumors that AMC has optioned Borne for a miniseries. Wow, I have no idea how this goes onto the screen. It would be like a science fiction version of Game of Thrones… except on acid.
I first read about Kelly Link and her fiction when I read that Salon had named her collection of short stories, Stranger Things Happen, a book of the year. I tracked down the paperback and read it – and it was as good as advertised. I’ve been a fan of her work – a weird melange of oddly modern adult stories told as twisted fairy tales – ever since.